With the NFL season fast approaching, I decided to sit down and rank the toughest offensive lines the Denver Broncos will face in 2021. Oftentimes, the mismatch between the offensive line and the opposing defensive line can decide games (see Super Bowl LV for a great example). Fortunately for the Broncos, they won’t face many offensive lines that are flat-out better than their defensive front.
I’m giving the caveat of each unit being completely healthy. It’s obviously unrealistic to expect that to hold up for the season but injuries are virtually impossible to predict and take away from the point of this article. These are judged solely on my own film study of each line.
I factored in the depth of each unit and I decided to provide a projected lineup for when the Broncos will face them (i.e. some rookies/players returning from injury will be in the lineup). These rankings were based a lot on my own personal views off of tape, but I also factored in how difficult I think each team will be for the Broncos to match up against. Keep in mind that depth players will change and these projected lineups are based on my own predictions.
If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
*-denotes rookie player
14. Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected Lineup: LT Chukwuma Okorafor, LG Kevin Dotson, C Kendrick Green*, RG Trai Turner, RT Zach Banner
Key depth: Dan Moore*, BJ Finney, Joe Haeg, Rashaad Coward
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 5
The Steelers caught a lot of flak for the way they handled their offensive line this offseason. Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler signed elsewhere in free agency, Maurkice Pouncey retired, and the team released David DeCastro due to injury concerns. Combined, that’s over 3,000 snaps lost. Now, the team looks to a young but inexperienced offensive line that has plenty of questions at tackle.
Okorafor and Zach Banner have both dealt with injuries in the NFL, and them being thrown out into the fire as starters without any sort of legit veteran presence there is a stunning decision by the Steelers’ front office. With a new offensive line coach that was under lawsuit for mishandling players at UCLA, that is a risky decision for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger does a good job at getting the ball out quick enough to avoid a lot of sacks and pressures, but is that sustainable? The Steelers were 29th in yards behind left tackle and 30th in yards behind right tackle.
The saving grace of the Steelers’ offensive line situation is their talent along their interior. Trai Turner has been a good guard for several seasons now, earning five Pro Bowl nods since being drafted in 2014. Turner’s 2020 season was hampered by a groin injury, which limited his athleticism and caused his playstyle to switch. If he’s healthy enough to go, he’ll be a solid addition to the team.
Kendrick Green and Kevin Dotson could be a really intriguing duo to watch together. I’m expecting Green to take the starting center job over Hassenauer sooner than later. Kendrick Green’s quickness and natural athletic ability blended well at starting at center for Illinois, and I’d bank on those traits translating into the pros. Kevin Dotson has already played at a high level in the NFL as a rookie no less.
There’s a lot of youth and inexperience on the Steelers’ offensive line. When coupled with their tackle situation, there are plenty of question marks abound on this line. If they can answer these questions, they could rank higher. Will they have those answers by week 5?
13. New York Giants
Projected Lineup: LT Andrew Thomas, LG Shane Lemieux, C Nick Gates, RG Will Hernandez, RT Matt Peart
Key depth: Nate Solder, Kenny Wiggins, Kyle Murphy, Brett Heggie
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 1
It’s rather unfortunate for the Giants to have to line up against a Broncos pass-rush that is fresh and healthy in week 1. The Giants’ offensive line was shoddy at best in 2020, with turnstiles all over the place.
Andrew Thomas got better as the season went on. His hand usage improved and he stopped giving up the inside as much as he did early on. While that’s important to note, Thomas must continue to improve and adjust to NFL speed. The Giants don’t really possess the EDGE talent to challenge him in camp and practice, so seeing how he holds up in preseason action will be important. Week 1 will bring a unique test, with the Broncos lining up one of Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, or Malik Reed over him all game.
Matt Peart was a noticeably raw prospect who flashed some as a rookie, but started once and rotated with Cam Fleming for much of the season. He’ll be on his third offensive line coach in 2 years now, which isn’t the best situation for his development. Peart is coming off of a back injury, but he’s already been cleared and started practicing last week. He might be something, but I’d expect him to face Von Miller consistently-and we know who’ll likely hold the advantage there.
The interior of the OL for the Giants last year was, to put it nicely, an immense struggle for the offense to overcome. Shane Lemieux struggled to deliver much of an impact on the football field as a rookie. Nick Gates decided to throw hands with Aaron Donald, and that’s a good summary of his season. I’m not convinced he should be the long-term answer there at center. I’m more optimistic about Will Hernandez this season. I feel like he struggled with COVID last season and it harmed his performance like it did to many athletes. Hernandez’s play strength has always been top-notch and he’s always been an enjoyable watch going back to UTEP. He’s reportedly lost some 20 pounds in the offseason and has embraced the move over to right guard. A return to form gives the Giants a mauler at that spot. It’s a unit that new OL coach Rob Sale will have to work a lot of magic to raise up.
