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2008 Offensive Line Review and Ratings - AFC South
John Tuvey
June 19, 2008
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Houston Texans

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 68 32 1816 113.5 15 4.2 11
2006 43 24 1687 105.4 21 3.9 19
2007 22 6 1493 93 23 4.0 18

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 V.Riley C.Pitts S.McKinney Z.Wiegert T.Wade      
2006 C.Spencer C.Pitts M.Flanagan F.Weary Z.Wiegert      
2007 E.Salaam C.Pitts S.McKinney F.Weary E.Winston      
2008 D.Brown C.Pitts C.Myers F.Weary E.Winston      

If you thought the Texans’ offensive line made strides last season, wait until you get a load of what’s on tap for 2008. Granted, Houston had a long—more accurately, a looooooooong—way to go with their front line, but they saw marked improvement last year and then spent the offseason upgrading. And it’s entirely possible the most important move wasn’t the trade for Broncos center Chris Myers or using their first-round pick on left tackle Duane Brown. No, the key to the fate of Houston’s front rests primarily with a 65-year-old who wasn’t even in the NFL last year. Alex Gibbs, best known for his zone-blocking work with the Broncos (when they were plugging backs off the street into the lineup and turning them into 1,000-yard rushers) and later the Falcons (when they were leading the NFL in rushing), joins the Texans staff as offensive line coach and mentor to young offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Gibbs served in the same capacity when current Houston coach Gary Kubiak was in a similar situation in Denver under Kyle’s father, Mike, so he’ll play multiple roles with the Texans.

And unlike in past seasons, the Texans aren’t starting from Ground Zero when it comes to their line. Last year’s unit allowed just 22 sacks, half of their 2006 total and less than a third of what they surrendered in 2005, and while their running back rushing yards dwindled they still averaged 4.0 yards per carry. Gibbs’ zone-blocking system will obviously help the ground game, and even though there’s not as far to go in pass protection Gibbs will certainly demand improvement. Brown is the poster child for this system, quick feet and a nasty streak a mile wide, and though the Texans haven’t officially handed him Ephraim Salaam’s left tackle job yet he has been working primarily with the first unit. He’ll benefit from having veteran Chester Pitts next to him as he faces the rigors of AFC South pass rushers—Dwight Freeney, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Reggie Hayward six times a year—and he has the feet and the experience in a zone system to create plenty of seams for Texan backs to slip through. Myers started for the injured Tom Nalen in Denver a year ago, and fellow former Bronco Greg Eslinger offers depth as well as experience in Gibbs’ cut-blocking system. The right side returns intact, with developing tackle Eric Winston and veteran guard Fred Weary, though Mike Brisiel could push Weary for the job and if former left tackle Charles Spencer can return from the devastating knee injury he suffered early in his rookie season he could factor into the mix as well. The unit’s depth hinges on the development of Kasey Studdard and Brandon Frye, a pair of second-day draft picks from a year ago. However, Gibbs’ system oftentimes turns up a heretofore unknown player who buys into the system and excels at it, so it’s quite possible that scenario plays out in Houston as well.

You already know what Gibbs’ ground game is capable of: the past 12 seasons he’s presided over offensive lines in Denver and Atlanta he’s produced 11 running games ranked in the league’s top 10, 10 ranked in the top five, and six units ranked first or second in the NFL. Only once has his team failed to average at least 4.0 yards per carry, and 10 times they’ve averaged 4.5 ypc or better. Thus, it doesn’t take a tremendous leap of faith to assume that the Texans’ collection of backs—Ahman Green, Chris Brown, Steve Slaton, and Chris Taylor—will see a similar uptick in production; in fact, anything shy of the 147 rushing yards per game his charges have averaged over the past dozen seasons would be a mite bit disappointing. The Texans could backslide slightly in pass protection as they adapt to a new scheme; Gibbs’ Denver lines allowed roughly two sacks a game, and the Atlanta numbers are worse but skewed somewhat by Michael Vick’s running. Still, a sack total in the 30s would be vastly superior to the 40s and 60s and 70s the Texans have regularly posted in the past and go a long way towards keeping Matt Schaub healthy—and Andre Johnson happy. With apparent upgrades at the only two positions experiencing change and a bona fide guru at the helm, this may finally be the point at which the Texans’ O-line sheds the label of liability and becomes a true asset to the team’s success.

