Offensive linemen in the NFL don't get near the same amount of attention or credit compared to quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers or even tight ends when it comes to the success a team has on offense, but their importance should not be overlooked.
Take Super Bowl LV, for example. One of the reasons Tampa Bay beat Kansas City 31-9 on Feb. 7 was because of offensive line play. The Buccaneers have four starters, including both guards, that rank in the top 10 at their respective position entering the 2021 season. Meanwhile, the Chiefs struggled mightily trying to protest Patrick Mahomes or simply give him enough time to throw, as he was sacked three times and spent most of the game trying to elude Tampa defenders.
Following the 31-9 loss, Kansas City made upgrading its offensive line a priority this offseason and has rebuilt it using every means available - trade, free agency and the draft. The Chiefs' new-look line will be anchored by a top-five guard (Joe Thuney, signed in free agency) and a top-20 tackle (Orlando Brown Jr., acquired via trade with Baltimore), as Mahomes and company look to make it three straight Super Bowl appearances.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2021 Pro Football magazine.
2021 NFL Tackle Rankings
1. David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers
Last November, the Packers signed Bakhtiari to a four-year, $92 million contract extension with $61.5 million guaranteed. His absence in the NFC Championship Game against the Buccaneers due to a torn ACL was a primary reason Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times, but as long as he’s fully healthy in 2020, Bakhtiari will continue to be a formidable blind-side protector.
2. Trent Williams, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers didn’t want to refurbish their quarterback situation without Williams dominating at the left tackle position. That’s why they re-signed him to a six-year, $138.06 million contract with $55.1 million guaranteed. It makes Williams the most expensive tackle in NFL history, but he’s been worth the scratch. In 2020, Williams was his usual impenetrable self, giving up just 19 total pressures on 562 pass-blocking snaps and showing dominant run-blocking as usual.
3. Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore Ravens
Throughout his career, Stanley has allowed just nine sacks on 2,468 pass-blocking snaps, and just three sacks overall since the start of the 2018 season. This is especially impressive given that Lamar Jackson’s second-reaction ability forces his blockers to sustain their blocks for extra time.
4. Garett Bolles, Denver Broncos
In his first three NFL seasons, the former first-round pick out of Utah gave up 14 sacks and 111 total pressures, frequently looking out of sorts. But in 2020, he allowed no sacks and 13 total pressures on 622 pass-blocking snaps and also improved exponentially as a run blocker. Denver is still figuring out its quarterback situation, but the left tackle thing is finally locked down.
5. Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Iowa has long been known as a hotbed for offensive line talent, and Wirfs became the latest name from that pipeline in his rookie season of 2020. Wirfs allowed just one sack and 24 total pressures on 851 pass-blocking snaps — the most such snaps any tackle had in the NFL last season. Add in his dominant run blocking, and Wirfs has already established himself as a franchise cornerstone.
6. Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints
Selected in the third round of the 2013 draft out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Armstead has been one of the better blockers in the NFL for a long time and one of the most obvious examples that HBCU schools can still develop NFL-level talent. Armstead gave up just three sacks and 19 total pressures on 569 pass-blocking snaps, and he did so in Drew Brees’ final season with Taysom Hill getting more reps as a quarterback.
7. D.J. Humphries, Arizona Cardinals
In the second season of Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure, Humphries put it all together, allowing three sacks and 23 total pressures on 695 pass-blocking snaps, reducing his penalties to seven and continuing his status as one of the league’s most dominant run blockers.
8. Taylor Moton, Carolina Panthers
Speaking of dominant run blockers, the Panthers placed the one-year, $13.754 million franchise tag on Moton for the 2021 season because they found it difficult to imagine their offense without him throwing enemy defensive linemen around to open gaps in the run game. Moton also gave up just three sacks and 19 total pressures last season on 657 pass-blocking snaps.
9. Ryan Ramczyk, New Orleans Saints
It was another outstanding year for New Orleans’ right tackle, who teams with Terron Armstead to form the NFL’s best tackle duo. Ramczyk allowed just two sacks and 27 total pressures on 669 pass-blocking snaps, and he once again proved his versatility when the Saints used more option concepts with Taysom Hill at quarterback. New Orleans also showed its commitment to Ramczyk by signing him to a five-year, $96 million contract extension ($60 million guaranteed) in late June.
10. Lane Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles
Johnson has been one of the NFL’s best right tackles for a number of years, and he was again in 2020 when on the field and playing through ankle issues. He gave up one sack and five total pressures on 251 pass-blocking snaps last season. A healthy Johnson will be a boon for new starter Jalen Hurts.
