Battle of the AFC North Offensive Lines: How Do They Compare?

BALTIMORE MD - DECEMBER 05: Center Matt Birk #77 of the Baltimore Ravens looks on from the sidelines during the third quarter of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on December 5 2010 in Baltimore Maryland. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

This is the fifth article in the "Battle of the AFC North" series. The links for the previous four are at the bottom of the article.

In the last article I broke the up the offensive line and only ranked the tackles. This is not a reasonable thing to do, but with so many players to look at an article about the whole line would be really unwieldy. But the weakness of the approach was zeroed in on by a commenter, UNH97, who disagreed about the pickup of Bryant McKinnie. McKinnie played better than I (or most Steeler fans) hoped he would. But, as UNH said,

Ravens oline was all about their interior players. In Yanda, Birk & Grubbs when healthy they had one of the best trios in the league.

So is this true? Let’s begin with the Ravens:

The line is anchored by Matt Birk. A sixth-round pick by the Vikings in 1998(!) Birk was signed by the Ravens in 2009. I would presume he was considered to be a relatively short-term fix, but he just signed a new three-year contract this May. This means he will be approximately 190 years old in football years at the end of the contract. Birk is seemingly an all-round good guy, and won the Walter Payton Man of the Year for the 2011 season.

Last year's left guard Ben Grubbs missed six games last year. UNH97 gave the regular-season stats for the Ravens with and without Grubbs:

In 6 games without Grubbs:

Ravens averaged 3.8 yard per rush
Gave up 2.3 sacks a game
8.4 pressures a game
3.3 QB Hits a game

In 10 games with Grubbs:

Ravens averaged 4.6 yards per rush
1.9 sacks per game (which included 7 sacks horror show in one game v Chargers)
5.2 Pressures per game (9 in Charger debacle)
1.3 Qb Hits per game

This sucks for the Ravens, because Grubbs is going to miss all 16 games this season, as he has signed with New Orleans. So who will replace him? Apparently, former Bengal Bobbie Williams. At age 35 Williams is pushing Matt Birk for Old Man of the Sea status.

Finally, we get to Marshal Yanda, OG extraordinaire. The Raven’s 2007 third-round draft pick, Yanda made the pro bowl in 2011 after a spectacular season. He is sewn up through 2016.

As far as depth goes, behind Birk is Tony Wragge, a 2002 UDFA signing by the Cardinals who has played Arena League ball, played for the 49ers, spent last year with the Rams, and was signed by the Ravens. He doesn’t offer much help on the age issue, as he turns 33 soon, but he does bring experience of all kinds.

Behind Williams is the Raven’s second-round pick in the 2012 draft, Kelechi Osemele. The received wisdom is he isn’t ready to start in 2012, but will be ready to come off the bench if necessary.

Behind Yanda is Justin Boren, a 2011 UDFA signing who spent last season on the practice squad.

On to the Browns. As noted in the previous article, Joe Thomas is one of the best tackles in the NFL, but the line as a whole did not perform well. Let’s take a look at the interior and see whether things are likely to improve for the Browns this season.

At center is Alex Mack. A first-round pick in 2009, Mack made the Pro Bowl in 2011. He also made the Tough Guy Bowl by playing a game against the Titans with appendicitis. (He had surgery during the Browns’ conveniently scheduled Bye Week, thus managing to not miss a game.) His backup is Garth Gerhart, a 2012 UDFA who is the younger brother of heartthrob RB Toby Gerhart.

Right guard Shawn Lauvao was the Browns’ 2010 third-round pick. His backup is John Greco, who was a third-round draft pick in 2008 by the Rams.

After a distinguished career at Pitt, Jason Pinkston was drafted in the fifth round in 2011. He started all 16 games as a rookie when the starting guard was injured in training camp. His backup is Ryan Miller, the Browns’ fifth-round draft pick this year. Projected to go much higher, many think Miller will eventually move to tackle.

The Bengals took the top spot in my ranking for tackle. Let’s see how the interior of their line looks:

The center is Kyle Cook, a 2007 UDFA. His backup is Reggie Stevens, a seventh-round pick by the Bengals in 2010.

