Behind the O Line: Best linemen of 2018 season


Take a deep breath. We've reached Pro Bowl week.

The NFL's best stars who aren't playing in Super Bowl LIII or haven't decided to sit out the game are down in Orlando, Fla., preparing to play in the league's annual showcase Jan. 27.

Since we're taking the week to honor the league's best, why not do the same for Behind the O Line? These guys don't get enough love, anyways.

Let's go Behind the O Line to name the NFL's best from 2018.

Best Line: Los Angeles Rams

There are a few other very strong candidates for this honor: Indianapolis, New Orleans, New England. But the best group remains the one that posted the best combination of run and pass blocking, the Rams, who finished first in run blocking (77.2, per Pro Football Focus) and fifth in pass blocking (83.1, per PFF).

Los Angeles cleared the way for Todd Gurley to rush for 1,251 yards, in part because its offense presented such a passing threat, Gurley faced stacked boxes (eight-plus defenders) on just 8.2 percent of his rushes, per Next Gen Stats. No other running back with at least 100 carries faced a stacked box on less than 10 percent of his rushes. That also speaks to how well Los Angeles protected Jared Goff, who spent plenty of his time running play-action and did it well. Only three other teams pass blocked better with more passes attempted: Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. And none matched the effective run blocking of the Rams.

Los Angeles allowed just 33 sacks in 2018, with credit due first to tackle Andrew Whitworth, who finished 12th among all offensive linemen in overall grade. The Rams finished eighth in QB pressure percentage, with Jared Goff throwing for 4,688 yards and posting his best passer rating (101.1) in his career.

Simply put, this group does it all better in a combined effort than any other group in the NFL.

Best Tackle: David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers

Bakhtiari finished as the best tackle in the NFL in pass protection, earning a grade of 93.6 from PFF, just one of two grades at 91 or better (Cleveland guard Kevin Zeitler finished with a 91.7). That's an achievement, sure, but when viewed alongside Green Bay's average time to throw (2.95 seconds, fourth-slowest in the NFL), it's even more impressive.

Bakhtiari led a group that finished fifth in QB pressure percentage (21.2) and allowed 147 pressures, a number that seems high until one considers the Packers attempted 539 passes.

While the Packers never dedicated much of an effort to running the ball, their offensive line was stellar in pass blocking, and much of that is due to Bakhtiari. I chose him as one of my All-Pro tackles when looking at Next Gen Stats, and Chris Wesseling did the same according to the eye test. Bakhtiari is that good.

He ascends to the throne a year after Joe Thomas retired, leaving the top spot for the taking. Bakhtiari took it with authority.

Best Guard: Shaq Mason, New England Patriots

New England just capped a forceful run through the AFC playoffs by running the ball in convincing fashion. Sony Michel scored five rushing touchdowns in two games, and Rex Bulkhead added two more in the AFC Championship Game. A lot of that has to do with the play of Mason, the best lineman of a group that is excellent at opening lanes for its running backs.

Mason finished the regular season ranked as the NFL's best guard when it comes to run blocking, finishing with a PFF grade of 78.4. The Patriots did an excellent job of getting a positive surge up front, creating an average of nearly a yard of space for running backs (0.9 yards gained before a defender closed within a yard) to work before defenders arrived.

As good as the Patriots are at running the ball, they're even better in pass protection. New England allowed the lowest pressure rate in the NFL (17.3 percent) and just 21 sacks, the second lowest total in the NFL (trailing only New Orleans, which allowed 20 sacks). As a group, it finished eighth with a team grade of 80.5.

With Mason leading the way, New England was excellent. The playoffs only proved this fact.

Best center: Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles

Kelce was the best center by a wide margin, earning a PFF grade of 84.9, including a pass-blocking grade of 87.7. His 82.9 run-blocking mark was the best in the NFL among centers with at least 100 snaps. And though Philadelphia didn't run with the same authority as it did in 2017, Kelce did more than his job in that department.

The Eagles finished right in the middle of the league in QB pressure rate (27.7), which was a product of Kelce doing his job on the interior. Philadelphia overcame struggles at left guard (Isaac Seumalo) thanks to Kelce taking care of his assignment and often helping his teammates. It doesn't show up in the traditional statistics, but Kelce is as solid as they come at the position.

Rookie of the Year: G Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts

Nelson went sixth overall in the 2018 draft to the Colts, who had a clear need at the position. He filled that void and then some.

Nelson stepped right into the starting role and dominated opponents, mixing great footwork with incredible power. He took a variety of routes in Indianapolis' versatile offense and executed nearly every block flawlessly, clearing paths for Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines to run for big yardage.

Indianapolis finished ninth in pass blocking, per PFF, and ran off an impressive streak of five straight games without allowing a sack. The Colts won all but one of those games en route to a wild-card berth and first-round win over the Houston Texans.

Along with the addition of fellow rookie Braden Smith and the insertion of Mark Glowinski at right guard, Nelson helped turn around one of the worst offensive lines in just one season, becoming a model group with an incredibly bright future.

Lineman to Watch: G/T Isaiah Wynn, New England Patriots

Wynn missed the entire 2018 season, his first in the NFL, due to a torn Achilles. But the offensive lineman stands to make the biggest impact of any unknown lineman in Year Two, depending on where he fits into the group.

New England is set at guard with Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, and Trent Brown did a solid job at left tackle. But the Patriots spent a first-round pick on Wynn for a reason: They expect him to step into the left tackle role for the next decade.

That expected insertion would kick Brown to right tackle or swing tackle, depending on if the Patriots would prefer Marcus Cannon on the right side, where he spent 2018. Wynn's addition would add depth to a group that was already one of the league's best, and was so good, it moved opposing defenses well enough for Sony Michel's postseason explosion en route to the AFC title. The future is promising with Wynn in the fold.

Line in need of improvement: Arizona Cardinals

Arizona drafted its quarterback of the future with the 10th pick, when the Cardinals selected UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen. He had a rough first season, in part because he was under nearly constant duress.

Arizona allowed the highest QB pressure rate in the league (36 percent) and gave up 197 QB pressures and 52 sacks. Rosen was hit plenty and never made to feel comfortable, and it showed in his production, as well as the struggles of running back David Johnson.

The Cardinals must address this group if they want to climb out of dead last in the NFL in overall record. That begins with how they'll approach the draft and free agency, where they can't afford to spend money on underachieving linemen. Rosen's future depends upon it.



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