It was really splitting hairs between the Giants and Steelers here, but I have a little more faith in the Giants’ tackles and OL coach, so I gave them the edge.
12. Cincinnati Bengals
Projected Lineup: LT Jonah Williams, LG Quinton Spain, C Trey Hopkins, RG Jackson Carman*, RT Riley Reiff
Key depth: Trey Hill*, D’Ante Smith*, Fred Johnson, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Billy Price, Lamont Galliard
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 15
The Bengals’ offensive line has been much maligned throughout the offseason-and there are legitimate reasons why. Their performance last year was pretty horrendous throughout. They had several injuries (and caused Burrow’s own), guys played out of position, and they had arguably the worst offensive line coach in football last year.
The team does have a few things going for them this year that they didn’t last year. They improved their depth and added in younger talent, including three draft picks (I’m not going to get into Sewell vs Chase) and nabbing Lamont Galliard off of waivers. The team will also have Quinton Spain going back to his more natural spot at left guard and Riley Reiff at right tackle, giving them two actual tackles instead of putting Bobby Hart out there. The biggest thing, and part of the reason why I have a lot more confidence in the unit, is Frank Pollack coming back to coach the offensive line.
Jonah Williams has provided quality play at left tackle when he’s been healthy and on the field. He’s added more play strength and he was already an elite technician coming out of Alabama. He looks like a nice cornerstone at left tackle if he can continue to stay healthy. I continue to stress that point because he was a first-round draft pick in 2019 and he has started just 10 games in his career.
Riley Reiff has been a pretty solid tackle in the NFL so far. He’s not an elite player but he’s steady, reliable, and smart. He’s missed just nine games in his career and has over a hundred starts to his name. His steady hands in pass protection and mental processing will be a boon at that right tackle spot, and should also help Jonah Williams and rookie D’Ante Smith develop as well.
Quinton Spain has been a solid player as well for much of his career, boasting good play strength and toughness in his own right. It sounds like the plan is to move him back to his career spot at left guard after he started several games at right guard (and right tackle) for Cincinnati last year. The other guard spot sounds like a pretty heavy competition, but by Week 15 I expect Jackson Carman to have that job barring an injury. Trey Hopkins has been an average center in his career but went he went down with a torn ACL, it was clear how much he held that interior together. He’ll be fully healthy by the time the Bengals play the Broncos.
The roster construction for the interior of their offensive line is odd to me. Zac Taylor comes from the McVay offense that features plenty of wide/outside zone runs. Jo1e Mixon enjoyed a lot of early success on those kinds of runs a few years ago while Frank Pollack was there, but they dipped as the offensive line got worse under Jim Turner. Now with Pollack back at OL coach, I figured those runs would be featured more frequently. Yet, the Bengals drafted two offensive linemen in Jackson Carman and Trey Hill that don’t really fit that kind of scheme and Quinton Spain has been better in a gap scheme for much of his career. I’ll be curious to see if this means they are going to mix up more gap looks into their offense, something the Broncos have had struggles defending.
11. Las Vegas Raiders
Projected Lineup: LT Kolton Miller, LG Richie Incognito, C Andre James, RG Denzelle Good, RT Alex Leatherwood*
Key depth: John Simpson, Nick Martin, Jaryd Jones-Smith
Matchup vs Broncos: Weeks 6 & 16
I know that the Raiders drew a lot of criticism this offseason for essentially blowing up their offensive line, and the criticism is deserved. Losing Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson, and Trent Brown in a single offseason knocks a lot of talent out of this unit.
However, I’m optimistic about some of the young talents in this unit. Kolton Miller has developed into a pretty good left tackle. Miller has always had some great traits, and he still has room to improve. Seeing Tom Cable develop Kolton Miller into the player he has (something that didn’t seem possible when Miller was coming out of UCLA) gives me plenty of optimism for Alex Leatherwood. I was high on Leatherwood’s tape at Alabama, and his biggest issue of hand placement can be fixed given time. Those two give the Raiders a promising young tackle duo with plenty of athleticism.
The guard situation for the Raiders is pretty promising as well but has some long-term questions. Richie Incognito was outstanding in 2019 but only played 2 games in 2020 due to injury. If he returns to form, he’ll give the Raiders a difference-maker at that left guard spot. Denzelle Good put together some good moments at guard in 2020 (much better at guard than the two games he started at right tackle). One of them could be pushed by John Simpson for a starting job, giving them some pretty good competition and depth.
