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2009 Offensive Line Review and Ratings - NFC West
John Tuvey
Updated: August 26, 2009
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Arizona Cardinals

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2006 35 17 1,338 83.6 30 3.2 32
2007 24 8 1,344 84.0 29 3.7 30
2008 28 11 1,101 68.8 32 3.6 31

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2006 L.Davis R.Wells A.Stepanovich Mi.Brown C.Liwienski
2007 M.Gandy R.Wells A.Johnson D.Lutui L.Brown
2008 M.Gandy R.Wells A.Johnson D.Lutui L.Brown
2009 M.Gandy R.Wells L.Sendlein D.Lutui/B.Keith L.Brown
* Pro Bowler; (r) Rookie

Last year’s Super Bowl was the complete opposite of validation for the “it all starts up front” theory, as the Steelers and Cardinals fielded two of the poorer offensive lines in the NFL. Arizona was brutal running the football, ranking last at 69 yards per game and next-to-last at 3.6 yards per carry. Pick your metric; across the board the Cardinals’ ground game was awful. Their 3.68 adjusted line yards per carry ranked 30th, they converted just 58% of their short-yardage runs (29th in the league) and were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 20% of the time (26th in the NFL). The only silver lining to their running game was a modicum of success running outside: 4.14 adjusted line yards per carry to the left and 4.15 alypc to the right, both ranking smack dab in the middle of the league.

At least the Cards can protect the passer. Arizona surrendered 28 sacks, and when you consider that they threw the ball 630 times that’s pretty respectable. Moreover, they allowed just five sacks during the postseason, including two to the vaunted Steel Curtain. It’s not as if Kurt Warner is particularly mobile, so the fact that he can get rid of the ball quickly helps make up for tackles like Mike Gandy (6.25 sacks) on the left and Levi Brown (an abysmal and league-worst 11 sacks) on the right. Brandon Keith might be the tackle of the future, but he might also be a guard and it’s unlikely he moves either Brown or Gandy this year. The ace up Arizona’s sleeve might be Bengals castoff Levi Jones, who was released after missing 18 games over the past four seasons. Jones has indicated he won’t sign anywhere until after training camp starts, but he’s an Arizona native who played collegiately at Arizona State and whom you’d have to think would welcome a shot with a Super Bowl squad. Sans Jones, this line is decent in pass protection but leans heavily on Warner’s quick release. With a healthy Jones, Kurt’s jersey should stay remarkably clean.

Another tackle option might be kicking athletic left guard Reggie Wells outside, but that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. Center Lyle Sendlein took over for an injured Al Johnson last season, and while he’s nothing special he’s young enough that his best football may yet be ahead of him. Deuce Lutui on the right side has been largely disappointing, and Keith running at right guard through much of Arizona’s OTAs suggests there’s a competition for the starting gig. If Lutui hangs on to his job and Jones signs with the Cards, Arizona will have plenty of depth in Keith, ex-Steeler Oliver Ross, versatile Elton Brown, and rookie Herman Johnson. But this is still a subpar run-blocking unit that seems to keep Warner upright despite its tackles instead of because of them. Russ Grimm can only do so much.

OVERALL GRADE: C-, C+ if they end up fielding a pair of Levis at the tackles

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St. Louis Rams

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2006 49 27 1,805 112.8 17 4.3 10
2007 48 27 1,512 94.5 21 4.0 19
2008 45 27 1,518 94.9 23 4.0 24

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2006 O.Pace R.Incognito A.McCollum A.Timmerman A.Barron
2007 O.Pace M.Setterstrom B.Romberg M.Brown A.Barron
2008 O.Pace J.Bell R.Incognito M.Setterstrom A.Barron
2009 A.Barron J.Bell J.Brown R.Incognito J.Smith (r)
* Pro Bowler; (r) Rookie

