In just two seasons, Indianapolis guard Quenton Nelson has established himself as one of the league's best players regardless of position
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.
When looking at the top 20 offensive tackles, guards and centers entering the 2020 season, nearly half (28) played for a playoff team last season. Among tackles alone, six of the top 10 and 13 of the 20 were on a playoff team.
Every postseason participant with the exception of Seattle, Tennessee and, somewhat ironically, the Super Bowl participants (Kansas City and San Francisco) have at least two linemen that make the top 20 across the three positions. In fact, Baltimore, New England and Philadelphia can claim four but for the Ravens perennial Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda retired this offseason, center Ted Karras left the Patriots and signed with the Dolphins in free agency, and stalwart right tackle Jason Peters is currently a free agent after spending the past 11 seasons with the Eagles. Philadelphia already is without Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks, who tore his Achilles during a workout on June 15 and is out for the upcoming season.
And in the case of the 49ers, the defending NFC champs upgraded their offensive line in a major way during the draft by acquiring left tackle Trent Williams from Washington. Williams, who did not play last year due to a medical issue and a dispute with the team over how the team handled his situation, was named to the Pro Bowl every year from 2012-18.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2020 Pro Football magazine.
2020 NFL Tackle Rankings
1. Ronnie Stanley, LT, Baltimore Ravens
Not only did Stanley block for the league’s most diverse and effective rushing attack, but he also gave Lamar Jackson very little to worry about from pass rushers from the left side of the pocket — or out of the pocket, of course. Including the postseason, Stanley allowed just one sack, one quarterback hit and eight quarterback hurries on 543 pass-blocking snaps. Not bad when you have to re-set all the time because your QB is running all over the place.
2. Mitchell Schwartz, RT, Kansas City Chiefs
Schwartz was great in the 2019 regular season, but he kicked it into another gear during the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run. He allowed no sacks, no QB hits and just one QB hurry in three playoff games, including Super Bowl LIV against San Francisco’s dominant defensive front. When you hear people say that right tackles aren’t as valuable as left tackles, Schwartz is the primary argument in the other direction.
3. Taylor Lewan, LT, Tennessee Titans
Lewan didn’t miss a beat as the Titans moved from Marcus Mariota’s tentativeness to Ryan Tannehill’s ability to rip the ball downfield in Arthur Smith’s play action-heavy offense, allowing just two sacks and 12 total pressures in 487 pass-blocking snaps in the regular season and postseason. And though Derrick Henry acts as his own offensive line at times, Lewan was always eager to help out when it was time to seal one side of a rushing lane.
4. Lane Johnson, RT, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles took Johnson with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, and he’s played just 344 snaps on the left side to 6,423 right-side snaps in his career. If you think that makes him a bad value, understand the crucial importance of the right tackle position in today’s NFL. Johnson is a perennial top-10 tackle regardless of which side he’s on. Last season, he allowed just one sack on 454 pass-blocking snaps, and he’s a top-shelf run blocker.
5. Tyron Smith, LT, Dallas Cowboys
Injuries limited Smith to just 13 games last season, and he hasn’t played a full season since 2015. As he’ll turn 30 in December, there should be some concern about the future of Dallas’ left tackle position. But when he’s able to suit up, Smith is still one of the NFL’s best blind-side protectors, with a nearly unparalleled combination of length, power, agility and ability to adjust to speed and power.
6. Ryan Ramczyk, RT, New Orleans Saints
Right tackle is a crucial position in Sean Payton’s offense because of the extent to which Drew Brees rolls right to expand rushing lanes. Ramczyk has had the occasional rough spots with that responsibility, but last season, with Brees out for five games and Teddy Bridgewater taking over during that time, Ramczyk helped the transition with zero sacks and 22 pressures allowed. He’s also one of the most consistent run blockers in the league.
7. Trent Brown, RT, Las Vegas Raiders
Brown has turned himself into one of the best power tackles in the NFL, and he’s done so for three different teams in the last three seasons — right tackle for the 49ers in 2017, left tackle for the Super Bowl Champion Patriots in 2018 and back to the right side for the Raiders in 2019 on a four-year, $66 million contract. Brown is a surprisingly agile behemoth at 6'8" and 380 pounds — he’s given up just five total sacks in the last three seasons, and he’s an obvious force in the run game.
8. Trent Williams, LT, San Francisco 49ers
Waylaid as he’s been by injuries and conflicts with Washington's front office over the last few years, it might be hard to remember Williams at his peak, when he was neck-and-neck with Tyron Smith for the title of the NFL’s best left tackle. The trade to the 49ers should give Williams new life, as he has all the attributes one would want in a pass protector and run blocker in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Williams is stronger at the point of attack than now-retired 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, but he doesn’t give up a bit in agility.
9. Terron Armstead, LT, New Orleans Saints
Ever since the Saints took Armstead out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the third round of the 2013 draft, he’s been a bastion of stability on the left side. He’s never allowed more than five sacks or 25 total pressures in a season, and in 2019, he gave up a career-low one sack in a career-high 622 pass-blocking snaps. Armstead’s athleticism was clear at the 2013 combine when he ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at 6'5" and 306 pounds; he’s kept that standard and added fundamental strength.
