Last week, colleague Sam Monson revealed his 101 best players in football entering the 2016 NFL season. Today we’re narrowing that scope to focus in on the often unheralded group of protectors and blockers, the league's offensive linemen. The following 10 players are the NFL’s best in the trenches, with elite talent at the tackle, guard, and center spots.
1. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns
Since Thomas entered the NFL in 2007 (the first season PFF began grading games), he has finished the regular season as our top-graded tackle in pass-protection four times, and has never been outside the top five. Still the gold standard in pass-protection, Thomas has recovered some of his early-career form as a run blocker in the last couple of seasons to re-emphasize his status as the league’s preeminent offensive tackle, and not just its best pass-protector. If you prefer stats to grades, then Thomas has that covered in pass-protection, too. In the last two years combined, he has allowed only 41 pressures (four sacks, four hits, 33 hurries); 24 offensive tackles allowed that many pressures or more in just the 2015 season alone.
Though the likes of Tyron Smith are closing in on Thomas’ crown as they elevate their level of play, the Brown is showing no signs of taking a step back to cede his status as the league’s best tackle. Last season, Thomas allowed no pressures in six of his 16 starts, taking his career total to 37 in 144 career games. In a quarter of his career games, Thomas has gone without surrendering a single pressure on his quarterback, a remarkable feat that he will surely add to in 2016.
2. Tyron Smith, OT, Cowboys
After hitting the ground running as a rookie right tackle in 2011, Smith has grown into his role as the Cowboys’ left tackle after some initial struggles (by his high standards) following the position switch. In each of the last two seasons, he has ended the regular season as a top-10-graded tackle as both a run-blocker and a pass-protector, trailing only Joe Thomas last season as a pass-protector and finishing comfortably ahead of the field as a run-blocker. Smith is the model OT that many teams are desperately searching for, and at present, are failing to find. An integral part of the Cowboys’ offensive line, Smith’s mobility is put to particular use on the backside of zone plays, where he consistently grades as one of the league’s best, creating cutback lanes for the likes of DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott moving forwards. While more recent first-round offensive tackles have struggled to hit the ground running, Smith has been one of the league’s best since he entered the league in 2011, and looks destined to be at the top of the game for years to come.
3. Marshal Yanda, G, Ravens
Yanda entered the league in 2007 along with the aforementioned Joe Thomas, and actually earned a higher overall grade as a rookie tackle (RT) for the Ravens than Thomas did for the Browns at LT. Yanda has since settled in at guard and established himself as the league’s best in that spot, but his position and scheme-versatility have marked him as one of the league’s best linemen throughout his career. A top-five graded tackle twice in his career (2007 and 2010), Yanda has been a top-five graded guard (twice first and twice second) in the last five years, and in one of those seasons (2014), he even finished the year at tackle, surrendering only four pressures in three starts (with two of those playoff starts). Regardless of position or scheme, Yanda simply gets the job done, and more often than not, he does it in a dominant fashion. The Baltimore Raven has only earned a negative single-game grade once in the last two seasons, and that was when he faced off with the Rams (and Aaron Donald) last year.
4. Travis Frederick, C, Cowboys
The draft-day cries of, “Reach!” have faded over the last three years, as the 31st pick of the 2013 NFL draft has established himself as the league’s premier center. The only weakness Frederick has shown in his three years was his pass-protection as a rookie (four sacks, two hits, 18 hurries), and even that has been erased over the last two seasons (one hit, nine hurries allowed in 2015). Either the highest or second-highest-graded run-blocker in each of his three pro seasons, Frederick’s remarkable consistency has seen him lead the charge for the Cowboys’ ground attack, whether he’s working through to pick up ever-faster linebackers, or fighting at the line of scrimmage with a brute of a nose tackle. Consistency is the name of Frederick’s game; occasionally he produces dominant performances, but it's the lack of poor games that elevates him among the league’s elite linemen.