OVERALL GRADE: B, with “A” potential as this unit grasps Gibbs’ scheme

Indianapolis Colts

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 20 1 1703 106.4 16 3.7 24
2006 15 1 1762 110.1 18 4 17
2007 23 7 1746 109 9 3.9 25

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 T.Glenn R.Lilja J.Saturday J.Scott R.Diem T. Glenn J. Saturday  
2006 T.Glenn D.Gandy J.Saturday J.Scott R.Diem T. Glenn J. Saturday  
2007 T.Ugoh R.Lilja J.Saturday J.Scott R.Diem J. Saturday    
2008 T.Ugoh R.Lilja J.Saturday M.Pollak R.Diem      

Any other team that lost its Pro Bowl left tackle six weeks before the season started, then saw the remaining tackles miss a combined 11 games between them… well, they could probably kiss their quarterback’s spleen goodbye. And while it’s true the Colts struggled—for them—most teams would gladly settle for a season in which they surrendered 23 sacks. Moreover, no team had more success converting short-yardage and goal-to-go situations on the ground; the number crunchers at Football Outsiders found that Indy was successful a league-leading 78 percent of the time in third- or fourth-and-short or goal-to-go situations of two yards or less—surprising, since it’s not as if you picture Joseph Addai as the classic short-yardage back. Let’s give credit where credit is due then and recognize the achievement of Indy’s offensive line. And while he may not get the credit that an Alex Gibbs or even a Hudson Houck receives, Colts line coach Howard Mudd is truly one of the best in the game.

So imagine his excitement when the Colts used three draft picks on offensive linemen this season—the first time the franchise has done so since the draft was reduced to seven rounds back in 1994. After spending a second-round selection on Tony Ugoh last year, it must feel like Christmas year-round at the Mudd household. Funny thing is, all three Indy picks were college centers; does that mean perennial Pro Bowler Jeff Saturday’s days are numbered? Hardly, though the 10-year veteran has more of his career behind him than ahead of him. Steve Justice, the club’s sixth-round selection, is Saturday’s likely understudy with an ETA of 2010 or so. Mike Pollak, taken in Round Two, is expected to compete with Charles Johnson for the starting right guard job that opened up when Jake Scott signed with the Titans via free agency. While Johnson has experience, mostly at tackle, early expectations are for the rookie to claim the gig by the end of training camp. Ryan Lilja inked a one-year deal to return to Indy, so while he may or may not be the long-term answer at left guard he’s made 43 starts there in his four-year career and is far from merely a stopgap.

With both left tackle Tony Ugoh and right tackle Ryan Diem healthy, expect the Colts to return to their pass-protecting ways in 2008; that duo was in the lineup for six games last season and gave up just five sacks in that span. Ugoh filled in more than admirably for the departed Glenn and should continue to develop while Diem isn’t flashy, just effective, on the right side. Johnson is capable of filling in at the tackle spot if necessary, while Daniel Federkeil and Michael Toudouze provide depth. Jamey Richard, the other lineman the Colts drafted in April, could play tackle in a pinch but at present projects as a guard; Mudd will enjoy his nasty streak as well as his versatility.

Job One for the Colts line is obviously keeping Peyton Manning upright, and it’s a task they’ve accomplished with high marks over the past few seasons. Their rushing measurables, on the other hand, haven’t been anything special—with the notable exception of their short-yardage performance last season. Nonetheless, a productive middle-of-the-pack ground game and a well-protected Peyton is more than enough to give any defense fits. After fighting through last year’s injury-marred campaign with more than adequate results, this unit seems poised to return itself and the Colts offense to their respective perches amongst the league’s elite.


Jacksonville Jaguars

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 32 16 1959 122.4 10 3.9 16
2006 30 12 2541 158.8 3 5 2
2007 31 15 2116 132 2 4.8 3

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 M.Pearson V.Manuwai B.Meester C.Naeole M.Williams      
2006 K.Barnes V.Manuwai B.Meester C.Naeole Ma.Williams      
2007 K.Barnes V.Manuwai D.Norman C.Naeole T.Pashos      
2008 R.Collier U.Nwaneri B.Meester V.Manuwai T.Pashos      

It’s not as if the Jacksonville line has been porous; in fact, quite the opposite is true. The Jaguars have allowed 32, 30, and 31 sacks the past three seasons, putting them squarely in the middle of the pack, and their running banks have ranked in the top 10 in yards per game each of the past three seasons and in the top three in both yards per game and yards per carry each of the past two seasons. So why is it that when the curtain opens on the 2008 season the Jags may have only one player in the same spot they ended 2007?

Okay, that’s a bit misleading. Brad Meester regains his starting center gig after missing five games due to injury last year, and Vince Manuwai takes his mauling from left guard to the right side. And it’s also possible that both tackles return intact, with Tony Pashos settling in on the right and Khalif Barnes in a battle for the left-side job with Richard Collier—who was actually proclaimed the starter coming out of minicamp, though that may be simply a motivational tactic intended to light a fire under Barnes. And if former starting right tackle Maurice Williams upsets second-year player Uche Nwaneri in the battle for left guard it’ll be just like a family reunion instead of a total reshuffling. Veterans Dennis Norman (who started at center when Meester was out) and Tutan Reyes and seventh-round pick Andrew Carnahan round out the personnel in a unit that, given the two contested positions, appears to have solid depth.

