The Shift: Offensive Line Rankings and Comparison

Invisible Giants

Big people have names too. 

Big people have names too. 

Most fans who follow football at least somewhat closely understand that the offensive line is an absolutely critical component of a team's offense. Whether attacking through the air or pounding the ball on the ground, a bad offensive line cripples the "skill" position players while a really good one can make an average running back look like an All-Pro. Even future Hall-of-Famers like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady require the benefit of a stable O-line. They need time to operate in the pocket and teams are inclined to protect their most valuable asset.

Yet, even though most understand the importance of the offensive line, most of us know precious little about the O-lines on teams outside of our own. How is it that they are so crucial and yet we know so little about them? They are the biggest men on the field and yet somehow they are almost invisible to us. Perhaps one reason is that linemen don't receive the same kind of stats that other positions do. Linemen don't score touchdowns, the don't generate sacks or intercept passes. In fact, it's the lineman's direct job is to prevent stats. Because they never touch the ball, it's harder to notice their contribution while watching the game. Because they don't receive the same type of statistical accolades, it's harder to quantify their performances. 

Offensive lines are also rarely considered in fantasy football. However, this is a mistake. Take Toby Gerhart for example. In 2014, Toby Gerhart was one of the biggest non-injury related busts in fantasy football. Could we have seen this coming? There was a whole host of clues that could have tipped you off. One of them was the Toby Gerhart was going from Minnesota's 6th best run blocking line to Jacksonville's which was ranked dead last in run blocking. Gerhart's limited playing time on the Vikings was misleading. Going from one of the best run-blocking lines to the absolute worst was bound to decrease his production. Because many primarily look at past performance when ranking or evaluating a player, Gerhart was bound to be overrated for this reason alone. 

Going from a good offensive line to a bad one is a red flag that a player might not meet the production you expected when drafting him. Meanwhile, running backs finding themselves with much improved offensive lines represent significant value. Target these players because you can get them for cheaper than they're worth. Offensive line strength should by no means be the only criteria for predicting player performance but it ought to be at least one of them. 

The Shift

Tracking offensive lines isn't just important for running backs that change teams. Offensive lines can change dramatically within a team in just a year. This may be due to a variety of reasons including injury, free agency, and the NFL Draft. This series of articles documents all the changes to each team's offensive line this off-season. Which O-lines will improve and which will regress?  Not only will this help us predict offensive line performance for the coming year but it will also bring more visibility to one of football's most valuable yet under-appreciated position groups. 

Based on the off-season changes, I assigned each unit an arbitrary and subjective rating, ranging from +3 to -3, that corresponds to the level of improvement or regression I expect. In general, my ratings were optimistic and a majority of teams rated positively (which signifies that I expect them to improve). This is because offensive lines tend to fall apart as a result of injuries that occur during the season. Therefore, for most teams, the beginning of the season offers the most optimistic view of each offensive line. Additionally, especially for offensive lines that struggled in 2014, highly touted yet unproven players abound. Considering the poor performance of the men they replaced, for now I can only cautiously speculate that they will be at least a slight improvement. Feel free to challenge my ratings in the comments or ignore them completely. If you ignore my ratings, you can still form your own conclusions from the list of changes as well as the PFF player grades and team rankings.

  • The number to the left of each team is the overall PFF offensive line ranking for 2014.
  • The number in parenthesis to the right of each team is the overall PFF offensive line ranking from 2013.
  • The number in parenthesis next to each player is their PFF grade.
  • I compiled the 2014 PFF rankings and 2014 Football Outsider rankings into a sort-able table accessible in this Microsoft Office Online & this Google Sheet

tl;dr - O-lines are important. Here are the offensive line changes from last year to this year. Rankings and grades are from Pro Football Focus.

O-Line Shifts: #32-#25

O-Line Shifts: #24-#17

O-Line Shifts: #16-#9

O-Line Shifts: #8-#1


Summary

Significant Upgrades (+2):

  • San Diego Chargers
  • Atlanta Falcons
  • Arizona Cardinals
  • Cleveland Browns
  • Kansas City Chiefs

Moderate and/or Uncertain Upgrades (+1):

  • New Orleans Saints
  • Washington Redskins
  • Oakland Raiders
  • Detroit Lions
  • Carolina Panthers
  • Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Chicago Bears
  • St. Louis Rams

Small Upgrades (+1):

  • Miami Dolphins
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Buffalo Bills
  • Cincinnati Bengals
  • New York Giants
  • Indianapolis Colts
  • New York Jets

No Upgrade/Downgrade (+0)

  • New England Patriots
  • Green Bay Packers
  • Baltimore Ravens
  • Dallas Cowboys

Small Downgrades (-1):

  • Houston Texans
  • Minnesota Vikings
  • Pittsburgh Steelers

Significant Downgrades (-2):

  • Tennessee Titans 
  • Philadelphia Eagles
  • Seattle Seahawks

Most Downgraded (-3):

  • Denver Broncos
  • San Francisco 49ers

Please note that each offensive line is compared to last year's performance and not to each other. Miami may have one of the most improved offensive lines but it was ranked dead last in 2014. Thus, the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line (which ranked 2nd in 2014), will almost certainly still be better despite being one of the most likely to regress.