The game of football has evolved over the last decade plus. Fullbacks have disappeared, wide receivers are getting paid big bucks, teams use a variety of guys in the backfield and everything is just so much more about getting your playmakers the ball in space. While all these things might be true and everybody knows the names of the superstars with the ball in their hands, to me there’s no doubt that the game is still won and lost in the trenches. If you can dictate the pace of the game and set the tone up front, you put yourself in a very good position to succeed. Therefore I wanted to take a look at which teams have the most dominants fronts on both sides of the ball. I expect about eight of these ten teams to make the playoffs in 2018.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Offense: LT Jason Peters, LG Stefen Wisniewski, C Jason Kelce, LG Brandon Brooks, RT Lane Johnson; Bench – Halapoulivaati Vaitai & Chance Warmack
Defense: LE Brandon Graham, 1-tech Timmy Jernigan, 3-tech Fletcher Cox, RE Derek Barnett, Bench – Michael Bennett, Chris Long, Haloti Ngata
This team is number one by a wide margin for me. There’s a good argument for both the offensive and defensive line of the Eagles being the premiere units in the league. And guess what – they got even better this offseason.
We are talking about the quarterbacks and skill-players all the time, but the key to this offensive attack is the work they do up front. Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce are the top players at right tackle and center respectively, while this duo of guards trumps what any other team puts out there. Stefen Wisniewski is a former center, who is often forgotten when talking about this O-line, but he and Kelce are in constant communication and putting the team in perfect position. Brandon Brooks at the other guard spot was one of the most highly rated players at his position as well. The crazy part is that Jason Peters was playing like an elite blindside protector through seven weeks, before he got hurt and this front still dominated. Vaitai did a more than solid job filling in for the future Hall of Famer, while Chance Warmack is a former top-ten pick and excellent back-up at the very least.
Defensively, they are as deep up front as any group out there. Last year Fletcher Cox was the most disruptive force on the interior of the defensive line not named Aaron Donald. Brandon Graham might not put up any huge numbers, but he constantly puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks and collects several tackles for loss. The additions of Timmy Jernigan via trade and Derek Barnett through the draft immediately paid off. I have the sophomore D-end slotted in as a starter, which puts Michael Bennett on the bench for now, which is utterly ridiculous. The Eagles can use the nine-year veteran in a variety of roles and move him around in sub-packages. Long and Ngata are outstanding veteran presences and rotational pieces for them.
2. Los Angeles Rams
Offense: LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Rodger Saffold, C John Sullivan, RG Jamon Brown, RT Rob Havenstein; Bench – Joseph Noteboom, Austin Blythe & Brian Allen
Defense: LE Michael Brockers, DT Ndamokung Suh, RE Aaron Donald; Bench – Ethan Westbrooks, Morgan Fox & Tanzel Smart
Nobody would have thought the Rams would be here a year ago. In 2016, they fielded one of the worst offensive lines in the league and Aaron Donald was basically a one-man show for them. Oh how things have changed.
The acquisition of Andrew Whitworth last offseason completely turned around the “Big Uglies”. He gave them a stable presence at left tackle and Rob Havenstein stepped up on the opposite end, with the Rams being able to help him out some more. Roger Saffold had his best season as a pro yet, finishing as the seventh-highest graded guard in PFF’s rating. Center John Sullivan is the second veteran on this unit above 30 and he has helped bring the front together. Jamon Brown is the one piece that has had his ups and downs with quick interior pass rushers, but as a run-blocker he has come into his own. Together, they paved the way for Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley, who racked up an average of 1.9 yards before contact, and kept Jared Goff clean in a bounce-back sophomore campaign.
