Saints, Bills, Rams among NFL's 10 best offensive line units


The offensive line remains one of the most difficult aspects of football to evaluate. So much of what makes a blocking unit great is immeasurable, including chemistry, familiarity and cohesion. Even some of the most astute film-watching analysts would admit that they aren't always sure what to look for when tracking an individual lineman's success or failure.

Using the unique Next Gen Stats tracking data provided by the microchips in every player's shoulder pads, we're looking to take another step in evaluating the performance of the offensive line. The rankings for this list were created using a 1-32 listing of both pressures allowed (pass blocking) and average rushing yards gained before close (run blocking) for every team. The rankings were then finalized with the lowest composite score coming out ahead.

NOTES: Next Gen Stats defines a "pressure" as a pass-rushing play in which a defender gets within 2 yards of the opposing quarterback at the time of the throw or sack. Other outlets collect pressures using different methods, and these have value. What is and is not a pressure will always carry some level of debate, but NGS provides us a unique advantage in that the numbers rely not on the subjective eye test, but rather on objective results that are consistent across all plays.

"Yards gained before close" (YGBC) measures the amount of rushing yards a running back gains before opposing defenders come within 1 yard of the player. In addition to making sense intuitively, this metric correlates with other measures of run blocking success. The league average is 0.29 YGBC.




Pressures allowed: 137 (first). Average YGBC: 0.87 (first).

Score: 2.

The Saints led the NFL in yards per carry, as both of their outstanding running backs, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, took the league by storm. As is always the case, the backs got the credit, with both Ingram and Kamara making the initial Pro Bowl roster, while not a single offensive lineman got an initial nod. That was a miss by the voting collective. The Next Gen Stats data helps show that the front five was dominant. Saints running backs gained an average of 0.87 yards before defenders closed within 1 yard of them in 2017. New Orleans led the NFL in that category by a decent gap, with the second-place team (Buffalo Bills) checking in at 0.69. Additionally, the Saints gave up the fewest (137) total quarterback pressures this season, showing out as dominant producers in both phases of the game.




Pressures allowed: 161 (seventh). Average YGBC: 0.69 (second).

Score: 9.

The Bills maintained a top-flight rushing offense despite LeSean McCoy turning in a career-low yards-per-carry mark (4.0). While he wasn't as elusive as in years past, the offensive line carried more of the weight this season. Bills running backs gained 0.69 yards on average before opposing defenders got within 1 yard of them this season, trailing only the Saints. The blocking unit also gave up just 161 pressures on the year, largely keeping their quarterback clean. Buffalo will enter 2018 without the services of their longtime pivot-man Eric Wood, as the center's nine-year career was cut short due to a neck injury.




Pressures allowed: 166 (eighth). Average YGBC: 0.65 (third).

Score: 11.

It's a familiar refrain league-wide, but the offensive line didn't get quite enough credit for the Los Angeles Rams' turnaround. Sean McVay's influence, Todd Gurley's revival and Jared Goff's progression were storylines throughout the 2017 season, but we didn't hear about how the Rams' offensive line turned into a strength. Back in 2016, the constantly stuffed Gurley averaged -0.1 yards before a defender closed within a yard of him, well below the 0.29 league average. The 2017 version of the Rams' run blocking afforded backs 0.65 average yards before close, ranking third in the league. Los Angeles was also a top-flight pass-blocking line, as well. The addition of veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth paid dividends across the entire front line, stabilizing not only the blindside (where he operated) but making life easier for the players already in place.




Pressures allowed: 158 (sixth). Average YGBC: 0.47 (eighth).

Score: 14.

The Ravens' offense wasn't a consistently threatening unit this past season, but that wasn't due to poor play across the front line. Despite losing one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL in Marshal Yanda (ankle) early on, Baltimore was still a top-12 rushing offense and was one of nine teams to allow fewer than 30 sacks on the year. The team's proficiency as run blockers despite missing Yanda for the majority of the season was especially impressive. Baltimore's running backs gained an average of 0.47 yards before defenders closed within 1 yard in 2017, ranking eighth. The great work by the offensive line helped spring Seahawks castoff Alex Collins to a near 1,000-yard campaign after getting an early-season promotion from the Ravens' practice squad.




Pressures allowed: 154 (fifth). Average YGBC: 0.3 (14th).

Score: 19.

The Rams weren't the only team in Los Angeles to successfully revamp its offensive line, as the Chargers significantly improved as a pass-protecting unit in 2017. In 2016, Philip Rivers led the NFL with 21 interceptions and was under duress most of the year. The Chargers gave up a pressure on 29.8 percent of their plays two seasons ago, the 10th-highest rate in the league. That changed swiftly in Anthony Lynn's first year as head coach, with Los Angeles allowing the fifth-fewest pressures in 2017 and a league-low 18 sacks. The arrival of veteran left tackle Russell Okung in free agency proved to be a difference-making move for the Chargers' front-five.




Pressures allowed: 193 (14th). Average YGBC: 0.53 (sixth).