11. Laremy Tunsil, Houston Texans
12. Andrew Whitworth, Los Angeles Rams
13. Jack Conklin, Cleveland Browns
14. Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
15. Taylor Decker, Detroit Lions
16. Duane Brown, Seattle Seahawks
17. Isaiah Wynn, New England Patriots
18. Orlando Brown Jr., Kansas City Chiefs
19. Taylor Lewan, Tennessee Titans
20. Kolton Miller, Las Vegas Raiders
2021 NFL Guard Rankings
1. Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
Nelson is one of 14 guards in the history of professional football to be taken in the first six picks in any draft. Two of those guards — John Hannah and Tom Mack — are in the Hall of Fame, and at his current rate of performance, Nelson is well on his way to joining them. Nelson has allowed just three sacks and 43 total pressures in 2,073 career pass-blocking snaps, and he may be even more amazing as a run blocker.
2. Wyatt Teller, Cleveland Browns
Teller allowed three sacks and 14 total pressures in 13 games, and when he missed five games due to injury, Cleveland’s protection fell apart in a relative sense. Teller came out of nowhere in 2020, but he’s no fluke. Cleveland’s blown block pressure rate was 12.1 percent when Teller was off the field and 8.1 percent when he was on it.
3. Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
Even when he played through injury, Martin proved to be the same blend of mauler and technician he’s been for years, with one sack and 13 total pressures allowed on 397 pass-blocking snaps with and without Dak Prescott. As long as he’s healthy in 2021, Martin will continue to be one of the NFL’s standard-bearers at the guard position.
4. Ali Marpet, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers averaged 8.1 yards per attempt with Marpet on the field and 6.1 yards per attempt when he was absent. The team’s sack percentage rose from 3.1 percent to 4.3 percent without Marpet, and the Buccaneers’ blown block pressure rate jumped from 9.2 percent to 18.4 percent. When your team’s pressure rate literally doubles when you’re off the field, you might be a very good guard.
5. Joe Thuney, Kansas City Chiefs
Thuney rode into national prominence in Super Bowl LIII with the Patriots, when he squared off over and over against Aaron Donald and refused to allow a single pressure. Thuney has been remarkably consistent, which is why the Chiefs gave him a five-year, $80 million contract with $46.89 million guaranteed. He’s allowed just three sacks on 2,008 pass-blocking snaps since 2018.
6. Brandon Scherff, Washington Football Team
If Scherff didn’t have such an alarming injury history, he’d unquestionably be a top-three player on this list, but he hasn’t played a full season since 2016, and he missed a full season (16 games) over the last three seasons. But when he’s on the field, Scherff is as good as it gets — he allowed five sacks and 21 total pressures on 593 pass-blocking snaps in that period.
7. Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns
One of the primary reasons for the Browns’ return to relevance for the first time in a very long time was the status of Bitonio and Wyatt Teller as perhaps the NFL’s best guard duo in 2020. With Baker Mayfield running all over the place and forcing his linemen to extend their blocks, Bitonio allowed one sack and 18 total pressures on 625 pass-blocking snaps last season.
8. Alex Cappa, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If the Browns don’t have the NFL’s best guard duo, it’s because the defending Super Bowl champs could make a similar claim with Ali Marpet and Cappa, whom the Buccaneers selected in the third round of the 2018 draft out of Humboldt State. In 2020, Cappa allowed no sacks and 29 total pressures on 722 pass-blocking snaps, though an ankle injury cost him the last three games of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl run.
9. Kevin Zeitler, Baltimore Ravens
While the former Giants, Browns and Bengals star is agile enough to block well in any zone structure, he’s now in a Baltimore offense that runs power with pulling guards more than any other NFL team, and he is a perfect fit in that kind of offense. As the right guard on Lamar Jackson’s running side, Zeitler projects well as a mauling blocker both in the formation and on the move.
10. Elgton Jenkins, Green Bay Packers
Through his first two NFL seasons, the former second-round pick has allowed just one sack and 44 total pressures on 1,396 pass-blocking snaps. More impressively, Jenkins has done so while playing just about anywhere along the line. In 2020, Jenkins had 827 snaps at left guard, 297 snaps at center, 27 snaps at left tackle and 32 snaps at right tackle.
