Sorry to trigger you Carolina Panthers fans out there, but offensive line is the next spot up in our NFC South rankings. So just take a deep breath.
Now, we know this particular position group has been a bugaboo here for much too long. But, in the second year of the Matt Rhule rebuild, has it begun to improve?
And if the offensive line has improved, how low do they go in these divisional ranks? Let’s find out.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Well, we didn’t have to go too far to find out now, did we? And are you really surprised? Carolina’s offensive front, as it’s been for seemingly a lifetime, is still a major work in progress. We can start with the interior, with center 31-year-old Matt Paradis who did have a decent rebound from his 2019, but is very much a step below the rock he was in Denver. Then, at guard, we’ll presumably be having a pair of battles between Pat Elflein, Dennis Daley, John Miller and possibly Brady Christensen (not exactly marquee names at the moment), all vying for starting spots. The most glaring weakness is at left tackle, where we’ll see a picking of the poison between Cameron Erving and Greg Little. If Erving wins the job, which seems to be where this Sophie’s choice is going, he’ll be the 15th different starter on the blindside since 2013. Carolina’s saving grace is right tackle Taylor Moton. And they know it. Moton’s efficiency in both pass protection and in the run game is easily noticeable thanks to his power, slick footwork and overall athleticism. As a group, however, there are just simply too many question marks considering the inexperience of its younger players and the proven ineffectiveness of its veterans.
Curtis Compton/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta doesn’t boast much better of an offensive line than Carolina does. But at least they go to sleep knowing they have more than one spot they don’t have to worry about. One of those is at left tackle with Jake Matthews. While he’s not been amongst the very elite at the position, the former sixth overall pick has been a trustworthy presence for much of his seven-year career. The Falcons may also have a pair of keepers manning the right side in guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary. Lindstrom, whose selection infamously disappointed Atlanta fans in 2019, had a respectable 2020 campaign and McGary, who still has some room to improve, took a tangible step forward from his less-than-stellar rookie season. Rounding out the bunch, or at least favored to, may be 2021 third-rounder Jalen Mayfield at left guard and Matt Hennessy, entering just his second year, at center.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Continuity was apparently the theme this offseason for the reigning Super Bowl champions and their offensive line was no exception. The Buccaneers will be bringing back their entire starting line, one that doesn’t really have an urgent weakness in any spot. Left tackle Donovan Smith’s ascent has been smooth and steady, the interior trio of Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa is quite reliable and right tackle and 2020 13th overall selection Tristan Wirfs was fantastic right off the bat. That front allowed a sack percentage of just 3.54 percent this past year, the third-lowest in the league.
New Orleans Saints
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Head coach Sean Payton and his Saints just seem to be ahead of the vast majority of the league in quite a few areas. This is one of them. New Orleans currently rosters the best starting tackle duo in the game, with the consistently great Terron Armstead on the left and ever-improving and already top-level talent in Ryan Ramczyk on the right. Ramczyk is so top-level, in fact, that the team didn’t lallygag around in securing their stud right tackle with a five-year, $96 million extension. (You’re up next, Carolina.) While not on the level of those two particular teammates, center Erik McCoy has filled the starting duties admirably. The 2019 second-rounder has started and played through each of the team’s 32 games since being drafted and has been more than serviceable. Plus, their pair of guards in Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz, despite some relatively lower grades at the hands of Pro Football Focus, do have the tools to improve and some versatility that could be useful in some potentially sticky spots. This is not only the top OL unit in the division, but one of the best in the game. [vertical-gallery id=637707]