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2008 Offensive Line Review and Ratings - AFC West
John Tuvey
June 23, 2008
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Denver Broncos

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 23 3 2539 158.7 2 4.7 2
2006 31 13 2152 134.5 8 4.4 9
2007 32 16 1698 106 11 4.5 5

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 M.Lepsis B.Hamilton T.Nalen C.Carlisle G.Foster      
2006 M.Lepsis B.Hamilton T.Nalen C.Carlisle G.Foster      
2007 M.Lepsis C.Myers T.Nalen M.Holland E.Pears      
2008 R.Clady B.Hamilton T.Nalen M.Holland R.Harris      

We’ve become so accustomed to the Broncos’ plug-and-play offense—with both undersized linemen and backs culled from the latter rounds—that last year’s merely adequate performance was viewed as a down year. Of course, a large portion of Denver’s struggles can be attributed to losing a pair of O-line regulars—center Tom Nalen and guard Ben Hamilton—to injury. Plus, Jay Cutler was dealing with his yet-to-be-diagnosed diabetes and the Bronco backfield was even more of a carousel than usual. When you consider that despite all of the above Denver still ranked in the top half of the league in sacks allowed and its cadre of running backs averaged 4.5 yards per carry… well, at minimum it was a moral victory. But that doesn’t mean Mike Shanahan was comfortable with the status quo, especially as sacks climbed to a five-year high and left tackle Matt Lepsis announced his retirement.

Bucking the team’s long-standing tradition of drafting quick-footed linemen in the later rounds, Denver used the 12th overall selection in the 2008 draft on a quick-footed lineman. Ryan Clady earned the nickname “Sweet Feet” during minicamp and was immediately inked into the lineup in Lepsis’ old spot. Hamilton and Nalen are expected to return, though the team wisely pursued backup plans for both. Veteran Casey Wiegmann backs up Nalen, who should be back from arthroscopic knee surgery by the start of training camp but has 14 years of wear and tear on his 37-year-old body. Fourth-round pick Kory Lichtensteiger will be groomed as Nalen’s replacement, but the presence of Wiegmann gives Denver the luxury of time to do so. Plus, either Hamilton or Chris Kuper could play center in a pinch. On the right side Montrae Holland returns at guard, while the Broncos expect a spirited training camp battle for the right tackle spot. Erik Pears played there last year, but the club wouldn’t mind at all if 2007 third-round pick Ryan Harris claimed the job. Harris’ opportunity to crack the starting lineup as a rookie was scuttled by a training camp back injury but he has the quick feet Denver’s system requires while Pears isn’t quite as nimble. In a perfect world Pears would provide a young yet experienced insurance policy to both tackle spots, and the versatile Kuper has also played on the outside though he’s best suited to play guard.

As you might expect, Denver’s undersized (by NFL standards) line does its best work in space, picking up linebackers in the zone blocking scheme. The Broncos ranked dead-dog last in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations last year, converting just 49 percent of those opportunities according to the Football Outsiders; the league average was 63 percent. It should come as no surprise, then, that only four teams ran to the outside more than the Broncos. Selvin Young is the best fit for that style, so if you’re willing to play the game of Russian Roulette that is drafting Denver backs for your fantasy squad he gives you the best shot (pun intended). If Ryan Torian is asked to get the tough inside yards, he’ll have to do so largely on his own as the Broncos ranked 25th with an average of 3.86 adjusted line yards per carry between the tackles, according to Football Outsiders.

Where Clady and Harris will be most useful is in pass protection. Both have the quick feet necessary to handle the speed rushers that are becoming more common in the NFL, which should give Cutler the time necessary to look downfield for Brandon Marshall. The two sacks per game Denver allowed last season isn’t bad at all, and with the Clady/Harris tandem offering an apparent upgrade the Bronco offense could be headed back towards its perennial perch among the league’s most potent sooner rather than later. The personnel seems to fit the system, and after last year’s injury issues Denver appears to have the depth necessary to withstand a similar run of bad luck this time around. Then, of course, the question becomes… do you really trust Shanahan not to screw you over with another season of a revolving door at running back?

RUN BLOCKING: B
PASS BLOCKING: B
OVERALL GRADE: B


Kansas City Chiefs

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 32 15 2382 148.9 4 4.6 5
2006 41 22 2143 133.9 9 4.2 11
2007 55 31 1159 72 32 3.4 31

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 W.Roaf B.Waters C.Wiegmann W.Shields J.Black W. Shields W. Roaf  
2006 K.Turley B.Waters C.Wiegmann W.Shields J.Black W. Shields B.Waters  
2007 D.McIntosh B.Waters C.Wiegmann J.Welbourn K.Turley      
2008 B.Albert B.Waters R.Niswanger A.Jones D.McIntosh      

