Packers have best OL in NFL

Updated: September 24, 2004, 4:44 PM ET
By PFW Staff | Pro Football Weekly

In The Trenches
It goes beyond not being the most photogenic subjects in the league, but offensive linemen simply aren't the cover boys for the NFL.

Yet, ask the Pro Bowl skill-position players they protect, and you realize just how valuable a 330-pound offensive guard can be.

Identified by nicknames such as "Hogs" to "Dirtbags" and generically dubbed "Big Uglies," offensive linemen may be considered second-class citizens by most fans. But without them, great players such as Priest Holmes wouldn't have it so easy. There's a reason the Chiefs' offensive line has been adorned with pricey gifts, from watches to big-screen plasma televisions -- they clear paths for Holmes and keep defensive linemen at arm's length from quarterback Trent Green.

An offseason poll of scouts revealed no team has a better wall of protection than the Packers, the only offensive line in the NFL that returned all five starters from Week One of 2003. The Chiefs, who replaced right tackle John Tait with former Eagles left guard John Welbourn, were a very close second. The Chiefs' O-line is solid from tackle to tackle, but decorated veteran right guard Will Shields is the best of the bunch.

Shields is a member of the Pro Football Weekly Ultimate Offensive Line Insider. The top five lines in the league are also identified in the piece below, as we give O-linemen their day in the sun.

-- PFW Staff
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There's no bell cow, no one dominant blocker in the mold of, say, a Jonathan Ogden on the the Packers' offensive line.

But the Packers are blessed with five highly efficient linemen who complement one another and know what to expect from the player on either side of him. This season marks their fourth season together as starters, an impressive claim considering it comes in a time when turnover has become the norm due to free agency. Their most notable trademark might be their cohesiveness, as matter-of-fact as that might sound.

"It's called a team game," said Larry Beightol, OL coach of the Packers and a veteran of 20 NFL seasons. "We're not talking about just one offensive lineman, we're talking about an offensive line: having a solid player at every spot. That's the difference. It's the sum of the parts." It's not a faceless or undecorated line by any means.

Right guard Marco Rivera has been selected to the past two Pro Bowls. Center Mike Flanagan joined him last year in Hawaii, and left guard Mike Wahle received All-Pro consideration in several national publications. In Pro Football Weekly's preseason poll of scouts, personnel directors and general managers, offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher were both ranked among the top 16 tackles in the game.

None of the five was a first-round pick, but none was picked up from a rummage sale, either. All were drafted by former Packers general manager Ron Wolf. Clifton and Wahle were taken in the second round, Flanagan in the third, Rivera in the sixth and Tauscher in the seventh.

Clifton is the best pass blocker in the group. Along with being light on his feet at 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, he's as wide as a two-stall garage. "That's his forte," said Beightol. "He has great knee bend, quick hands and the ability to get those hands inside on a defender. That's probably his No. 1 asset."

Once described by Wolf as "The Pillsbury Doughboy," Tauscher's athletic ability belies his looks. A squat 6-4, 320, he's not your typical slow-footed, road-grader at right tackle. He was both an All-Conference basketball and baseball player in high school.

"A tough guy, a lot tougher than that baby-face might indicate," said Beightol of Tauscher. "He's a solid run blocker, a solid pass blocker. Tausch can do almost anything. He's really a good athlete for somebody as big as he is."

Wahle pulls and leads on the Packers' signature running play: the counter-gap. And he not only moves well on the run, he usually finishes with a wallop.

"He's a very athletic guy. He's tough, physical, smart," said Beightol. "If we were assessing each of their strengths, that would be his: blocking in space."

Brett Favre
Rivera is seemingly indestructible. He had played in 83 consecutive games entering the season despite spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the preseason a year ago, tearing his MCL in both knees during the 2002 season and breaking his left hand late in the 2001 season. Three of the last four years, he has graded out as the Packers' best lineman, although he might be the slowest and least athletic of the bunch.

"He's the pure warrior of the group," said Beightol. "He's probably as tough physically and mentally as anybody I've ever had the pleasure of coaching. He's solid in everything. He's just such a fierce competitor. He's an old pro, a throwback."

