You know the times, they are a changin’, when the Cleveland Browns are mentioned in connection with something good on the football field. In 2017, the Browns boast one of the best offensive lines in the entire NFL.
Hard on their heels, though, are the Pittsburgh Steelers, who feature a line that surrendered a paltry 18 sacks last season to a quarterback who had become accustomed to running for his life. The Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals are both a work in progress when it comes to the offensive line.
1. Cleveland Browns
One of the biggest acquisitions for the Browns this offseason was right guard Kevin Zeitler, who had been a stalwart of the Cincinnati Bengals line since he was selected in the first round with the 27th pick of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Zeitler is a Pro Bowl caliber player who finished 2016 as the seventh-ranked guard, according to Pro Football Focus. In addition to being one of the better performers at his position, Zeitler is durable, having missed only eight games through his first five seasons with Cincinnati.
Shon Coleman and Cameron Erving are expected to battle for the right tackle spot this summer. Center J.C. Tretter came to the Browns from the Packers and has proven to be one of the better centers in the league, when he is healthy. But health has proven to be of major concern for Tretter, who was selected by the Packers in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Prior to his rookie season, Tretter broke his ankle prior to his rookie season and missed the entire year. In 2014, a knee injury limited him to eight games. Tretter played a full season in 2015 but health problems forced him to miss nine games in 2016. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the ninth-best center in the league last year.
Left guard Joel Bitonio played every snap of his rookie season in 2014 at left guard and was voted to the Pro Football Writers’ Association’s All-AFC team. Injuries have shortened his season the last two years. But the real strength of this line is 10-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas at left tackle. Thomas has not missed a snap since entering the NFL in 2007 and was selected first-team All-Pro in 2016 for the sixth time in his career.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
David DeCastro mans the right guard position for the Steelers, and finished the 2016 season with his second Pro Bowl nomination, as well as being named second-team All-Pro. Since his selection in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, DeCastro has played in 67 of a possible 80 regular season games.
The right tackle spot is manned by Marcus Gilbert, who is by far the Steelers’ most underrated player on the line. Gilbert is a Pro-Bowl caliber player who has 29 of a possible 32 regular season games over the past two seasons. Pittsburgh finished 1-2 in the three games that Gilbert missed.
Center Maurkice Pouncey is the patriarch of the Steelers’ line. After missing the entire 2015 season with a broken leg, Pouncey bounced back in 2016 with a Pro Bowl season (his fifth) and did not miss a start. Pouncey is a gifted athlete and is able to do things few others at his position can.
Left guard Ramon Foster is in his eighth season and started 14 games for the Steelers last season. He was Pittsburgh’s only offensive lineman not to be flagged for a single holding penalty. Since becoming a full-time starter at guard in 2011, Foster has only missed six of a possible 96 regular-season games.
Alejandro Villanueva came to the Steelers in 2014 and spent that entire season on the practice squad. Two years later, Villanueva was thrust into a starting role when Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL and has been a capable starter since.
Unfortunately for the rest of the AFC North, the Steelers offensive line looks strong and maybe even underrated this year.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Since Week 9 of the 2016 season, Ronnie Stanley has been one of the best left tackles in the NFL in terms of pass protection. During the second half of the season, Stanley had streak where he did not allow a single quarterback pressure.
Alex Lewis has been the starter at left guard and made the transition after playing tackle at Nebraska. Lewis is a strong blocker and has the skill set and size to be successful at the position. But, the Ravens lost him to a season-ending injury in the first preseason game. Coupled with the sudden retirement of John Urschel, this line is not looking great. James Hurst now appears to have the inside track for the left guard spot (moving over from left tackle) to fill in for Lewis, while Austin Howard, who the Ravens signed to a three-year, $15.025 million deal in recent weeks will take on right tackle spot and Ryan Jensen mans the center position.
The anchor of the line is right guard Marshal Yanda, who has proven himself to be among the best guards in the NFL. Yanda dominated the opposition, has been selected to numerous Pro Bowls and was the highest graded player at his position last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
For now, the Ravens’ offensive line is not at the bottom of the division, but will that last?
4. Cincinnati Bengals
With the loss of Andrew Whitworth to the Los Angeles Rams, Cedric Ogbuehi is now the starting left tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals. Ogbuehi, a first-round selection of the Bengals in the 2015 NFL Draft, failed miserably as the starting right tackle last year, but hopes are high that he can bounce back now that he is in his more natural position.
Jake Fisher, who was selected by Cincinnati in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, is the starting right tackle, although he was inconsistent at that same position in limited action last season.
Russell Bodine is firmly entrenched in the center of the Bengals’ line, even though he has consistently graded out in the bottom of the NFL throughout his four-year career.
Clint Boling at left guard is the longest-tenured Bengal and has proven himself to be a decent, if not outstanding player at the NFL level. But it is the right guard position, along with depth at tackle, that is the biggest question mark for the Bengals
The Bengals re-signed veteran Eric Winston as the backup right tackle and brought back Andre Smith, with the intention of plugging him into the right guard spot, even though it is a position Smith has never played professionally. However, Smith has been dealing with some nagging injuries during training camp and Trey Hopkins has stepped up to fill the void.
Hopkins joined the Bengals as an undrafted free agent out of Texas following the 2014 NFL Draft. After injury derailed his rookie season, Hopkin spent most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons on the practice squad. But he is really making his presence felt early on this summer.
T.J. Johnson is also in the mix as a top backup for the guard and center spots and other names to watch include Alex Redmond, Christian Westerman and rookie J.J. Dielman.
For now, the Bengals have the worst line in the division, but hopefully that changes and the players exceed expectations.