Ranking the NFL: Best and worst offensive line units

Throughout the preseason, we’ll take a look at the best – and worst – the NFL has to offer, unit by unit. Look for a new set of rankings every few days.

They don’t get many headlines, they rarely get the primetime interviews, and the casual fan almost always overlooks them. But nothing makes an offensive click as much as a solid front five.

They are the big dogs, the heavy pushers, and when they’re playing well as a unit, they make their quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and even coaches look good.

What teams have the best offensive lines in the NFL? Who works together the best and therefore contributes the most in both the running and passing game of an offense?

Criteria for offensive line:

This unit has the easiest criteria to hash out: 100% goes to the entire unit. Without five solid contributors on the line, the unit drops dramatically.

Top 10:

1. Cincinnati Bengals
Willie Anderson, Rich Braham, Levi Jones, Eric Steinbach, Bobbie Williams
This unit could look drastically different in 2007 thanks to pending contract implications after this season, but in the now, this starting five is the absolute best in the NFL. The Bengals’ big five combined to allow a franchise single-season low in sacks with 21 in 2005. Thirteen-year vet Rich Braham and 11-year vet Willie Anderson anchor the line while former first-round pick Levi Jones has turned into a very talented left tackle, and 340-pound Bobbie Williams and 6-foot-6 monster Eric Steinbach make up the guard duo. Cincinnati has excellent depth behind their starters as well.

2. Denver Broncos
Cooper Carlisle, George Foster, Ben Hamilton, Matt Lepsis, Tom Nalen
Denver makes a claim for the top unit as well and will welcome back all five starters for the third year in a row. Tom Nalen is a nasty center that has started 167 career games while newly re-signed Matt Lepsis brings excellent athleticism to the O-line. Cooper Carlisle stepped right in at right guard last year and had a solid season. George Foster is hitting a crossroad in his career and needs to improve a little before assuring a spot next year, and Ben Hamilton will eventually take over at center once Nalen decides to retire. This is another team with tremendous depth behind its starters and helped the Broncos finish second in the NFL last year in rushing.

3. Indianapolis Colts
Ryan Diem, Tarik Glenn, Ryan Lilja, Jeff Saturday, Jake Scott
The Colts starting five was solid early on last year before slumping a bit heading into the playoffs. The same starters will return, including two Pro Bowlers in center Jeff Saturday and tackle Tarik Glenn. Jake Scott stepped up at both tackle and guard positions last year while Ryan Diem battled through some injury problems. Ryan Lilja struggled at times in ‘05 and might get pushed by second-year guard Dylan Gandy, but this unit should help ease the transition from Edgerrin James to Dominic Rhodes/Joseph Addai.

4. Seattle Seahawks
Walter Jones, Chris Gray, Robbie Tobeck, Sean Locklear, Floyd Womack
The first NFC representative listed and by far the best; the Seahawks could make an argument that they have the best line in the league. Walter Jones is a six-time Pro Bowl player and is a handful to deal with if you’re a defensive end. Chris Gray and center Robbie Tobeck are both 36 years old and have some question about how long they will play, but both are coming off of strong years. Sean Locklear is young but proved to be solid at right tackle, and could be a starter for years to come. Floyd Womack will fill in for guard Steve Hutchinson, who is now in Minnesota. Womack will have to give a better effort as far as condition is concerned, but should be productive.

5. Washington Redskins
Derrick Dockery, Jon Jansen, Casey Rabach, Chris Samuels, Randy Thomas
Some of the remaining players on this line paved the way for Clinton Portis to rush for 1,500-plus yards last season, but most of them have battled injuries recently in their careers. Chris Samuels made his third Pro Bowl despite spraining a knee midseason and Jon Jensen played with a broken thumb, but bounced back well after missing the entire 2004 season. Right guard Randy Thomas was having a career year before breaking his leg in December and Derrick Dockery is still bordering on potential rather than production. Casey Rabach was signed from Baltimore this offseason.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers
Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons, Marvel Smith, Max Starks
A team can’t win a Super Bowl with a shoddy offensive line and the champs proved that again last year. Alan Faneca is one of the best interior linemen in the NFL and is among the best in Steelers history. Jeff Hartings plays at a high level and keeps making Pro Bowls at age 34, while Kendall Simmons played well in the second half of ’05 after a rusty start following the 2004 season. Marvel Smith and Max Starks will be the tackles, both of whom are excellent pass blockers.