The biggest question mark is at center. Andre James has one start in his career and has 119 offensive snaps. Replacing Rodney Hudson, one of the best and smartest centers in the league, with that level of inexperience is going to be a tall task. There’s been a lot of internal buzz about James internally, but we’ll see how it holds up in live games.
10. Washington Football Team
Projected Lineup: LT Charles Leno, LG Wes Schweitzer, C Chase Roullier, RG Brandon Scherff, RT Cornelius Lucas
Key depth: Sam Cosmi*, Saahdiq Charles, Keith Ismael, Ereck Flowers
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 8
There is a world where the Washington Football Team outplays this ranking. If Cosmi hits on his outstanding traits, he could be the starter at right tackle and lock up that spot for the foreseeable future. Cosmi was noticeably raw coming out of Texas but boasted a 9.99 RAS score, showing off his excellent traits.
Brandon Scherff has been one of the game’s best guards since he was drafted fifth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. Washington should do everything in its power to extend him. His elite play strength, athleticism, and technique make him a menace in pass blocking and a bruising tank in the run game.
Roullier and Schweitzer are solid interior guys. Just judging off of 2020 play, I’d expect Schweitzer to beat out Ereck Flowers for that left guard spot, but I’ve also been a fan of Schweitzer going back to his Atlanta days-one of the more underrated interior linemen in the NFL who can play all over the interior. Roullier isn’t an elite center but he’s quietly been effective in pass protection-a skill the Football Team found valuable enough to ink Roullier to a four-year extension this offseason.
Charles Leno and Cornelius Lucas are both long-time NFL veterans. Leno’s been on the decline some in recent years due to injury, but he’s still an effective and steady presence at left tackle that should help keep Fitzpatrick upright. Lucas has been about journeyman level for much of his career, but much like Leno, he can be a solid veteran to help keep that spot steady. It’s a unit that has some good talent but doesn’t quite have enough high-end talent to push them up higher. It lines up with the metrics, as Washington was dead average at 16th in adjusted line yards and ranked 22nd in adjusted sack rate in 2020. An upgrade at either tackle spot could push them further, but that’s projection at this point.
9. New York Jets
Projected Lineup: LT Mekhi Becton, LG Alijah Vera-Tucker*, C Connor McGovern, RG Greg van Roten, RT Morgan Moses
Key depth: George Fant, Dan Feeney, Cam Clark, David Moore
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 3
This tier of the Raiders, Football Team, and Jets provided a very tough decision I had to make on this list. I will probably still be battling it out internally well after publishing. However, I gave the nod to the Jets for a couple of reasons. One, I think Mekhi Becton has the ceiling to be a top-5 left tackle in the game and potentially even higher as time goes on. Two, pairing him and Alijah Vera-Tucker is an elite combination. Three, the depth is pretty solid throughout. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the Jets have, in my opinion, the best offensive line coach between the three in John Benton.
There’s an argument to be made that Becton will be the most physically gifted tackle the Broncos have to play in 2021. It will be a difficult battle for whichever edge rusher has to line up against the behemoth (I’d project it to be Chubb). Alijah Vera-Tucker was one of my favorite offensive line evaluations in the 2021 class, and he should be a stud guard right away for the Jets. This duo has the potential to be an excellent duo on the left side of the Jets’ offensive line for a very long time.
Signing Morgan Moses as late as they did was a coup for the Jets, as he’ll provide a good starting-caliber right tackle they can win with for the Jets and presents an imposing tackle duo that should give most opposing teams fits. George Fant as a potential swing tackle option is a good depth piece as well, given his athletic ability and fit in their scheme.
The Broncos should have an advantage up the interior against the center Connor McGovern and right guard Greg van Roten. McGovern is mostly average and isn’t a liability at center, but I expect him to be physically outmatched by the Broncos’ front. According to PFF, McGovern allowed 33 pressures, five quarterback hits, and six sacks in 2020. Greg van Roten is a below-average option at right guard but seems entrenched as the starter there. The Jets were 25th in the NFL in adjusted line yards from the interior in 2020. However, it’s important to note that defenses were not threatened in the slightest by the Jets passing game (or offense in general) and teed off of it. As a result, the offensive line’s numbers aren’t necessarily going to be favorable.
