Trench Fanfare: The 10 Best Offensive Linemen of the Past YearLarry French/Getty Images
I’m not sure when I’ll stop thinking that this is the year the big guys finally get some respect. Barnwell is spending his time shredding the NFL Top 100 this week, so I figured as an addendum to that, I’d devote some attention to the players who get the least amount of it on that silly list.
From an outside perspective, offensive lineman may be the toughest position to judge. So much of what players do and why they do it is based on rules and principles we can’t know unless we’re at practice all week. With some guys, though, it’s just visceral: It’s obvious how good they are, and we can see it without any knowledge of the specific scheme they’re in.
In making the list below, I kept a few things in mind. First, it’s based on only last season. That’s why you won’t see guys like Trent Williams (whose play dipped as he dealt with knee problems all year) or Alex Mack (the best center in football through six weeks before breaking his leg). Also, despite my affinity for guards, this list is dominated by left tackles, and I don’t think that’s an accident. When it comes to offensive line play, those guys still set the bar, and as the league has gotten even more pass-happy, that isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Here’s my crack at the top 10:
Honorable mention: Evan Mathis, Maurkice Pouncey, Brandon Brooks, Nick Mangold, and Kelechi Osemele
10. Joel Bitonio (LG, Browns)
9. Zack Martin (RG, Cowboys)
Two of the real success stories from the 2014 draft, both college tackles who shifted to guard in the pros, started from day one and never looked like rookies. Bitonio had the advantage of playing between two of the best players in the league at their positions (Joe Thomas and Alex Mack) — and Martin isn’t exactly surrounded by slouches, either — but that only played a small part in just how good each was in his first season.
Martin was a better pass-protector than run-blocker, but considering the positional transition, that’s expected. It’s a different animal, having to create leverage that quickly off the ball. Bitonio, on the other hand, managed to figure it out early. With his active feet, Bitonio was a perfect fit in a Kyle Shanahan offense that hums best with quick, mobile guards.
The success of these two is sure to encourage more teams to look at college tackles with imperfect traits and imagine how to use them on the inside at the next level. The scariest part of all this is that at 23 (Bitonio) and 24 (Martin), they both have room to get a lot better.
8. Joe Staley (LT, 49ers)
Apparently, there’s something to be said for being a left tackle named Joe. While Thomas is still the standard — and we’ll get to him — Staley has been one of the most reliable blindside protectors in football.
Unlike some of the guys ahead of him on this list, Staley is a great, pure run-blocker. No single trait can really explain it, although it starts with willingness. There are some great left tackles who will always prioritize what they do in pass protection, and that’s fine, but Staley seems to get a genuine thrill from lining up and getting after people. I probably would, too, if I had the sort of power he does.
My favorite part about Staley, though, is how he uses his hands. His punch as a run-blocker is just violent. There’s no other way to describe it. He jolts defenders instantly, and more often than not, he gets them in the perfect position, too. Few things sound less enjoyable than knowing Staley’s intentions and then feeling those hands clamped onto you.
7. Tyron Smith (LT, Cowboys)
All we really need to know about Smith is that the Cowboys signed him to one of those decade-long hockey contracts, and no one even blinked. OK, fine, it’s an eight-year deal, but that’s still insane. At this rate, we’ll go through two more election cycles by the time Smith is done in Dallas.
Any conversation about him starts with age. Drafted in 2011, Smith is still just 24. I don’t even know how that’s possible. He’s almost a month younger than Zack Martin, who was drafted three years later. By 2023, Smith will only be 32, and what makes his crazy-long contract seem reasonable is that his play might not fall off much between now and then.
Even at 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, Smith is plenty athletic, but what sticks out when you watch him is just how easily the position comes to him. Rarely does he expend unnecessary energy, thanks to those ridiculously long arms. They’re 36 3/8 inches, by the way, which means 6-5 turns into 6-9 real quick.
When Smith faces off against a guy like Trent Murphy for an entire afternoon, you won’t see much chasing. As Murphy starts to bend his approach toward Tony Romo, all Smith needs is one small shove with that left tree branch, and a defensive end is a yard farther upfield than he should be. There isn’t much waste in his game, and while he may not have as many punishing “wow” plays as others do, he’s set up to be good for a long, long time.
6. Travis Frederick (C, Cowboys)
Admit it: You laughed when the Cowboys took Frederick in the first round in 2013. It’s fine. I did, too. Well, now Dallas is laughing all the way to the bank. Two years in, for my money, Frederick is the best run-blocking center in football. The Cowboys running game starts with him. Sure, it literally has to, but schematically, what Frederick is able to do frees up the rest of the line in a way most centers can’t.
This sort of play pops up all the time. A lot of teams would use the play-side guard in this scenario to at least chip the nose tackle, just to give the center a little help in turning him. Frederick needs no such help. He’s so quick and so strong that he regularly handles defenders in the play-side gap, allowing his guard to bolt toward a linebacker. It’s an unbelievable advantage for the Dallas offense. The aggressiveness that makes Frederick such an impact player in the run game can occasionally make him a liability in pass protection, but from a center, that’s a trade I’m willing to make.
