News & Analysis

Ranking the top 10 returning college offensive linemen

Dec 5, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum (65) hugs tight end Sam LaPorta (84) after scoring a touchdown during the first half against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we unveiled our top 10 returning college football players at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the trenches. We're going to take a look at the 10 best offensive linemen — regardless of position — heading back to campus next fall.

The following are PFF’s top 10 offensive linemen returning to college in 2021 based on a bevy of factors, including PFF grade and other advanced metrics available to CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers.

1. C TYLER LINDERBAUM, IOWA

Linderbaum went from defensive tackle to the best offensive lineman in college football in just two years. He played both sides of the ball in high school and was recruited to play on the interior defensive line, where he logged 18 snaps in his first season. He then flipped to center for the 2019 season, where he started and recorded the fifth-best grade in the FBS at the position (81.7). And this past year, Linderbaum claimed the No. 1 spot with an astounding 91.5 PFF grade, featuring just three pressures allowed on 280 pass-blocking snaps.

The Iowa center checks the athleticism box with flying colors. There’s not an interior offensive lineman in the country with similar movement skills. His return to school instead of declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft is a huge win for a Hawkeyes offensive line that has two marquee members — Alaric Jackson and Cole Banwart — departing. The key thing to watch with Linderbaum in 2021 is if he can put on a little bit more mass and sustain that same elite-level athleticism.

2. T THAYER MUNFORD, OHIO STATE

Munford is taking advantage of his “super senior” year and returning to school for the 2021 season, which is a very good thing for the Buckeyes. He was a decent starter at left tackle for Ohio State in 2018 and 2019, but he took his play from good to elite in 2020. Munford posted a 91.8 PFF grade this past season, the fourth-best mark in the entire FBS and the highest mark among tackles returning this fall.

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes offensive lineman Thayer Munford (75) against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2021 CFP National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

His pass protection was nearly flawless in 2020. Munford stood strong against quality pass-rush units, such as Michigan, Clemson and Alabama, and displayed tremendous processing speed against stunts and blitzes all year long. Over the course of 264 pass-blocking snaps, he allowed just three pressures — none of which were sacks or hits on quarterback Justin Fields. In turn, his pressure rate allowed was half a percentage point lower than any other Power Five left tackle. With Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere manning the ends of the line, Ohio State might just have the best tackle tandem in college football next season.

3. T DARRIAN KINNARD, KENTUCKY

While Kinnard’s pass protection is good, the reason he comes in here at No. 3 is largely because of his impact in the run game. The 6-foot-5, 345-pound right tackle has consistently paved holes for ball-carriers over the past two years, notching run-blocking grades of 89.1 in 2019 and 91.9 in 2020. Both marks ended up being among the 10 highest in college football.

Kentucky employed heavy doses of inside zone in that span, and zone concepts just happen to be Kinnard’s bread and butter. No tackle has managed a higher zone run-blocking grade since 2019 than him. We shall see whether that continues next season with a new offensive play caller in town, but regardless, the Wildcats will have a quality right tackle at their disposal in Kinnard.

4. T EVAN NEAL, ALABAMA

Neal is an absolute unit at 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds, and he is living every bit up to his recruiting status. In the 2019 class, Neal was a consensus five-star who ranked No. 7 nationally, according to 247Sports. He started from Day 1 in 2019 at left guard and performed fairly well with a 71.2 PFF grade. Then, he moved to right tackle for the 2020 season and really elevated his play to top-tier status.

With the help of his brute strength, length and decent athleticism given his size, Neal recorded an 83.7 PFF grade in 2020, ranking fourth in the Power Five. He laid down a whopping 12 big-time blocks in the run game, which was the second-most in a single-season by a right tackle in the seven years since PFF began grading college football.

5. T JAMAREE SALYER, GEORGIA

Salyer had “breakout” written all over him in 2020 after shining on limited reps all across the line in previous seasons. The 2018 four-star — who ranked 10th nationally, according to 247Sports — excelled in his first full season in a starting role, posting an 81.2 PFF grade. Salyer earned grades above 77.0 as both a pass blocker and a run blocker, something only 10 Power Five tackles accomplished this past season.