Both Jags fans and fantasy folks would be perfectly happy with the status quo, too. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew have plenty of room to run, David Garrard has time to throw and the mobility to escape if need be, and the Jaguars ranked sixth in the NFL in scoring last season. If one is to nitpick, however, one could cite the Football Outsiders, who note that a whopping 28 percent of Jacksonville’s rushing yardage are amassed more than 10 yards downfield; in other words, while the holes the line are opening are nice Taylor and MoJo are padding those numbers with their long runs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but to further quibble you could note that the Jags ranked in the bottom third of the league in runs that were stopped behind the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the pack in short-yardage and goal-line success (again, both stats courtesy of the fine folks at Football Outsiders). While those numbers aren’t necessarily what you’d hope to see, there’s nothing here that should dissuade you from adding either Jacksonville back to your fantasy roster. And while the line may be shuffled somewhat there’s no reason to expect Garrard to suddenly find himself facing a dramatic increase in behemoths running unabated towards the quarterback. The Jaguars used to take offensive linemen in the second round on an almost annual basis, and in Meester (2000), Williams (2001) and Barnes (2005) some of that foundation remains. If they’re able to construct a solid left side out of an undrafted free agent (Collier in 2006) and a seventh-round selection (Nwaneri a year later), they’ll fill out that foundation nicely and lay the groundwork for continued success in both pass protection and the ground game.


Tennessee Titans

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 31 10 1525 95.3 23 3.8 21
2006 29 11 2214 138.4 5 4.7 6
2007 30 14 1699 106 10 3.9 27

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 M.Roos Z.Piller J.Hartwig B.Olson J.Bell      
2006 M.Roos Z.Piller K.Mawae B.Olson J.Bell      
2007 M.Roos J.Bell K.Mawae B.Olson D.Stewart      
2008 M.Roos E.Amano K.Mawae J.Scott D.Stewart      

Michael Roos may be the best football player you’ve never heard of; after inking his $43 million deal in the offseason he’s most likely the richest. The Titans’ anonymous tackle has started every game since joining the club as a second-round pick in 2005, and after starting on the right side he’s settled in as one of the top pass-protecting left tackles in the game. And if Roos is the primary reason Tennessee has ranked in the top half of the league in sacks allowed each of the past three seasons, his mate on the other side can take a sizeable share of the credit for a running game that’s ranked in the top 10 the past two years. Dave Stewart is a mauler with a nasty streak, a worthy heir to the legacy of Jon Runyan. He’s slated to get paid, though not quite as handsomely as Roos, and between the two the Titans should have bookend tackles for the foreseeable future. Veteran Kevin Mawae entering his 15th season and is still performing at a high level; his importance was highlighted by a two-game stint at the end of the season where Mawae was sidelined with a calf injury and the Titans struggled to average just 3.0 yards per carry in his absence.

While the Titans are set at the center and tackle positions, their guards are a bit of a gray area. How gray? Charcoal. Long-time starter Benji Olson called it a career in the offseason, and Jacob Bell left via free agency. To fill one void the Titans wooed Jake Scott from the Colts; while he’s a bit undersized for this line his mean streak is an excellent fit. At the other guard last year’s top backups, Eugene Amano and Leroy Harris, will battle for the starting job with Amano the early favorite after running with the first team through most of minicamp. Jeff Fisher indicated during OTAs that he’s in no rush to name a winner, as he is confident either player can do the job—and if they don’t, line coach Mike Munchak will find someone who can. Amano’s versatility may necessitate that he shuffle positions should injuries hit, but the fact the Titans inked him to an extension late last season suggests he means more to the team than just a spare part. The runner-up in the guard competition will serve as the top interior backup, with Jason Murphy and Isaac Snell also looking for a roster spot; Daniel Loper is the top tackle reserve. While the backups are competent, injuries to Mawae or either tackle would be nothing short of devastating.

Assuming this group stays healthy, the addition of Chris Johnson and his game-breaking speed should help the team’s numbers at least look better on paper. While the Titans ranked ninth in the league in Adjusted Line Yards—the stat Football Outsiders uses to help determine which portion of a team’s rushing yards can be attributed to the performance of the offensive line—more than two-thirds of the league produced more downfield yardage; in other words, the line was opening holes that LenDale White took scant advantage of. With the rookie’s speed, that same seam might turn a LenDale eight-yard-gain into an eighty-yard Johnson touchdown. And when it comes to banging inside, White and the Titans should have success similar to last year when they ranked seventh in percentage of rushing plays stuffed at the line of scrimmage (another nifty Football Outsiders stat). Put another way: if LenDale and mattes averaged 3.9 yards per carry behind this line last year, Johnson’s speed could easily add a half yard or more to that total—making him an intriguing fantasy prospect.
While the Titans ranked 14th in sacks allowed last season with 30, that number may be a bit misleading as only four teams attempted fewer passes. The mobility of Vince Young certainly tweaks sack numbers a bit; perhaps the best measure might be the ten-point jump in Young’s completion percentage, or the fact that Young stayed healthy for 15 games last year. Young will never be a pocket passer, so it would be foolish to expect Fisher and Munchak to set up the Titans’ line as such. So long as Roos has Young’s backside covered, Vince should have ample time to make a read or two before taking off down the field.

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