Construction Zone: Building Effective Offensive Lines

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 13: Julius Peppers #90 of the Chicago Bears rushes against Erik Pears #79 of the Buffalo Bills during a preseason game at Soldier Field on August 13, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Put on your hard hat. We're going to take a look at how the best offensive lines are built. In a moment, we'll define "best" for the 2010 season, and look at how those offensive lines were pieced together. This will lead to an interesting discovery: the best and move effective offensive lines were not built with first round picks or high profile draft choices, but with a mix of players lashed together to form a solid unit.

All of the statistics used come from Pro Football Reference, the best combination of a comprehensive collection of NFL statistics and ease-of-use on the internet, in this writer's opinion. From this site we get the answers to two questions. First, which offensive line protects its quarterback the best? Second, which offensive line opens holes for its runners the best? The specifics, and findings, are after the jump.

Top Pass Protecting Teams
The pass protecting metric used is which team gave up the least amount of sacks relative to the number of pass attempts, which is called the "sack percentage."  In the 2010 season, the average for pass attempts by a team was 539.7 attempts.  Only teams that passed for more than this amount are considered, avoiding anomalies from teams that run so much and pass so little that their sack percentage is skewed.  The top three teams are considered.

The Colts and Giants are the top two teams, but I discounted both for different reasons.  Indianapolis threw 579 times and allowed 16 sacks, giving them a 2.3 sack percentage.  That number is a bit misleading, though, since Peyton Manning often gets rid of the football before rushers can bring him down.  The Giants finished next with 539 attempts and 16 sacks for 2.9%.  They are just below the 539.7 cut line, and are discounted.

The top team is New Orleans with 661 attempts, 26 sacks allowed, for 3.8%.  The Saints line, coached by Aaron Kromer, fielded the following group in 2010.

Left Tackle: Jermon Bushrod, 4th Round Pick 2007
Left Guard: Carl Evans, 5th Round Pick 2008
Center: Jonathan Goodwin, free agent 2006, originally Jets 5th Round Pick 2002
Right Guard: Jahri Evans, 4th Round Pick 2006
Right Tackle: Jon Stinchcomb, 2nd Round Pick 2003

Tied with the Saints is Atlanta with 577 pass attempts, 23 sacks allowed, for 3.8%.  Their line is coached by Paul Boudreau.

Left Tackle: Sam Baker, 1st Round Pick 2008
Left Guard: Justin Blalock, 2nd Round Pick 2007
Center: Todd McClure, 7th Round Pick 1999
Right Guard: Harvey Dahl, free agent 2007, originally undrafted rookie signed by Dallas 2005
Right Tackle: Tyson Clabo, free agent 2006, originally undrafted rookie signed by Denver 2005

Surprisingly, next on the list is the George Yarno coached Detroit line, with 633 pass attempts, 27 sacks allowed, for 4.1%. 

Left Tackle: Jeff Backus, 1st Round Pick 2001
Left Guard: Rob Sims, traded for in 2010 (basis of deal was 5th Round Pick), originally Seattle 4th Round Pick 2006
Center: Dominic Raiola, 2nd Round Pick 2001
Right Guard: Stephen Peterman, free agent 2006, originally Dallas 3rd Round Pick 2004
Right Tackle: Gosder Cherilus, 1st Round Pick 2008

Top Run Blocking Teams
The run blocking metric is fairly simple.  Yards per carry is the basis of measure, with teams qualifying by rushing more times than the league average, which was 435 attempts for the 2010 season.  Only teams that ran more than 435 times are considered, avoiding the consideration of teams that pass often, then spring a run on the defense, which goes for big yardage.

The top rushing team is Philadelphia with a 5.4 yards per rush.  Philadelphia is discounted with only 428 rushing attempts.  This number is misleading, as Michael Vick accounted for 100 of those attempts.  Andy Reid called 328 running back runs, and called 561 pass play, with Vick's 100 runs being somewhere in between.

I was shocked to see that the Gary Kubiak coached Texans only rushed 423 times last season.  They averaged 4.8 yards per attempt mostly on the legs of Arian Foster.  Houston did pass 574 times in 2010.

The top team is Oakland.  Those dysfunctional pirates ran 504 times behind the de facto line coach Tom Cable, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt.  The Raiders passed 491 times.

Left Tackle: Jared Veldheer, 3rd Round Pick 2010
Left Guard: Robert Gallery, 1st Round Pick 2004
Center: Samson Satele, trade 2009 (5th Round Pick), originally Miami 2nd Round Pick 2007
Right Guard: Cooper Carlisle, free agent 2007, originally Denver 4th Round Pick 2000
Right Tackle: Langston Walker, free agent 2009, originally Oakland 2nd Round Pick 2002

Tied for second is Kansas City, whose line is coached by Bill Muir.  The Chiefs ran 556 times for a 4.7 yards per attempt, while passing 475 times.