So you have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Aaron Donald and you add a former second overall pick in Ndamokung Suh. That already spells trouble. Then you add Michael Brockers to the mix and you have the potential to dominate up front. I had Brockers and Donald as the premiere duo of interior D-linemen on a list at the end of last season already. Now they added a potential monster if Suh is locked in. I have been critical of him after having a few seasons where he didn’t seem to be internally motivated, but he has shown over the course of his career that he can take over some games. I believe Donald is clearly the best overall defensive player in the league and even though he is a natural fit a 3-technique in a 4-3, Wade Phillips knows how to put his players into position to succeed no matter the base front. That’s why I have no doubt this pairing will work, as long as they get some pressure off the edge and I don’t see how offenses can really double any of these guys.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Offense: LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, RT Marcus Gilbert; Bench – B.J. Finney & Chukwuma Okorafor
Defense: LE Cameron Heyward, NT Javon Hargrave, RE Stephon Tuitt; Bench – Tyson Alualu, Leterrius Walton
Everybody talks about Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and the other skill-position players, but when you really look at them, the Steelers win in the trenches first, which allows their playmakers to go out and do their things, as well as making teams one-dimensional with their defense.
Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey were all voted into the Pro Bowl last season. However, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert are highly underrated in their own right. This is a just a very complete unit, with the right mix of mobility, nasty attitude and technique. There is no other team in the league, that works the zone-game better than Pittsburgh. Lev Bell’s patient approach to let things develop and manipulate double-teams matches perfectly with what the big guys up front are doing, by staying around the line of scrimmage longer and forcing the defense to overcommit, which they counter off perfectly. In the pass game, these guys are a big factor in allowing Big Ben to extend his career, after being more of an off-script, shrugging hits off-type of quarterback when he was younger.
I always thought Cam Heyward was severly underrated, but last season things went to the extreme. Fans voted eight Steelers into the Pro Bowl, but left the defensive linemen off the ballot. Heyward had a phenomal season, with 12 sacks and TFLs in the high double-digits. He’s a monster. Stephon Tuitt on the other end has developed into of the top five-techniques in the league himself. He might not be quite as disruptive as his teammate, but he comes pretty close to the prototype at that position. Nose tackle Javon Hargreave had unreal burst off the line and played with excellent pad-level at South Carolina State. He might not have the longest arms and was more of a one-gap specialist in college, but he has taken on his role in the middle and still has room to develop.
4. Dallas Cowboys
Offense: LT Tyron Smith, LG La’el Collins, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Cameron Fleming; Bench – Chaz Green, Connor Williams & Joe Looney
Defense: LE DeMarcus Lawrence, DT Maliek Collins, DT David Irving, RE Tyrone Crawford; Bench – Kony Ealy, Taco Charlton, Jihad Ward & Datone Jones
What has been the talk about the Cowboys? They lack a true number one receiver and they don’t have the people in the secondary to stop opponents’ passing attack. Yet, with the way they are constructed up front, they can get away with some shortcomings outside the hashes.
We called this Cowboys offensive line “The Great Wall of Dallas 2.0” a couple of years ago and after a down-season, nobody seems to talk about them anymore. However, I think they have a good shot at moving back up to the number one overall spot as a unit this upcoming season. A fully healthy Tyron Smith has a pretty good argument for being the top left tackle in the game, Zack Martin is a perennial All-Pro guard and Travis Frederick has been in the Pro Bowl every year since his sophomore campaign. Most importantly however, La’el Collins can move back to left guard, which is clearly his best natural position, with Cameron Fleming coming over from New England to man the right tackle spot. I also think Texas rookie Connor Williams could see a lot of playing time, because he has position flexibility if any of those five misses time or Fleming struggles early on.
Defensively, DeMarcus Lawrence had a breakout season, leading the league in sacks for most of 2017. He was put on the franchise tag and will be looking to recreate those numbers to earn a big payday. David Irving has taken over games single-handedly in the past and having him for 16 weeks will make this a completely different unit. While Maliek Collins hasn’t developed into the player the Cowboys envisioned him to, I think Tyrone Crawford is a highly underrated D-linemen. With the guys I mentioned as bench players, which consists of high draft picks with a lot of upside, Dallas might go eight men deep in their rotation. They will look to keep these guys fresh and hungry for quarterbacks.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
Offense: LT Cam Robinson, LG Andrew Norwell, C Brian Linder, RG A.J. Cann, RT Jeremy Parnell; Bench – Josh Wells & Tyler Shatley
Defense: LE Calais Campbell, 1-tech Abry Jones, 3-tech Malik Jackson, RE Yannick Ngakoue; Bench – Dante Fowler, Marcell Dareus & Taven Bryan
A few years ago, this Jaguars’ offensive line was an absolute mess. They routinely were at the top in terms of sacks and QB hits allowed, but this is a different unit and overall team now. Defensively, they showed some sparks in terms of being able to stop the run and getting some pressure on opposing signal-caller, but nowhere near to the kind of heat they put on offenses in 2017.
