Eagles, Rams, Saints among O-line of the Year nominees


After examining the offensive line performances of all 32 NFL teams from the regular season, NFL Network analyst and former Pro Bowl center Shaun O'Hara has selected his five nominees for the Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Year. The winner will be revealed during NFL Honors on Feb. 3 in Minneapolis, which will air on NBC at 9 p.m. ET and PT.

The top five nominees, in alphabetical order, are ...

Los Angeles Rams

Who knew one of the league's biggest free-agent pickups would have been Andrew Whitworth? Solidifying the pocket and giving second-year quarterback Jared Goff the confidence to stand and deliver resulted in the Rams fielding a very dangerous and explosive offense that ranked first in the league in scoring (29.9 points per game), thanks to a lot of big play-action passes. This offensive line, which gave up just 19 sacks on the season (per Pro Football Focus), was much more physical, and running back Todd Gurley was more explosive as a result. The unit eliminated the negative runs from a year ago and finished with 17 rushing TDs in 2017. Equal credit should be dished to the O-line and Gurley, who led the team in rushing yards (1,305) and receptions (64) and became a legitimate candidate for MVP behind a much improved and consistent O-line.

Whitworth provided good protection and consistency at left tackle to go along with his athletic ability and blocking in space -- he allowed just six sacks and four hits in nearly 1,000 snaps (including playoffs), per PFF. Whitworth also brought out the best in left guard Rodger Saffold; those two really anchored the O-line play this year. Saffold had one of his best seasons and especially stood out in the run game (not just on defensive linemen, but he was great at getting after linebackers and safeties, as well). He was the fourth-best run-blocker among all guards, per PFF, and only allowed one sack and four QB hits. Center John Sullivan had a solid season and allowed just one sack on the season (including playoffs), while right guard Jamon Brown and right tackle Rob Havenstein quietly had good campaigns. Remarkably, the Rams averaged 6.5 yards per rush between Saffold and Sullivan -- and yet, the only Rams lineman named to the Pro Bowl this season was Whitworth.

New Orleans Saints

Like death and taxes, it was a certainty that Drew Brees would throw for at least 4,000 yards in 2017. But the Saints' offense was much more balanced this year than in previous years, thanks to a physical and explosive rushing attack. The offensive line did a great job protecting Brees and took over games at the line of scrimmage. That ability was on display on the road against Buffalo in Week 10, when the unit helped the Saints' running backs -- led by rookie Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram -- rush for nearly 300 yards. The Saints' offense was nearly unstoppable for the remainder of the season after that dominating performance, which won them the Offensive Line of the Week award.

Looking at the duo, Karama and Ingram averaged 5 yards per carry when facing eight or more defenders in the box, per Pro Football Focus. That's a huge credit to the O-line, tight ends, receivers and running backs. The Saints rushed for more than 2,000 yards this season and led the league with 23 rushing TDs. The explosiveness of this pair was second to none.

One of the most remarkable parts of the offensive line's performance was its pass protection. Brees was under pressure on 22.6 percent of his dropbacks this season, the lowest percentage of any QB, according to PFF. The unit did this with a rookie right tackle in Ryan Ramczyk. (Linemen don't get nominated for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but Ramczyk should be in the conversation, at the very least.) Tackle is one of the toughest positions to transition to as a rookie, because the speed and skill of the rushers is unlike anything you experience at the collegiate level, but Ramczyk only allowed three sacks all season and never hit the rookie plateau. In his final eight games, including playoffs, Ramczyk didn't give up a sack and allowed just one QB hit. Lastly, he played every single offensive snap. Quite an impact for the first-year right tackle, who was PFF's fourth-best tackle in the league.

Moving down the line, Andrus Peat was Mr. Versatility for the Saints, as he constantly shifted between left guard and tackle. While he allowed four sacks and six QB hits this season, he became a run-blocking force; he and center Max Unger have become very physical with their combo blocks (just ask Buffalo). Peat, unfortunately, suffered a broken fibula in the playoffs, but his performance up to that point bodes well for the Saints when he returns. Unger was steady as usual and does a great job making sure his fellow linemen know what's going on at the line of scrimmage. Right guard Larry Warford was a good free-agent pickup and excelled in pass protection all season, giving up just two sacks and six QB hits. Left tackle Terron Armstead fought old and new injuries throughout the 2017 season, making 10 regular-season starts and allowing four sacks and four QB hits. That's a solid season, considering he wasn't at full health. Rounding out the group was sixth man Senio Kelemete. He played several different positions throughout the season and provided extra beef when needed, filling in for Peat in the Divisional Round loss to the Vikings. In 18 games and nine starts (including the playoffs), he only allowed one sack.