Left Tackle: Branden Albert, 1st Round Pick 2008
Left Guard: Brian Waters, free agent 2000, originally signed with Dallas as undrafted rookie 1999
Center: Casey Wiegmann, free agent 2010, originally signed with Indianapolis as undrafted rookie 1996
Right Guard: Ryan Lilja, free agent 2010, originally signed with Chiefs as undrafted rookie 2004
Right Tackle: Barry Richardson, free agent 2009, originally Chiefs 6th Round Pick 2008

The Jaguars are tied with the Chiefs with 4.7 yards per attempt on 512 runs.  The Andy Heck coached line protected for passes 469 times.

Left Tackle: Eugene Monroe, 1st Round Pick 2009
Left Guard: Vincent Manuwai, 3rd Round Pick 2003
Center: Brad Meester, 2nd Round Pick 2000
Right Guard: Uche Nwaneri, 5th Round Pick 2007
Right Tackle: Eben Britton, 2nd Round Pick 2009

I also looked at the teams I screened out.  The Colts started an undrafted rookie from Washington's cuts (Kyle DeVan), another dumpster-dive acquisition from Baltimore (Jeff Saturday), a 2nd round pick (Mike Pollak), a 4th round pick (Ryan Diem), and a 6th round pick (Charlie Johnson).

The Giants passed behind a 5th round pick (Dave Diehl), an undrafted rookie (Rich Seubert), a low profile free agent (Shaun O'Hara), a 2nd round pick (Chris Snee), and a relatively high profile free agent (Kareem Mc enzie).

The Eagles ran behind a high profile tackle they traded for (Jason Peters), a 4th round pick (Todd Herremans), another 4th round pick (Mike McGlynn), yet another 4th round pick (Max Jean-Gilles), and a 2nd round pick (Winston Justice).

The Texans started a 1st round pick (Duane Brown), a low-profile free agent (Wade Smith), another low-profile free agents (Chris Myers), a 3rd round pick (Antoine Caldwell), and another 3rd round pick (Eric Winston).

Trends
Of the 30 players on the top six lines, six are first round picks.  All first round picks were drafted as tackles.  18 players were drafted overall, and nine were free agents.  There are five undrafted rookie free agents.  Harvey Dahl represents the biggest fish in this group of free agent acquisitions.  Two players were acquired by trade with 5th round picks. 

In terms of how each team's line was built, the answer varies.  The Saints build their line almost entirely in the mid-range rounds of the draft, with only one free agent.  The Jaguars built their line entirely in the draft, and though they used higher draft choices that the Saints, only one was a first round pick.  The Lions built their line mostly with high draft choices.  The two first round picks, Backus and Cherilus, were drafted seven years apart.

The Chiefs blend a mix of free agents, with Lilja standing as the best of the group when signed.  First rounder Albert anchors the line.  The Falcons used two free agents, two high draft choices, and a late draft choice.  The Raiders mixed a first rounder, a third rounder, a former second rounder on his second stint with the team, a free agent, and a player acquired for via trade.

One point of interest might be that four of the top six lines are anchored by a first round left tackle, and five of ten if the discounted teams are considered.

Conclusion
Contrary to what onlookers might want in the off-season, the best offensive lines are not formed by multiple 1st round picks and high profile free agents.  The highest profile free agent of any of the ten teams above was Kareem McKenzie, who was not then considered a top-tier free agent.  While half the teams are anchored with a first round left tackle, the majority of the rest of the players are mid-round draft picks, undrafted rookies that got cut, and lower tier free agents. 

Offensive line coaches were including in the discriptions of the teams for a reason.  Offensive lines excel based on their play as a unit, regardless of how each player was acquired.  The Giants and Colts have won Super Bowls with offensive linemen mostly acquired outside of the high rounds or with top free agent dollars.  Their lines were great units, though.  That's why the offensive line coaches are so important.  They get the task of making five players into a collective that excels.

Bills fans shouldn't be too worried that Buffalo doesn't have the overall talent in place.  Players like Eric Wood and Andy Levitre are very talented.  Chad Rinehart and Kraig Urbik, both former 3rd round picks, have the size and toughness to play.  Erik Pears was a two year starter for Denver.  Demetrius Bell and Chris Hairston are developing talents.  Geoff Hangartner played well starting for Buffalo the past to years.

A good argument might be that Buffalo is one first round left tackle away from fielding a good line.  The construction of the league's best lines points to that as a good possibility.  The analysis shows that acquiring Tyson Clabo or another high profile free agent isn't needed.  Most, if not all, of the parts are in place for Buffalo to field a good offensive line.  How Buffalo acquired those players is relatively unimportant.

The most important name that Buffalo fans should be talking about is Joe D'Alessandris.  There's no first round tackle or free agent who can make more of a difference than he can.

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