The 5 Best Pass-Blocking Offensive Lines in 2015
I always feel left out when people recount their "glory years" of playing high school football. Mostly because I sucked. I was able to conquer the basics of offensive line (being a chubster), but the rest of the job didn't quite come as easily.
In my final game, my team was facing a defensive line that had some big, fast hombres on it. Not a great scenario for the stub-legged, short-armed, younger version of me who was playing right guard.
This churned out possibly the least athletic play in the history of sports. As I dropped into my kick step, one of the other team's players got into his pass rush, extending his arms into my torso. With seemingly zero effort, he threw me backwards, folding my body at the knees into one oddly-shaped heap.
The end result? Spraining both ankles at the same time. I walked like the dude in QWOP for the next month, never to punish the eyes of football watchers again.
Thankfully, not all offensive linemen struggle to remain upright as much as I did. Some -- shockingly -- actually provide their quarterbacks with protection, allowing them to sling the ball all over the field.
Perhaps it's because of my own past incompetency, but I feel that these players are deserving of more credit. Quarterbacks don't just rack up amazing metrics all by themselves; they need some girth up front to allow them to do what they do best.
Let's attempt to dole out some of this dap using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of schedule.
NEP works differently than other measures such as yards per attempt and quarterback efficiency. In those metrics, a seven-yard completion on 3rd and 6 is the same as one on 3rd and 8; in reality, the value between those two results is very different. NEP tracks the changes in expected points on each play over the course of the year, giving us a better idea of which teams truly were the most efficient.
Obviously, we're not going to be able to completely take the quarterback out of the equation. Some quarterbacks release the ball more quickly than others, allowing their offensive line's numbers to look a bit prettier as a result. That means the list below is going to be an inexact science, but it will combine measures of which teams allowed the fewest sacks per drop back and lost the fewest expected points per drop back. Here are five offensive lines that excelled in both areas.
New York Jets
Most Frequent Starters: D'Brickashaw Ferguson, James Carpenter, Nick Mangold, Brian Winters, Breno Giacomini
In 2015, Ryan Fitzpatrick became the first New York Jets quarterback since Chad Pennington in 2008 to finish in the top 10 in Total NEP (which includes both rushing and passing abilities). A big part of his success can be chalked up to the offensive line.
On the 581 times that Fitzpatrick dropped back to pass this season, he only took a sack 19 times. This equates to 3.27 percent of his drop backs, the third best rate in the league among quarterbacks with 100 drop backs.
Additionally, the sacks that did occur didn't end up costing the team too dearly.
In order to quantify this, I divided the expected points lost on sacks by the total number of drop backs, giving us a Sack NEP per drop back for each player. This could be used to find how much a player's Passing NEP per drop back decreased strictly as a result of sacks, if you were inclined to find such information.
Fitzpatrick finished the year with -0.05 Sack NEP per drop back, again the third best total in the league. This isn't a knock on Fitzpatrick's abilities as a passer, but the effectiveness of his offensive line certainly amped up his efficiency this year.
St. Louis Rams
Most Frequent Starters: Greg Robinson, Jamon Brown, Tim Barnes, Garrett Reynolds, Rob Havenstein
It's super awkward to speak highly of a St. Louis Rams offense that finished dead last in Adjusted Passing NEP per play. It was ugly and abominable, but it doesn't look like you can blame the offensive line for it.
As bad as Nick Foles was, he still managed to finish ninth in Sack NEP per drop back. This put him two spots behind the player who supplanted him in the starting lineup in Case Keenum. Two of the nine best Sack NEP per drop back marks came from Rams quarterbacks. That's a hefty endorsement of the boys up front.
If we just look at raw sack rate, things get even better for the Rams. Here, Keenum finished second with Foles in fifth place. With this being the case, it's hard to pin the offense's inefficiencies on the offensive line. They appear to have done their job exceptionally well.
So if Foles wasn't losing efficiency because of his offensive line, how bad was he with his arm? This is not a question that the faint of heart should be asking. The numbers are NSFW.
Overall, Foles finished 43rd in Passing NEP per drop back out of 46 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs at -0.17. When we take out the NEP lost on sacks, Foles improves to -0.09. This makes him the worst quarterback in the league, trailing second-worst Zach Mettenberger by a considerable margin. Not great, Bob!.
What does this mean moving forward? The Rams have some decent pieces in place offensively. Todd Gurley seems like a quality running back, and the offensive line is clicking along well. It's just unfortunate that the play of their quarterback has lowered the reputation of a unit that is truly set up for long-term success.
Most Common Starters: Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert
The Pittsburgh Steelers were also featured as one of the best run-blocking teams earlier this week. I think they might be good.
Even with the injuries to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers still managed to finish seventh in Adjusted Passing NEP per play. Considering how much of an abomination Michael Vick was, that seems pretty sweet. The offensive line deserves at least part of the credit.
Roethlisberger ranked sixth in the league in sack rate for the year and fourth in Sack NEP per drop back. His 489 drop backs resulted in only 20 sacks, making him one of only three quarterbacks with at least 400 drop backs who was sacked 20 times or fewer.
All of this came despite sustaining significant injuries up front. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL in the sixth game of the season and was placed on injured reserve. Veteran center Maurkice Pouncey sustained a broken ankle in the preseason and never played a snap. Losing two key members up front -- in addition to your quarterback for a stretch -- and still finding success is a feat deserving of major accolades.
Most Common Starters: James Hurst, Kelechi Osemele, Jeremy Zuttah, Marshal Yanda, Ricky Wagner
Speaking of injuries, woof. The Baltimore Ravens have seen some stuff this year in that department, y'all. They ended the year with 18 players on injured reserve, including two of their starting offensive linemen. That should make their inclusion on this list all the more impressive.
The Ravens used four different starting quarterbacks this year; none of them were sacked on more than 3.57 percent of their drop backs, a number that would have ranked fifth in the league overall. Joe Flacco was slightly better than that at 3.51 percent, but Ryan Mallett was the star sack-avoiding pupil at an absurd 2.06 percent.
When we look at Sack NEP per drop back, Flacco does drop down to eighth, but he actually had the worst mark of the four. None of the other three had enough drop backs to qualify, but Mallett and Jimmy Clausen would have finished second, and Matt Schaub would have been fifth. That type of consistency is eye-popping.
All of this came despite left tackle Eugene Monroe only being able to play six games because of multiple injuries. Center Jeremy Zuttah hit injured reserve with seven games left. The offensive line still got the job done. Given all of the other things that went wrong, these men can serve as an example of one thing that did go right for the Ravens in 2015.
Most Common Starters: Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati, Lyle Sendlein, Ted Larsen, Bobby Massie
It would seem misguided to make a list like this without including the league's most efficient passing offense in the Arizona Cardinals. Having a boss like Carson Palmer helps, but these puppies were cooking, too.
Palmer finished the year ranked seventh in sack rate at 4.27 percent. This is a continuation of what the offense did last year at 4.70 percent despite being without Palmer for a good chunk of the season.
This translated over into expected points, as well. Palmer had -0.08 Sack NEP per drop back, the 11th best total in the league and 8th among quarterbacks with at least 300 drop backs. No matter how you slice it, Arizona was solid yet again.
As with the Steelers, the Cardinals were also in our look at run-blocking offensive lines. Combining that with guys like David Johnson, Michael Floyd, and John Brown could allow the team to thrive even if Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald were to fall off a bit. There's a reason they're our favorites to win Super Bowl 50, and the success doesn't seem like it will stop with the 2015 season thanks in large part to their offensive line.