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2008 Offensive Line Review and Ratings - NFC North
John Tuvey
June 24, 2008
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Chicago Bears

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 31 14 2099 131.2 8 4.3 7
2006 25 6 1918 119.9 15 3.8 23
2007 43 24 1286 80 30 3.3 32

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 J.Tait R.Brown O.Kreutz T.Metcalf F.Miller O. Kreutz    
2006 J.Tait R.Brown O.Kreutz R.Garza F.Miller O. Kreutz    
2007 J.Tait R.Brown O.Kreutz R.Garza F.Miller      
2008 C.Williams T.Metcalf O.Kreutz R.Garza J.Tait      

Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that the Bears’ offensive line was a strength, giving Rex Grossman time to throw down the field (though not always to a teammate) and opening holes for Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson? Actually, despite the Super Bowl season the writing was already on the wall for the Bears’ aging line, if you take a gander at the numbers. Chicago’s rushing yardage dropped dramatically from 2005 to 2006, both overall and in yards per carry; not surprisingly, that trend continued through the Super Bowl hangover and neither the passing game nor the Bears defense was capable of making up the difference. So perhaps a year too late the Bears have begun their offensive line makeover—and with three starters over the age of 30 Bears fans are hoping this is only the beginning. Chris Williams was selected 14th overall, and while he has the agility to match up with NFL pass rushers he lacks the power—and according to some scouts, the intensity—to be a dominant run blocker. Terrence Metcalf is the likely starter next to him, though John St. Clair—who is taking left tackle reps as Williams insurance—could unseat him if the Bears ink their top pick prior to training camp and get comfortable with him protecting Grossman’s blind side. John Tait, last year’s left tackle, moves across to the right side; it’s a better fit for him as a pass protector because he won’t be as overmatched, but he’s hardly the mauler power running teams prefer in that position. Robert Garza is steady but not spectacular at right guard, but aside from second-year player Josh Beekman and a couple of seventh-round picks in April’s draft there is little depth behind any Bears starter to push them. Olin Kreutz remains one of the better centers in the game but even he seemed brought down by the incompetence around him last season.

So aside from Tait switching sides and the addition of Williams, the Bears will field essentially the same line that performed so underwhelmingly last season—and by underwhelmingly, we mean they stunk up the joint. In fact, the only area of the running game in which they had any modicum of success was running behind right tackle Fred Miller—who isn’t back in 2008. At every other spot along the line, according to the Football Outsiders, the Bears averaged less than 3.75 adjusted line yards per carry and ranked 23rd or lower. So Miller’s out, a rookie with questionable run-blocking skills is in… and we’re supposed to be excited about Matt Forte? Sure, he’s in line to get the carries but with this unit in front of him he’s bound to see plenty of opposing jerseys before he even gets to the line of scrimmage. Unless we’re reading the manual incorrectly, that’s not how a power running game is supposed to work.

At least Williams has the tools to keep Grossman—or Kyle Orton—upright. Not that there are any Bear receivers worth getting excited over, but competence up front should allow Greg Olsen to get into the pattern instead of staying in to block. Again, baby steps and little victories are about all that can be expected here. All in all, the Bears should be in position to add another quality lineman to the mix early in next year’s draft.

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


Detroit Lions

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 31 13 1471 91.9 26 3.6 27
2006 63 31 1129 70.6 32 3.7 28
2007 54 30 1180 74 31 4.1 14

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 J.Backus R.DeMulling D.Raiola D.Woody K.Butler      
2006 J.Backus R.DeMulling D.Raiola D.Woody B.Stokes      
2007 J.Backus E.Mulitalo D.Raiola D.Woody G.Foster      
2008 J.Backus E.Mulitalo D.Raiola S.Peterman G.Cherilus      

It’s not entirely the fault of the Lions’ offensive line that they allowed 117 sacks over the past two seasons. After all, Mike Martz’s offense calls for all eligible receivers to get into the pattern, leaving the five interior linemen on an island against a defense that knows roughly 90 percent of the plays will be passes. So you can bet Detroit’s blockers shed no tears when Martz took his madness to San Francisco in the offseason. New coordinator Jim Colletto is a long-time line coach who has indicated his offensive philosophy is predicated on making things easy for the fellas up front. Detroit’s new zone blocking system is a good fit for a Lions line that, aside from rookie Gosder Cherilus, won’t overpower anyone but does have players with quick feet and athleticism. Cherilus should move immediately into the starting lineup at right tackle, though George Foster and Jonathan Stewart will provide at least a cursory challenge. The Boston College product isn’t a great pass protector—hence, he’ll stay on the right side—but he’s a powerful run blocker with enough quickness to wall off linebackers, as he’ll be asked to do in this scheme. Guard Stephen Peterman won’t make up for Cherilus’ pass-blocking issues—it’s a good thing these guys aren’t protecting the blind side—but like the rookie he’ll get off the line of scrimmage and smack some people around.

