Offensive line wasn't billed as an overwhelming strength in 2014, but we ended up with a class that stands out for its quality depth. Solid starters emerged from the second, third and fifth rounds, showing still that it's one of the more difficult positions to draft, if only because our task at hand -- re-drafting the prospects -- was so scattershot.
Of course, we're left with an incomplete report card on a few of our top players off the board and some others benefitted from -- and were killed by -- circumstance.
After digging into quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends, let's take a look at how we'd re-draft the offensive linemen from 2014:
When I got to Martin's Week 5 game against the Texans -- one of the matchups I was most excited to watch in-depth from his 2014 campaign -- I was a bit nervous that my appreciation for the Dallas guard was a product of media hype. Initially, his downfield blocking was erratic and, on the opening drive, I watched him bumble his way through a busted screen (no offensive lineman fails gracefully, unfortunately). But as the tape wore on, the attributes I have come to admire about Martin shined. The first step has a certain fearlessness to it, even against Watt. Yet, his center of gravity is such that he's not allowing himself to make mistakes or get caught off balance. I was impressed especially with his eyes downfield. After his initial block, his ability to identify potential targets is instantaneous, but not without thought. His billing as one of the more cerebral guards in the draft made plenty of sense.
This is a little thing I saw that may or may not mean anything, but against Houston -- a team that consistently shifts their fronts and moves Watt around to find the best potential matchup -- Martin never took a snap without a physical conformation from Travis Frederick that they were on the same page. He did it in a few other games as well. It's a small thing but it gave me the sense that the game wasn't too big or hectic for him.
On the season, Pro Football Focus credited him with one sack, a good start for a player not lined up right next to Tyron Smith.
One last observation: In a Week 9 matchup against Arizona, Dallas' opening script included plays that were: 1. A run directly off Martin's right hip, 2. Off to the left side on a run play that required a key backside block by Martin and 3. A play-action that was designed off a cut back that would have bounced off Martin's right hip (I think). If I'm a casual observer, is that not a huge vote of confidence from a very good offensive line coach?
Picking Martin as my No. 1 lineman is such a safe bet, though. He will star at two positions in his lifetime and, at least for now, he'll play with a dominant offensive line that can wear opponents down. We may not know if he's a truly great player or not until Year 4 or Year 5.
Limited sample size, and at times I didn't like the way he played against some of his top-tier opponents (the Eagles game was forgettable). But out of the Big Three (Lewan, Robinson, Matthews) he impressed me the most and he'll end up starting at a premium position for a long time should he manage to stay healthy.
His long arms stay locked (in a good way) against talented, veteran defensive ends and he doesn't find himself fooled easily. Out of the top three, his technical strength might be better than Robinson and Matthews.
Against Baltimore, one of my main takeaways was the way he handled an outside pull where his primary responsibility was safety Will Hill. Hill, in my opinion, is one of the hardest safeties to block in open space because of his length, strength and speed and Lewan put a solid initial block on him. Without realizing that the running back was stalling behind him, he doubled back to ensure the defender was sealed.
This is a little thing, but it shines a little light on Lewan's versatility. His reputation was that of a power blocker and a bully in the trenches. Finesse is the name of the game, though.
When I was working on a feature about Bitonio for NFL.com and Around The NFL, a producer for the Network called and said that NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock heard about what I was doing. Mayock said that he needed to be part of the piece because he loved Bitonio's tape that much.
This is high praise for an analyst that spends most of his year on the phone, and could have used that half an hour in some other way. That being said, it certainly heightened my interest.
One of my goals with Bitonio was to find him in solo situations. When one spends time with Joe Thomas to his left and Alex Mack (for five games) to his right, life is going to be pretty good. Here's one play that had me encouraged (there were plenty of examples, but just one I took note of while watching him post-Mack):
Against the Bills this year midway through the first quarter, the Browns pushed their fullback out to the right in the "I" formation and Brian Hoyer audibled. Running back Terrance West couldn't hear the play so a louder verbal signal needed to be relayed. West acknowledged the audible with a very obvious -- and excited -- nod. If I'm the defensive tackle heads up on Bitonio, I'm guessing there's a 99 percent chance this is a stretch run behind the fullback -- and it was. The option to undercut Bitonio is there but he handles the situation perfectly and swallows up the defender. West gains seven yards without any backside pressure from Bitonio's man.
Bitonio has a certain griminess about his game and I mean that in a good way. He's always re-working to find the leverage and he's always fighting. Yes, you can tell he's a tactician, but there's a street brawler type of intensity behind it.