5. Zack Martin, G, Cowboys
The Cowboys’ extensive investment in their offensive line has yielded them the best O-line in the league, with three of the best five individual O-linemen. Earning the third-highest grade at guard in each of his first two pro seasons, Martin has hit the ground running both as a pass-blocker (27 pressures allowed in 34 starts) and run-blocker. Much like Travis Frederick alongside him, it is Martin’s consistency that places him among the league’s best. You won’t see the highlight-reel blocks that La’el Collins put in against the Seahawks, but Martin doesn’t make the mistakes to set his offense back, either; he only surrendered one QB hurry in the final five weeks of the 2015 regular season.
6. Terron Armstead, OT, Saints
A tackle on the rise, Armstead entered the Saints’ starting lineup in Week 16 of the 2013 season for Charles Brown, and though he struggled against the Panthers that week, he has only been getting better since, and very quickly, too. After a solid first full season as a starter in 2014, Armstead missed less playing time in 2015, and surrendered only 20 pressures (three sacks, two hits, 15 hurries) all season long. Only Tyron Smith and Joe Thomas earned higher grades, and only Thomas (97.4) earned a higher score in our pass-blocking efficiency metric than Armstead (97.2). Far from a pass-protection specialist, Armstead finished behind only Tyron Smith as a run blocker at offensive tackle last season, as the Saint raised his game on every level. If he can put together his first 16-game season, 2016 could top even his 2015 displays.
7. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Bengals
A year removed from allowing just nine total pressures in 17 starts (2014), Whitworth took a small step back in 2015 by allowing 20 during the regular season (finished tied for second in our pass-blocking efficiency metric). This kind of performance counts as a “down year” for Whitworth—in terms of pass-protection grade, this was his seventh-best out of nine seasons since 2007— perfectly illustrating why the Bengal has earned his place among the league’s elite offensive linemen. Capable of dominating as a run-blocker as well, Whitworth illustrated this perfectly in 2013 when he stepped down to guard for the final six weeks of the season and still played well enough in that spell to finish the year as both a top-20 graded guard and tackle in the same season. The drafting of Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the same 2014 class would suggest that the Bengals have a succession plan for Whitworth in place, but the 10-year veteran shows no signs of stepping back from his perch among the league’s best just yet.
8. Josh Sitton, G, Packers
Sitton claimed a place just inside the top 50 in Monson's 101, and like few other players, challenges the notion that guards should be road-grading run-blockers. Since he took over as a full-time starter for the Packers in 2009, Sitton has only finished outside our top-five-graded pass-protectors once (2011), and topped those rankings in both 2013 and 2014. His metronomic pass-protection is a crucial element in an offense built around Aaron Rodgers, and ensures that the ever-expanding group of devastating NFL interior pass-rushers can’t get to arguably the league’s best signal-caller on a consistent basis.
9. T.J. Lang, G, Packers
A step back from Sitton as both a pass-protector and run-blocker, Lang is still right up there with the league’s best in both regards, and like the rest of the linemen in this group, consistency is what elevates him. The former Eastern Michigan offensive lineman has allowed just 20 total pressures in each of the last seasons, and produced the run-blocking of his career last year to finish with the 11th-highest run-blocking grade among NFL guards. Both Lang’s pass-protection and run-blocking grades have improved in each of the last four seasons, and along with Sitton, provides the Packers with arguably the league’s best guard pairing to protect Aaron Rodgers from the inside out.
10. Richie Incognito, G, Bills
A year away from football did wonders for Incognito, who returned not only as one of the league’s best run-blockers, but also with his best season in pass-protection to date (PFF grading goes back to the 2007 season). Incognito surrendered only 19 pressures all season long (five of those against the Eagles in one game), but made his biggest impact as a run-blocker in the Bills’ power scheme. Inline and on the move, Incognito spent the whole season moving people, with the Bills gaining 5.4 yards per carry on runs off his outside hip. More impressively, rushers gained nearly 6 yards per carry when they ran power to the right; those are plays where Incognito is pulling to pick up defenders at the point of attack, and it's no surprise that the he finished the season as the league’s highest-graded blocker on these plays.