The rest of the line includes familiar faces Dominic Raiola at center, Edwin Mulitalo at left guard, and Jeff Backus at left tackle—a combined 26 years of NFL experience. Raiola and Backus both have the quickness necessary to succeed in a zone blocking system, and while Mulitalo is more of a mauler and at age 34 isn’t particularly mobile he’s still capable of being a force in the ground game. Colletto will run as much as the scoreboard allows, and while Detroit’s total yardage output on the ground last season was pathetic their yards-per-carry average wasn’t all bad. There should be some room for Kevin Smith and Tatum Bell to move, and if Colletto sticks to his game plan the Lions running game could produce some surprisingly positive numbers.

As for Detroit’s pass protection… well, at least they won’t throw as much as they did under Martz, and from time to time they’ll even provide their tackles with some blocking assistance. In other words, there should be a tight end or fullback around to help as opposed to a slot receiver or two in the pattern. That meshes perfectly with Colletto’s plan to make his outside receivers—Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson—the primary targets and should ensure that those two (as opposed to Shaun McDonald or Mike Furrey) are the team’s leading receivers.  If there’s a plan to audition Drew Stanton at any point, expect Detroit to make sure they have their pass protection kinks worked out before turning the reins over to the youngster. After all, they know first-hand that Jon Kitna can absorb a beating; no need to subject their quarterback of the future to a similar fate.

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


Green Bay Packers

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 27 5 1352 84.5 30 3.4 31
2006 24 5 1663 103.9 23 3.9 20
2007 19 4 1534 96 20 4.5 7

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 C.Clifton A.Klemm M.Flanagan W.Whitticker M.Tauscher      
2006 C.Clifton J.Spitz S.Wells T.Moll M.Tauscher      
2007 C.Clifton D.Colledge S.Wells J.Spitz M.Tauscher C. Clifton    
2008 C.Clifton A.Barbre S.Wells J.Spitz M.Tauscher      

There’s a whole lot we don’t know heading into the Packers’ 2008 campaign. Is their pass protection solid, or have they held their sack total below 30 for the past seven seasons because Brett Favre gets rid of the ball quickly? Is their run blocking improving, or was Ryan Grant single-handedly responsible for the half-yard jump in Green Bay’s per-carry average? Let’s start with what we do know. The Packers’ bookend tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, arrived in the 2000 draft, and since then Green Bay quarterbacks have saved significantly on their laundry bills. But maybe Favre knew something was up; the mileage is starting to show on the duo and the Pack may have been looking down the road when they drafted a pair of tackles in April. Daryn Colledge, who played tackle in college and will likely lose the battle for left guard to Allen Barbre, and Orrin Thompson have been taking first-team reps at left tackle while Clifton rests, and between Tony Moll, free agent Joe Toledo and rookie Breno Giacomini the cupboard is far from bare. The Pack really like Barbre, and his quickness is an ideal fit for the zone blocking system, and Jason Spitz has been adequate on the right side. The real value to Spitz, as well as Junius Coston, is the versatility to play just about any position along the line. Rookie Josh Sitton was a tackle in college but likely projects to play inside in the NFL, giving Green Bay a deep pool of linemen from which to draw. Scott Wells is a typical zone-system center: a bit undersized but with the technique and footwork to be effective.

So, even though Favre won’t be back his entire line will—with Barbre probably winning the left guard battle and offering an upgrade at the position. That’s at least a start for Aaron Rodgers, who obviously lacks the NFL experience and will undoubtedly take a little more time in the pocket to make his reads and get rid of the ball. Witness that three of Green Bay’s sacks last season came on 31 Rodgers pass attempts while No. 4 was sacked on average once every 37 dropbacks. Don’t expect the Packers’ sack totals to triple, but the tackles will certainly be tested; so will Rodgers’ ability to make quicker reads and decisions. With Green Bay’s offense already tight end friendly and younger quarterbacks prone to use that position as a bail out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Donald Lee put up nice catch totals. Also, secondary receivers may not get the same number of looks they received with the veteran Favre dissecting defenses. In the past third receivers in Green Bay have worked their way into the fantasy mix; this season, fantasy depth may not go below Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.

In the ground game, it’s definitely worth noting that Green Bay backs averaged 3.5 yards per carry over the first six weeks of the season—and 5.1 yards per carry after Ryan Grant took over as the starter in Week 8. But some of that success should be attributed to a line coming together and young players getting more comfortable with the Packers’ system. All five starters are back for the Pack, though Barbre is expected to unseat Colledge at left guard, so this unit won’t be starting from scratch when it comes to continuity. Green Bay will lean more on its ground game with a young quarterback at the helm… but defenses will also be more focused on the ground game. Ultimately, it’s tough to expect  Grant and the Green Bay running game to match that five-yards-per-tote from the second half of the season. But a number in the mid- to high fours wouldn’t surprise, and if it’s Grant once again getting the majority of the carries he should live up to all but the most unreasonable (read: top five back) expectations.

