NFL Draft News & Analysis

Most improved offensive lines following free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft

Apr 29, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Rashawn Slater (Northwestern) with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Los Angeles Chargers as the number 13 overall pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft at First Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

An offensive line that offers little to no resistance against opposing pass rushes and creates no push in the run game is one of the quickest ways to derail an otherwise competent offense. A number of NFL teams have already made a concerted effort this offseason to avoid putting themselves in such a situation in 2021.

As we saw with the New York Giants, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins last season, some of those offensive line rebuilds will take time, especially if multiple rookies are involved. However, my most improved offensive line last season — the Cleveland Browns — is coming off a season where it had a strong case for being the best offensive line in the NFL. Will one of these teams below join them?

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1. Los Angeles Chargers

Just last week, I made the argument that the Chargers’ offensive line is the single most improved positional group in the NFL. They deserve this top spot. 

Los Angeles' offensive line ended the 2020 season at No. 32 in PFF’s end-of-the-year rankings. They were owners of a 48.8 PFF grade as a unit, lower than any other team in the NFL. The only group to post a worse overall grade across the past five seasons was Miami’s offensive line in 2019.

General manager Tom Telesco and the rest of Los Angeles' front office have seemingly taken those struggles to heart.

They brought in PFF’s highest-graded center from the 2020 season, Corey Linsley, to anchor the group. Linsley has never graded below 70.0 in pass protection in his seven-year NFL career, and he’s coming off a 2020 season in which he ranked above the 80th percentile in positively graded run blocks and limiting negatively graded run blocks. The Chargers’ run on offensive linemen in free agency continued with the additions of Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi.

Feiler provides flexibility to play either guard or tackle after grading out relatively well as a starter in both spots across his past two seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Aboushi is a bit of a journeyman, but he was playing some of the best football of his career down the stretch with Detroit in 2020. His 70.5 PFF grade as the starter at right guard from Week 12 through the end of the regular season ranked 11th out of 40 qualifying right guards. By comparison, Trai Turner ranked 40th for the Chargers over that same stretch. Aboushi figures to be the favorite to start at right guard with Feiler on the left side.

Left tackle was the only big hole remaining in the starting group entering the 2021 NFL Draft, assuming Bryan Bulaga can get closer to the player he was with the Packers in a healthier 2021 season at right tackle. The Chargers filled that hole with PFF’s OT2 and the No. 11 player overall on PFF’s Big Board. Rashawn Slater doesn’t have ideal size for the tackle position, but he makes up for that with elite athleticism and clean, technically sound play.

The Chargers took a clear weakness and turned it into a potential strength. That has to make quarterback Justin Herbert a happy man entering his second season. 

2. Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs’ offensive line may have cost the team a Super Bowl last season. But the unit that took the field in Super Bowl 55 isn’t the same group they entered the season with. Injuries and opt-outs left them exceedingly thin heading into their final game. It seems as if the Chiefs have decided this offseason that they won't allow a lack of offensive line depth to cause the team any more problems.

They rank second instead of first here because this is a “most improved” article. The bar was set higher for Kansas City, especially when factoring in a quality starting tackle duo of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz in the original unit. It’s hard not to like the talent they added this offseason, though.

Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney clearly headline the left side, and the Chiefs are paying a significant chunk of change for the security they bring.

Orchard Park, New York, USA; Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown (78) jogs on the field prior to an AFC Divisional Round game against the Buffalo Bills at Bills Stadium. Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Brown cost Kansas City the equivalent of a late first-round pick in the trade with the Baltimore Ravens, and they’ll likely have to pay him upper-tier left tackle money to keep him in town. Meanwhile, the Chiefs made Thuney the highest-paid guard in the NFL on a team already doling out top-of-the-market money to multiple players.

Those two are an elite pairing on the left side. Brown has been the second-most valuable tackle in the NFL since 2019, according to PFF WAR. Thuney comes in at fourth at the guard position in the same metric, behind only Quenton Nelson, Joel Bitonio and Zack Martin. The only concern is that Brown could take a step back on the left side in an offense that isn’t quite as scheme-friendly compared to how teams were forced to rush Lamar Jackson.

It wasn’t just those two, either. Kansas City added Austin Blythe and Kyle Long in free agency. They drafted Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith in the 2021 NFL Draft to compete for spots. They’ll have competition at multiple positions and quality depth behind the starters. It’s just worth keeping in mind that this offensive line wasn’t as bad in 2020 as the last image we have of them from Super Bowl 55.

3. Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings, like the Chargers, have dealt with perennial offensive line concerns in recent years. They’ve put some resources into the position with early draft picks spent on Garrett Bradbury and Ezra Cleveland, but those selections haven’t panned out yet. The 2021 NFL Draft was another opportunity for Minnesota to add to the group, and they did.

The Vikings’ draft began with them trading down from the No. 14 overall pick, also giving up the 143rd pick, and receiving Picks 23, 66 and 86. That haul yielded two offensive linemen — Virginia Tech tackle Christian Darrisaw and Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis — and Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond. The Vikings could have very easily selected either Darrisaw or Alijah Vera-Tucker at Pick 14, but they turned it into multiple starting-caliber offensive linemen instead.

Darrisaw should be an upgrade over Riley Reiff as Brian O’Neill’s running mate at tackle. He improved each of his three years as a starter at Virginia Tech, culminating in an elite 95.6 grade in 2020. There’s almost a lazy way to the way he dominated ACC edge rushers this past season.

Davis figures to be the favorite to start at guard with Cleveland, competing against Mason Cole and Kyle Hinton, among others, for the open spot. He was one of the more reliable offensive guards in this class in pass protection, which had to be appealing to Minnesota given the team's interior pass protection struggles, and has some legitimate physical tools to work with.

Those two additions, along with potential improvements from Cleveland and Bradbury, could have the Vikings’ offensive line headed back in the right direction in 2021.

4. Cincinnati Bengals

Drafting Penei Sewell fifth overall would have probably pushed Cincinnati higher on this list. But it’s tough to fault them for addressing another need by reuniting Ja’Marr Chase with Joe Burrow, adding a No. 1 receiver and a legitimate deep threat to their offense.

It looked like the board was setting up perfectly for the Bengals to still get a first-round talent, such as Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins, at the top of Round 2. However, Cincinnati decided to trade down, watching Jenkins, Liam Eichenberg and Walker Little come off the board before they picked in the second round. That led to the Bengals selecting Clemson’s Jackson Carman with Pick 46.

Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) reacts with offensive tackle Jackson Carman (79) in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As the PFF Draft Guide notes, Carman carries 330 pounds easily and was playing his best football late in the 2020 season with Clemson. He will likely help solidify the interior early in his career but could be an option at tackle down the line.

Part of the reason Carman likely begins his career at guard is that the Bengals addressed the right tackle position in free agency, signing Riley Reiff, who has graded at 67.0 or higher in pass protection every year of his career. He’s not a high-end option, nor is he a long-term one, but his addition does significantly reduce the risk for disastrous play at the position, pushing Cincinnati closer to average in the league-wide picture.

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