5. Andrew Whitworth (LT, Bengals)
I know I said this list was based on 2014, but in talking about Whitworth, let’s go back to 2013. For the second half of that season, the Bengals needed their Pro Bowl–caliber left tackle to play some guard because of injury. For six games, Whitworth lined up at left guard, and over that stretch, he was probably the best left guard in football.
This guy can do anything, which makes it even harder to believe that the Bengals are somehow paying him only $6.2 million this year. That’s the 17th-highest cap hit in football among tackles — right behind Matt Kalil and right ahead of Eric Fisher, neither of whom, you’ll notice, are on this list. Whitworth has spent almost his entire career being overlooked, and somehow that still hasn’t changed. At 33, he’s in the last year of his deal, and by drafting two tackles in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, the Bengals weren’t too shy in showing him this might be his final year in Cincinnati. If last season — and the three before that — is any indication, some lucky team will be getting one of the best left tackles in football when this year is over.
4. Josh Sitton (LG, Packers)
Sitton is never in a hurry — anymore, at least. He told me a story once about how early in his career he would get so wound up and nervous before games that Matt Flynn would come over and offer up his headphones: any way he could get the guard — a fourth-rounder who managed to get significant playing time as a rookie — to calm down.
Those days are long gone. To watch Sitton is to watch a player in total control. With how quickly the action develops on the interior of the line, a lot of guards are anxious to immediately set in pass protection and avoid ending up in the quarterback’s lap. Sitton’s game, though, is defined by patience, and it’s what makes him the best pass-blocking guard in the league. Before he dives into the fray, he’s strong enough to wait just a bit — as he does while Nick Fairley spins his way to nowhere. It takes years to develop that sort of assuredness, and even then, most guys don’t have the temperament to implement it into their play.
3. Joe Thomas (LT, Browns)
And the beat goes on. I don’t want to get deep into what makes Thomas so great (I’ll do that later this preseason), but the bullet points haven’t changed for years. He’s the perfect left tackle in pretty much every way. No one’s pass set is more idyllic. No one uses his hands better. Thomas gave up four sacks last season, the seventh time in eight years he’s given up fewer than five. He also just never holds. It’s remarkable. There’s a reason Thomas has been the left-tackle standard for almost a decade, and every bit of that adulation is earned.
2. Jason Peters (LT, Eagles)
In a lot of ways, Peters is the anti-Thomas. Three years before Thomas was the third overall pick (one after Calvin Johnson, four before Adrian Peterson), Peters went undrafted out of Arkansas. A college tight end, he made the transition to left tackle for the Bills, but his career reached new heights when he got to Philadelphia.
Peters has the most unusual style of any player on this list, and probably of any offensive lineman in football. Unlike Smith or Thomas, he doesn’t make left-tackle play look easy. He’s more unsettled than some of his elite counterparts, but in a way, that’s what makes him so impressive. Peters is so quick and so strong that he can pull it off. Just look at how he has to sell the play-action with a quick step off the ball before getting into his pass set:
Where Thomas or Smith are usually content to sit back and let a pass-rusher spin and juke however he wants to, there are plays where Peters can actually mirror those movements as they happen. It’s technically wrong, but his feet are so good that it doesn’t matter. More than any other offensive lineman, Peters has plays that make me laugh and shake my head. The way he can move defies any law of nature we have, and those feet are also what make him so devastating in the run game, especially in Chip Kelly’s offense. Kelly frequently asks Peters to make blocks no other left tackle in the league could. Thomas may be the steady standard on the left side, but Peters’s more spectacular approach gives him the edge over everyone right now.
1. Marshal Yanda (RG, Ravens)
I’d be willing to argue that aside from J.J. Watt and Aaron Rodgers, no one in the league had a more comfortable margin as the best player at his position than Yanda. Last season was Yanda’s fourth trip to the Pro Bowl, and in 2014 he was a wrecking crew.
This is probably my favorite play any offensive lineman made all season. It’s also the one Justin Forsett cites in Yanda’s section of the Top 100, where the guard ranks an embarrassing 79th. It’s insane. I don’t even know how to process it. Off the snap, Yanda gives a little shove to the defensive end that lined up outside teammate Ricky Wagner before the snap. After that, he bumps the nose tackle with his left hip, ensuring that center Jeremy Zuttah gets him turned and out of the play. He does all of that before finally getting up to the inside linebacker and springing Forsett for a 23-yard gain. The right guard makes the entire play happen.
It didn’t always happen to that extent, but watching Yanda in the run game last season was something to behold. In some ways, you can’t even call it a clinic because so much of it wouldn’t translate to another person. There are so many hip checks and tiny leverage ploys that are singular products of one man’s ingenuity. The one part of Yanda’s game that is transferable is the way he just never stops. His eyes are constantly downfield, and his feet are always moving in the direction of the play. He really is the perfect zone-blocking guard. Not to mention that when the Ravens needed a new right tackle after Wagner’s injury, Yanda took over without any problems. It’s pretty simple. Right now, no offensive lineman is dominating the line of scrimmage like he is.