The post-Orlando Pace era begins in St. Louis, though seeing as Pace missed 25 games over the past three seasons there won’t be that much of an adjustment. As Pace departs second-overall selection Jason Smith enters, giving the Rams bookend first-round tackles. Though Smith likely projects to the left side eventually, this season the plan is to have Alex Barron man Marc Bulger’s blind side and Smith start on the right. Both are better pass protectors than run blockers, though the Rams had more success running behind Barron last season (4.58 adjusted line yards per carry, sixth in the NFL) than at any other spot on their line (nothing better than 3.76 alypc and nothing higher than 25th in the league). St. Louis will also benefit from free agent signing Jason Brown; the former Ravens center helped lead Baltimore backs to a healthy 4.38 yards per carry behind him last season.

Former center Richie Incognito slid to guard last season, and planting him between Brown and Smith gives the right side a healthy mean streak—not necessarily a bad thing when looking to implement a power running game. Left guard Jacob Bell, who came to St. Louis from the Titans prior to last season, should feel right at home; more importantly, after battling an assortment of injuries last season, he should be healthy and ready to live up to his big free agent deal. Mark Setterstrom and Adam Goldberg both have starting experience, and John Greco may be too good of a run blocker to spend the season as a backup; he may find his way onto the field in short-yardage packages, with Bell potentially sliding outside to tackle.

The Rams’ new offense will be a blend of the short drops and quick passes offensive coordinator Pat Shurmer brings from Philly’s West Coast offense and the more run-heavy attack head coach Steve Spagnuolo saw during his tenure with the Giants. The former will definitely help a unit that has ranked 27th in sacks allowed each of the past three seasons, giving up a total of 142 sacks during that span. Both of St. Louis’ tackles are adept at handling speed rushers, which should also help drive the sack total down. So, too, would simply staying healthy long enough to develop some chemistry; last year the Rams’ projected staring line was on the field just seven times together. The move to a power running game plays to the strength of the line’s interior—as well as Spagnuolo’s plan to get the ball into the hands of his best player, Steven Jackson, as often as possible.

This line has a ways to go, but so did Cleveland’s following the 2006 season—and the Rams’ two major additions are reminiscent of what the Browns did in 2007 when they signed Eric Steinbach and drafted Joe Thomas. If the Rams are able to produce similar results—the Browns jumped from 30th to third in sacks allowed, 31st to eighth in rushing yards per game, and 29th to eighth in yards per carry—then Bulger will have time to bounce back to fantasy relevancy and Jackson should be in for one heckuva year.

OVERALL GRADE: B-, with upside

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San Francisco 49ers

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2006 35 18 2,172 135.8 6 4.9 4
2007 55 32 1,361 85.1 28 4.3 9
2008 55 32 1,320 82.5 28 3.9 26

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2006 J.Jennings L.Allen* E.Heitmann J.Smiley K.Harris
2007 J.Jennings L.Allen E.Heitmann J.Smiley J.Staley
2008 J.Staley A.Snyder E.Heitmann D.Baas J.Jennings
2009 J.Staley D.Baas E.Heitmann C.Rachal M.Smith
* Pro Bowler; (r) Rookie

Mike Singletary’s plan is for the Niners to convert to a power running team, and they may not have as far to go as you might think. Sure, the 49ers finished in the bottom five in the league in rushing yards per game for the second straight season and their yards-per-carry has dipped a full yard—from 4.9 to 3.9—since 2006. But using the Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards per game—a stat designed to assign responsibility for yards gained to the line based on a number of different criteria—San Francisco finished a far-more-respectable seventh at 4.28 alypc. Only 17% of the Niners’ carries were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, and only two teams collected more of their running back yardage 10 or more yards down the field—an indication that what yards they do gain are due primarily to the efforts of the men up front.