The Chiefs are barely two seasons removed from the “Big Willie” stylings of future Hall of Famers Roaf and Shields, but you would think it was a lifetime ago after watching Kansas City’s line struggle last season. At least they managed to blow across the board: tied for last in sacks allowed, a pathetic (and dead-dog last) 72 rushing yards per game from their backs, and an abysmal 3.4 yards per carry, down more than a yard from the days of Roaf and Shields. The good news is that Herm Edwards has acknowledged the need for a dramatic revamping of personnel; the bad news is, you can only accomplish so much in one offseason, even with a dozen draft picks. Kansas City started early by using one of their two first-round selections on Branden Albert, but even though he was one of the fastest-rising players in the 2008 draft and will be thrust into the starting lineup he’s not an immediate fix. Albert played guard during his three years at Virginia, but because of his size and agility teams projected him—and the Chiefs will use him—at left tackle. He should help bring that sack number down, and though he’s not overpowering by any stretch he’s an upgrade over Damien McIntosh. That McIntosh will likely slide across to right tackle is evidence of the work still left to be done. In most cases—and especially for a power running team like the Chiefs—the right tackle is a mauler; McIntosh is, well, not. According to numbers crunched by the Football Outsiders, the Chiefs averaged 2.32 yards per rush heading left, worst in the league. Albert can’t be any worse, but expect the Chiefs to struggle running right this year behind McIntosh. It’s possible Will Svitek, who started four games on the right side last season, beats out McIntosh to claim the job, but he’s still little more than a placeholder. Eventually the Chiefs would like to see sixth-round selection Barry Richardson emerge as a possibility at right tackle, but despite his size he’s just as soft as McIntosh.

Guard Brian Waters should provide a steadying influence next to Albert, and while he’s not the same guard who was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls from 2004 to 2006 he’s still got something left in the tank. Last year it wasn’t enough to cover for the ineptness surrounding him, but with the physically gifted Albert on one side he’s no longer on an island. However, it could certainly be considered a peninsula because Rudy Niswanger, though he was a center coming out of college, has yet to play an NFL game at the position. Niswanger impressed in limited action at guard before suffering a knee injury last year, and the Chiefs let veteran Casey Wiegmann leave in the offseason so the job is essentially his. Next to him the Chiefs have been using Adrian Jones, whom KC claimed off of waivers from the Jets. Chiefs coach Herm Edwards believes one of the problems with the line last season was that they never developed any continuity as a unit, so expect the lineup that took first-team reps in minicamp—the same one listed above—will be the Week One starters. Anthony Alabi, waived by the Dolphins, and Svitek are the primary reserves at tackle, while Herb Taylor, a sixth-round pick last season, could push Jones for the right guard gig or provide depth behind him.

Certainly, the influx of new personnel is a step in the right direction. Albert is a physical talent and the Chiefs aren’t the only team who tabbed him as a prospective left tackle; if Richardson finds motivation and claims the right tackle job KC fans will look back on the 2008 draft as a ginormous success. However, this was quite possibly the most inept unit in the league last season, and adding three players with a combined zero NFL starts is unlikely to provide immediate results. Worse, the makeup of KC’s line is incongruent with Edwards’ desire to be a power running team—and by extension with the skills of Larry Johnson. While there may be a little extra time for Brodie Croyle to look downfield because of improved protection, the Chiefs line is still largely a work in progress.

RUN BLOCKING: D
PASS BLOCKING: D+
OVERALL GRADE: D+


Oakland Raiders

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 45 25 1369 85.6 29 3.8 23
2006 72 32 1519 94.9 29 3.9 22
2007 41 22 1887 118 6 4.2 12

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 B.Sims L.Walker J.Grove R.Stone R.Gallery      
2006 R.Gallery B.Sims J.Grove P.McQuistan L.Walker      
2007 B.Sims R.Gallery J.Newberry C.Carlisle C.Green      
2008 K.Harris R.Gallery J.Wade C.Carlisle C.Green      

When you think of the elite offensive line coaches in the NFL—and yes, there are some of us who do think of such things—some of the names that get bandied about are Alex Gibbs, Hudson Houck, Howard Mudd, and Mike Munchak. However, after the work he did with the Raiders last season one should give serious consideration to adding Tom Cable to the list. Oakland revamped its entire line from 2006 yet allowed 31 fewer sacks and finished sixth in the league in rushing. We’ll find out if it was genius or fluke this year, because Al Davis spent his draft picks and free agent dollars on every position but the offensive line. Oh, the Raiders signed ex-Buc center John Wade, but he’s been rotating with Chris Morris at center and Jake Grove might factor into the mix once he returns from his knee injury. And 49er castoff Kwame Harris will be slotted in at left tackle, though he’s been every bit as successful as Robert Gallery at living up to his first-round draft pick status; that’s not necessarily a complement.