10. Anthony Castonzo, LT, Indianapolis Colts
After the 2019 season, Castonzo considered retirement at 31. Instead, he came back, and the Colts rewarded him with a two-year, $33 million contract extension. Castonzo has been one of the more underrated left tackles in the league since Indianapolis took him in the first round of the 2011 draft, and despite an uncertain quarterback situation in 2019, Castonzo allowed just three sacks in 621 pass-blocking snaps.
11. David Bakhtiari, LT, Green Bay Packers
12. Jason Peters, LT, Philadelphia Eagles
13. Laremy Tunsil, LT, Houston Texans
14. Duane Brown, LT, Seattle Seahawks
15. Andrew Whitworth, LT, Los Angeles Rams
16. Orlando Brown Jr., RT, Baltimore Ravens
17. Bryan Bulaga, RT, Los Angeles Chargers
18. La’el Collins, RT, Dallas Cowboys
19. Brian O’Neill, RT, Minnesota Vikings
20. Dion Dawkins, LT, Buffalo Bills
2020 NFL Guard Rankings
1. Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
Some may have wondered what the Colts were doing taking a guard with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft, but Nelson has dispensed with any questions about his positional value in the same ways he deals with opposing defensive linemen. As great as he was in his rookie season, the NFL’s best combination of mauler and technician upped his game in 2019, decreasing his sacks allowed from two to zero and his penalties from nine to three.
2. Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
Injuries affected most of Dallas’ excellent offensive line in 2019, and Martin was no exception. Still, he earned his sixth Pro Bowl spot and fourth All-Pro nod in a season in which he allowed no sacks, 19 total pressures, was called for just two penalties and maintained his status as the interior force for the Cowboys’ front five.
3. Brandon Brooks, Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia’s offensive roster looked more like a M*A*S*H unit at times in 2019, especially late in the season, but Brooks was one of the constants at left guard. Excelling as a mobile road-grader in Doug Pederson’s zone-heavy play-action offense, Brooks allowed one sack and 19 pressures in 647 pass-blocking snaps and gave running backs a wide lane through which to rumble.
[Editor's note: Brooks tore his Achilles during a workout on June 15 and will miss the upcoming season.]
4. Joe Thuney, New England Patriots
Thuney’s pressure numbers have been assisted over the last two seasons to a point by New England’s quick-by-necessity passing game, but they’re still ridiculous. Since 2018, including the postseason, Thuney has allowed just one sack in 1,497 pass-blocking snaps. Thuney isn’t the most physically imposing guard on this list, but he’s turned himself into a coach’s dream — smart, tough, and able to execute any assignment. He wasn’t called for a single penalty in 2019.
5. Brandon Scherff, Washington
The only reason Scherff isn’t higher on this list? Injuries that have limited him to just 19 total games in the last two seasons. When he’s healthy, Scherff is as good as any guard in the league, especially when asked to pull, slide and show off his agility in Washington’s balanced zone and gap run concepts.
6. David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite Pittsburgh’s disastrous quarterback situation in 2019, DeCastro played up to his usual high standard as one of the most complete guards in the NFL. He allowed just two sacks in 606 pass-blocking snaps, and he’s always been one of the league’s best gap and zone run blockers when healthy.
7. Richie Incognito, Las Vegas Raiders
Incognito’s off-field issues are all too well known at this point, but he managed to keep it together in his return to the NFL in 2019 with the Raiders. Incognito allowed just one sack and nine total pressures in 432 pass-blocking snaps, though his eight penalties pull him down this list a bit. A fearsome run blocker as well, Incognito earned a new two-year, $14 million contract last December.
8. Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns
Bitonio joined the Browns as a second-round pick out of Nevada in the 2014 draft. Since then, he’s watched Cleveland’s left tackle spot be bequeathed from all-time great Joe Thomas to a bunch of inferior substitutes, but it’s never affected his game. In 2019, Bitonio made his second straight Pro Bowl, allowing three sacks and 17 total pressures in 652 pass-blocking snaps. He’s one of the NFL’s more agile and mobile guards.
9. Kevin Zeitler, New York Giants
Zeitler was one of the most physically dominant guards during his five seasons with the Bengals and two more with the Browns, and he kept up that standard with the Giants in 2019 as a piece of the Odell Beckham Jr. trade. Zeitler maintained his high run-blocking standards, and though he did allow three sacks, he lowered his penalty total from seven in 2018 to two last season.
10. Ali Marpet, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers selected Marpet in the second round of the 2015 draft out of Division III Hobart because they saw a technician with a nasty streak, and it’s safe to say they’ve never regretted it. Though he’s never made a Pro Bowl, Marpet led the NFL with 751 pass-blocking snaps in the regular season and allowed just two sacks despite a quarterback in Jameis Winston who, shall we say, isn’t the most situationally aware fellow. Upgrading to Tom Brady should do wonders for Marpet’s ability to win at the line of scrimmage.
