Ranking the NFC South position groups rolls on, this time diving into the starting offensive line units around the division. Perhaps the best offensive line in the NFL resides in the South, while the Bucs unit is the best on paper that we’ve seen from the team in quite some time.
Here’s the other rankings of the divisional position groups that have been completed so far:
4. Carolina Panthers
LT Russell Okung
LG John Miller
C Matt Paradis
RG Michael Schofield
RT Taylor Moton
If Russell Okung has anything left in the tank at nearly 33 years old after playing just six games a year ago, that would be a big win for the Panthers. They haven’t had quality left tackle play for a long time, and even if it would just be for a season, Okung playing well would be huge for Teddy Bridgewater.
On the right side Taylor Moton is quietly building a strong early career for himself, as he’s set to be one of the biggest names in free agency next offseason if he can put together a strong 2020 campaign. He’s one of the few young bright spots on the Panthers roster.
Unfortunately Carolina’s interior offensive line appears to be heading in the opposite direction after trading Trai Turner a few months ago. Will 2019 draft picks Greg Little and Dennis Daley move to guard and claim starting spots? Or will average veterans in Schofield and Miller get the call once again? Paradis was a big free agent signing who the Panthers desperately need to return to his Denver form after struggling mightily last season.
Because of Okung’s injury history and Paradis’ recent drop-off, the Panthers are an easy pick for the worst offensive line in the division. That’s bad news considering I’m not sure they’re going to get the type of quarterback play needed to elevate the unit.
3. Atlanta Falcons
LT Jake Matthews
LG James Carpenter
C Alex Mack
RG Chris Lindstrom
RT Kaleb McGary
The Falcons are banking their long-term offensive line success on the play of first round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, both of whom struggled as rookies. Lindstrom didn’t play enough to get a great feel for how he’ll fare in the league, but I was a big fan of his coming out of college. I can’t say the same for McGary, who I had a fifth round grade on.
Jake Matthews’ consistently high level of play has continued for five seasons now, and you can count on him being a stud again in 2019. At some point 34-year old Alex Mack is gonna fall off, and we already saw a little bit of slippage last year. The Falcons don’t really have a starting-caliber left guard right now, unless rookie Matt Hennessy steps into that role and shines right away.
Atlanta’s offensive line has three major questions marks, one aging-but-still-good center and a quality left tackle. I think concerns about protecting Matt Ryan this season should be very real, but if the second-year players surprise, Atlanta’s OL outlook could change quickly. It’s not like they haven’t invested in their front, they just have yet to see positive results from their recent picks.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
LT Donovan Smith
LG Ali Marpet
C Ryan Jensen
RG Alex Cappa
RT Tristan Wirfs
The good news for the Bucs is that I don’t believe they have any below average starters in the lineup this season, which hasn’t been said about their offensive line in awhile. But while it may be the strongest the unit has been in some time, the right side still has plenty of questions to answer.
Alex Cappa took a big step forward in becoming a league average player last season, but can that progress continue in 2020? He has to keep getting stronger and more consistent with his technique to make good on his solid set of tools. Speaking of tools, Tristan Wirfs’ physical and athletic ceiling is through the roof, but rookie tackles generally take a little while to get rolling against NFL-caliber pass rushers. Expectations should be somewhat tempered out of the gate.
Fortunately for the Bucs, Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen were two of the best players in the NFL at their positions last season, both looking remarkably comfortable in the Bucs new offensive scheme. Donovan Smith was a bit of a roller coaster early in his career, but his play does seem to be stabilizing as a good, not great left tackle in the NFL. That’s still better than what a lot of teams around the league can say for their tackles.
The Bucs offensive line isn’t an elite unit, but it’s a group that showed a lot of growth from players like Cappa, Smith and Jensen last season, which was much-needed in a new offensive scheme. I’m hopeful that level of play can be at least maintained in 2020, if not improved upon.
1. New Orleans Saints
LT Terron Armstead
LG Andrus Peat
C Erik McCoy
RG Cesar Ruiz
RT Ryan Ramczyk
Not only do the Saints have what is easily the best offensive line in the NFC South, they might have the best unit in the entire NFL. If Terron Armstead is healthy, he and Ramczyk are two of the top eight tackles in the league. The Saints are the only team in the league that can say that.
McCoy looked like one of the best centers in the NFL as a rookie, and Peat is a solid starter who has improved over the course of his career. It remains to be seen how the team will handle the loss of right guard Larry Warford, but Cesar Ruiz was a top 20 player on my board. I think he’ll step in right away despite being just 21 years old when the season starts.
The Saints have two elite tackles, a center that appeared on his way to elite status last season and a pair of guards who you can expect to be at least above-average in 2020, if not better in the case of Ruiz. The biggest concern moving forward is Armstead and Peat’s health. Armstead has still never played all 16 games in a season (although he hit 15 a year ago), and Peat has missed nine of 32 possible games over the past two seasons.