The 49ers fielded multiple lineups along their line last year, but aside from right tackle Marvel Smith the faces are familiar. Joe Staley anchors the line at left tackle and is the only member of the projected starters who strength is pass protection instead of run blocking. While his 8.5 sacks allowed last season isn’t great, last year was Staley’s second in the league and first on the left side; in other words, improvement can be expected. Smith, on the other hand, is more of a road grader and can’t be any worse in pass protection than Adam Snyder (9.5 sacks in 13 games on the right side) was. Snyder was also the weak link in the running game, as the 49ers averaged 4.5 adjusted line yards per carry or better up the middle and around left end and were right around four yards a carry behind left tackle and around right end… but 29th in the league off right tackle at 3.53 alypc.

The interior of San Francisco’s line is a perfect fit with Singletary’s philosophy. David Baas will play left guard, Eric Heitmann is entrenched at center, and Chilo Rachal, who started six games as a rookie last year, takes over at right guard. All are powerful run blockers, and as an added bonus Baas played nine games without allowing a sack. Tony Wragge is a good run-blocker and capable backup at guard, while Cody Wallace may be Heitmann’s heir at center and if Alex Boone can corral his off-the-field demons would be a powerful addition to the running game somewhere down the road. In fact, the only Niner lineman who might not mesh with the new style is veteran tackle Barry Sims, who’s more of a zone blocker. But depth is the least of this line’s worries; they’d settle for not finishing dead-dog last in the league in sacks for the third straight season


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Seattle Seahawks

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2006 49 29 1,923 120.2 14 4 16
2007 36 18 1,509 94.3 22 3.9 24
2008 36 20 1,595 99.7 16 4.1 19

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2006 W.Jones* F.Womack R.Tobeck C.Gray S.Locklear
2007 W.Jones* R.Sims C.Spencer C.Gray S.Locklear
2008 W.Jones* M.Wahle C.Spencer R.Sims S.Locklear
2009 W.Jones M.Wahle/M.Unger (r) C.Spencer R.Sims/M.Unger (r) S.Locklear
* Pro Bowler; (r) Rookie

It wasn’t just the Seattle receiving corps was decimated by injury last season; the entire starting offensive line ended 2009 on injured reserve, the projected starting five didn’t play a single game together all year, and in half the games the Seahawks were missing at least two projected starters. That Seattle only allowed 36 sacks and actually saw their per-game rushing yards and yards-per-carry average climb slightly speaks to the depth of this line.

The Seahawks would prefer not to test that depth nearly as much this season, specifically with future Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones. Coming off microfracture surgery even Jones has admitted the countdown to Canton is in sight, but when healthy he’s still operating at a level only slightly below elite. In a perfect world Seattle will get 16 games out of Jones, which means LT of the future Sean Locklear can remain on the right side for one more season—and RT of the future Ray Willis can stay in reserve. The Seahawks drafted versatile Max Unger in the second round, but he may not be able to unseat center Chris Spencer or right guard Rob Sims this season. Left guard Mike Wahle has been slow to come back from his injury, so Unger has been working at that spot during OTAs. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and you have to believe that the injury bug can’t bite nearly as hard in 2009.

It might behoove the Seahawks to find a place for Unger to play, as he’s familiar with the zone blocking scheme new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will employ (and the Hawks dabbled with last season); you may remember Knapp’s success with that scheme in Atlanta during their run as the league’s top rushing team. The current line had mixed results in the power game last year, converting 76% of their short-yardage runs but getting stuffed at or behind the line on 20% of their rushing attempts. Heading into training camp, Jones is still limited to running on the side and Wahle still recovering from shoulder surgery. This unit will need to get on the field together to work out the kinks, and if all hands are on deck the Seahawks can find a place for Unger based on his skills rather than injury-precipitated need.

Update (Downgrade): The Seahawks couldn’t possibly be as banged up as last year, when all five of their starters finished the year on injured reserve... could they? Left guard Mike Wahle couldn’t make it back from shoulder problems, and future Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones’ career may be over. Suddenly the luxury pick of Max Unger becomes a need pick as the Seahawks scramble to plug holes. The good news is, between the zone blocking scheme in the running game and the short passes of the West Coast offense, Seattle should be able to field a competent front wall; however, it’s no longer an area of strength.


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