A third-round draft pick by the Panthers in 2004, LG Travelle Wharton spent his entire career in North Carolina until the Bengals picked him up this spring. His backup is Otis Hudson, the Bengal’s fifth-round pick in 2010.

RG Kevin Zeitler was one of the Bengals’ seven or eight (I lost track) first-round picks in 2012, thanks to the Carson Palmer deal. He was considered one of the best guard prospects in the draft. His backup is Clint Boling, who was considered one of the top guard prospects in the 2011 draft. Which just goes to show. Boling was drafted in the fourth round.

And finally we get to the Steelers, which gives me a chance to talk about Maurkice Pouncey. Which I love to do, as he is the cutest thing ever and has pictures of his mom and stepdad tattooed on his arms. (Birk and his tats got the picture at the head of the article because of the whole age-before-beauty thing.) Pouncey was the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2010 and was expected to sit behind Justin Hartwig for a year. Instead he won the job and made the Pro Bowl. A high ankle sprain took him off the Super Bowl roster, and another high ankle sprain made him miss time last season. However, surgery done during this off-season is supposed to have addressed this, and we all hope he returns to rookie form. The depth behind Pouncey is deep indeed, with several all-purpose players who have played well in place of Pouncey, including Doug Legursky and Trai Essex. Ryan Lee was also signed as a UDFA this year.

At RG is the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2012, David DeCastro. Although I had concerns about this pick, since DeCastro declared himself a Seahawks fan before the draft, I’m on board with it now. He appears to be a very fortunate pickup, and I’m looking forward to comparing him and Kevin Zeitler. Behind DeCastro is Trai Essex.

And finally, at LG we have someone new to the position, someone a vocal minority of the fan base have been suggesting should be moved to guard for most of his career—in other words, Willie Colon. Colon was playing well as a tackle before the injury bug bit him. He spent the 2010 season on IR after blowing out his Achilles tendon in the offseason, and the 2011 season on IR after tearing his triceps during the first game of the season. We are all hoping for better things this year. His backup is Ramon Foster, a UDFA who played most of last season as the starter at RG and did a credible job there.

Well, it's time to geek the guys. First let’s look at the rookies who are presumed to be the starters. As with the tackles, I will use their scouting reports and so on to compare them.

From Pro Football Weekly:

Kevin Zeitler: (Rated 6.07)

Big, smart, steady, physical run blocker with the girth, strength and efficiency to plug-and-play in multiple schemes. Is a very safe pick and could give decision makers comfort knowing exactly what they are getting.

David DeCastro (rated 6.22)

Big, physical, nasty, strong technician with distinction as the best pulling guard in this year’s draft class. Is a proven, perennial Pro Bowl-caliber plug-and-play starter with no glaring deficiencies in his game. One of the best all-around O-line prospects to emerge from the draft since Seattle Seahawks 2001 17th-overall pick Steve Hutchinson.

The consensus seems to be that Kevin Zeitler is an excellent guard, but David DeCastro is just that little bit extra. As with the rookie tackles, I averaged the rankings for the 2012 guards from Walter Football, NFL Draft Scout, Draft Countdown, Pro Football Scout, Mike Mayock, and ff toolbox. The average score for Zeitler was a 2.62. Most ranked him as the third best guard in the draft, but a couple put him second. The average score for DeCastro was a 1. No one ranked him less than the best guard in the draft. It looks to me as if they are both excellent players who will be an upgrade at their position.

Now, on to the veterans. But before I put up the charts for the line interior, here's a repeat from the Offensive Tackles article of the numbers from Football Outsiders for each line as a whole (2011):

Fo_o_line_medium

Now let’s look at the centers:

Pff_centers_medium

Pff_pass_centers_medium

Pff_run_bl

Matt Birk and Alex Mack are, according to Pro Football Focus, substantially better than either Kyle Cook or Maurkice Pouncey. (Pouncey doesn’t seem to be on the Overall chart, because his score is 0.0) Their position in a ranking of the 35 starting centers in 2011: Birk No. 9; Mack No. 10; Pouncey No. 20; Cook No. 26. But wait—have a look at this:

Pfr_av_c_medium

Here is the problem one encounters when looking at this sort of analysis. And it is particularly a problem in line play, where even "experts" can differ as to what is going on and who is at fault. This is probably why Football Outsiders wimps out and only ranks offensive lines as a unit.

