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2008 Offensive Line Review and Ratings - NFC South
John Tuvey
June 25, 2008
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Atlanta Falcons

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 39 18 2546 159.1 1 4.8 1
2006 47 26 2939 183.7 1 5.5 1
2007 47 25 1383 86 27 4.0 22

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 K.Shaffer M.Lehr T.McClure K.Forney T.Weiner      
2006 W.Gandy M.Lehr T.McClure K.Forney T.Weiner      
2007 W.Gandy J.Blalock T.McClure K.Forney T.Weiner      
2008 S.Baker J.Blalock T.McClure K.Forney T.Clabo      

The Atlanta offense was a disaster last season, and there are plenty of folks to blame: Michael Vick, for spending the year in jail instead of in the Georgia Dome; Bobby Petrino, for being overmatched by the pro game and bailing on his team; Petrino’s line coach, NFL novice Mike Summers, who failed to develop any sort of plan for this unit; and the players themselves, especially since four of the five regulars were with the team in 2006 when the Falcons were the top rushing team in the league. So the team hopes to turn multiple pages with a new administration, to the point that Atlanta doesn’t even know what blocking scheme it intends to implement this season. At least new line coach Paul Boudreau, a 21-year NFL veteran, has plenty of experience cobbling together an offensive line; with the Rams last season he used 14 different starting lineups—due in no small part to a spate of injuries—and the previous year he used nine different lineups. So it should come as no surprise that Boudreau and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey have yet to determine who’s starting—and once that determination is made, they’ll pick a blocking style that fits their personnel. “It’s our job as coaches to make sure that we are asking those guys up front to do some things they can do,” Mularkey told Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So we’re still in the beginning stages of finding out who those five guys are. We’re putting them to the test in all different kinds of schemes.”

Boudreau is certainly giving everyone a shot. During the first minicamp the Falcons used the same lineup that finished the 2007 season—from left to right Quinn Ojinnaka, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Kynan Forney, and Tyson Clabo. However, that discounts first-round pick Sam Baker, who is expected to move into the starting lineup at left tackle, as well as right tackles Todd Weiner and Renardo Foster, both of whom had their 2007 season ended prematurely by knee injuries. More recently, practice squader Harvey Dahl was getting first-team reps at right guard, primarily because Boudreau loves Dahl’s nasty temperament and wants to pair it with the equally ill-tempered Clabo. That’s nine names you probably haven’t heard of, but that’s what the Falcons have to work with. Atlanta didn’t trade back into the first round to grab Baker so he could sit on the sidelines, so expect him to take over at left tackle and do his learning on the job—most likely with Chris Redman paying for his rookie mistakes rather than fellow first-rounder Matt Ryan. Blalock, the Falcons’ second-round pick last year, will return at left guard—unless he’s needed at right tackle, a position he played in college—and McClure should hold off Alex Stepanovich at center. Seeing as the status quo wasn’t all that great last year, some change on the right side wouldn’t surprise. Based on Mularkey’s past work with the Steelers and new head coach Mike Smith’s philosophy, one would assume the Falcons would be a power rushing team with the focus of the passing game on the wideouts. And for Atlanta to field its best run-blocking unit, Clabo would likely slide inside to right guard and Foster would play right tackle. If Foster isn’t all the way back from his injury, perhaps Boudreau will get his nasty on with Clabo outside and Dahl at guard.

If the unit does indeed focus on the ground game, it bodes well for Michael Turner—playing the Jerome Bettis role in the offense Mularkey brought over from Pittsburgh. However, with Baker protecting the blind side and slow-footed options on the right, Redman (or Ryan) won’t have the same time to look downfield that Steeler quarterbacks did when Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress were posting 1,000-yard seasons in Pittsburgh. Of course, Roddy White put up solid numbers last season despite the Falcons surrendering 47 sacks, so it’s not as if things will be getting substantially worse. Maybe that’s why the Falcons are keeping Joey Harrington around as well, so they

RUN BLOCKING: D+, but could jump a grade once the Falcons settle on a scheme and personnel
PASS BLOCKING: D, with the potential to climb a little if Baker plays like a first-round pick
OVERALL GRADE: D+, but an optimistic D+, if there is such a thing


Carolina Panthers

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 28 9 1679 104.9 19 3.4 29
2006 32 14 1659 103.7 24 3.9 21
2007 33 17 1635 102 15 4.0 15

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 T.Wharton M.Wahle J.Mitchell T.Reyes J.Gross M. Wahle    
2006 T.Wharton M.Wahle J.Hartwig E.Mathis J.Gross      
2007 T.Wharton M.Wahle J.Hartwig R.Kalil J.Gross      
2008 J.Gross T.Wharton R.Kalil T.Fonoti J.Otah      

