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 selects his five nominees for the Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Year, which will be revealed during NFL Honors on Feb. 4 in Houston. And the top five nominees are ...
The Steelers quietly had a phenomenal season and have an underappreciated offensive line -- partly because Le'Veon Bell didn't play in the first three games. But this group took over in the second half of the season, helping Bell become the fifth-best rusher in the NFL. (He probably would've challenged Ezekiel Elliott for the title had he not been suspended.) This O-line should take a lot of pride in what Bell was able to accomplish (1,884 scrimmage yards and nine total TDs). This was a well-coached unit by Mike Munchak and it was fun to watch because it didn't have many mental errors.
With Maurkice Pouncey back at center this season, the group played so much better overall and gave up just 21 sacks. Alejandro Villanueva gave up six sacks in his second season as the starting left tackle, and he really turned in on as the season got going by giving up just one sack in the final 10 games of the regular season. The interior O-line was a strong point, as Ramon Foster didn't give up a sack and David DeCastro allowed three on the year. Despite leading all NFL guards with 13 penalties, DeCastro did a solid job at right guard, a tough position because he's often one-on-one in pass protection. Finally, right tackle Marcus Gilbert had one of his best seasons and was one of PFF's top-10 pass blockers.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers got hot at the right time, and the offensive line didn't get enough credit for how well it was in pass blocking. Losing Eddie Lacy and James Starks was a total nightmare as the Packers' game plan became one dimensional. Aaron Rodgers certainly held the ball until the cows came home, and though he was sacked 35 times this season, the O-line was credited with 15 because of Rodgers' ability to lengthen the play. This group is very athletic inside and when you have a quarterback who holds on to the ball forever, the O-line must do an outstanding job to give him a chance to make a play.
David Bakhtiari was the best pass blocking tackle in the entire league, according to PFF, while Bryan Bulaga ranked fourth. Right guard T.J. Lang is finally getting the recognition he deserves and didn't give up a sack this season, along with center Corey Linsley. Left guard Lane Taylor played very well when replacing Josh Sitton, who left just before the start of the 2016 campaign. This group never seemed to get surprised or beat by any defensive fronts.
I was pleasantly surprised with how well the Titans' offensive line played, even when losing center Brian Schwenke and right guard Chance Warmack to injury. Ben Jones and Josh Kline stepped in to start and had solid seasons, while second-year starter Quinton Spain was an excellent run blocker at left guard. These three interior linemen exceeded expectations. The stars of the group were left tackle Taylor Lewan and rookie right tackle Jack Conklin. Lewan is freakishly athletic and was outstanding in the run and pass games, grading second among tackles in run blocking and giving up two sacks. One thing he needs to clean up next season is penalties. He led all tackles this year with 14. However, Conklin had one of the best rookie campaigns at right tackle that I've ever seen, giving up just two sacks. And while he was very physical, I think a lot of people were surprised with how athletic he was in pass protection.
After being highly-touted in the offseason, the offensive line delivered and Oakland's money was well spent over the last several offseasons, as Donald Penn, Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson all signed big contracts. This O-line unit, the biggest in the NFL, really made statements throughout the season. The Raiders pushed defenses around and protected the quarterback well, giving up a league-low 18 sacks.
One of the most physical centers in the league, Hudson continues to man the middle for this unit and was PFF's fourth-highest rated center this season. Osemele and rising star and right guard Gabe Jackson didn't give up a sack this season. Jackson is very stout at the point of attack and helped the run game immensely. Osemele was the third highest-rated guard and is constantly finishing his blocks. Finally, Donald Penn was great in pass protection -- although the one sack he gave up resulted in the team losing Derek Carr for the season. Regardless, Penn had one of his best career seasons.
The Cowboys' offensive line proved to be the most physical unit on the field week in and week out. As a result, Dallas rode the strength of its offense all season, which was exemplified by the NFL's rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott (1,631 yards) and the team's 16 regular-season games with at least 100 rushing yards. (The only game that Dallas didn't hit 100 rushing yards was Week 17, when Elliott did not play.) The Cowboys' offense had a remarkable season, and it's more remarkable considering they did it with a rookie quarterback and running back, putting more pressure on the O-line. Early on in the 2016 campaign, defenses wanted to test the unit and see what the rookies could handle. They passed with flying colors.
Center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin and left tackle Tyron Smith are three of the best players at their respective positions, all earning first-team All-Pro selections. In my opinion, if I was starting a franchise right now, there isn't another center I would choose. Frederick didn't give up a sack all season. Martin was also brilliant in the pass game and is one of the most physical players at his position. He was Pro Football Focus' second highest-graded guard in 2016. Smith is a cornerstone at left tackle in terms of power and athleticism, and although he was banged up and battled through injuries, he still played at a high level. This group was tested early on when La'el Collins went down with an injury, and Ronald Leary, who filled at the position, didn't allow a sack and was a consistent run blocker for the unit. And athlough Doug Free struggled in pass protection with eight sacks, the unit itself was credited with just 15 on the year, according to PFF. The Cowboys' O-line was always fun to watch this year.