11. Shaq Mason, New England Patriots
12. Elgton Jenkins, Green Bay Packers
13. Trai Turner, Los Angeles Chargers
14. Connor Williams, Dallas Cowboys
15. Cody Whitehair, Chicago Bears
16. Josh Kline, Minnesota Vikings
17. Quinton Spain, Buffalo Bills
18. Zach Fulton, Houston Texans
19. Will Hernandez, New York Giants
20. Dalton Risner, Denver Broncos
2020 Center Rankings
1. Rodney Hudson, Las Vegas Raiders
In assessing the NFL’s best centers, Hudson has been in the discussion for a while now, but 2019 was finally the year in which there was definitely nobody better at the position. Not only is he a true road-grader as a run blocker and capable of handling either zone or gap responsibilities, but he also allowed zero sacks and just three total pressures on 537 pass-blocking snaps last season. No other center came close to those low totals.
2. Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles
Kelce has never been the strongest center in the NFL, but there is no player at his position more consistently adept with pulls, sweeps and second-level targets. He will allow the occasional pressure up the middle to bigger tackles, but in both pass protection and in the run game, few centers give their offensive coordinators more flexibility.
3. Erik McCoy, New Orleans Saints
The Saints took McCoy in the second round of the 2019 draft out of Texas A&M with the hope that over time, he’d be able to fill the gap left by Max Unger’s retirement. It took absolutely no time for that to happen, as McCoy proved to be excellent in all phases of his game right away. He brings formidable strength and leverage to the position, and he allowed just one sack last season in 692 pass-blocking snaps. Being a shot-caller in an offense as complex as Sean Payton’s is a tough task for any player, much less a rookie, and McCoy had few if any growing pains.
4. Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis Colts
Since the Colts selected Kelly in the first round of the 2016 draft, he’s been one of the toughest and most athletic centers in the NFL, capable of hitting his targets quickly at linebacker depth just as easily as he’ll handle a nose tackle’s bull rush. 2019 was a down year for Indianapolis’ passing game following Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement, but it didn’t affect Kelly, who gave up one sack and 15 total pressures all season.
5. Mitch Morse, Buffalo Bills
The Bills pried Morse away from the Chiefs before the 2019 season, and just as he had in Kansas City, Morse proved to be one of the more mobile, agile and tough players at his position in the league. Not only did he run point for the Bills’ aggressive, multi-faceted run game, but he also allowed just one sack and 16 total pressures on 600 pass-blocking snaps.
6. Brandon Linder, Jacksonville Jaguars
In many ways, Linder is the prototype at the modern center position. He’s strong enough and athletic enough, and while there isn’t anything about him that necessarily stands out, he’s smart enough to know how to beat interior defenders with angles and leverage, and he’s tough enough to help his running backs pry open gaps. Last year, despite a tenuous quarterback situation, he allowed no sacks and no quarterback hits in 735 pass-blocking snaps.
7. Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons
At 34 and coming off his 11th NFL season, Mack isn’t the most agile center in the game, but mobility hasn’t been his primary attribute for a long time. Instead, Mack uses leverage, toughness and a coach-level understanding of his position to pry open rushing lanes and keep interior defenders away from Matt Ryan.
8. Frank Ragnow, Detroit Lions
Ragnow played 1,086 snaps at left guard for the Lions during his rookie season of 2018, then switched over and played 1,021 snaps at center in 2019, and he proved more than adept at both positions. Not only is he an outstanding power blocker when that’s required, but his movement skills also allow him to do more than just hang around in a phone booth. He allowed just two sacks last season.
9. JC Tretter, Cleveland Browns
Throughout his career with the Packers and Browns, the former fourth-round draft pick out of Cornell has been one of the more enjoyable players to watch at his position. If you like a center who can fire out to the second level with top-shelf footwork, Tretter is your guy. He’s not the most powerful player on this list, but he makes up for it with smarts and leverage when it’s time to handle a 340-pound nose tackle. And despite the quixotic nature of Cleveland’s passing attack in 2019, Tretter allowed just one sack and 16 quarterback hurries over 652 pass-blocking snaps.
10. Ryan Jensen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jensen played all over the line in his three years with the Ravens after Baltimore took him in the sixth round of the 2013 draft out of Colorado State-Pueblo. But when the Bucs signed him to a four-year, $42 million contract before the 2018 season — a deal that was thought by many to be an overpay at the time — Jensen slotted in as Tampa Bay’s center and never looked back. He’s the perfect interior blocker for a high-volume passing game; Jensen has allowed just two sacks in 1,524 pass-blocking snaps over the last two seasons.
11. Graham Glasgow, Denver Broncos
12. Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh Steelers
13. Matt Skura, Baltimore Ravens
14. Weston Richburg, San Francisco 49ers
15. James Daniels, Chicago Bears
16. Connor McGovern, New York Jets
17. David Andrews, New England Patriots
18. Nick Martin, Houston Texans
19. A.Q. Shipley, Arizona Cardinals
20. Ted Karras, Miami Dolphins