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


Minnesota Vikings

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 54 31 1467 91.7 27 3.9 18
2006 43 23 1820 113.8 16 4.1 15
2007 38 20 2326 145 1 5.4 1

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 B.McKinnie C.Liwienski C.Withrow M.Johnson M.Rosenthal      
2006 B.McKinnie S.Hutchinson M.Birk A.Hicks M.Johnson M. Birk S. Hutchinson  
2007 B.McKinnie S.Hutchinson M.Birk A.Hicks R.Cook M. Birk S. Hutchinson  
2008 B.McKinnie S.Hutchinson M.Birk A.Herrera R.Cook      

Offensive linemen tend to be an anonymous lot, but in Minnesota that doesn’t seem to be the case—for a variety of reasons. Bryant McKinnie didn’t allow a sack in college… but more recently he’s been in the news for some off-the-field scrapes that may land him a one- or two-game vacation at some point this season. Steve Hutchinson is one of the best guards in the league, and from here on out his name will be synonymous with the now-outlawed poison pill clause in a player contract that allowed him to leave Seattle for Minnesota. Matt Birk is a six-time Pro Bowler and homegrown talent who used his Harvard education to figure out the meaning of “voluntary” offseason workouts; the fact that he’s entering the final year of his contract was not lost on, well, anyone involved in the situation. On the right side, Anthony Herrera can be known as the guy who turned it all around for the Vikings; in his first NFL start at right guard he paved the way for Adrian Peterson to rush for 224 yards and three touchdowns against the Chicago Bears, and three weeks later he was part of Peterson’s NFL-record 296-yard effort against the Chargers. Okay, maybe that had more to do with AD than with Herrera. Right tackle Ryan Cook is largely the whipping boy/weak link of this unit, perhaps because he was used with the pick the Vikings received from Miami in exchange for Daunte Culpepper. However, Cook’s game improved over the course of last season—his first as a starter—and it helps to have extra tackle-disguised-as-a-tight end Jim Kleinsasser lining up next to him.

Minnesota’s line depth is a bit more anonymous, and Viking fans like it better that way because it means the regulars aren’t out of the lineup. But if McKinney gets slapped with a suspension the Purple faithful will get to learn all about Artis Hicks, who underachieved at right guard the past two seasons but offers a versatile veteran presence as a backup, or Chase Johnson, a mountainous project who could eventually replace either tackle should McKinney wear out his welcome in Minnesota or Cook not continue his improvement. The draft yielded John Sullivan, who could be the heir to Birk if the contract situation grows contentious or may supplant Herrera at guard, and the Vikings plucked a gem out of the undrafted free agency pool by signing USC tackle Drew Radovich who, like Johnson, could factor into the mix at either tackle position somewhere down the road. Marcus Johnson, who underwhelmed in stints as the starter at both right guard and right tackle, might find himself out of work by the end of training camp—closing the book on a disastrous 2005 draft.

The mainstays of this group are borderline household names thanks in no small part to what Peterson and his running mate, Chester Taylor, were able to accomplish last season. The 5.4 yards per carry Minnesota backs averaged were more than a half yard better than the next closest squad, and it’s not just because of Yo Adrian. While it’s true that no team picked up more of its rushing yards more than 10 yards downfield, according to the Football Outsiders the Vikings Adjusted Line Yards per carry of 4.21 still ranked in the top half of the league. And Minnesota sported a gaudy 76 percent conversion rate on short yardage and goal-to-go situations (another Football Outsiders stat), second only to the Colts. On the ground at least the Vikings’ line is reminiscent of the Chiefs unit from a few years back in that if the primary back (Priest Holmes then, Peterson in this case) were to miss any time the understudy (Larry Johnson then, Taylor here) would have just as much success.

When you consider that all of the above was accomplished despite defenses regularly putting eight and nine and 10 men in the box it becomes that much more impressive. Minnesota will attempt to loosen some of the pressure at the line of scrimmage by running newly signed Bernard Berrian down the field and hope a safety goes with him. Of course, that all depends on how much respect defenses give the passing game; last season, with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm, the answer was “not much”. And while the line gets credit for its run blocking, it’s only fair that they take some of the heat for allowing 38 sacks last season. The good news is, it was another year of improvement after allowing 54 in 2005 and 43 in 2006, and truth be told Jackson wasn’t all that bad, taking a sack once every 16 dropbacks; reserve quarterbacks Kelly Holcomb and Brooks Bollinger were responsible for half the team’s sacks at a rate twice that of T-Jax. So if you assume Jackson stays on the field the entire season, benefits from both the running game and the downfield presence of Berrian, and shows the development that should be expected—nay, demanded—from a quarterback entering his second season as an NFL starter, that sack total should drop for a third straight season. Put it another way: if the fate of the Vikings season hinges on their pass protection, something has most likely gone awry.
           
RUN BLOCKING: A
PASS BLOCKING: B
OVERALL GRADE: B+

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