The Broncos faced the Jets last season and allowed 129 yards rushing and posted six sacks. Denver posted their 2nd-lowest rush defense DVOA of 2020 against the Jets. With a revamped offensive line and a new play-caller, this should once again be a tough matchup for the Broncos.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected Lineup: LT Cam Robinson, LG Andrew Norwell, C Brandon Linder, RG AJ Cann, RT Jawaan Taylor
Key depth: Walker Little*, Will Richardson, Ben Bartch, Tyler Shatley
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 2
It feels like the Jaguars’ offensive line gets oft-overlooked on their team, but it is an excellent unit in the run game. The team ranked 11th in adjusted line yards, seventh in power success, and seventh in stuffed rate in 2020. The pass-blocking metrics the team posted last season weren’t necessarily pretty (25th in adjusted sack rate and 44 sacks allowed), but it’s important to note that the Jaguars were one of the most static offenses in the NFL, using virtually no motion or play action, and had a QB rotation of Gardner Minshew, Jake Luton, and Mike Glennon. Andrew Norwell, Brandon Linder, and AJ Cann also missed time throughout the season.
This will be the third year in a row that the offensive line stays together for the Jaguars, something very notable. Jawaan Taylor and Cam Robinson have gotten better and better with George Warhop, providing the team with a young, talented, and developing tackle duo. The Jaguars were first in average line yards behind left tackle and sixth behind right tackle, per Football Outsiders.
Norwell has been an above-average guard for much of his NFL tenure, while AJ Cann is coming off a solid 2020 campaign. These two combined to allow 35 pressures in 2020, and both posted great film in the run game. It feels like these two have flown a little under-the-radar (surprising considering Norwell’s contract & Cann’s draft capital) together, but they posted their best seasons with the Jaguars in 2020. With another year under OL coach George Warhop together, their play together could step into that next upper tier of guard duos.
Brandon Linder has been one of my personal favorite centers in the league, and he rarely gets the recognition he deserves. He’s not a top-5 center like a couple of guys on this list, but he’s certainly top-10 in my eyes. Urban Meyer spoke about Linder’s value the other day:
“We’re fortunate to have one of the best centers in the league. He really controls the offense and to have a young quarterback behind him, that’s priceless. I’m not sure you could function without a non-veteran center with a young quarterback.”
The Broncos did not play the Jaguars in 2020, but they did play this group in 2019. The Broncos posted their fourth-highest defensive DVOA, eighth-highest passing defense DVOA, and second-highest rushing defense DVOA of the season against this squad. However, with Trevor Lawrence under center and a new staff, they should figure to be a much tougher battle this season.
7. Baltimore Ravens
Projected Lineup: LT Ronnie Stanley, LG Ben Cleveland*, C Bradley Bozeman, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Alejandro Villanueva
Key depth: Ja’Wuan James, Tyre Phillips, Ben Powers, Patrick Mekari, Ben Bredeson, Adrian Ealy
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 4
Maybe I’m a little too bullish on the Ravens’ offensive line, but in terms of pure physicality, the Broncos will play very few teams that will challenge them the way the Ravens do.
Ronnie Stanley is one of the best left tackles in the NFL (I had him as my LT5 of 2020). He’s coming off of a midseason ankle injury that forced him to miss about the last half of their season, but he should be ready to roll by week 1. Stanley is one of the most technically refined tackles I’ve scouted as a prospect, and that gift has translated into the pros. He doesn’t boast the elite athleticism of some other tackles like Laremy Tunsil or Terron Armstead, but Stanley’s physicality, intelligence, and refinement have helped him make up for some of that. He’ll be a tough battle for any Broncos rusher.
Villanueva is the “weak link” on this offensive line in the sense of pass protection. I’d expect Von Miller to line up pretty frequently over on his side, as Villanueva’s struggles in pass protection could flare up and provide Von with ample enough opportunity to get after Lamar Jackson. Villanueva’s a solid run blocker for the most part, and I think he’ll fit in with the Ravens’ mentality. The Ravens’ offense is pretty OL-friendly, so it’ll be interesting to see just how often the Broncos can attack and take advantage of this on passing downs.
The interior of the Ravens’ offensive line could give the Broncos fits, however. Ben Cleveland is a mountain of a man at 6’6 343 pounds and is a pretty seamless fit for the Ravens’ line. He’s a bully at the point of attack and fits the “dancing bear” stereotype. Kevin Zeitler is a substantial upgrade over the rotation of guards the Ravens used at this spot last year. He’s been playing great football for the last several years, and his experience is only going to help a young interior. Bozeman transitioning over to a more natural fit at center (31 starts at center for Alabama) is a better spot for him than over at guard. Bozeman likely won’t be anything higher than average ceiling-wise, but that can be mitigated.