Cam Robinson had a solid debut season at left tackle, A.J. Cann has developed into one of the top guards in the league and the Jags added the premiere offensive lineman in free agency – Andrew Norwell. Jeremy Parnell has quietly had a couple of stellar seasons now on the right side of that line and Brandon Linder was the fourth-highest rated center according to Pro Football Focus. The Jacksonville O-line might not have the best zone-game or keep the pocket clean for 60 minutes in a true dropback scheme, but they are mauling people in the run game and allow Blake Bortles to make the easy throws, by selling the run and having linebackers step up.
Sacksonville has one of the most feared defensive lines in the league. Calais Campbell came in to immediately took over the leadership role with the young guys around him and moved along the front. Yannick Ngakoue led the league in forced fumbles as a speed rusher and tomahawk specialist. The Jaguars provide consistent interior pressure, with Fowler coming in on sub-packages, to allow Campbell to slide inside with Malik Jackson. What makes them special is the fact that they have quality guys behind them as well. Marcell Dareus had an argument for being the top defensive tackle three years ago and I could easily see him re-emerge in 2018, coming over from Buffalo. First-round pick Taven Bryan on the other hand has a ridiculous get-off and inside-out flexibility.
6. Chicago Bears
Offense: LT Charles Leno, LG Cody Whitehair, C James Daniels, RG Kyle Long, RT Bobby Massie; Bench – Matt McCants, Bradley Sowell & Hroniss Grasu
Defense: LE Akiem Hicks, NT Eddie Goldman, RE Jonathan Bullard; Bench: Roy Robertson-Harris, John Jenkins
If the Bears want to get back to their old days, things have to start up front and I think they are well on their way. Offensively, the pride themselves on grounding people in the run game and on defense, they are building a monster, with a lot of speed and hard hitting.
When the Bears had Josh Sitton and Kyle Long healthy over the last two seasons, I thought their interior three guys were as good as any trio in the league. Sitton became a cap casualty and he went on to sign with Miami. However, Chicago was extremely lucky to grab Iowa’s James Daniels in the second round. That guy brings unbelievable mobility to the center position, but I think he lacks some strength to play guard and so I moved Whitehair to Sitton’s original spot. Charles Leno and Bobby Massie might not be star individual players, but they have held up very well and don’t force protections to shift either way. This will be an excellent zone-running team, that draws defenses to flow with them and hit them with bootlegs to counter off that action.
Nobody really talks about this, but Akiem Hicks was a disruptive force last season, as he finished second among interior D-lineman with 37 run stops and produced 49 total pressures in the passing game. I always liked Eddie Goldman, going back to his college days and I feel like this Bears D is a different unit with him out there manning the middle. Jonathan Bullard has been playing very well off the bench for this squad and now with Mitch Unrein leaving for Tampa Bay, I think he will step up in a larger role. This unit together with their linebackers manhandled the Panthers offense in week seven last year. Like I said two weeks ago in my list on the biggest remaining needs for each NFC team, I don’t like the depth behind those three guys though.
7. New Orleans Saints
Offense: LT Terron Armstead, LG Andrus Peat, C Max Unger, RG Larry Warford, RT Ryan Ramczyk; Bench – Michael Ola & Jermon Bushrod
Defense: LE Cameron Jordan, 1-tech David Onyemata, 3-tech Sheldon Rankins, RE Marcus Davenport; Bench – Trey Hendrickson, Alex Okafor & Tyeler Davison
The Saints were used to being known as this soft dome team, who got into shootouts at home and could put up prolific scoring numbers, but got punched in the mouth when they faced a more physical opponent on the road. They are a different group at the skill positions and in the secondary, but most of all, they have invested heavily in their fronts.