Flanagan has the athletic ability to pull from the center position. Two years ago, when Clifton went down with an injury, he started seven games at left tackle.

"Plays with tremendous leverage," said Beightol. "He's not a 300-pounder, but he has deceiving strength. I think it surprises people. He has very good quickness -- hand quickness, body quickness, foot quickness."

Kevin Barry, a backup tackle, also is an integral part of the offensive line. He lines up as an extra tight end in the Packers' often-used U-71 formation -- Barry's jersey number -- and brings a load. He's the best drive blocker of the group.

Having been together for four years -- although Flanagan and Wahle didn't establish themselves as starters until '01 -- the five starters have an advantage in that they are assignment-sure, able to make quick calls at the line and will make adjustments on the fly.

"That's where you see a lot of younger lines and even us when we were getting started, if you have any breakdowns, it ruins the play," said Tauscher. "When you get a little more experience, you can pick that up a lot quicker and see what they're trying to do before they do it."

The line also has benefited from playing in front of the same quarterback and running back, Brett Favre and Ahman Green, respectively -- maybe as good a one-two combination at those positions as any in the game.

Not only has Green rushed for more yards than any back in the league since 2000, he can hit the home run. He has five touchdown runs of 60 yards or more in the past three years.

"We have to give him a chance to get into those holes, but you can't block everybody," said Tauscher. "He makes guys miss and he makes the right read almost every time."

The Packers also allowed only 19 sacks last year, tied for second fewest in the league. Although Favre's mobility isn't what it once was, he still takes pressure off the line by rolling out of the pocket and making hair-trigger decisions from three- and five-step drops.

"As far as protection goes, Brett is the best in the business," said Tauscher. "He knows where he's going with the ball. O-lines are only as good as the quarterbacks."

And vice versa.

Best of the rest


2. Kansas City Chiefs
Starters: OLT Willie Roaf (34 years old), OLG Brian Waters (27), C Casey Wiegmann (31), ORG Will Shields (33), ORT John Welbourn (28).

ChiefsScouts believe Priest Holmes, a good player with Baltimore when healthy, became a great player in part because he fits offensive coordinator Al Saunders' system to a T, and in part due to a dominant offensive line. Holmes has averaged 100.9 yards per game in the regular season in his first 47 games in Kansas City. In addition, quarterback Trent Green landed in his first Pro Bowl in 2003 after throwing for a career-high 4,039 yards. When the Chiefs get in a groove, often with tight end Jason Dunn serving as an additional blocker, they can hand defenses the play-call and still move the chains. "They can all five run, bend their knees and play low to the ground," said Mike Solari, Chiefs offensive line coach. "As far as OL comparisons in the NFL, (we have) a very athletic group. What is unique to us is they aren't only athletic, they are physical and can move you off the line of scrimmage. They block the perimeter and can block the second level. Coach (Dick) Vermeil realizes the importance of line play. ... Big people decide the outcome of the game." The Chiefs may have pulled ahead of the Packers in PFW's rankings had right tackle John Tait remained in Kansas City, but Tait is the highest-paid player at his position this season after signing in Chicago as a transition free agent. New starter John Welbourn, acquired on Draft Day from Philadelphia, still is getting adjusted to the Chiefs' system. "If you don't have the unity and cohesiveness, there's disruption, a breakdown -- sacks, negative-yardage plays," Solari said. "John is an outstanding fit. He brings attitude and toughness to the group. We're behind in the sense of his foundation of the offense, the (repetitions) and knowing adjustments and techniques."

3. Seattle Seahawks
Starters: OLT Walter Jones (30 years old), OLG Steve Hutchinson (26), C Robbie Tobeck (34), ORG Chris Gray (34), ORT Chris Terry (29).