Because we have some what you might call elder statesmen on the AFC North lines, I thought it would be interesting to look at the career high figure for each player, and when they achieved it. Here it is for the centers:

Pfr_career_c_medium

On to the guards. First, about the figures—Travelle Wharton’s numbers are with Carolina and Bobbie Williams’ number are with Cincinnati. Willie Colon’s numbers are a problem. First, he essentially hasn’t played in two full seasons, and when he was playing it was at right tackle. But it is interesting to have some numbers, even if they aren’t completely relevent, so I used his stats from 2009.

Pff_g_medium

Pff_pass_g_medium

Pff_run_g_medium

As expected, Marshal Yanda is way better than anyone else. Willie Colon was a better pass blocker as a tackle, back in 2009, than Yanda was as a guard in 2011, for what that's worth. As we look at these stats we can see why, despite the competence of the center and left tackle, the Browns' line did not impress in 2011. Here is where they ended up in PFF's ranking of 78 guards: Yanda No. 3; Williams No. 24; Wharton No. 38; Lauvao No. 54; Pinkston No. 72. (Colon was the No. 3 tackle in 2009, something which will probably surprise some of the denizens of this site.) Let's see if things looked any different to the Pro Football Reference guys:

Pfr_av_g_medium
Once again there is disagreement, but not in quite such a spectacular fashion as the differing views of Maurkice Pouncey by the two sites. Again, for interest, here is each man’s career high:

Pfr_career_g_medium

Now to put all this lovely information to some use and try and rank the lines. Here is the average of the Football Outsiders rankings for Run Blocking and Pass Protection:

Pff_o_line_rankings_medium

Pro Football Focus also ranked the lines, and here are the numbers:

Baltimore: No. 8

Cincinnati: No. 15

Cleveland: No. 16

Pittsburgh: No. 25

The rather different results aren't surprising given the variation in the player rankings.

So what components are different? First, Baltimore:

Their very good center is a year older, and in his mid-30s. According to Football Outsider's ratings, his play has significantly declined since 2003, but has stayed about the same for the past six seasons. LT Bryant McKinnie is also on the wrong side of 30, and is also a year older. Michael Oher might break out this season, or he might demonstrate he has reached his ceiling. Ben Grubbs from the 2011 unit has been replaced by someone substantially older and less accomplished. I'm sure all good Ravens fans are thanking their lucky stars for Marshal Yanda. One never knows—after all, the starting line could look rather different by the end of the season, due to injuries, back-ups winning the job, or what have you. But just based upon what we know right now, it looks as if Baltimore's line is going to take a step back.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, should be getting younger and better. Since I wrote the Offensive Tackles post the Steelers signed Max Starks. He will presumably either be the starter or the back-up for Mike Adams. He is a year older than last year, but just turned 30. On the other hand, he was injured in the first play-off game, meaning a relatively minimal healing time, and might begin the season on PUP. So there is still some uncertainty at LT. Marcus Gilbert should have only improved, since he was the starter for most of his rookie year and actually gets an off-season of OTAs and mini-camps. Maurkice Pouncey should play better if he's not compensating for often wretched play from the LG position. Of course, Willie Colon is somewhat of an unknown at guard, but it's hard to see how he isn't a big upgrade over last season. And the RG position will be manned by a player who looks to be excellent.

Cincinnati retains their pair of excellent tackles. They drafted what looks like an excellent guard to replace Nate Livings, and picked up another who is a big upgrade over Mike McGlynn. The weakest link would appear to be C Kyle Cook, but he's a known quantity, and also might play better with better guards next to him.

Cleveland retains the best two players from 2011, C Alex Mack and LT Joe Thomas. They also retain their unimpressive pair of guards, but replaced Tony Pashos with Mitchell Schwartz. This should help, but it doesn't look like they have substantially upgraded the line, unless Schwartz turns out to be a rookie phenom.

The envelope, please. According to this assessment, I'm ranking the lines this way:

1. Bengals

2. Steelers

3. Ravens

4. Browns

Well, that's it for the moment, folks. When I recover from the offensive line articles I'll finish up the offense with the tight ends. Then it's on to the defense.

If you haven’t seen the previous articles, here are the links:

QB

WR

RB

OT

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