No team ran more gap runs than Baltimore in 2020. They were one of just two teams that posted a gap run % of over 50 (New York Giants). The Broncos struggled against gap runs in 2020 (Fangio’s pretty odd front heavy, which doesn’t necessarily mesh well against gap), ranking 30th in EPA/rush against gap runs.
6. Los Angeles Chargers
Projected Lineup: LT Rashawn Slater*, LG Matt Feiler, C Corey Linsley, RG Oday Aboushi, RT Bryan Bulaga
Key depth: Brendan Jaimes*, Trey Pipkins, Scott Quessenberry, Storm Norton
Matchup vs Broncos: Weeks 12 & 17
If I felt a little more confident in the depth and health of this unit, I’d put them higher. Unfortunately, I don’t.
I love the unit’s potential though. I did a breakdown of Rashawn Slater at Pro Football Network, where I said this about his game:
“It’s easy to see why Rashawn Slater would be viewed highly. He’s a fantastic 2021 offensive tackle prospect in his own right. Slater’s comfortable making just about every block in the books...Physically, Slater’s footwork stands out. He mirrors edge rushers well and without a hitch. There are very few prospects I’ve scouted who have had as good of footwork as Slater boasts.”
He has all the ability in the world to be a stud left tackle for the Chargers.
Bryan Bulaga’s health has been a pretty obvious concern, especially on the Chargers, who seemingly have the worst injury luck in the NFL. When he’s on the field though, Bulaga is an above-average right tackle. He’s one of the exceptions to the “34-inch arm rule” that the NFL just absolutely loves with offensive tackles. Bulaga’s ability in pass protection should be a boon for Justin Herbert.
Corey Linsley was my fourth-highest graded center in 2020, earning himself an All-Pro nod from the NFL in a stellar season. Him manning the center position and making the necessary checks and calls at the line of scrimmage is a critical trait that will help Justin Herbert’s own development and help keep him upright. Linsley’s an intelligent lineman who allowed just four pressures last season.
The guard duo of Aboushi and Feiler doesn’t boast any elite names, but the two of them are coming off of pretty solid 2020s. Feiler has built his reputation as a versatile lineman, who played extensively at guard and tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His grip strength and intelligence (coached up by Denver’s own Mike Munchak) have led to him being an asset at guard and tackle. I don’t know who managed to piss off Oday Aboushi before games last season but he played with an edge and a half last season and demolished guys. Don’t believe me? Go watch his highlight reel. No, really.
The Broncos will get a double-whammy of this offensive line moving forward. Last season, these two split the series. The Broncos gave up a combined 506 passing yards, 241 rushing yards, and four touchdowns (all scored by Justin Herbert) while posting 4 total sacks. With a revamped unit and Justin Herbert’s mobility, this is going to be a tough unit for the Broncos to stop twice next season.
5. Detroit Lions
Projected Lineup: LT Taylor Decker, LG Jonah Jackson, C Frank Ragnow, RG Tyrell Crosby, RT Penei Sewell*
Key depth: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Matt Nelson, Logan Stenberg, Tommy Kraemer*
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 14
I’m plenty optimistic about the outlook of the Lions’ offensive line and its future. I really debated between Detroit and the Chargers for the 5th spot, and it ultimately came down to the slight edges in Penei Sewell, Detroit having the better OL coach, and my feelings on the depth in Detroit. It was a very, very close battle.
Taylor Decker has been a criminally underrated left tackle for the last several seasons and posted an excellent 2020. Decker only allowed two sacks in 2020, both to the Panthers, and he returned to the play he showed early on in his career. He pops in the run game, his passing sets have been clean and smooth, and he’s an excellent teammate and leader for the team.
Jonah Jackson proved to be a pretty pleasant surprise on film as a rookie. He’s fitting the mold of a “Dan Campbell” offensive lineman in that he’s mean, rugged, and stout at the point of attack. The former third-round pick allowed five sacks on over a thousand snaps (three against the Panthers) and proved to be an excellent mauler in the run game. Dan Campbell raved about Jackson and his devotion.
“I can tell you this, Jonah’s one of the handful of guys who’s been here since basically I got this job, been in this building working like every day,” head coach Dan Campbell said. “I bring that up because I’ve seen him since February, at least seeing him around, know what he’s doing. He’s been down there with (strength and conditioning coach) Josh (Schuler) and those guys working out in the in the weight room. I already know what he’s all about, and I know the work that he’s put in, and I know what his body is able to put out. We’ve had our eyes on him, and he’s a workaholic.”
