#4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs made some outstanding moves this offseason to give Jameis Winston multiple dangerous options to throw to. None of that will matter, though, if Winston is not able to stay on his feet. This offensive line allowed 35 sacks last year, which ranked right in the middle of the pack in the NFL, but that number was greatly affected by Winston’s ability to scramble outside of the pocket and make something out of nothing. The running game was not a strong suit for the Bucs either, as they ranked 24th in rush yards per game and only had a 100-yard rusher twice all season.
Even with the Bucs struggles across the offensive line and the numerous under performers, Tampa Bay elected to stick with this group heading into 2017. There were no significant additions made in free agency or the draft, as priorities were placed on adding more weapons on offense and solidifying the defense. There is hope the Buccaneers line, with another year of experience together, will improve given their continuity. But football rarely works that way, and Buccaneers fans better get used to Winston running for his life a lot in 2017.
#3 Carolina Panthers
The Panthers had a catastrophic collapse following their 15-1 season and Super Bowl berth in 2015. They only managed to squeak out six victories, and a large part of that lies with the offensive line. Cam Newton was sacked 36 times last season, and like Winston, used his elusiveness to escape several more. Carolina’s rushing attack, a staple to their success, also suffered a major drop off. After finishing second in the league in rushing in 2015, they dropped to 10th last season. Those numbers look even worse from a yards per attempt angle where the Panthers finished 20th in the league at just 4.0 yards per rush.
Unlike the Bucs, The Panthers took initiative through both free agency and the draft to bolster their line. It started with their monster signing of Matt Kalil for 5-years and $55 million. That signing may look like it should help enormously, but there is a great chance it does not. Kalil has been a poor starting tackle for the Vikings over the last few seasons. Pro Football Focus gave Kalil grades of 43.8, 68.4 and 36.9 his last three seasons. Panthers fans should be cringing at the amount of many Carolina paid to acquire him and have their fingers crossed he can turn it around. Then the Panthers drafted Taylor Moton with the 64th overall pick. Moton has ideal size for a tackle prospect and the athletic ability to go with it. There is no reason he should not carve out a role in this league, and with the Panthers offensive line struggles, Moton could be seeing a lot of playing time his rookie season.
#2 Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons offensive line found its mojo with the addition of pro-bowl center Alex Mack. Atlanta signed him to a 5-year deal last offseason and saw just how much can change with an improved offensive line. Matt Ryan exploded for an MVP season and the Falcons offense set a franchise record for most points scored in a single season by 98 points. Atlanta’s rushing attack, in the second season of Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, became one of the most feared in the league totaling 1,928 total yards on 4.6 yards per attempt. Pro Football Focus ranked Mack the second best center in the league and Atlanta’s offensive line as the 6th best in the NFL.
The Falcons line was the best in the NFC South last year by a large margin, but a few looming questions put them in the #2 spot heading into the 2017 season. It begins with their situation at right guard. Chris Chester officially retired, and the position seemed to be the only major hole the Falcons had to fill this offseason. They opted not to spend money on guard during free agency and did not pick a lineman until the fourth-round in Sean Harlow. As of now, it looks like either former sixth-round pick Wes Schweitzer or Sean Harlow will be starting week one. Quinn has landed on numerous late-round picks, but neither Schweitzer or Harlow are sexy options. The Falcons also must deal with adjusting offensive coordinators. The offensive line was far from flawless in the first season under Kyle Shanahan. They experienced tons of growth and improvement in year two. Steve Sarkisian looks to be developing rapport with all his new weapons, but there is no guarantee the whole offense will be running as smoothly in his first season as offensive coordinator.
#1 New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints offensive line is poised to be amazing in 2017. The Saints line finished just outside the top 10 according to Pro Football Focus last season and would have been better than average had they just stuck with the same group. Instead, they took a Dallas Cowboys like approach and decided to load up across the offensive line. This will give Drew Brees all day to throw, and their trio of start-studded running backs mammoth-sized holes to run through.
New Orleans went out in free agency and signed Larry Warford from Detroit, who was one of the best guards in this free agent class. Warford, a physically intimidating specimen, will immediately start at right guard for the Saints. But New Orleans did not stop there. That first-round pick they received from the Patriots for Brandin Cooks, they used to draft Ryan Ramczyk an offensive tackle from Wisconsin. The Badgers are known for breeding monstrous lineman that usually succeed in the NFL. Ramczyk is no different, but it might take him a little while to become a starter with all the offensive line talent already in the Big Easy. In time Ramcyzk will become the starting right tackle, but after a surprising terrific season from Zach Strief last season, the Ramcyzk pick is more about ensuring continued success in protecting the quarterback and busting open holes for running backs.