Armstead has been on this roster for the longest time by far and he is only 26 years old. This group has been assembled via the draft, free agency and trade over the course of the last three years. The schemes they come from are also quite different, as Unger primarily is a zone-best center, while Kelemete and Peat are more gap-scheme maulers. Ramczyk is the guy, who surprisingly stepped right in when Zach Strief went down in game one and the then-rookie never looked back. This group pushed some people around last season, while running more power-schemes with Ingram and more stretch/zone-based schemes with Kamara. In week ten versus in Buffalo, they ran the ball 24 straight times and just took it the Bills.
I don’t think anybody really gives Cam Jordan the credit he deserves. He has always been a high impact player, but last year he was an absolute game-wrecker. I already expected Sheldon Rankins to turn into a star D-tackle in 2017 and while he definitely showed signs already, I believe he will be a disruptive force this upcoming season. The Saints spent this and next year’s first-round picks on UTSA’s Marcus Davenport, who still needs to refine his technique, but has freakish natural power and closing speed. I said in one of my latest articles that the one spot I’m not totally sold on is their 1-technique. Ever since Nick Fairley was forced off the field with a serious heart condition, that slot has been up for grabs. Onyemata and Davison are both young players, who will be competing for it and probably share the load. Hendrickson and Okafor will certainly find some snaps as well, coming off the bench.
8. Green Bay Packers
Offense: LT David Bakhtiari, LG Lane Taylor, C Corey Linsley, RG Justin McCray, RT Bryan Bulaga; Bench – Jason Spriggs & Patrick Lucas
Defense: LE Muhammad Wilkerson, NT Kenny Clark, RE Mike Daniels; Bench – Dean Lowry, Montravius Adams & James Looney
The Packers gave up a lot of what they had up front over the last two years. In 2016 they let former first-round picks B.J. Raji and Datone Jones on the defensive line and Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton walk, while last offseason they had to give up the other starting guard in T.J. Lang and backup center J.C. Tretter. However, they have developed their young pieces and now look very formidable in the trenches again.
Green Bay’s O-line might count on youth at both guard spots, but they are very strong around them. David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga make for one of the two best offensive tackle duos in the league, using a very unique pass set many call the “hug”-technique and allowing Aaron Rodgers to dance around in the pocket. Despite Corey Linsley having his worst season with the Pack in 2017, the organization didn’t hesitate to let Tretter leave last offseason and give their guy a pricy three-year extension. What got lost during the 2017 season, when Aaron Rodgers was hurt for half the year, was the fact that the Packers had nine different offensive linemen with 200 or more snaps. I expect them to be better this time around, after already leading the league with an average of 2.04 yards before contact in the run game, according to PFF.
On defense it has been Mike Daniels, who has really set the tone for this group in the last couple of years. He is kicking ass every single week and trash-talks like no other. Kenny Clark has developed into of the very best interior guys in terms of stacking and shedding opponents at the point of attack. Next to tight-end Jimmy Graham on offense, Muhammad Wilkerson has been the big addition defensively. The seven-year vet is coming off two down-years with the Jets, where neither side was happy with each other anymore, but on a one-year prove-it contract he will be motivated to reproduce what he did in a dominant 2015 season.
9. Tennessee Titans
Offense: LT Taylor Lewan, LG Quinton Spain, C Ben Jones, RG Josh Kline, RT Jack Conklin; Bench – Dennis Kelly, Xavier Sua’Filo & Brian Schwenke
Defense: LE DaQuan Jones, NT Bennie Logan, RE Jurrell Casey; Bench – Austin Johnson & Karl Klug
I know Marcus Mariota and Kevin Byard might by the Titans’ stars on their respective sides of the ball, but there is no question to me – Tennessee is built around their offensive and defensive lines. I said last week that their roster is as complete as any team’s in the NFL, but if they want to become contenders, it’s all about the big boys.
I thought the Titans offensive line might emerge as one of the top units in the league last season, but second-year man Tyler Conklin took a step back and overall their offense just was a little static at times. Still, together with what the Packers have, this is one of the premier tackle duos with Conklin and the gritty Taylor Lewan. Quinton Spain and Josh Kline might not be names the average fan knows about, but they have been playing very well, making former first-round pick Chance Warmack expendable. Center Ben Jones has been the glue piece for them since he came over from Houston and since he has taken over in the middle of their front, they have been kicking ass.