Vaitai has been penciled in at the right guard spot for the Lions, but it feels like Tyrell Crosby is going to end up challenging for that spot and has a good shot to win it. Halapoulivaati Vaitai is the team’s weakest link and has struggled in pass protection so far in Detroit, and the team is hoping to mitigate that by putting him inside at guard instead of at tackle (hello Dre’Mont Jones). He was a massive risk signing and earned a much larger contract than he probably should have out of Philadelphia. He’s a solid run blocker with his length and power, but that’s all he really is. Crosby outplayed Vaitai last season, and his role as the swing tackle can be replaced by Vaitai or Matt Nelson, who the team is high on.
Frank Ragnow, or as he’s known in Draft Twitter, “Frank the Tank”, turned his excellent college film into a first-round pick (rare as a center) and has quickly become one of the game’s best centers. As a result, Ragnow became the highest-paid center in the NFL this offseason. He graded as my third-best center in 2020 with his elite play strength, physicality, and ascending intelligence that proved to be a boon for QB Matthew Stafford. He’s earning every bit of that money and is a big reason why I’m so high on the Lions' offensive line.
However, the ultimate reason why I’m so high on this unit is the addition of Penei Sewell in the draft. Sewell has all the ability in the world to be a generational tackle, in the sense of Trent Williams, Joe Thomas, and Tyron Smith. That’s how good I think he can be with his ceiling. You just do not see tackles play as advanced as he did as an 18 and 19-year old. Coupled with his ridiculous athleticism, I think it’s a pretty safe bet on him being a downright stud.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Projected Lineup: LT Orlando Brown Jr., LG Joe Thuney, C Creed Humphrey*, RG Trey Smith*, RT Lucas Niang
Key depth: Kyle Long, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Mike Remmers, Austin Blythe
Matchup vs Broncos: Weeks 13 & 18
Give credit to the Chiefs for completely overhauling their offensive line this offseason, and embracing the need for change. Adding in Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, Kyle Long, and Austin Blythe this offseason, while bringing back some familiar veterans in Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Mike Remmers is a sound strategy. Am I overrating this unit? Perhaps. There’s a lot of turnover here and they don’t have the benefit of continuity, but with an excellent coach and a ton of talent, it’s hard to see them not being one of the game’s best by the time they play the Broncos.
Orlando Brown is an awesome mauler in the run game with his excellent tools and size. I don’t think anyone disputes how effective of a run blocker he is and his length. I’m more concerned about his adjustment to an entirely different offensive scheme. While Brown did not allow a sack last season, the Ravens’ offensive scheme is pretty OL-friendly. Defenses have to attack Baltimore differently than how they will the Chiefs. How Orlando Brown handles a more traditional LT style will determine this unit’s ceiling.
The Chiefs boast an incredibly physical guard duo. I’m predicting Smith to earn the right guard job by the time the Broncos play them. If he’s healthy, Smith is an incredibly talented player with his tools. Smith has been running with the 1s in camp, and with Kansas City’s shift towards more gap runs, Smith seems like an obvious fit. He’ll need growth in his fundamentals (footwork, hand placement, acuity), but with a lot of veterans in the room with him and a great OL coach, it’s a favorable projection.
Obviously, Joe Thuney has been one of the game’s best guards the last couple of seasons. In my film study of him, it was pretty obvious Thuney excelled better in gap runs with his toughness and play strength. His signing to be the highest-paid guard is another pretty obvious indicator of the Chiefs shifting their run scheme. I’ll be interested to see if Shelby Harris or Dre’Mont Jones tackles Thuney more often. I feel like Jones’s ability as a pass-rusher can challenge Thuney’s weaknesses in pass protection, but Shelby is a little better at taking on double-teams and block deconstruction in the run game.
There are a lot of reasons to think Mike Remmers is the starting right tackle for the Chiefs, and he’ll likely earn the nod to start the season. Just knowing what we know about Niang’s ability and judging off his camp so far, it’s hard to foresee Remmers being able to keep him off the field. Andy Reid had plenty of kind words to say about Niang:
“He came back in great shape, and that has paid off for him,” coach Andy Reid said. “He’s battling like crazy going against good players on our defensive front. He’s getting good looks and he’s holding his own. I appreciate his effort, and he’s getting better every day. Those two things with a young player, I’ll take.”
Lucas Niang was a tackle prospect that I thought had first-round caliber tape at right tackle before a hip injury dinged his tape in his final season. Phenom pass rusher Chase Young said Lucas Niang was the toughest player he lined up against in college. Niang lined up against both Young and Nick Bosa in college and handled himself well. Considering those two are already elite NFL edge rushers, I like his chances of being able to handle himself in the NFL if he’s healthy.
