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NFC North Roster Comparisons: Offensive Lines

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The Bears have shuffled around their offensive line again, but how does it stack up against the rest of their division?

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Fan takes on offensive lines are curious things. There seem to be two kinds of fans in football--the first is the group of fans who believe their favorite team is always amazing at everything, and therefore their offensive line is really good. These are the people who insist that the backup long snapper their team just picked up as a UDFA is much, much better than the backup long snapper veteran your team just signed. These are the kind of fans who can look at a game in which their favorite team manages a single yard per rushing attempt and think “but we drafted a guard in the 6th, so everything is fine now.”

The second type of fan is never satisfied with their team’s offensive line. Ever. All-Pro right tackle with two Pro Bowlers on the left? They are getting old and the team needs more depth, and don’t get this fan started on the center’s failings, because there was a bumbled snap four seasons ago.

It’s safe to say that this inconsistency spills over into actual analysis, too, with different experts grading the same play very differently. Because it’s tough to know what a player’s actual assignment was, retrospectives like this are largely guesswork. Except for on this site. This site has lots of regular, quality analysis of offensive lines. If you want depth on Xs and Os, I refer you to Lester’s work, which is the only football reading I ever actually schedule my own day around.

With that out of the way, this piece finishes the offensive position groups in this series. To review, the Bears came in third at quarterback, second at running back, third at tight end, and last in wide receivers.

1). Chicago

The Bears had two members of their offensive line go to the Pro Bowl (Cody Whitehair and Charles Leno). They also still have the services of James Daniels and whatever remains of Kyle Long. In other words, there is talent up front for Chicago.

Honestly, it’s going to be really hard to separate what was going on up front with what was going on with Trubisky and the running backs, but having an adjusted sack rate of 6% (good for 7th in the NFL) to me seems to be influenced by three parts--two good and one bad. For the good, there’s the quality of the line and Trubisky’s mobility. For the bad, we have to acknowledge Trubisky’s struggles as a developing quarterback. In short, Football Outsiders places this line first in the division in the pass protection category, and that’s probably fair once the dust settles.

Meanwhile, the Bears had the 28th-best adjusted line yards in the NFL, and while other numbers (like stuffed percentage) are a little better, this is not a strength of the team. From what I watched unfold, though, that was at least in part a side-effect of the way Jordan Howard did not fit into the offensive scheme, and also in part because of the way the interior of the line needed to gel.

On that note, James Daniels has been moved from guard to center, and I think that will turn out to be his natural position. Meanwhile, the return of Ted Larsen is not going to see this unit improve dramatically. Ultimately, this will be a season to see if the run game struggled because of the playcalling, because of the talent at running back, or because of the line. I’m betting it’s a little of all three.

Because of all of these qualifiers, I am fully prepared to admit that this ranking might be high. However, I can point to actual talent at four positions on this line, and Massie is not that weak of a link on the right. That suggests that the Bears have greater strength up and down the line than their divisional foes.

2). Green Bay

I don’t know how much of a difference the addition of second-round center Elgton Jenkins is going to make, but it probably is not going to dramatically reshape things. For Packers fans, that is probably a mixed blessing.

The Packers supposedly had the 7th-best adjusted line yards in the NFL in 2018, with a relatively low “stuffed” rate (18.1%) and the 2nd-best “2nd-level yards” around. Football Outsiders suggests that the reason for the disparity between 2nd-level yards and open field yards can be assigned to the line opening holes with the running backs failing to take full advantage. I’ve already made it clear that I do credit the Green Bay running backs with playing well, so it’s possible that their line deserves a bit more credit than I am giving them here, at least in terms of run-blocking.

Their pass-protection, however, is a different matter. They gave up an adjusted sack rate near 8%, and while some of that is probably the fault of Rodgers’ playing style, and some of it is also at least partially the fault of DeShone Kizer, some of it needs to be owned by the line itself. David Bakhtiari is coming off a season as a 1st Team All-Pro, but the rest of the line does not impress me, and they also have struggled to get consistent results.

In short, I think this is a unit that plays well based on what it is asked to do, but it’s not wrong to say that they are a single injury away from being less than mediocre. If someone wanted to suggest that they should be ranked more highly, I would have to point to the sack rate. Meanwhile, I have trouble moving them much lower as long as they are opening holes for their running backs and as long as Bakhtari is there..

3). Minnesota

The Vikings line in 2018 was bad. Statistically, Football Outsiders reports that they actually had the 9th-best pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL (with a 6.1% adjusted sack rate). However, when played out live, it was “does someone we don’t know about have a life insurance policy on Kirk Cousins?” bad. The line also sold out the run game entirely, and it showed in having one of the worst stuffed rates in the league.

Their front office recognized that and invested heavily in turning things around. Let’s start with first-round draft pick Garrett Bradbury. Bradbury is an excellent interior line prospect, and he shows the flaws in the conventional wisdom that among offensive linemen, only tackles are worth first-round picks. Now, that’s not to compare him to a player like Quenton Nelson, but he really has the potential to be an 8-year investment in an O-line. He should improve Minnesota’s offense almost immediately.

Next up, they drafted Dru Samia, who carried a 4th-round grade from multiple sources and was drafted in the third round. That’s not a huge overdraft, but it does add an extra bit of hesitation to accompany the dangers of putting multiple picks into the offensive line in the same draft. It will be interesting to see if Samia is developed slowly or thrown right into starting, but there is a chance to have a very “raw” offensive line for the first half-season (at least) while the pieces settle in place. Raw can also be applied to big Olisaemeka Udoh, the tackle the Vikings took in the 6th round. He’s got power, and…that’s what I’ve got on him.

Oh, and the Vikings also signed Josh Kline for a little over $5million a year. Meanwhile, they still have Pat Elflein and Danny Isidora, who they drafted in the third and fifth round in 2017. They also still have Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill. That basically means that they reinvented the interior of their line almost completely while retaining their tackles.

All told, I am going to give the Vikings third place, because I am assuming that at least some of the investment pays off. Combine that with the potential they showed when they were “on” last year, and they at least move ahead of Detroit. If this seems like too much speculation, feel free to remove them from the rankings entirely until we know how things settle down.

4). Detroit

Football Outsiders considered the 2018 Lions to have the 12th best offensive line in terms of pass protection (with a 6.3% adjusted sack rate), but that’s actually only the third-best in the NFC North. They also allowed a stuff rate at almost 22% (27th in the NFL). Overall, the line was rated as the 20th-best in the NFL in terms of overall run-blocking effectiveness. That...doesn’t sound wrong. It’s also a significant improvement over the same rankings in 2017.

The Lions added veteran Oday Aboushi to their roster, but when I have to lead with a 6th-year veteran who has 32 starts in his career, it’s safe to say that they have not significantly added their offensive line. However, they do have a change going on that will sound familiar to Bears fans. Last season, they had a highly touted center that they drafted high, then installed as a guard. They are now moving him back to center. I liked Ragnow as a prospect last year, almost as much as I liked Daniels, and he should do well there.

Decker and Wagner in the tackle positions are serviceable, but Decker proves that drafting a tackle high just because he’s a tackle doesn’t actually mean he’s going to be a world-beater. Regardless of whether Glasgow and Wiggins are the starting guards or if Aboushi replaces one of them, Joe Dahl will provide some decent depth across the line.

In all, the Lions look like they will have a serviceable line that should prioritize giving Stafford at least some protection while presumably working on improvement in the run game.

From top to bottom, though, I would not be surprised if all four offensive lines ended up in the top half of the league in this upcoming season. The biggest question mark is Minnesota, which might need at least a year to come together.

Next up, it’s time to move to the defense.