It's what's up front that counts.
Among the numerous measurements for success at the pro level, as pertinent as any is the overall quality of each team's lines on both sides of the ball.
"The quarterback is important, but if you don't have a line that could protect him, what good is it?" one veteran NFL scout said. "Look at David Carr, Joey Harrington, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, even Heath Shuler to a degree. They showed everything in college. But what happened when they came to the NFL and had a (bad) line in front of them? They developed bad habits.
"You've got to have protection. This game boils down to the ability to pressure the quarterback."
Line up last year's playoff teams if you're in need of further proof attesting to the importance of successful trench warfare in the NFL.
It's hardly a shock that 10 of last year's 12 playoff teams produced at least one player who earned a Pro Bowl berth on either the offensive or defensive line.
The two teams without Pro Bowl linemen were the AFC North champion Bengals and the NFC wild card Packers. But in the case of Green Bay, there is no denying the added line component provided by Pro Bowler Clay Matthews' outside pass rush — as well as any number of productive 3-4 hybrid outside linebacker/defensive ends around the league.
Half of the teams in last year's playoffs — division winners New England, Indianapolis, Dallas and Minnesota and wild-card participants the N.Y. Jets in the AFC and Philadelphia in the NFC — produced 2009 Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball.
The defending Super Bowl champion Saints did not have any Pro Bowl defenders, but three of their offensive linemen — ORG Jahri Evans, C Jonathan Goodwin and ORT Jon Stinchcomb — represented an O-line unit that ranked fourth in percentage of sacks allowed. The Saints shared top-10 status in that category with all four AFC East division winners — Patriots (No. 2), Bengals (No. 10), Colts (No. 1) and Chargers (No. 8) — as well as the defending NFC West champion Cardinals (No. 6).
In the following PFW exclusive front-line breakdown, we highlight the top line combinations in every division, using a formula derived from each team's O-line and D-line final grades that appeared in the Pro Football Weekly/Yahoo! Sports 2010 NFL Preview. It should be noted that the rankings do not reflect any O-line changes made after June 15, most notably the June 19 trade of former Saints OT Jammal Brown to the Redskins, which probably would, at the very least, move Washington's ranking to just below average.
In addition, we offer our NFL team-by-team combined line rankings in the accompanying chart and support our findings on the top-rated divisional lines, with comments from pro scouts and talent evaluators from around the league.
NFL TRENCH RANKINGS
|3||New York Giants||B||A-||4.0||5.0||9.0|
|10||New York Jets||B+||C+||4.5||3.0||7.5|
NFC North / Vikings (Overall ranking: first)
Projected starting offensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): OLT Bryant McKinnie, OLG Steve Hutchinson, C John Sullivan, ORG Anthony Herrera, ORT Phil Loadholt.
Projected starting defensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): DLE Ray Edwards, NT Pat Williams, UT Kevin Williams, DRE Jared Allen.
Insider comments: "You won't find two better inside than the Williams' Wall." … "I thought they paid a big price for Jared Allen given his (off-field transgressions), but he has proven me wrong so far. He keeps coming and coming. He's (tough) to block." … "The Vikings' defensive line, I don't think many would argue, is one of the best in the league, but other than Hutch (Steve Hutchinson) on the other side, I don't like their offensive line. Even Hutch is just a gritty veteran now. The right guard (Anthony Herrera) is a try-hard sluggo, and the center is (marginal). (C John) Sullivan could not start for us. … They have a lot of length on the edges and they just run (pass rushers) up the field."
AFC East / Patriots (Overall ranking: tied for second)
Projected starting offensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): OLT Matt Light, OLG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, ORG Stephen Neal, ORT Sebastian Vollmer.
Projected starting defensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): DLE Ty Warren, NT Vince Wilfork, DRE Mike Wright.