There aren’t enough words in the lexicon to describe how much of a steal Creed Humphrey was for the Chiefs at the end of the second round. I’ve been told that Humphrey was the smartest guy on the field for Oklahoma every season. His blend of intelligence, play strength, athleticism, and technique made him an excellent center prospect, one that can come in right away and handle a starting job.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Projected Lineup: LT Jordan Mailata, LG Isaac Seumalo, C Jason Kelce, RG Brandon Brooks, RT Lane Johnson
Key depth: Andre Dillard, Landon Dickerson*, Jack Driscoll, Nate Herbig
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 10
The Eagles’ offensive line got an undeserving amount of flak for last season’s debacles. Neither quarterback in Philly was adept at making reads quick enough to get the ball out on time and both were largely oblivious to pressure. Holding the ball for some 6-7+ seconds long consistently creates a ton of pressure (PFF found that Wentz posted the highest number of sacks over expectation in 2020; ESPN found that 33 of his sacks were caused by him holding the ball for 4+ seconds). Any offensive line would struggle with that.
Jordan Mailata was a pleasant surprise on 2020 film, and he’s pretty thoroughly outplayed and outmuscled Andre Dillard out of a starting gig. He put together some, quite frankly, excellent film against some challenging defensive fronts (Pittsburgh, San Fran, Arizona, Green Bay, New Orleans, etc). The former rugby star is a physically imposing player (reportedly at camp at 380-390 pounds and in excellent shape), and that physicality pops on film in the run and pass game. He still lost some reps (Cam Heyward gave him some fits), but the improvement we’ve seen from him to turn into a legit NFL left tackle in around three seasons is ridiculously impressive. The sky’s the limit with his potential.
There’s a good shot that Landon Dickerson could take over the left guard role from Seumalo, and in terms of overall talent, I would call that a safe bet. However, I don’t know the plan for his rehab and deployment. He could be viewed as the replacement for Jason Kelce the following season at center and they’ll let him rest and rehab for this coming season. I’m not quite sure yet so I held off on putting him in the starting lineup.
Seumalo’s been a solid and reliable player for much of his career, and I thought his 2020 was much the same. He isn’t a superstar like Brandon Brooks or an ascending talent like Mailata, but he’s an important piece with guard-center versatility. His quickness, play strength, and hand placement help glue a lot of run concepts together for the backs in Philly.
What more can we say about Jason Kelce? He’s impossible to dislike with his personality. He’s 33 years old, but the ironman played 1,124 snaps for the Eagles in 2020 (99.6%). While he isn’t quite at his peak abilities anymore, his intelligence and quickness are still there. Kelce creates several advantages for the Eagles’ offensive line as a result. There aren’t many centers who are better on the move like Kelce is, and his craftiness is a boon in the interior.
Brandon Brooks did not play in 2020 due to an Achilles injury. If he returns to form, the Broncos will have to go up against an elite right guard in the NFL. That will be a tough ask for any of their defensive lineman, as they struggled against elite interior lines in 2020. Brooks is simply overwhelming at the point of attack with his brutish strength and hand usage.
I absolutely love Lane Johnson. He’s an elite, top-flight athlete who just simply thrives on an island. If it wasn’t for injuries somewhat diminishing his career, I’d say he’s a safe bet to be the best right tackle in the league in 2021. He just doesn’t do anything wrong and knows how to use his athletic gifts to his advantage. Even on the rare times he gets beat, Lane’s recovery skills with his tools are things that very, very few linemen can do.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Projected Lineup: LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams, C Tyler Biadasz, RG Zack Martin, RT La’el Collins
Key depth: Connor McGovern, Ty Nsekhe, Josh Ball*, Terrence Steele
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 9
The only thing stopping the Cowboys’ offensive line from being number one on this list for me is health. Tyron Smith has been dealing with nagging injuries, La’el Collins missed all of 2020 for a variety of reasons, and even the perennial stud Zack Martin fell ill to the Cowboys’ injury bug of 2020.
Make no mistake, 90% of Tyron Smith is still better than just about 95% of left tackles in the NFL. That’s why I threw him into the generational tier earlier. There’s a great case to make that he’ll end up in the Hall of Fame. The most mind-boggling thing is Tyron Smith won’t even turn 31 till December, after being drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft. His length and outstanding athletic ability give him the ability to just do things that no other lineman can really do. La’el Collins is another excellent tackle in his own right with his physicality and tools. I’ve been a fan of his since pre-draft, and his skill at right tackle has grown every season. I firmly believe he would have gotten up into a tier-1 right tackle in 2020 if he was healthy. The two of them at their peak give the Cowboys arguably the best tackle duo in the NFL. This will be a tough matchup for Von, Chubb, and Reed.