Philadelphia Eagles

What an unbelievable year for the Eagles' offensive line. Despite losing quarterback Carson Wentz in Week 14 and tackle Jason Peters in Week 7 to season-ending knee injuries, Philadelphia finished third in scoring, third in rushing, fifth in plays of at least 20 yards and first in red-zone offense. In Year 2 of the Wentz and Doug Pederson era, the Eagles exploded on offense, thanks to a vertical passing game and the emergence of tight end Zach Ertz as a legitimate pass catcher. Camouflaged in the pass plays was the exotic and efficient run game. LeGarrette Blount got some added reinforcement when Jay Ajayi joined the team via trade in October, giving the Eagles a stellar one-two punch that has allowed them to close out games.

In another Pro Bowl-caliber season, Peters only allowed one sack and no QB hits in 423 snaps before he was injured. Peters' replacement, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, struggled early on but has really played well since Week 16, having not allowed a single sack over his last four games (including playoffs). With Peters out, the strength of the O-line came from center Jason Kelce, right guard Brandon Brooks and right tackle Lane Johnson. Brooks became the fourth guard in the last 10 years to not allow a single sack in a season. Kelce's had one of his best seasons and is PFF's highest-graded run-blocker of any lineman in the league. He hardly missed a snap all season and is great in getting to the second level, as well as in screens and blocking in space. Johnson is extremely athletic and certainly one of the best pass blockers in the NFL. PFF labeled him as the fifth-best pass-blocking tackle this season after he allowed just three sacks and four QB hits in the regular season. Finally, Stefen Wisniewski really solidified the O-line after being inserted as the full-time starter at left guard in Week 3. One of their more consistent players, Wisniewski was fantastic on screens and out in space vs. linebackers; he only gave up one sack all season and committed one penalty.

This is the most versatile and athletic group, as the unit runs so many different schemes and attacks defensive lines in several ways. The Eagles are able to be exotic in the run game because of great combo blocking, athleticism and chemistry.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh started slowly but got on track, finishing with the third-ranked offense at season's end, thanks in part to what was one of the best offensive lines in the second half of the year. This unit was so physical up front and showed a lot of depth when dealing with some adversity.

The Steelers ranked 20th in rushing offense, which was somewhat perplexing, considering they have one of the best backs in the biz (Le'Veon Bell). The offense shifted into a pass-first approach -- reflected in the Steelers' total of 12 rushing TDs -- and the O-line played well alongside the trend. The line allowed just 14 sacks in the regular season, and Ben Roethlisberger was under pressure on just 27.5 percent of his dropbacks.

Right guard David DeCastro was PFF's second highest-graded guard overall in the regular season after not allowing a sack this year; he has become one of the best pulling guards in the NFL. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert was in and out of the lineup but played well, giving up one sack and a QB hit in eight games (including playoffs). Maurkice Pouncey provided some good knowledge and is a difference-maker when healthy. The six-time Pro Bowler allowed just one sack, while left guard Ramon Foster gave up two sacks, five hits and did not commit a penalty in 2017. The Steelers gave left tackle Alejandro Villanueva a new contract in July, and after relinquishing five sacks in the first six games, he settled in and only gave up two sacks in the final 11 contests (playoffs included). Chris Hubbard played all over the place and held his own, and B.J. Finney was stellar, as he didn't give up a single sack or QB hit in 235 snaps.

Offensive line coach Mike Munchak deserves a ton of credit for what this group did this year. The Steelers' technique is consistent and a big factor in how the unit has become one of the better combo-blocking O-lines in the league.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans have had one of the best pass-blocking O-lines in the past two seasons, but statistically this year, they were very average offensively, ranking 23rd overall, 23rd in passing yards and 15th in rushing yards. I was surprised they didn't run the ball more this year, given that they have a two-headed monster at running back (DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry). It didn't seem to bother the offensive line, though, as the Titans only gave up 14 sacks and a total of 126 pressures when throwing the ball. The unit was the best at passing off stunts this season, allowing some of the lowest pressure percentages against stunts and twists.

Jack Conklin struggled in the first half of the season, but he returned to his rookie form in the final eight games and allowed no sacks and one QB hit in that span before suffering a torn ACL in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. One of the most athletic tackles in the league, left tackle Taylor Lewan gave up six sacks and six QB hits. He did reduce his penalty count but allowed more sacks this year as a result. Quietly, guards Josh Kline and Quinton Spain became the strength of this unit as they gave up a combined six sacks and were great in the run game. Lastly, center Ben Jones had one of his better seasons, allowing three sacks and two hits.

Follow Shaun O'Hara on Twitter @ShaunOHara60.



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