Insider comments: "I have never thought the Patriots did a great job drafting overall, but the one thing you really have to give (head coach Bill) Belichick credit for is selecting linemen. On both sides of the ball, he seldom has missed, especially at the top of the draft. (Richard) Seymour, (Vince) Wilfork, (Ty) Warren, he hit big on all of them. And I think Sebastian Vollmer is going to be a helluva player. You want to talk about developing offensive linemen — you have to tip your hat to (assistant head coach/offensive line) Dante Scarnecchia. Look at what they have done with Stephen Neal, Dan Koppen, Russ Hochstein. The list goes on and on. The one thing about that group — they are very, very smart."
NFC East / Giants (Overall ranking: tied for second)
Projected starting offensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): OLT David Diehl, OLG Rich Seubert, C Shaun O'Hara, ORG Chris Snee, ORT Kareem McKenzie.
Projected starting defensive linemen): DLE Justin Tuck, NT Barry Cofield, DT Chris Canty, DRE Mathias Kiwanuka.
Insider comments: "What is too often overlooked in New York is just how good the Giants are up front. Ernie Accorsi placed a big emphasis building those lines. He was criticized for drafting a lot of defensive linemen early in the draft when there was not a pressing need. They did it again this year. But that is how you win in the NFL." … "The O-line does not have any first-rounders, but Chris Snee is about as good as it gets. Pat Flaherty has done a great job getting that unit to play together." … "You can still make an argument for the Giants having the best defensive line in football. They really missed Steve Spagnuolo's creativity last year, but they have some horses that can get after it, and they added a few more this year."
NFC South / Saints (Overall ranking: three-way tie for fourth)
Projected starting offensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): OLT Jermon Bushrod, OLG Carl Nicks, C Jonathan Goodwin, ORG Jahri Evans, ORT Jon Stinchcomb.
Projected starting defensive linemen: DLE Alex Brown, NT Remi Ayodele, DT Sedrick Ellis, DRE Will Smith:
Insider comments: "New Orleans' line is stout. Their offensive tackles are not that great, but they don't have to be with those two guards in there. They may have the best pair of guards in the league. The tackles just don't get beat underneath. They create a pocket for (Drew) Brees to step up." … "The Saints' defensive line got better this year. Charles Grant was an underachiever. I was surprised the Bears let Alex Brown go. He has never been a sack artist, but he is very solid against the run. Will Smith is a man on the other side. The light started to come on for Sedrick Ellis last year. When he is on the field, it's a different game."
AFC South / (tie) Titans and Colts (Overall ranking: three-way tie for fourth)
Projected Titans starting offensive linemen: OLT Michael Roos, OLG Leroy Harris, C Eugene Amano, ORG Jake Scott, ORT David Stewart.
Projected Titans starting defensive linemen: DLE William Hayes, DLT Jason Jones, DRT Tony Brown, DRE Derrick Morgan.
Insider comments: "What is classic to me is that when you look at when Albert (Haynesworth) was in Tennessee, he never played 16 games. That is a fact. He was either suspended or hurt or both, but not factoring the games he missed, he still played (two out of three) snaps. (DL coach) Jim Washburn did a phenomenal job of keeping him fresh, waving him in and using him correctly. If you play him too much, he would play in spurts. The coaching staff in Tennessee is the most tenured in the league for a reason. (OL coach) Mike Munchak is exceptional. They get very consistent play out of both lines every year. Even without Haynesworth last year, they kept a lot of pressure."
Projected Colts starting offensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): OLT Charlie Johnson, OLG Mike Pollak, C Jeff Saturday, ORG Kyle DeVan, ORT Ryan Diem.
Projected Colts starting defensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): DLE Robert Mathis, DLT Antonio Johnson, DRT Daniel Muir, DRE Dwight Freeney.