Dec 12, 2020; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Georgia Bulldogs offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer (69) gets ready to block against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

He showed growth as the season progressed and closed out his year with an impressive hot streak, ranking No. 2 among all Power Five offensive linemen in pass-blocking grade over his last four games (90.6). Salyer is capable of playing anywhere on the line at an extremely high level. He proved that in 2018 and 2019 before cementing it in Georgia’s bowl game against Cincinnati when he played at left guard and didn’t give up a single pressure on over 40 pass-blocking snaps.

6. G CAIN MADDEN, MARSHALL

Madden is set to return for his sixth season this fall and is easily the best all-around non-Power Five offensive lineman. He has started at right guard for the Thundering Herd for three years now, providing great pass protection each year with grades in that facet of 84.6, 79.0 and 82.0.

In 2020, he allowed just six total pressures, none of which were sacks or hits, on over 270 pass-blocking snaps. As for his run blocking, it wasn’t until this past year that we saw Madden perform at an extremely high level. He finished the season leading all FBS guards in negatively graded run-block rate, paving the way to a 93.0 run-blocking grade.

7. T PETER SKORONSKI, NORTHWESTERN

Northwestern suffered a crushing blow prior to the 2020 season when star left tackle Rashawn Slater opted out for the year due to COVID-19 and declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. That thrust true freshman Peter Skoronski into his starting job, and the former four-star recruit surpassed expectations.

He recorded an 81.4 PFF grade that led all true freshman offensive linemen by over six grading points. The ferocious Ohio State defensive line did make him look like a first-year starter, though, as he posted a 21.1 pass-blocking grade and allowed eight pressures. But in the rest of his outings, Skoronski looked advanced for his age. Excluding that Big Ten Championship game, he earned an 87.4 PFF grade. He’s a prime “breakout to elite” candidate for 2021.

8. T JORDAN MCFADDEN, CLEMSON

McFadden dazzled as a rotational tackle in 2019 with an 88.3 PFF grade across 335 snaps and maintained that stellar play in 2020 as a full-time starter. Heis 83.5 PFF grade ranked 11th among all Power Five tackles. That led him to the fifth-highest PFF wins above average (WAA) total among returning FBS tackles.

However, McFadden faltered a bit against premier edge rushers — such as Miami's and Pittsburgh's — en route to sub-60.0 pass-blocking grade in both outings. Whether McFadden rises up this list or even holds a spot in the top 10 moving forward hinges on how he fares against physical top-tier competition in 2021.

9. T JACK SNYDER, SAN JOSE STATE

Snyder has been a mainstay on San Jose State’s offensive line for the past four years and is set to return for his sixth year in 2021 thanks to extra eligibility due to COVID-19. He showed steady growth in his first few seasons, taking his PFF grade from 64.7 in 2017 to 71.2 in 2018 to 77.0 in 2019. Then, he took a massive step forward in every facet in 2020.

Snyder earned a grade above 88.0 as both a pass blocker and a run blocker en route to a 90.9 PFF grade for the season. His play strength markedly improved, which led to far cleaner true pass sets and more impactful run blocking. If he can continue to show signs of growth in 2021, Snyder just might claim that top ranking among Group of Five linemen.

10. T DYLAN PARHAM, MEMPHIS

Parham was a decent left guard for Memphis in 2018 and 2019, recording a PFF grade above 70.0 in both seasons. He then kicked over to right tackle for the 2020 campaign and really elevated his play. Parham finished his first season at that position with an astounding 90.6 PFF grade, which ranked fourth among all FBS right tackles.

Memphis Tigers offensive lineman Dylan Parham (56) blocks against the Cincinnati defensive line during the AAC Championship game at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.
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The level of competition week after week wasn’t all that impressive, but when the time came to face a great pass rush — such as Cincinnati's — Parham still performed at a high level. His consistency was quite impressive; he earned a PFF grade above 70.0 in all 11 of his games played.

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