Score: 20.

Case Keenum told NFL Network's Deion Sanders that operating the Vikings' offense was like being "handed the keys to a Lamborghini" after a late-season win. He wasn't just boasting about his enviable collection of pass-catching brethren. The Vikings brought in several mid-tier free agents last offseason, and the offensive line gelled as a result, especially in the run game. Consider that in 2016, Minnesota backs gained an average of zero yards before defenders closed within a yard, ranking dead last that season. In 2017, the figure jumped all the way up to 0.53 and into the top six. With the line opening up holes in the run game, the Vikings were able to overcome the early-season loss of rookie Dalvin Cook and ride Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon to keep their ground attack afloat.




Pressures allowed: 148 (fourth). Average YGBC: 0.23 (17th).

Score: 21.

The Raiders entered the 2017 season with an offensive line that was mentioned right along with the Cowboys' as one of the best in the league. Oakland's line took a small step back overall, but only in one sector of the game. Marshawn Lynch's addition signaled that the Raiders wanted to be more of a power run-based team, yet the run blocking fell off, as the Raiders' backs gained an average of 0.23 yards before defenders closed within 1 yard of them, hovering right below the league average. The line was still excellent in pass protection, however, giving up just 148 pressures on the year. Oakland still has several top-flight interior players in Gabe Jackson, Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson in place as the offense looks to rebound in 2018.




Pressures allowed: 180 (10th). Average YGBC: 0.35 (11th).

Score: 21.

The Steelers' offensive prowess starts up front, as both their run- and pass-blocking units were among the 11 best groups in the NFL. The excellent trio of Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro has played together for the better part of three years, and the chemistry shows. The group deserves a wealth of credit for adapting its blocking to fit the unique running style of Le'Veon Bell. The All-Pro back's world-renowned patience makes him more challenging to block for than most, but Pittsburgh's group executes the assignment to perfection. The Steelers' O-line also does its part to keep Ben Roethlisberger clean, as the Pro Bowl passer was under pressure on just 21.7 percent of his dropbacks.




Pressures allowed: 188 (12th). Average YGBC: 0.42 (ninth).

Score: 21.

The Falcons have done magnificent work to retool their offensive line over the last two offseasons, most notably with the addition of Alex Mack at center. Both Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman found running behind Mack to be a fruitful venture. The Falcons totaled 481 yards and six touchdowns (sixth-highest this year) on runs up the middle. Atlanta also provided excellent protection for Matt Ryan, allowing just 188 pressures in 2017. Health played a huge factor in the team's offensive line success, as only one member of the front five failed to play 16 games.




Pressures allowed: 190 (13th). Average YGBC: 0.32 (13th).

Score: 26.

The Jaguars slide into the final spot inside the top-10 thanks to overall solid play in both the run-blocking and pass-protection departments. The Jaguars ranked 13th in both average rushing yards gained before defenders closed within a yard of their backs and pressures allowed. The addition of Leonard Fournette was key to hammering home the identity makeover Tom Coughlin and Co. wanted in the offseason. However, strong play from the offensive line can't be discounted. Jacksonville giving its backs an average of 0.32 yards before defenders closed within 1 yard helped keep the run game productive even when the prized rookie missed time. While Fournette stole the headlines, the team's selection of left tackle Cam Robinson in the second round proved just as impactful.


» I was more than a little surprised when the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles checked in outside the top 20 offensive lines in both Next Gen Stats measurements. The unit features stars like Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson, along with the underrated Brandon Brooks. It was the top-ranked unit by Pro Football Focus and named Offensive Line of the Year at NFL Honors. The team did give up more pressure than most noticed in the first few months of the season, which made Carson Wentz's excellence at escaping broken pockets and shaking off rushers all the more impressive. Additionally, subbing in Halapoulivaati Vaitai at left tackle for an injured Jason Peters did prove to be a significant downgrade. The Eagles gave up 129 pressures from the left side of their offensive line, the third-most among any team in 2017.

» The Dallas Cowboys' offensive line reached fabled levels of greatness during the 2016 season, lifting then-rookie runner Ezekiel Elliott to the NFL's rushing title. Yet, after offseason personnel losses at right tackle and left guard, the 2017 version of the Cowboys' front five came into the season with far more questions than the previous year's dominance would suggest. As the year wore on and the news cycle hammered the storylines of Elliott's suspension and Dak Prescott's sophomore slump, it appears the NFL world at large forgot to notice that the unit that once anchored this team was no longer a true trump card. The Cowboys allowed a pressure on 28.6 percent of Prescott's dropbacks, the 12th-highest rate in the league. They took an even steeper decline as run blockers. Elliott averaged a whopping 0.6 yards before defenders closed within a yard of him in 2016, more than doubling up the league average. However, Cowboys running backs averaged just 0.2 YGBC in 2017, ranking 20th on the year. When you realize that Dallas received high-level play over a full 16 games from just two players (center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin) after a year in which the whole starting five fired on all cylinders, their offensive issues become far less surprising.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.



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