Size matters, at least in Carolina. After a decidedly middle-of-the-pack season, the edict from Panthers coach John Fox was to get bigger and more physical so as to better implement his favored power running game. One look at the carnage from a training camp lunch with the Carolina offensive linemen indicates that Fox is getting his wish. The first round of the 2008 draft yielded not only the ideal back for Fox’s preferred style, 235-pound Jonathan Stewart, but also saw Carolina trade next year’s first pick to grab tackle Jeff Otah with the 19th overall selection. Otah needs plenty of refinement and his technique is raw, but what Fox and the Panthers see is a 6-6, 325 road grader at right tackle. Next to him the Panthers will likely field Toniu Fonoti, whose weight issues cost him jobs with five previous teams but who is back down in the neighborhood of 340 pounds—and is a dominating run blocker when healthy and in shape. If Fonoti can’t regain his form the Panthers would turn to either Keydrick Vincent (325 pounds) or Milford Brown (330) and only give away a few pounds on the right side. Last year’s starter at right guard, Ryan Kalil, slides to his more natural position of center to replace Justin Hartwig. Kalil is a little undersized for an NFL center, but he’s smart and athletic and technically proficient… so potentially being the only sub-300-pound member of this group won’t be a liability. Concluding the Panthers’ extreme line makeover on the left side are Travis Wharton, who started at left tackle last season but moves inside to guard, and Jordan Gross, who returns to the left side after a season on the right. Wharton was adequate at tackle is a better fit inside and put on 10 pounds in the offseason to bulk up for his new duties. Gross is an elite level right tackle but merely average as a pass protector on the left side.

Actually, that statement sums up Carolina’s offensive line in a nutshell: ordinary in pass protection but potentially dominant on the ground. Once Stewart gets out of the protective boot and onto the practice field it shouldn’t take him long to take over the bulk of the running back duties; he’ll give Fox the same type of back he had with Stephen Davis, except Stewart has speed as well as size. DeAngelo Williams may also benefit from the holes sure to be opened by this unit, but if Fox gets his wish it will be the bigger back with the bigger workload.

The concern then, obviously, is the health of Jake Delhomme. Carolina’s quarterback is coming off Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow and has missed 16 games the past two seasons. Meanwhile the Panthers have seen their sack totals rise, albeit slightly, each of the past two seasons and the anticipated makeup of the line doesn’t suggest improvement in that area. We’ve seen evidence that Steve Smith will get his no matter what—witness his 1,007-yard season despite a carousel of bad quarterbacks—but if you’re looking to D.J. Hackett or Jason Carter to step up as the No. 2 there simply may not be enough time for Delhomme to find his secondary target. Or, if the sack total jumps again, enough Delhomme to last a full 16-game slate.

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


New Orleans Saints

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 41 19 1688 105.5 18 4 14
2006 23 4 1761 110.1 19 3.7 25
2007 16 1 1442 90 26 3.9 23

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 W.Gandy K.Jacox L.Bentley J.Mayberry J.Brown L. Bentley    
2006 J.Brown J.Nesbit J.Faine J.Evans J.Stinchcomb J. Brown    
2007 J.Brown J.Nesbit J.Faine J.Evans J.Stinchcomb      
2008 J.Brown J.Nesbit J.Goodwin J.Evans J.Stinchcomb      

The Saints offensive line was supposed to be a weakness heading into 2006, with new starters across the board; instead, the unit came together to become the strength of a club that reached the NFC title game. So with all five starters back for more in 2007, expectations were set high—then quickly crushed by an 0-3 start in which they allowed four sacks (and plenty more pressures) and averaged less than 80 rushing yards per game. Eventually the Saints righted the ship, finishing the season with the fewest number of sacks allowed—though that is attributable as much to the quick release of Drew Brees as it is fantastic protection by the front five—and putting up adequate rushing numbers as well. New Orleans hopes that continuity will carry the day again, with four of the five starters expected to return and departed center Jeff Faine replaced by Jonathan Goodwin. Goodwin handled that duty for a couple games last year while Faine battled injury and the line didn’t miss a beat; whether the journeyman can extend that success over a full 16-game slate, making line calls and holding this group together remains to be seen. If left tackle Jammal Brown plays more like the Pro Bowler he was in 2006 than the relative disappointment he was last season, all should be well in New Orleans. Guards Jamar Nesbit and Jahri Evans return on the left and right, respectively; Nesbit is technically proficient but doesn’t get a great push in the ground game, while Evans has plenty of strength and is refining his technique—perfectly fitting the stereotypes of left side/right side. On the right Jon Stinchcomb may hold onto his job simply because the Saints might think one change along the line is enough. However, Zach Strief is raw but powerful and could give New Orleans a leg up running to the right side.