So once again Cable will cobble together a unit using the zone blocking scheme and relying on the size and mobility of JaMarcus Russell to keep the sack numbers down. A bust at tackle, Gallery wasn’t bad at guard last season and would benefit from a veteran presence such as Wade in the middle of that line; most of Oakland’s errors last season were mental as opposed to physical. Cooper Carlisle returns at right guard; his years in the Denver zone-blocking system served him well, and while like his linemates he won’t overpower anyone (the Raiders ranked 25th in the league in converting short-yardage and goal-to-go situations on the ground, according to the Football Outsiders, and the same source tells us Oakland backs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage more frequently than all but three other teams last season) he’s capable of creating seams for Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden to slip through. Right tackle is an open competition between last year’s starter Cornelius Green and last year’s third-round pick, Mario Henderson, with Paul McQuistan providing depth.

Here’s the problem, though: Al Davis loves the vertical passing game, and right now his line is ill equipped to give Russell the time to throw the deep ball. It’s a good think Russell is as big as most of his linemen, because unless Cable has even more tricks up his sleeve he’ll be shrugging off more than a few defenders. The beneficiary of Russell being forced to check down could be tight end Zach Miller, assuming he isn’t asked to stay in and block. And, obviously, Javon Walker and Ronald Curry could be running wide open down the field but if JaMarcus doesn’t have time to set and throw it does no one any good. Yes, Harris is an upgrade over Barry Sims and Henderson could wind up claiming the right tackle job in training camp and exceed expectations—or at least outperform the barely adequate Green. But there’s still barely enough talent here to round out an NFL-caliber five-man line, let alone cover for injury, and while the pass protection was improved last year only five teams allowed more sacks more frequently. There’s a limit to what can be accomplished with smoke and mirrors, and Cable may have reached that limit with last year’s performance.

RUN BLOCKING: B-
PASS BLOCKING: D
OVERALL GRADE: C-


San Diego Chargers

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 31 11 2072 129.5 9 4.5 6
2006 28 9 2578 161.1 2 4.9 3
2007 24 9 1987 124 4 4.5 6

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 R.Oben T.Fonoti N.Hardwick M.Goff S.Olivea      
2006 M.McNeill K.Dielman N.Hardwick M.Goff S.Olivea N. Hardwick    
2007 M.McNeill K.Dielman N.Hardwick M.Goff S.Olivea K. Dielman M. McNeill  
2008 M.McNeill K.Dielman N.Hardwick M.Goff J.Clary      

The Chargers have developed into perennial AFC powers and a trendy pick to represent the conference in this year’s Super Bowl, but it isn’t just LaDainian Tomlinson who has put the Bolts in such a position; as Dan Dierdorf is famous for spewing, “it all thstarths up front.” San Diego built and has kept together a solid bordering on spectacular offensive line, consistently ranking in the league’s top 10 in both fewest sacks allowed and just about every rushing category of note. There’s no question that LT’s presence has plenty to do with those numbers, but the entire left side of the Chargers’ line didn’t wind up in Honolulu last season just because Tomlinson carried them there. Tackle Marcus McNeill and guard Kris Dielman make up one of the better left sides in the NFL; they’ve helped the Chargers reduce their sack total each of their two seasons as starters and will continue to keep Philip Rivers upright as he looks downfield for Antonio Gates, Chris Chambers, and Vincent Jackson.  And once center Nick Hardwick returns from foot surgery—the team is hopeful but not banking on his return by the start of the season—the Chargers will field the same line they ended last year with. Guard Mike Goff and tackle Jeromey Clary aren’t nearly the equivalent of Dielman and McNeill; both are solid in pass protection but not dominating run blockers. Then again, how dominant do you need to be with LT running behind you?

Hardwick’s return may be the key to this unit’s replication of past success. In the seven games he’s missed over the past three seasons the Chargers have averaged a mere 3.3 yards per carry on the ground—nearly a yard and a half below what the Bolts produced when Hardwick was healthy. San Diego signed veteran Jeremy Newberry as insurance; he’ll compete with Cory Withrow for the starting job until Hardwick returns. Newberry, along with Scott Mruczkowski, also offers a backup plan at guard—though if it’s Dielman they’re asked to replace instead of Goff things could get ugly. After falling one pick shy of tackle Duane Brown on draft day the Chargers opted for journeyman L.J. Shelton as depth behind McNeill and Clary. Again, asking Shelton to fill in short-term for Clary wouldn’t be tragic; asking him to take on McNeill’s duties would constitute an emergency.

There is little question Chargers will be hot commodities at your fantasy draft or auction, and for good reason. However, Hardwick’s status must be monitored as an extended absence could tilt the balance of power atop your draft board. And if either of San Diego’s left side Pro Bowlers go down with injury, Rivers’ laundry bill would jump significantly as he spends a greater amount of time on the turf; that, in turn, would adversely impact the looks Chambers and Jackson receive downfield. No need to panic over the Bolts… but don’t go to sleep on what a worst-case scenario might do to your fantasy rankings.
           
RUN BLOCKING: B+
PASS BLOCKING: A-
OVERALL GRADE: A-

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