It’s shocking that June is nearly here and gone, but here at Steelers Depot we’re chugging right along, heading towards the start of training camp in Latrobe.
As we move closer to the start of camp, we also move further along in my Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series here at Steelers Depot. Last week, I ended with the tight ends room. This week, I’m picking up with the hog mollies in the trenches, the offensive line.
The top of this list might not be a surprise, but the bottom of the list might be. Let’s get to it.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better offensive line room in the NFL, let alone inside the AFC North.
For roughly 5 years now, the Steelers’ offensive line has been arguably the best unit in football in the trenches. Despite losing Mike Munchak to the same position in Denver, and trading away longtime starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals in the spring, the Steelers’ offensive line will once again stack up with the best of them heading into the 2019 season.
For all of the attention given to Alejandro Villanueva for his remarkable story (and rightfully so), it feels like a small sliver of Steelers Nation still believes Big Al is overrated. That couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s an elite left tackle in football – likely in the top 5 at the position – and combines with David DeCastro to give the Steelers two All-Pro caliber offensive linemen to protect future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger and open up rushing lanes for emerging star James Conner.
DeCastro might be the best right guard in football, and has really taken his game up a few notches, while Ramon Foster is quietly one of the most underrated guards in football. Resigning him was a priority for the Steelers to get done quickly, and it’s great to see him remain in Pittsburgh, likely for the rest of his career.
The stalwart up front has been Maurkice Pouncey, who should have a case for the Hall of Fame when all is said and done. Despite entering the twilight of his career, Pouncey is still playing at a high-end level and will once again make a push for a Pro Bowl nod and a possible All-Pro selection.
The one area of weakness in 2019 could be right tackle, where Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor will compete for the job. Feiler was pretty darn good in place of Gilbert last season, while Okorafor flashed in his lone start in Denver in place of Feiler.
Behind the starters, BJ Finney provides top-notch depth as a guard and center, while guys like Fred Johnson, Garrett Brumfield, Derwin Gray, Damian Prince, and Jerald Hawkins are intriguing pieces that could really help round out the room, giving the Steelers ridiculous depth within the most important room in football, sans quarterback.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Any offensive line that sports guys with the caliber of play that Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley possess should be near the top within the division when it comes to discussing the best offensive line rooms in the AFC North.
Yanda dealt with injuries last season, but when he was healthy he was pretty darn good moving all over the line for Baltimore. There are very few guards I’d take over Yanda in today’s game.
Stanley was up and down last season, but closed the season strong on Lamar Jackson’s blindside. Heading into Year 5, the former Notre Dame product needs to make that additional leap, but he’s a very good building block to have up front for a young, developing offensive unit.
Along with Yanda and Stanley, left guard Alex Lewis took a step forward last season while dealing with a few scary injuries, while Orlando Brown Jr. pushed his way into the starting lineup and played quite well, surprising a lot within the draft community that had questions about him coming out of Oklahoma.
The only real weakness in the starting unit up front for Baltimore is center Matt Skura. He’s a bit undersized and struggles with athletic down linemen, both in the run game and in pass protection.
Behind the starting unit, guys like James Hurst, Jermaine Eluemenor, Bradley Bozeman, former Steeler RJ Prince, and rookie Ben Powers give the Ravens some experienced depth mixed in with a high-ceiling guy in Powers.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Prior to the news of rookie Jonah Williams going down for the year with a torn labrum in his shoulder, I had a hard time deciding between Baltimore and Cincinnati for the No. 2 spot in this position group.
Last season the Bengals had the worst offensive line in the division, but Billy Price is a good, young center to build around, and with Williams and veteran Cordy Glenn holding down the two tackles spots, it was a really intriguing group.
The Williams injury really derailed this group though because it takes a possible high-end starter from Day 1 out of the picture and pushes turnstile Bobby Hart back into the starting lineup.
Glenn is certainly getting older and slower at tackle, but he was pretty solid for much of last season. Price was up and down, but I thought he closed the season strong once he was fully recovered from a torn pectoral in the buildup to the draft.
Guard Clint Boling has one starting spot locked down, while the other guard spot will likely come down to a competition between veterans John Jerry and John Miller, as well as rookie Michael Jordan in training camp. I like Miller much more than most; he flashed quite a bit in Buffalo as a force in the run game. I’m giving him the slight edge.
At right tackle, Hart signed a ridiculous free agent contract and should have been pushed to the bench for Williams, but the injury pushes him back into the starting role. That’s great news for left outside linebackers and defensive ends that will face him this season, and bad news for Andy Dalton.
Behind the perceived starting unit, Alex Redmond, Michael Jordan, Christian Westerman, Trey Hopkins, and Keaton Sutherland provide the Bengals with modest depth, although Jordan is the best guy in that group, and he’s a rookie known for versatility.
I bumped them up over the Browns simply because of another year of development for Price, the addition of Jordan to the room, and signings for Jerry and Miller in free agency as veteran depth.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are clearly the hot commodity in the AFC North, especially on offense thanks to the skill players added, but the offensive line has taken a major hit in back-to-back years with the retirement of Joe Thomas and the trade of guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants.
Last season’s rookie left tackle, Desmond Harrison, failed miserably as a possible left tackle of the future, leading to a release this offseason. Now, the Browns will likely push guard Austin Corbett out to left tackle one year after he struggled there throughout camp and preseason, forcing him to go back inside, or roll with former draft bust Greg Robinson at left tackle.
Guard Joel Bitonio remains a high-end guard in the AFC, giving the Browns a solid starter to build around, but the rest of the group is a major question mark.
Chris Hubbard was very much a disappointment in Cleveland in Year 1 of a big free agent contract, while center JC Tretter was up and down series to series, let alone game to game. He’s a fine veteran, but not one I’d feel super comfortable with if I’m Baker Mayfield.
The trading of Zeitler really hurt this unit. The loss of a starting right guard the caliber of Zeitler is hard to replace.
Veterans Eric Kush and Bryan Witzmann should battle for the starting right guard job, but if the Browns have their way, Robinson will start at left tackle, forcing Corbett over to right guard. Counting on a guy who was a draft bust for the Rams years ago is a huge gamble, but Robinson was solid in limited action last season. We’ll see there.
Behind the starting unit, I’m really high on rookie Drew Forbes, who can play tackle and guard. He’s a throwback offensive lineman that just wants to kick the crap out of the guy across from him. He could work his way into a prominent role in Cleveland in a year or two.
Along from Forbes, the Browns are really young behind the starting unit. Kyle Kalis and Willie Wright are first and second-year players at center behind Tretter, while Kendall Lamm is the most experienced backup tackle for Cleveland. If any of the starters go down or fail to protect Mayfield, look out.
There are just a ton of question marks up front for the Browns on offensive. If they can’t figure it out along the offensive line, it will derail a promising roster.