7. Minnesota Vikings
Matt Birk, Artis Hicks, Steve Hutchinson, Marcus Johnson, Bryant McKinnie
Speaking of the aforementioned Hutchinson, he was a big-ticket acquisition for the Vikings and, alongside Bryant “Mount” McKinnie, he should help form one of the best left sides in all of football. At one time in his career, Matt Birk was the Vikings’ best offensive lineman and Minnesota is glad to have the veteran back after missing last year with an injury. Artis Hicks and Marcus Johnson are the only real unknowns on this line, but Hicks has experience coming from a successful Eagles offense.

8. New England Patriots
Nick Kaczur, Dan Koppen, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Stephen Neal
Only one player on this unit, center Matt Light, has more than five years of NFL service. Just because they’re young, however, doesn’t mean they’re not talented. Nick Kaczur held his own as a rookie last season, making 11 starts. Dan Koppen is underrated, but is coming off of major shoulder surgery. Logan Mankins was a surprising first-round draft pick last year but was as good as advertised while Stephen Neal is quietly becoming a star at right guard.

9. Atlanta Falcons
Wayne Gandy, Matt Lehr, Todd McClure, Kynan Forney, Todd Weiner
Wayne Gandy is the only notable name in this group, but Todd McClure, Kynan Forney and Todd Weiner play with such a mean streak in the run game that this unit is worth mention. Matt Lehr was a decent free-agent pickup last year, but could stand to improve more in his second season with the team. This group works extremely well in Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme and has helped the Falcons lead the league in rushing the past two seasons. Not bad for a starting five that feature three second-day draft picks.

10. Carolina Panthers
Jordan Gross, Justin Hartwig, Evan Mathis, Mike Wahle, Travelle Wharton
This line consistently gets overlooked because of injuries to, and therefore constant shuffling of, running backs the Panthers always seem to do. Mike Wahle was a Pro Bowler in 2005 and Jordan Gross was a former first-round pick who has started every game for three-straight seasons. Justin Hartwig will be an upgrade over Jeff Mitchell, who had been wearing down the past couple of years, while Evan Mathis has tremendous size and is a leader in the clubhouse. The only weak link might be tackle Travelle Wharton, who tends to get overmatched at times while protecting Jake Delhomme’s blind side.

The Bottom 5:

28. Buffalo Bills
Melvin Fowler, Mike Gandy, Jason Peters, Tutan Reyes, Chris Villarrial
The Bills have neglected the offensive line for years and after being burned by former fourth overall selection Mike Williams, Buffalo has chosen to ignore the line again this year. Chris Villarrial is a superb pass protector but has battled injuries in the past, and while the Bills are reportedly high on everyone else in the unit, that doesn’t mean they’re any good.

29. Green Bay Packers
Kevin Barry, Chad Clifton, Daryn Colledge, Mark Tauscher, Scott Wells
Who? Brett Favre came back for this? Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are solid at the tackle positions, but the interior of this line is an absolute mess.

30. San Francisco 49ers
Larry Allen, Jonas Jennings,Jeremy Newberry, Justin Smiley, Adam Snyder
If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. So, Larry Allen is a future Hall of Fame offensive lineman. With that said, the only running back I feel sorrier for than Frank Gore is Edgerrin James in Arizona.

31. Arizona Cardinals
Milford Brown, Leonard Davis, Deuce Lutui, Oliver Ross, Reggie Wells
Speaking of which…both tackles Leonard Davis and Oliver Ross underachieved badly last year and the rest of the offensive line all have to battle for starting spots in training camp and throughout the preseason. This unit spoils an otherwise extremely talented offense in Arizona.

32. Houston Texans
Mike Flanagan, Steve McKinney, Chester Pitts, Seth Wand, Zach Wiegert
The Texans have hope on the horizon as far as their O-line is concerned with the draft selections of Charles Spencer and Eric Winston, not to mention the hiring of rookie head coach and former Denver OC Gary Kubiak. Mike Flanagan, however, is really the only quality veteran in this unit and even he has injury problems. There are just too many question marks with the rest of the four starters who have been known to give up a sack or 50. Just ask David Carr.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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