On an unrelated note, he sells play-action fakes quite well, perhaps better than any of the linemen here in my top three. In a more traditional offense this year (assuming Johnny Manziel will not be the quarterback) his skills may shine even more.
Robinson is still high on my list if only because I tried to look past the mistakes brought on by his youth and lack of polish. Robinson has so much power, it's the word I found myself coming back to time after time. There are moments when he approaches blocks with a high level of difficulty (pulls, etc.) with an almost uncontrollable energy. Many times that leaves him out of position and gets him in trouble. But what about giving him a full offseason with a capable offensive line coach?
If nothing else, the buzz around Robinson this offseason has been positive from inside the building, according to a few knowledgeable people around the team. With players like him, I'll wait until Year 4 or 5 to completely give up. In fact, I'm not so sure I wouldn't have drafted him No. 2 all over again if given another opportunity.
My expectations going in were a little high, which is why a certain lack of physicality stood out (says the 5-8 guy writing this while eating a maple syrup flavored hard candy). I still think a lingering injury had much more to do with his poor reviews overall on the season than anything else. In spite of a nagging ankle, his footwork was still phenomenal. His feet are lightning quick and that jumps off the tape. That is something you can't teach a 6-5, 300-pound man.
I like Turner, a third-round pick, because the Panthers understood exactly what he was and used him to his strengths. He's a bit squatty, and his lack of speed certainly turned some teams off, which is why he was available with the 91st overall pick. That being said, this game can still be about power and time of possession, especially with a healthy Cam Newton at quarterback. And for that situation, Turner is a fantastic option.
As a side note, I wanted to watch him especially in the no-huddle. I think there were some NFL coaches who probably thought this would be a weakness for a player described by some as "fleshy" coming out of the draft. In a game against the Vikings where he was lined up against the powerful Linval Joseph, I didn't notice a drastic drop off in the quality of blocks (minus one bull rush where he landed on his heels). I think that bodes well for the future so long as he can dive head first into an offseason training program.
Though his stock was aided by the fact that he plays with the best quarterback in football, Linsley was criminally underrated coming out of the draft. His strength numbers coming out of college were pro level and, with some refining, he'll end up being a good friend to Aaron Rodgers for years to come.
Had a rough go of it his first year at guard and wasn't exactly put in the best situation stationed next to J.D. Walton. Richburg was out of position, which still leads me to believe he'll blossom at center this year. The important factors -- intelligence, power, leverage -- are there. It's difficult to gauge film on a rookie that is playing in a new spot and is next to a center getting blown back as consistently as Walton was. I'm sure that has to scramble so many aspects of their help call.
On a personal level, there was no one in the Giants' stellar rookie class more invested in getting better and no one who took it harder when he made mistakes. The ceiling is still plenty high for Richburg.
Newbies with potential:
Re-watched his Steelers game this year specifically (one can tell a lot about a rookie offensive lineman in the midst of a blowout, especially when the other team knows your passing on every down.) I was struck by the way he was still hitting. There was a lot of one-on-one situations and his first pop was still excellent. He still plays a bit like a tackle and could stand to pack on a few pounds if the Colts plan on keeping him at guard. Nothing wrong with a little versatility, though.
An oft-injured campaign in 2014 is still leaving us wondering. If preseason is any indication, though, he's got a ton of power and could supplement the Dolphins' run game nicely. That said, I'm still higher on the North Dakota product than I should be and am going off a few snaps when the games didn't count.
James played a ton of snaps this season but struggled mightily once he was switched to the left side. The advantage there is that he has a season's worth of experiences to carry into next year. The bones of a great tackle are there, but he doesn't quite jump off the page like Robinson does.
The transition to center in the NFL is not an easy one and like Stork, Watt was clearly vulnerable at times even in a quick-strike offense. That said, he's violent at the line and is surprisingly fast. He could very well secure the starting job there again this season.
Unlike Linsley, I think Stork's flaws still stand out despite a quick-strike quarterback that is one of the best in football. Saw him in a lot of situations where he required help. Had the Patriots left Brady in the pocket for longer during the Super Bowl, we may have seen some fireworks in the backfield.
Physical enough, but can some of his mistakes be alleviated by a brilliant pocket quarterback and a bruising, dominant running back? Yes.
I'm hoping he makes me regret this, because he was a lot of fun to watch in college. Su'a-Filo may just be one of those players that simply needs some time. There were some glimpses of a bulldozer that could take on two blockers at once on a stretch play. But ... in a season where the Texans were flirting with a playoff spot, he couldn't be trusted. I have him placed below Turner and maybe that is unfair. It's just that the limited film on Su'a-Filo was not great, whereas the extremely limited film on Turner (against far inferior competition) was promising.