The top five best, worst and most improved offensive lines in the NFL

There’s a secret that most good fantasy football owners don’t want you to know: Knowing how good (or how bad) an offensive line is could be the difference between you making the playoffs in your league, and winning the whole damn thing.

The bottom line is that the offensive line is the key to whether or not an offense is going to be successful in any given season. They’re the reason why guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brews are able to rack up terrific passing yards year in and year out, and why Brandon Jacobs, Michael Turner and Adrian Peterson continue to be solid fantasy backs. So knowing which O-lines are quality and which act like revolving doors to their team’s backfield will give you an edge on draft day.

Below is a ranking of the top five best lines, the top five most improved lines and the top five worst lines in the NFL heading into the ’09 season. Use these rankings as a tool to help you make better decisions on draft day and to also aid you when you’re stuck between a couple of players in later rounds.

Granted, we’re not advocating bumping certain players to the top of your pre-draft rankings just based on these rankings. The Lions offensive line is the worst in football, but if Kevin Smith is there for the taking in the 5th round, by all means jump on him. This article is purely meant to be a helpful aid; obviously you still have to use solid judgment on draft day.

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Will Stafford start for Lions in Week 1?

There have been mixed reports the past couple days on whether or not rookie Matthew Stafford will start under center for the Lions in Week 1 of the 2009 season.

ESPN’s John Clayton says no chance:

It would take an incredible preseason for rookie Matthew Stafford to beat out Daunte Culpepper in Detroit, but Stafford does have an incredible arm.

Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski says he might:

The reality is Stafford, the first overall pick in the draft, is on the fast track to become the Lions’ starting quarterback when the season opens Sept. 13 in New Orleans. So far, Stafford has passed every test with flying colors and cleared every hurdle with plenty of room to spare.

I should note that Kowalski stressed that the Lions are going to proceed with extreme caution with Stafford and that fans should exercise some patience when it comes to the former No. 1 overall pick starting this season. But it is interesting to see two members of the national media come to two different takes on this subject. And before anyone discredits Kowalski (especially when compared to Clayton’s take), keep in mind that he spends more time at Allen Park than Clayton does.

Personally, I think the Lions should park Stafford on the sidelines until GM Martin Mayhew is able to build a more talented roster. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson is a stud, running back Kevin Smith is a developing player, and rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew could emerge as a quality playmaker as well. But Detroit’s offensive line is brutal and there’s no need for Stafford to get trampled on with Daunte Culpepper willing and waiting to serve as a beating post for opposing defenders. Plus, the defense might show a little bit of improvement this year with the additions of Larry Foote, Phillip Buchanon, Grady Jackson and Louis Delmas, but chances are the Lions are still going to be playing from behind a lot this season, which is never a good situation for a rookie quarterback trying to learn on the job.

Detroit should let Culpepper play rag doll this season and give Mayhew at least one more offseason to acquire more talent. Then maybe next year Stafford can become the full-time starter.

Will the Lions start Stafford in Week 1?

Even though training camp is still over a month away, the talk in Detroit right now is whether or not the Lions should start rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford in Week 1 of the regular season.

Before we debate this topic, let’s get something out of the way first because I know there’s a commenter out there who just can’t wait to throw out this boring, overused statement: It’s way too early to know whether or not Stafford should start Week 1 considering it’s only June and we haven’t seen him take one snap against live action (either in practice or preseason).

But I’m going to throw the topic out there anyway because it takes the sting out of knowing that the NFL season is still light years away. So save all of your, “It’s way too early to tell,” comments and tuck them under your pillow to be used at another time.

There will be two names that some Lions fans will throw out there when making the argument that Stafford should start as a rookie: Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. If Ryan and Flacco could respectively lead the Falcons and Ravens to the playoffs, why couldn’t Stafford do the same with the Lie-Downs?

The difference is that Ryan and Flacco had help. The Falcons hit a home run with free agent running back Michael Turner, who carried the ball 376 times and helped take the burden off Ryan by opening up lanes in the passing game. Ryan also benefited from having a solid receiver corps (led by Roddy White), as well as an offensive line that overachieved and stayed healthy. Don’t forget that Ryan was also considered one of the most NFL-ready quarterbacks to come out of college in the past couple years.

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Offseason Blueprint: Detroit Lions

Notable Free Agents: Dan Orlovsky, QB, Rudi Johnson, RB; Jason Hanson, K; Shaun Cody, DT; Paris Lenon, LB.

Projected 2009 Cap Space: $26,000,000

Draft Order: 1

Top Needs: A team doesn’t go 0-16 by accident. The Lions have major holes to fill at every position although offensive line, quarterback and secondary are arguably their biggest needs.

Offseason Outlook: Where do I start? This team is such an utter mess that it’s going to take new GM Martin Mayhew at least 2-3 years to rebuild the roster. And that’s assuming most of his moves pan out.

Even though it would be a long, slow process, Mayhew’s best approach would be to blow up the entire roster and start over. The two biggest problems with the Matt Millen era is that it lacked direction and he couldn’t spot talent if it fell from the sky and dropped in his lap. What Mayhew needs to do is build from the inside out and it all starts with the offensive line.