11. Brandon Brooks, Philadelphia Eagles
12. Shaq Mason, New England Patriots
13. David DeCastro, free agent
14. Rodger Saffold III, Tennessee Titans
15. Laken Tomlinson, San Francisco 49ers
16. Chris Lindstrom, Atlanta Falcons
17. Gabe Jackson, Seattle Seahawks
18. Dalton Risner, Denver Broncos
19. Austin Corbett, Los Angeles Rams
20. Damien Lewis, Seattle Seahawks
2021 Center Rankings
1. Corey Linsley, Los Angeles Chargers
In 2020, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award despite dealing with a lot of pressure, and a lot of it right up the middle. So, the Chargers signed Linsley, the former Packers All-Pro, to a five-year, $62.5 million contract with $26 million guaranteed. In 2020, Linsley allowed one sack and just four pressures on 437 pass-blocking snaps — the fewest pressures allowed by any center playing at least 50 percent of his team’s snaps.
2. Rodney Hudson, Arizona Cardinals
Hudson was jettisoned by the Raiders in their offseason offensive line fire sale, getting himself traded to Arizona along with a seventh-round pick for a third-round pick. It’s chump change for one of the NFL’s best centers, especially since the Cardinals were able to lock Hudson up through the 2023 season with a new three-year, $30 million contract. Hudson may be the best pure power center in the NFL, and he gave up just one sack and 14 total pressures on 627 pass-blocking snaps last season.
3. Frank Ragnow, Detroit Lions
Ragnow started out as the Lions’ left guard in 2018 before moving to center for the 2019 season. In 2020, he proved to be an outstanding run blocker and allowed no sacks and nine total pressures on 609 pass-blocking snaps. Moreover, he suffered a fractured throat in the first quarter against the Packers last December and somehow didn’t miss a single snap. Now that’s old-school, though not necessarily encouraged.
4. Brandon Linder, Jacksonville Jaguars
Linder missed seven games last season with an ankle injury, but when on the field, he was one of the league’s tougher run blockers and excellent in pass protection — in 357 pass-blocking snaps in 2020, he gave up one sack and just four total pressures. He’ll be an important part of Jacksonville’s offense as it transitions to the Urban Meyer/Trevor Lawrence era.
5. Ben Jones, Tennessee Titans
At 6'3" and 308 pounds, Jones isn’t the prototypical mauling center, but he’s agile and smart and moves well. More importantly, he cleaned up his technique in 2020 to the point that he allowed no sacks in a season for the first time in his career, which goes back to 2012, when he was a fourth-round pick of the Texans out of Georgia.
6. Chase Roullier, Washington Football Team
Roullier will never be the NFL’s greatest 199th overall draft pick — Tom Brady pretty much has that sewn up — but the Wyoming alumnus, selected with that pick in 2017, signed a four-year, $40.5 million contract extension with Washington in January based on a 2020 season in which he allowed one sack and 17 total pressures on 754 pass-blocking snaps with a crazy quilt of quarterbacks. Roullier has also improved quite a bit as a run blocker.
7. Erik McCoy, New Orleans Saints
Max Unger’s retirement after the 2018 season came as an unpleasant surprise to the Saints. But they overcame it with the selection of McCoy in the second round of the 2019 draft. Through his first two seasons, McCoy has allowed just two sacks and 29 total pressures on 1,369 pass-blocking snaps.
8. JC Tretter, Cleveland Browns
Tretter has been with the Browns since 2017, and he signed a three-year, $32.5 million extension in 2019 to keep himself at the heart of the offensive line. In 2020, Tretter used his football acumen and movement skills to improve as a pass blocker when he was already a good one — he gave up just one sack and seven total pressures on 663 pass-blocking snaps.
9. Ryan Jensen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jensen has a bit more of an edge to him than most centers; famous for starting fights on the field and in practices, Jensen also loves to dominate as a run blocker. He’s no slouch as a pass protector, either — he didn’t allow a sack after Week 10, and in Tampa Bay’s postseason run, he allowed four total pressures in four games.
10. David Andrews, New England Patriots
Andrews has been a cornerstone for multiple iterations of a highly complex offense that changed radically in the 2020 transition from Tom Brady to Cam Newton. Still, Andrews allowed just two sacks and 12 total pressures on 370 pass-blocking snaps after missing 2019.
11. Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis Colts
12. Connor McGovern, New York Jets
13. Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles
14. Alex Mack, San Francisco 49ers
15. Cody Whitehair, Chicago Bears
16. Matt Paradis, Carolina Panthers
17. Austin Reiter, free agent
18. Mitch Morse, Buffalo Bills
19. Matt Skura, Miami Dolphins
20. Nick Martin, Las Vegas Raiders