There’s little question this unit is among the best at keeping Brees upright—and again, Brees has plenty to do with that himself. As has been proven, an upright Brees means big numbers, not just on dumpoffs to the backs but also to Marques Colston and David Patten and Robert Meacham. And the raw numbers suggest New Orleans runs well between the guards—a league leading 4.98 adjusted line yards per carry, according to Football Outsiders—but is subpar trying to run the ball anywhere else. A closer look at the Football Outsiders’ research, however, suggests that those struggles may be more the responsibility of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister than of the big fellas up front. While Saints running backs have averaged less than four yards per carry each of the past two seasons, New Orleans ranks seventh in the league in adjusted line yards per carry—the Football Outsiders’ stat that attempts to break out which portion of rushing yardage is directly attributed to the offensive line—at 4.39. That bodes well for McAllister should his knees allow him to return. And those fantasy folks taking a flyer on Pierre Thomas are looking smart as well, as Bush isn’t exactly known for his success pounding the ball inside; if Deuce can’t come back, Thomas could fill the Aaron Stecker role in 2008—or Stecker could reprise his role from a year ago. Inserting Strief on the right side would improve the Saints’ ability to run the ball outside, directly impacting Bush’s numbers.     

Bottom line, fantasy folks hitching their wagon to the Saints have little to fear up front—unless, of course, this relatively thin group is ravaged by injury. And depending on what personnel New Orleans rolls with on the right side, one or both of the Saints runners could be the beneficiary of those adjusted line yardage numbers translating into the raw production that adds up oh-so-nicely on your fantasy score sheet.

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


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2005 41 20 1826 114.1 14 4 13
2006 33 15 1523 95.2 28 3.8 24
2007 36 19 1883 118 7 4.0 16

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Pro Bowlers
2005 A.Davis D.Buenning J.Wade S.Mahan K.Walker      
2006 A.Davis S.Mahan J.Wade J.Terry K.Walker      
2007 L.Petitgout A.Sears J.Wade D.Joseph J.Trueblood      
2008 L.Petitgout A.Sears J.Faine D.Joseph J.Trueblood      

The Bucs started rebuilding their offensive line in 2006, drafting Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood in the first two rounds. Last year, that tandem made up the starting right side and expectations are that they will for some time to come. Last year’s draft yielded second-rounder Arron Sears, who stepped immediately into the lineup at right guard and played quite well. With youth served at those three positions, the Bucs are turning to the free agent market to finish the job. Last year’s big ticket item, left tackle Luke Petitgout, missed most of the season with a knee injury and forced Donald Penn into the lineup. Penn held his own in passing protection but was far from helpful in the ground game; he’s a nice backup, but the former practice squader isn’t expected to be the team’s future at the position, so the hope is that Petitgout can stay healthy for a change. Center was the team’s Achilles heel last season, so Tampa Bay raided their division rivals in New Orleans to make Jeff Faine the highest-paid center in the game. While it was absolutely an overpay, it clears up the only real problem area the Bucs have—assuming Petitgout stays healthy. The Buccaneers landed versatile Jeremy Zuttah in the third round of the 2008 draft; he can play just about anywhere along the line and may eventually take over for Petitgout at left tackle. As it stands he’ll be the first lineman off the bench should any current starter get hurt or underperform.

Tampa Bay’s production wasn’t abysmal when they began their offensive line overhaul, but it was nothing special either. Sacks were up slightly last season, more so when Petitgout was out of the lineup; 30 of the team’s 36 sacks came in the dozen weeks he missed. While for the most part the Bucs’ line is made up of very good run blockers who are average in pass protection, a healthy Petitgout and a more experienced Trueblood should help bring the sack numbers down. Don’t underestimate the value of Faine’s experience and ability to make the line calls, either. Also, it’s worth noting that Luke McCown was sacked 13 times in three and a half games and Bruce Gradkowski twice more in his only extended action. With the more mobile Jeff Garcia under center for a full season, there’s little reason to think the Bucs won’t be in the top half of the league in fewest sacks allowed.

Where this line truly excels is in the running game, especially with Petitgout or potentially Zuttah at left tackle. Last season the Bucs ranked sixth in adjusted line yards, the stat developed by the Football Outsiders to help determine just how much of a team’s rushing success is due to quality line play. The Bucs also ranked second in the NFL in lowest percentage of carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, so they’re getting a good push. The return of Petitgout or the addition of Zuttah, along with the arrival of Faine and the continued development of Joseph, Trueblood, and Sears, bodes extremely well for the fate of Tampa’s running game. Whether it’s Earnest Graham handling the bulk of the work (if you wondered how a guy you’d never heard of could put up the kind of season he did last year, look no further than the big fellas in front of him) or Carnell Williams bouncing back from his knee injury, the Buccaneers should once again find success running the football. With the uncertainty surrounding Williams devaluing the fantasy stock of both backs, you may be able to get yourself a nice bargain on drauction day—knowing that Tampa Bay’s offensive line will be creating plenty of space.
           
RUN BLOCKING: B+
PASS BLOCKING: C
OVERALL GRADE: B, so long as Petitgout stays healthy.

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