NFL Network analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Shaun O'Hara selects offensive line units to watch heading into the week, breaking down what's on the line for each group, potential matchups and other significant factors. Following each week's games, O'Hara will revisit the O-line performances of all 32 teams and ultimately select a Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Week.
Throughout the entire offseason, the Cowboys' offensive line unit has been on a pedestal -- and for good reason, as it's one of the best units when it comes to combination blocks. This group already appeared to be in mid-season form in the preseason against Miamiand Seattle, and it's going to have to be elite right out of the gate. With Tony Romo's back injury and rookie Dak Prescottlikely getting the start under center Week 1, this group will again be asked to put this team on its shoulders, along with a heavy dose of Alfred Morris and Ezekiel Elliott. First-down production will be at a premium with a rookie QB, who will no doubt be tested early and often with a variety of blitz packages and odd fronts from New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
All eyes will be on Tyron Smith, who is arguably one of the best left tackles in the NFL. Lining up across from him will be Olivier Vernon, a high-priced free agent who signed with the New York Giants in the offseason. Smith has a habit of making Sundays look easy, but he had his hands full with Vernon last season when the Cowboys traveled to Miami (Vernon had one sack and three QB hits). Vernon has already appeared to be unblockable this preseason, setting up two players in their prime for a Week 1 showdown in Big D.
The Bengals have one of the most consistent O-lines in the NFL -- the returners from last season (right guard Kevin Zeitler, center Russell Bodine, left guard Clint Boling and left tackle Andrew Whitworth) have made 26 consecutive starts as a group -- and a tough test to start the season. This unit is up against a New York Jets team that boasts one of the best defensive fronts in the entire league. Although the Jets -- who finished with 39 sacks in 2015 -- will be without Sheldon Richardson to open the season, they have two dominant defensive ends in Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson, and they had the second-best run defense in the league in 2015. The Jets' defense will test even the best and smartest offensive line groups in pass protection, especially on third down, when they employ their odd fronts and roaming rushers (a defense referred to as an Amoeba-style front, for its constant movement and morphing ability).
The Bengals are expecting right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, who replaces Andre Smith (now with Minnesota), to make his first NFL start after seeing minimal action in five regular-season games and one playoff contest as a rookie in 2015. He's an extremely athletic tackle who is less than two years removed from a torn ACL suffered in college. Ogbuehi will see a healthy dose of different fronts and will be tested by Wilkerson in one-on-one pass rush.
It's been a traumatic and eventful week for this entire team. First, starting QB Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season. Then came the surprising trade for Sam Bradford. The Vikings won the NFC North in 2015 despite ranking second to last in passing yards and allowing defenses to sack Bridgewater 44 times. The Vikings added right tackle Andre Smith and left guard Alex Boone to create more push and a better pocket for the downfield passing game. Regardless of who starts under center against the Titans (Bradford or Shaun Hill), this group will be under duress as it tries to establish some rhythm with a new signal caller. Things to ponder: Hill's age (36 years old) and Bradford's injury history increase the pressure to perform. This offense has and will always run through Adrian Peterson, who led the NFL in rushing for the third time in his career in 2015 with 1,485 yards on a league-high 327 carries. New quarterback, same philosophy, All Day.
New England Patriots
On Sunday, the big story will be Jimmy Garoppolo playing in place of Tom Brady. However, there's another and maybe even bigger story in the Patriots-Cardinals game -- New England's offensive line. The offensive line's numerous injuries led to poor play in 2015 and ultimately cost Dave DeGuglielmo his job in January. New England hired Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement one month later. Brady was able to carry the Patriots to the AFC Championship Game because he had the quickest snap-to-throw time in the league (2.2 seconds) last season. It's hard to measure up to Brady in that category, but Garoppolo will have to get the ball out quickly against a blitz-happy Arizona defense this weekend.
In 2015, the Patriots had an injury-plagued group that seems to be picking up right where it left off -- the team also started more offensive line combinations than any other last season. Tackle Sebastian Vollmer underwent shoulder surgery and has been dealing with a hip issue, and guard Tre' Jackson has been unable to practice in the offseason with knee problems. Both will be out for at least the first six weeks of the season. Right tackle Jonathan Cooper (picked seventh overall by the Cardinals in 2013) is a project, as injuries have hindered his career thus far (11 starts in three seasons). One player who has a good chance to start at left guard is rookie Joe Thuney, a third-round pick out of N.C. State. In his first ever NFL game, Thuney gets the pleasure of facing Arizona's Calais Campbell.
Right tackle Mike Remmers struggled in pass protection in that game and allowed the Super Bowl MVP to sack his quarterback, Cam Newton, 2.5 times and force two fumbles -- with one coming on this unforgettable play. Remmers and Carolina's O-line must play and protect better if they expect a different outcome against the defending champs in the league's season opener.
Three others to keep an eye on:
» Miami Dolphins(at Seattle, 4:05 p.m. ET on Sunday): This offense is operating under first-year head coach Adam Gase with a few new members, notably running back Arian Foster. We'll see how this up-and-coming Dolphins offense, including rookie Laremy Tunsil, stacks up against the Seahawks' dominant defense.