Many will argue that the Lions need a franchise starting quarterback first and foremost, but without an offensive line it won’t matter who they have under center. That’s why drafting Virginia’s Eugene Monroe with the first overall pick might be Detroit’s best move. Monroe is the type of player that could anchor the Lions’ offensive line for years to come and considering the team has a decent amount of cap space, Detroit could get a piece or two in free agency to help rebuild the offensive line as well. (Although the top available linemen – Matt Birk, Mike Goff, Mark Tauscher – are all over the age of 30.)

Even though it would pain most Lion fans to watch either Daunte Culpepper or Drew Stanton take another snap under center, the fact is that the other options aren’t that great either. The Patriots seem content to hang onto Matt Cassel and even if they weren’t, it would take multiple draft picks (multiple draft picks the Lions need to help rebuild the roster) and mucho dinero to acquire him from New England. And unless Jeff Garcia (already a failed experiment in Detroit), Rex Grossman or Kyle Boller gets your motor running, the unrestricted free agent market isn’t too promising either. In fact, the Lions’ best option at quarterback next year might still be on the roster in Jon Kitna. He was too happy with the way the team placed him on IR with a back injury midway through the season last year, but the coaching regime that made that decision isn’t in Detroit anymore. He could essentially be a solid stopgap at quarterback so the Lions could address the offensive line and defense this offseason.

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Week 10 NFL Primer

Donovan McNabbSunday’s Best: Giants (7-1) at Eagles (5-3)
If you don’t like a good ‘ol fashion NFC East battle than you don’t like America. The Giants need a win to stay two games up on the Redskins in the division while the Eagles need a victory just to keep pace. Neither team has huge injury concerns so we’re about to see the best each squad has to offer. The G-Men swept the series between these two teams last year and sacked Donovan McNabb 12 times, which tied an NFL record. But the Eagles have won three straight and have averaged 31 points per game in those victories. Keeping McNabb healthy and upright has been the key, which will again be a main concern for the Eagles against a stout Giants’ pass rush. Perhaps no team in the league plays better on the road than Tom Coughlin’s bunch, but Philadelphia is always a tough environment to play in and the Giants will look to neutralize Jim Johnson’s blitz-happy defense by running the back effectively with Brandon Jacobs. Neither team turns the ball over very much, so this game will likely come down to which squad forces their opponent out of their game plan first.

Upset Watch: Seahawks at Dolphins, 1:00 PM ET
An easier upset to call might be Detroit over Jacksonville with how bad the Jaguars have looked the past two weeks. But I’m willing to bet the Jags can handle Daunte Culpepper much better than they did Ryan Fitzpatrick last Sunday. There’s everything to love about the Dolphins and nothing about the Seahawks, but that’s exactly why I like Mike Holmgren’s bunch this week. Typically teams that travel from the West to East don’t fare well, but the Hawks were just in Florida to play the Bucs so they’re used to the travel preparations. Miami has been the talk of the NFL the past two weeks, which means they’re in uncharted territory. They’re due for a letdown and while the Seahawks are missing six starters and have zero offense, the underdog has covered the last six games involving the Dolphins. Okay, so Miami might win. But the Hawks cover the 9-point spread after falling behind early.

Rex GrossmanIntriguing matchup: Titans at Bears, 1:00 PM ET
Even though pundits have been impressed with the Titans’ start, you get the feeling that everyone is waiting for them to stumble eventually. They aren’t blowing teams out by any means and narrowly escaped defeat last week at home against Green Bay. Chicago starts a pissed off Rex Grossman this weekend and while that normally spells trouble, he did rally the Bears last week against Detroit. Word is that it’s supposed to snow in Chicago this Sunday, which only plays into the Bears’ hands. They’re so banged up on defense that the Titans still have the advantage, but don’t be surprised if this is the week Tennessee is finally tripped.

Other notable games:
Saints (4-4) at Falcons (5-3), 1:00 PM ET
This game is going to reach the mid-50’s or 60’s by its conclusion. Even without Reggie Bush, the Saints’ offense is a juggernaut, but they’ve struggled defensively and will be without DE Charles Grant for the rest of the year due to injury. Rookie Matt Ryan has been nothing short of phenomenal this year and has the Falcons thinking playoffs. Teams have forced him to beat them through the air, which he has. This is one of the more underrated rivalries in the league and a sure bet for a shootout this weekend.

Bills (5-3) at Patriots (5-3), 1:00 PM ET
Bill Belichick should be ashamed of the way he game planned for the Colts last week and will no doubt be looking to smoke division rival Buffalo to get back on track. The Bills, meanwhile, have lost two games in a row because Trent Edwards can’t keep the turnovers low. The Jets are right in the mix too, but a win in this game is huge for the division.

Colts (4-4) at Steelers (6-2), 4:15 PM ET
Indy got back on track last week with a win over the Patriots, now they have to show that they can be consistent. The Steelers thumped the Skins on the road last Monday, but are coming off a short week and could be without Ben Roethlisberger. Can Byron Leftwich lead Pittsburgh to another victory? Or has the return of Bob Sanders lifted the Colts?

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