On defense, Jurrell Casey is such a unique and dominating player. I love watching him move on that interior and slipping through the traffic to take down ball-carrier and get around offensive linemen in the pass game. DaQuan Jones received a three-year contract extension worth 21 million in March. He might never put up any big numbers, but he is a space-eater in the run game and can help you push the pocket. Bennie Logan is another big body, who plucks up the middle as a two-down player. What makes this unit special is the depth behind the three guys mentioned. Austin Johnson was drafted two years ago and he can line up anywhere from nose to 5-technique, especially on passing downs. Karl Klug was secured before the 2017 free agency period with a two-year deal as a high-effort player, who sees a lot of action in sub-packages. Tennessee can rotate these five guys and keep them fresh over the course of games.
10. Washington Redskins
Offense: LT Trent Williams, LG Shawn Lauvao, C Chase Roullier, RG Brandon Scherff, RT Morgan Moses; Bench – T.J. Clemmings, Kyle Kalis & Tony Bergstrom
Defense: LE Jonathan Allen, NT Da’Ron Payne, RE Matt Ioannidis; Bench – Stacy McGee, Ziggy Hood & Tim Settle
If you looked at this team on both fronts last season, there is no way you’d think they would make this list, due to injuries and missing pieces. However, looking at who they will send out on the field in 2018, I thought this spot is well deserved.
The Redskins flipped the offensive line around more than any team in the NFL last season, with about a million different lineups. I don’t think I have ever seen a team have that much bad luck among one positional group as Washington did. Yet, with Trent Williams back fully healthy, I think they have the best left tackle in the business. Brandon Scherff was a blue-chip prospect for me three years back and he has panned out beautifully, punishing interior D-linemen on a weekly basis. Chase Roullier did an excellent job stepping in for Spencer Long in his rookie campaign and made Washington give up the veteran. While Shawn Lauvao looks like the one weak-link on this line, Morgan Moses has quietly performed exceptionally well, starting all 48 games in the last three years. If they once again see several guys go down on that unit, it could be a big problem however.
Defensive line was the Skins’ biggest area of concern before last year’s draft, but they have turned it into a strength with the addition of Alabama big boys in each of the first rounds since then. Jonathan Allen was man-handling Pro Bowlers until he got hurt in his rookie campaign. He has this natural strength and grip you can’t teach. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody toss Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele like Allen did when they met early on last season. This year’s top draft selection Da’Ron Payne adds another rock up front, who dominates at the point of attack. Both those guys are still getting better in terms of their pass rush and have their best days ahead of them. I’m not completely sure, who will start at the second end-spot in their 3-4, but I like Ionannidis and they have dependable vets behind them. Fifth-round pick Tim Settle is a guy who left school a year too early, but has unbelievable power and short-area quickness.
Wildcard: Oakland Raiders
Offense: LT Donald Penn, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson, RT Kolton Miller; Bench – Brandon Parker & Vadal Alexander
Defense: LE Arden Key, 1-tech Justin Ellis, 3-tech Maurice Hurst, RE Khalil Mack; Bench – Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Vanderdoes & P.J. Hall
I listed the Raiders here as well, because while they didn’t show anything last year, that would justify being on the list, they have the potential to move into the top five over the course of this upcoming year. The Oakland offensive line was one of the elite units in 2016, especially in terms of not allowing any pressure in the passing game. If you look at the names from left tackle all the way through right guard, they might be as good as it gets. Even though I’ve been critical of the first-round selection of Kolton Miller, he is still a very talented prospect and almost has to be an upgrade for Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. In terms of their defensive line, this depends strongly on one of their third- and fifth-round picks. Like I said a week ago, when I watched Arden Key’s tape at LSU heading into last college football season, I thought he the most natural pass rusher in the nation. Mo Hurst on the other hand was as disruptive a force on the D-line as I saw in the country in 2017. Both those guys have serious concerns. For Key it’s his passion for the game and the resulting drop-off as a junior, while Hurst fell to the fifth round due to a heart condition, I have no further information on. If both guys pan out and play up to their potential, they could turn this Raiders defense into a different unit.