The interior isn’t quite as elite as the tackles are, but any time you have to play Zack Martin, things change. Martin is the best offensive lineman in the NFL. Yes. You read that right. I do not believe the Broncos have a lineman capable of winning one-on-one here. Dallas is going to run through the right side pretty heavily.
Connor Williams and Tyler Biadasz are a couple of young, ascending players. Williams played fairly well in 2020 and was their most reliable lineman. Playing over a thousand snaps and nearly accounting for 100% of snaps, Williams developed into a solid option at guard for the team. His ability to sustain blocks and drive has gotten better since his college days at Texas, and he already had great athletic tools. Biadasz was a draft crush for many, and he played pretty well for a fourth-round rookie coming off of injury. His play strength needs to improve and he has some steps to take in pass protection, but it sounds like he’s getting better and improving:
“He’s grown quick, ever since his first year he came here,” left tackle Tyron Smith said. “Very high energy, and we love it. He’s taken the role of being the center. …You would think the kid has played for four years.”
The Cowboys are a pretty heavy zone-run team, which is a point in favor of the Broncos, as they were better defending zone runs last season (19th in EPA/Play allowed vs zone runs). Still, this unit will be protecting an elite offense. The Broncos have to bring their A+ game for this one.
1. Cleveland Browns
Projected Lineup: LT Jedrick Wills, LG Joel Bitonio, C JC Tretter, RG Wyatt Teller, RT Jack Conklin
Key depth: Chris Hubbard, James Hudson*, Nick Harris, Michael Dunn, Blake Hance
Matchup vs Broncos: Week 7
What more can I say about the Browns’ offensive line? Their starting five is excellent. They have some talented depth players in Chris Hubbard, Nick Harris, James Hudson, Michael Dunn, and Blake Hance. To top it all off, they’re coached by one of the few OL coaches who can challenge Mike Munchak as the NFL’s best offensive line coach in Bill Callahan. I tweeted this out the other day as a quick glimpse to how talented this unit is:
You don't really grasp the sense of how good the Browns' OL is until you realize that Blake Hance held his own against one of the best DLs in the NFL in his first-ever start and he might not make the Browns' final 53.— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) August 3, 2021
Jedrick Wills posted elite film as a prospect coming out of Alabama, playing himself into the tenth-overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Wills played at a very high level, despite transitioning over from right to left tackle. Reportedly, Wills was working with Joe Thomas to get ready for that transition. His hand placement and footwork was awesome for a guy converting over (it can be a little messy transitioning from side to side). There’s no reason to think his play won’t get even better moving forward.
Jack Conklin on the other side is a tackle is...an interesting evaluation. Of all the right tackles of these top five teams, Conklin is the one I’d trust on an island in pass protection the least. He’s a great run blocker with his play strength, use of hands, and physicality but his lower half limits his ability to truly hold up on an island in pass protection. Quicker pass rushers can get the better of him, so expect Von to be all over him on third downs. He’s a solid player that you can win with but I feel like he’s the weakest link on the team. He was named an All-Pro (First-Team!) but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody who studies OL that would say he outplayed several other names there.
JC Tretter isn’t necessarily a top-flight elite center in the sense of a Frank Ragnow or Ryan Kelly, but much like Jason Kelce, he’s the glue in the middle of the Browns’ offensive line and is still very, very good. He’s such a crafty blocker and incredibly smart. Watching him put on a clinic in the playoff game against the Steelers was a nice treat. I’m not sure his long-term outlook (over 30), but his presence is a big reason why I’m so high on the Browns’ outlook on their front. He’s incredibly durable, having played 100% of snaps now for four straight seasons in Cleveland.
Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller take the cake for the best guard duo in the NFL, in my opinion. These two are the embodiment of dominance together. The Broncos’ front will be in for a tough ask trying to handle these two, and that’s before they have to tackle Nick Chubb or Kareem Hunt. Teller was right up there with the best guards in the NFL this season with his ridiculous physical profile and bully-ball mentality. Joel Bitonio is much the same, only he’s done it for much longer. Much like Tretter, Bitonio has now played four consecutive seasons of 100% of snaps. He’s physically gifted like Tretter, but Bitonio’s technique and acuity playing the game have taken those gifts to a very high level. He’s one of the best guards in the NFL across the board, and one of my favorite tape studies. Bitonio has become a leader of that Browns’ offense, and his presence is so valuable to Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb.