Ranking the AFC North Offensive Lines: Preseason Edition

After a couple of poorly written posts I have decided to go back to what I consider my bread and butter, the offensive line. My first thought was to rank the entire league by their projected offensive line but I decided to shrink the scope of the topic to provide more analysis of each individual unit. That thought process brought me to the teams I am the most familiar with, the AFC North. Every team in the AFC North has had some changes to their offensive line. These changes are important to understand because in this division if you can control the trenches you can control the division. Along with the rankings I will give a brief analysis of the unit, as well as the lines' best player, worst player and player on the rise. The Ranking will begin after the jump...

#4- The Cleveland Browns:

Projected Line- Joe Thomas (LT), Jason Pinkston (LG), Alex Mack (C), Shawn Lauvao (RG), R- Mitchell Schwartz (RT)

Best Player- Joe Thomas

Worst Player- Jason Pinkston

Player on the Rise- Alex Mack

It will come to no surprise to fans of the AFC North that the Cleveland Browns are once again at the bottom of the list in the division. This unit is fairly average as a group but it does have a couple of very good individual at their positions. Joe Thomas is arguably the best LT in NFL but does need to improve in the running game where he rates just average. Alex Mack is a rising player at center. He is quick and strong at the point of attack but lacks consistency and took at step back last year in reading protections. Regardless Mack is becoming a top ten center in this league. Jason Pinkston struggled last year as a rookie but will make some strides. 2012 draft pick Schwartz should fit well as a RT but going against Woodley twice, potentially Terrell Suggs once and of coarse the talented pass rushers in the AFC East this year. This unit has a sort of scrappy nature to them and I expect them to have their ups and downs while finishing middle of the road in the NFL.

#3- Cincinnati Bengals:

Projected Line- Andrew Whitworth (LT), Travelle Wharton (LG), Kyle Cook (C), R- Kevin Zeitler (LG), Andre Smith (RT)

Best Player- Andrew Whitworth

Worst Player- Kyle Cook

Player on the Rise- Andre Smith

The Cincinnati Bengals lost both of their starting guards to free agency. They replaced them with a road grading Travel Wharton who is nothing special just and average player and 2012 first round pick Kevin Zeitler. The Bengals unit is one of the biggest in the league and they fit very well into the power zone scheme that they run. Andrew Whitworth is a very under rated left tackle especially since he has only been playing/starting at LT since 2009. Whitworth finish 2010 with five perfect pass blocking games and his size helps him play just as well in the run game. Andre Smith despite weight issue is coming into his own at RT. His size and power makes him dominant in the running game but he needs to improve his pass protection. The combination of Whitworth and Smith is currently the best tackle combination in the AFC North. Kyle Cook the Bengals center is the weak link. Not quick, big or strong it seems Cooks only role in the offense is to snap the ball and hold his ground. While he does this job adequately Cook himself is in the bottom half of the league when it comes to centers. Kevin Zeitler the projected starting right guard will forever be tied to David DeCastro who the Bengals passed up despite DeCastro being the better player. Zeitler should however fit very well into the Bengals scheme and should come into his own for the Bengals. This unit has good depth behind them but lacks elite talent and continuity needed to be tops in the division. If I were raking the teams by depth the Bengals would be at the top.

#2- Pittsburgh Steelers:

Project Line- R- Mike Adams (LT), Willie Colon (RG), Maurkice Pouncey (C), R- David DeCastro (RG), Marcus Gilbert (RT)

Best Player- Maurkice Pouncey

Worst Player- Mike Adams

Player on the Rise- Marcus Gilbert

Over the last three years the Steelers have had one of the worst offensive lines in the league. This off-season the Steelers look to change that trend. Gone from the team is Chris Kemoeatu, one of the worst graded pass blockers in the NFL. Johnathan Scott, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky were removed from the starting line and will instead fight for back up roles. In terms of potential the Steelers have one of the top units in the league. Not only does this line have potential it is also very young. However youth and position switches provide a bunch of questions for this group. The best player on the Steelers' line is Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey took a step back last year in his pass protection and biltz recongition and was still dealing with a lingering injury to his ankle. However Pouncey is still young and growing into his own. Claiming to be healthy and with better play next to him Pouncey should finally cement his place as one of the top centers in the league. Marcus Gilbert last year as a rookie was arguably the second best player on this unit if not the best. He showed the skills to hold up as a great RT in the passing game and showed some ability in the running game. He will need to get lower in the run game and work on making his feet quicker to handle all types of NFL edge players. Consistency will also be key for Gilbert but I am looking for a big jump from the young Gilbert. Willie Colon might be the biggest question mark on the line. As a healthy RT two years ago he was one of the best in the league. After two years on the IR, Colon hopes to bring his former nasty self to the interior. David DeCastro the 2012 first round pick is expected to come in a play solid right away. This leaves Mike Adams as of right now as the weakest link on the line. He will have is bumps this year but will definitely be better than last year's opening day starter Johnathan Scott. Another huge concern is depth in this unit because their is quite frankly none. The Steelers' offensive line is young with the 29 year old Colon as the oldest on the unit. This age will cause some ups and downs but look for the Steelers line to be in the top half of the league by the end of the year and possibly the NFL's best unit in 2013 and beyond.

#1- Baltimore Ravens:

Projected Line- Bryant McKinnie (LT), R- Kelechi Osemele (LG), Matt Birk (C), Marshal Yanda (RG), Michael Oher (RT)

Best Player- Marshal Yanda

Worst Player- Kelechi Osemele

Player on the Rise- Marshal Yanda

The Ravens starting line is the best in the AFC North because if its experience and continuity which put them above the other starting lines in the AFC. The Ravens also have a well coached line that use veteran moves to gain the advantage. Marshall Yanda a Pro Bowler and All-Pro is the best player on the unit and yet is also still improving. He will go into his second full year starting at RG and I believe his play will be even better. Starting center Matt Birk has started to lose some athleticism but he is still a very consistent player and some analysts believe that makes him the best center in the AFC North. (PFF) Birk and Yanda team together to open holes in the interior of the line for Ray Rice. Michael Oher has been over rated and under achieving and is still waiting to show his talent. Oher has slow feet and poor recognition. He plays to high and is own by LaMarr Woodley regularly. If Oher can step up this unit grows dramatically. Bryant McKinnie is declining as a LT but when in decent shape he can still be an above average LT in this league. McKinnie's best ability is his size in the running game. He was able to neutralize James Harrison impact in the running game which was no small feat. However that same size makes him vulnerable in the passing game and a healthy Harrison was able to dominate him for three sack in the second match up. McKinnie is in the last year of his ontract and should play to earn what may be his last NFL contract next year. The Ravens need to be concerned about depth because of their aging pieces. The strength of this offensive line is the run game and Ray Rice wouldn't have it any other way. Look for more of a pounding to open up the play action game for Flacco and co. With key positions of the Ravens' line starting to decline I expect by the end of 2012 they will not be at the top of the AFC North but as of right now the continuity this unit has with each other as well as experience put them at the top. In 2013 though I expect a huge decline of this unit unless addressed in the draft.

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