Insider comments: "They did not have a lot of holes to run through last year. That was part of the problem. (Bill) Polian did not seem very happy with the offensive line, and I would venture to say that was the biggest reason. You have to remember too, with how quickly Peyton (Manning) gets rid of the ball, they are not asking those guys to hold blocks long. When you give him time, he will carve up any defense, and he usually doesn't need much. It will be interesting to see how they adjust to (OL coach) Howard Mudd retiring. He was exceptional." … "The middle of the defensive line would not start for a lot of other teams, but with the type of heat they have coming off the edges, you don't need world beaters inside. Freeney is the best in the league in my opinion, and Mathis is not far behind him. Now throw (rookie) Jerry Hughes in that mix. If you are a quarterback about to play the Colts, you know you are going to have pressure coming from both sides all day. (Defensive coordinator) Larry Coyer got a lot more aggressive last year."
AFC North / Ravens (Overall ranking: two-way tie for seventh)
Projected starting offensive linemen: OLT Michael Oher, OLG Ben Grubbs, C Matt Birk, ORG Marshal Yanda, ORT Jared Gaither.
Projected starting defensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): DT Haloti Ngata, NT Kelly Gregg, DRE Cory Redding.
Insider comments: "Haloti (Ngata) is the key to their defense. He is a wrecking ball. Gregg plays with great leverage (although) he is starting to wear down. When you talk about their front, you have to include (Terrell) Suggs. He is right there next to Freeney and DeMarcus Ware when you talk about the best pass rushers in football. I would take (OLB) Jarret Johnson any day. … What they do so well is keep their linemen fresh." … "The Ravens showed up last year — New England knew they had to stop the run to win (in the playoffs), and they still could not stop them (the Ravens). When you look at Baltimore's line, they have used a lot of high picks to build it. Michael Oher and Ben Grubbs were first-round picks. They both have been excellent. Oher has flopped sides and handled both well. Chris Chester, on the bench, was a No. 2. Marshal Yanda was a No. 3. (Jared) Gaither has been solid when he is healthy. (C Matt) Birk is getting old, but he is smart and functional."
NFC West / 49ers (Overall ranking: three-way tie for 13th)
Projected starting offensive linemen: OLT Joe Staley, OLG Mike Iupati, C Eric Heitmann, ORG Chilo Rachal, ORT Anthony Davis.
Projected starting defensive linemen: DLE Isaac Sopoaga, NT Aubrayo Franklin, DRE Justin Smith.
Insider comments: "You cannot expect offensive linemen to come in right away and become instant starters. You have to earn it in pads, and no rookie has put the pads on yet, but I would guess Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis will be starting fairly early. Physically, those two guys are very talented. (OLT Joe) Staley is solid. (ORG Chilo) Rachal cannot be moved inside — but he still blows too many assignments. The best addition to the line may turn out to be (OL coach) Mike Solari. He's a great teacher and really works at it. If Adam Snyder becomes the sixth man on the line, the line will not only be strong but deep." … "Tough and gritty is the way I would describe their defensive front. Aubrayo Franklin holds it all together inside. You know exactly what you are getting every week from Justin Smith. He's never going to be a double-digit sack artist, but he will always be very, very steady. They could still use a little more help off the edges (from the OLB position). Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson don't set your hair on fire."
AFC West / Chargers (Overall ranking: three-way tie for 16th)
Projected starting offensive linemen (2009 Pro Bowlers in bold): OLT Marcus McNeill, OLG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, ORG Louis Vasquez, ORT Jeromey Clary.
Projected starting defensive linemen: DLE Jacques Cesaire, NT Ian Scott, DRE Luis Castillo.
Insider comments: "The Chargers had a lot of guys hurt (on the O-line) last season and still did a pretty good job. Even (Scott) Mruczkowski played better last year. And then you look at how Kris Dielman was developed and how well Jeromey Clary played. (OL coach) Hal Hunter does not get enough credit for teaching angles and technique. The teaching aspect is what has diminished nowadays." … "Losing Jamal Williams was a blow to San Diego, but they showed they could plug and play last year when he went down. (OLB Shawne) Merriman has not been the same player he was before he was injured. It's (OLB) Shaun Phillips who is the unsung hero on that 'D.' How those two guys perform has a lot to do with the pressure they create.
— Nolan Nawrocki contributed to this story
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