by Ben Muth
Let me just start by saying that it is good to be back writing for Football Outsiders after a long offseason. It has been a long, dry summer with no football, but that's over now and we can get back to watching the Last Bastion of Hope for Toughness in American Men (copyright 2015, Jim Harbaugh).
If you're new to the column, this is how it typically works: Each year, I pick three teams to cover throughout the season and try to evenly rotate which team I write about each week. The focus will generally be the offensive line of one of the three teams (sometimes it's Xs and Os, sometimes it's personnel). Occasionally that focus can veer off to the tight end or maybe an opponent's front seven. One thing is for sure: you will see a lot GIFs from the end zone camera, so I hope you like staring at 300-pound butts when you read.
This season preview column is really just here to show you what teams I'll be covering, and to give you a bit of an idea of why FO editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz and I thought they might be worth looking at this year. The one thing all three teams have in common is that I've never covered any of them for an entire season, so you won't have to read about the Cowboys or Cardinals again.
Let's get into it.
Every year I try to pick at least one offensive line that I'm fairly confident is going to be good. The Raiders are this year's team that should be a joy to watch up front every week. They have ranked in the top five in adjusted sack rate each of the last two years and finished in the top 10 in power and stuff percentage last year. On top of that, I have seen multiple writers who I know watch a lot of coach's tape (including FO's own Cian Fahey) praise their play.
That being said, I may be completely wrong about this pick being a team that will be fun to watch every week, mainly because I really haven't watched much of the Raiders the past couple of years. They haven't been a contender and they usually play at the same time as the Cardinals (so I do far less flipping around in those time slots). I just haven't seen a ton of them. I'm looking forward to fixing that this year and getting to know more about some of their guys up front.
One guy I do know is Kelechi Osemele. Osemele was on the Ravens when I covered them two years ago and is an absolute monster at left guard. Marshal Yanda has gotten most of the love in Baltimore over the years, but Osemele is one of the most physically dominant interior players in the league. He plays with a physicality and meanness that few can match. I'm really looking forward to watching him this year.
Lining up outside of Osemele is left tackle Donald Penn. Donald Penn has played for a while and has seen his reputation crest and valley a couple times throughout his career. Currently he is seen as a very good left tackle who didn't get the deal many thought he should this offseason. I never loved Penn in Tampa, and like I said earlier I haven't watched the Raiders play much the last few years, so I'm anxious to watch Penn up close this year.
At center Oakland has another very highly thought of (and paid) guy. I loved Rodney Hudson coming out of school and hated to see him get injured early in his career. But it seems he has rebounded from that and has become one of the better centers in the league. I'm hopeful that he'll be as fun to watch in 2016 as he was in college.
The right side of the line is composed of two younger guys who I don't know a ton about. At guard, Gabe Jackson is considered one of the better young interior linemen in the game by people who watch a lot of Game Rewind or a lot of the Raiders. (The former group of people is much bigger than the latter.) He is not known at all by pretty much anybody else. At tackle Oakland is going with former high pick Menelik Watson, who wasn't a good college player and hasn't been great early in his career, but has a great body and solid set of physical tools. The fact that he beat out Austin Howard this year in training camp could mean he's putting it together. That would turn what's known as good line into a great line.
The Carolina Panthers' offensive line was being talked up throughout 2015 as being the second biggest reason an offense with no wide receivers could make the Super Bowl. Michael Oher was playing the best football of his career, Ryan Kalil may be the best center in the game, Trai Turner was a Pro Bowler, etc. Then Von Miller was Super Bowl MVP and everyone pretended like the previous five months had never happened.
The strength of the unit when they were playing well was definitely the interior. Kalil has been a good player since he came into the league and overcame a big injury a couple of years ago to reestablish himself as one of the league's best centers. I have been watching him play since college (he was at USC when I was at Stanford) and he has always played hard, with great balance and very strong grip. He's getting up there in age, but he hasn't shown any signs of slipping yet.
At right guard, Trai Turner is considered by many one of the top five guards in all of football. The guy is on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, for heaven's sake. (OK, a regional cover, but still...) When I have watched him, I have seen a devastating run blocker who more than holds his own in pass protection. Opposite of Turner is Andrew Norwell, who is the Gabe Jackson of this unit. He's a young guy who no one outside of Charlotte really knows, who is supposed to be pretty good. Every line has these types of guys and I always am curious which ones are actually good and which ones people just say are good to show how much they know about obscure starting offensive linemen.
The tackles are where this line could get shaky. Michael Oher may be the most famous offensive lineman in the NFL and has played a lot of football as a professional. For almost all of that time he has not been a good offensive tackle. Last year he played better than I have ever seen him and it'll be interesting to see if he can continue to play that way.
And finally, we get to the elephant (or maybe goat) in the room. Mike Remmers was abused in front the largest television audience of the year. I think going into the Super Bowl most people would have said Remmers was the weakest link of Carolina's line, but I don't think anyone was expecting that level of destruction. He had a tough draw in Miller, and I'm hoping that he can put it past him and play some good football going forward.
Obviously I watched the big game like everyone else, so I get why people are not throwing parades for this unit, Remmers in particular. Still, they had a really strong 2015, and I'll be rooting for them to remind everyone of what they look like when they're rolling. Plus, even if every week is a repeat of the Super Bowl from a pass protection standpoint, there should be some interesting quarterback run stuff with Cam Newton that'll be fun to write about.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have the least heralded offensive line of the teams I'll be covering. "Least heralded" is a nice way of saying that a lot of people don't think they're very good. At left tackle Donovan Smith had an awful rookie year. He had more blown blocks per snap than any other tackle in the NFL. Most rookies aren't good -- even the ones who eventually make the Pro Bowl aren't actually good as rookies -- but Smith was flat-out awful. Opposite him is Demar Dotson at right tackle. He is the Tampa Bay lineman who most people don't know, but is supposedly pretty good.
The interior line features another second-year player who started last year. Ali Marpet had a better year than Smith and played really well considering he was playing at a school called Hobart the year before. The left guard was supposed to be J.R. Sweezy, but he's starting the year on the PUP list. Sweezy is great to write about every week because he has some really good plays, and some truly awful plays. Both make excellent GIF fodder, so I'm hoping he comes back healthy and can start. Third-year man Kevin Pamphile will fill in until Sweezy returns. At center the Bucs are going with Joe Hawley. Hawley was a backup in Atlanta for a long time so he should know Dirk Koetter's system at the very least.
I really don't know what to expect from this unit this year, but that's what makes doing this column fun. You get to learn a lot about how five to eight guys play and grow together throughout the year. Tampa Bay's offensive line doesn't get a lot of love, but finished ninth in adjusted line yards last season and may be better than they're given credit for. Everyone's favorite game is to scream about how a young quarterback is playing behind a terrible offensive line, as if the quarterback has nothing to do with pass protection, so I wouldn't be surprised if this line seemingly takes a big step forward just on the basis of its quarterback getting better.
That takes care of our introduction for 2016. Come back next week when we get to talk about stuff that actually happened instead of stuff that might happen.