SeahawksOffensive tackle Walter Jones and offensive guard Steve Hutchinson on the left side get most of the ink, but Seahawks offensive line coach Bill Laveroni believes the key to his unit's success is its closeness and cohesiveness. "They're a great group of workers with a great amount of loyalty toward each other," Laveroni said. "Their main concern is playing up to their own expectations as a group." Scouts have called Jones the premier pass-blocking tackle in the NFL. Praised for his work ethic and veteran presence, Hutchinson is a sound technician and one of the top young linemen in the league. Right tackle Chris Terry is an underrated piece of the puzzle when focused. Terry has great height and athletic ability, but he doesn't always play with good leverage and has costly concentration lapses. The self-made interior of Tobeck and Gray may lack raw talent, but both players consistently overachieve and are tremendous effort-types in the run game. "Tobeck is the most vocal guy," Laveroni said. "He keeps everybody going in the right direction. You don't hear much about centers, but he's a key guy for us." The Seattle line was a luxury that aided in the development of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who tied for third in the NFC with an 88.8 passer rating in 2003.

4. Minnesota Vikings
Starters: OLT Bryant McKinnie (25 years old), OLG Chris Liwienski (29), C Matt Birk (28), ORG David Dixon (35), ORT Mike Rosenthal (27 -- Out for the season -- replaced by Adam Haayer or Nat Dorsey).

VikingsIn terms of potential, few teams have an edge on the Vikings' blossoming front five. It has continuity, having started 18 straight games as a unit. Dixon (6-5, 350) is extremely one-dimensional. A steamroller with horsepower in the run game, Dixon can be effective enough in pass blocking. "He's a guy where, even if he stood still," offensive line coach Steve Loney said last season, "he's difficult to get around." McKinnie remains green in terms of experience. His upside leads to unfair parallels to the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden, to whom McKinnie compares in size, weight and reach, but not pure athleticism or natural ability to recover. Center Matt Birk, a three-time Pro Bowler, hasn't missed a start since 1999. He would likely move to left tackle in an emergency situation. Liwienski is overlooked, but he's made great strides since moving from right tackle after Rosenthal arrived in 2003. Rosenthal, who suffered a season-ending foot injury against the Eagles, will be replaced at right tackle by either Adam Haayer or Nat Dorsey.

5. Denver Broncos
Starters: OLT Matt Lepsis (30 years old), OLG Ben Hamilton (27), C Tom Nalen (33), ORG Dan Neil (30), ORT George Foster (24).

BroncosThere is a negative stigma attached to the Broncos' offensive line, which has a reputation for leg-whipping and cut-blocking teams to death in order to make up for a lack of size and bulk strength. You can criticize its overall talent, but you can't argue the effectiveness of the group. At some point, you come to the realization that the Broncos' offensive line -- more than the revolving door at running back -- is the key to head coach Mike Shanahan's system. Three starters under 300 pounds make the Broncos' offensive line unique. Last season, the Broncos averaged 4.84 yards per carry. With runningback Clinton Portis and offesnvie line coach Alex Gibbs gone, some feared the Broncos' run of dominant play in the ground game was over. More credit should be to granted offensive line coach Rick Dennison, a tutor for the group since Gibbs' semi-retirement in 2000. "We've always had that confidence in the offensive line," GM Ted Sundquist said. "If you look at Alex Gibbs, we never really had him in a full-time capacity. It has always been a credit to Mike (Shanahan) and his dedication to running the ball." The Broncos believe Nalen is the best center in football, but he gets little national attention due to his self-imposed gag order with the media. He's supersmart, lightning-quick and plays like he's 23, not 33. Lepsis is a converted tight end and a better right tackle, but scouts believe he'll survive on the island, and quarterback Jake Plummer has the mobility to avoid pressure when protection breaks down. Hamilton, who actually weighs 280, has the mobility of a fullback. The real question mark is Foster, a first-round pick in 2002. He has more talent than the Trey Teagues and Cooper Carlisles who have been tried at this spot in the past, but he's unproven and has an underachiever tag from his days at Georgia.

Honorable Mention


Oakland Raiders
Starters: OLT Barry Sims, OLG Robert Gallery, C Adam Treu, ORG Ron Stone, ORT Robert Gallery. (Gallery replaced Langston Walker in the starting lineup in Week Two.)

Indianapolis Colts
Starters: OLT Tarik Glenn, OLG Rick DeMulling; C Jeff Saturday; ORG Tupe Peko; ORT Ryan Diem.

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