In preparation for the NFL season, we at Full Press Coverage will preview 10 of the most notable players at each position around the league. In these groupings, we will examine the three best (The Now), four who are ready for the next step (The Next) and three who have to show some sign of life in 2019 (The Needy). Next up, interior offensive linemen.
1. Jason Kelce, Eagles
Kelce is the centerpiece on an offensive line that includes Jason Peters, Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. That is how good he has been the last seven years. Kelce’s style has also changed the criteria zone teams look for in their franchise centers. He is a bit undersized, but quick as well as strong and has a mastery of angles. That combination has made him arguably the best zone blocking center for the last five years, and helped elevate the Eagles to a Super Bowl team. Meanwhile, he is not too shabby as a pass blocker, either. In the last five seasons, he has allowed only 7.5 sacks.
2. Zack Martin, Cowboys
Martin has been inextricably linked to Travis Frederick his entire career. The two were first-round picks in back-to-back years, started every game next to each other from 2014 to 2017 and served as the premier interior duo in the league. But Frederick’s affliction with Guillain-Barre syndrome left Martin without his running mate for the first time, leaving some question as to whether his run of dominance was about team greatness or individual greatness. Well, Martin showed that he is one of the best in the league by himself. He allowed only 19 pressures all season while still creating open lanes in the running game. And he did that while dealing with injuries much of the season. With Frederick now back, Dallas’ offensive line should once again be among the league’s best.
3. Marshal Yanda, Ravens
Maybe the 34-year-old Yanda is finally going to reach his downslope. And maybe the wear and tear of 12 years as one of the league’s best linemen will finally manifest itself on Yanda’s health. Maybe Baltimore is foolish to try restarting the run-centric offensive era with Yanda as its cornerstone. Or maybe Yanda is still one of the most dominant and reliable linemen in the game today. Other than his one injury-shortened 2017, Yanda has been a mainstay of good Ravens teams since 2007. And while one would assume a player in the trenches would eventually regress in his mid-30s, Yanda went all of 2018 without surrendering a single sack. Meanwhile, Baltimore placed first in rushing attempts, second in yards and third in touchdowns. He does not appear to be slowing down whatsoever.
Honorable Mention: Rodney Hudson, David DeCastro, Shaq Mason, Travis Frederick, Quenton Nelson
1. Quenton Nelson, Colts
First-Team All-Pro as a rookie sounds pretty “Now” to most. But to be honest, his selection was as much a matter of his reputation as it was his play. Yes, Nelson was outstanding the latter half of the season, solidifying a long-suffering Colts line. But it was a process for him, getting up to NFL speed. Through the first handful of weeks, Nelson struggled at times (13 pressures through the first five games), in lockstep with his team’s 1-5 record. But as Nelson played more to his drafted-sixth-overall status (10 pressures in last 11), the Indianapolis line thrived, Andrew Luck returned to form and the team ultimately made the playoffs.
By year’s end, Nelson was undoubtedly playing like one of the best guards in the game. So for him, the next step is eliminating that warm-up period that saw him and the Colts struggle a bit to find their footing. If Nelson plays a full season like he finished, he will be one of the three best interior guys on next year’s list.
2. Andrus Peat, Saints
Has Peat been a full-on disappointment in New Orleans? Not exactly. He has started 50 games since going 13th overall in 2015, playing mostly guard as Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have secured the tackle spots. With Peat in tow, the Saints have had one of the top lines in the league the last couple of years, making a couple of playoff runs along the way. However, as such a high pick, one would hope he would have more consistency. Last season, Pro Football Focus ranked him last among 86 qualifying guards.
Still, prior to 2018, Peat had been fairly reliable. He may not have approached his enormous ceiling, but he was far from a liability. Granted, he had a perennial Pro Bowl center next to him in Max Unger, who has since retired. This year, his running mate will be rookie Erik McCoy. The idea with Peat is that 2018 was the anomaly, not the norm going forward, and he can take the step into reliability to help ease McCoy’s rapid rise to the starting lineup. It will be vital for the Saints, as they appear on paper to have one of the league’s best rosters. As long as the interior line elevates, they should be a Super Bowl contender.
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3. Austin Blythe, Rams
Austin Blythe was not slated to start last year until Jamon Brown went down with an injury. But Blythe stepped in and played well, so Brown hit the trading block. Now Blythe is the mainstay of a Rams interior line that has Super Bowl aspirations. The name Wally Pip springs to mind.
Blythe’s ascent has been one of the better stories the last 12 months. Indianapolis cut him in 2017 after taking him in the seventh the year before, and he subsequently served as a backup in Los Angeles. But when he got his chance last season, Blythe flourished, and now looks like one of the league’s better guards. Since 2018 was essentially year one for him, one would assume this year would see more development and a potential next level for Blythe and the Rams’ line.
4. Will Hernandez, Giants
Despite coming from a winless UTEP program, everything about Hernandez screamed NFL-ready coming out last year. He had size, athleticism, smooth feet and power, to boot. As such, it made sense when New York inserted him in the starting lineup and he immediately became one of their sole reliable linemen, especially in pass protection. Hernandez surrendered only 29 pressures last year while committing only two penalties and starting all 16 games.
That said, Hernandez’s excellent physical traits did not translate quite as well in the run game. While he was serviceable, and Saquon Barkley put up great numbers, Hernandez still has strides to make in this regard. Thankfully, a couple of veterans on the line in Nate Solder and newly-acquired Kevin Zeitler should improve the line as a whole. As Hernandez matures this year and gets a better feel for angles and NFL defense, he should be primed to make a big leap in year two.
1. Forrest Lamp, Chargers
As a prospect from a smaller program, Lamp earned praise for his physicality and tenacity. Since going in the second round two years ago, however, Lamp has yet to secure a starting spot on a fairly weak interior line. Part of that has been due to injury, but last year was more a matter of the Chargers giving run to fellow 2017 pick Dan Feeney. For the record, Feeney went a round later than Lamp in their draft.
At the moment, Feeney and Michael Schofield are both still ahead of Lamp on the depth chart. But given the team’s massive issues in pass protection, Lamp’s chance to prove himself may finally come this year. Lamp was an excellent pass blocking tackle at Western Kentucky, but has simply never had the opportunity to show it at this level. In fact, he was a healthy scratch most of last season. Training camp and preseason will be vital for Lamp, as he has to show that he deserves playing time in 2019. Otherwise, his career will have essentially ended before it even began.
2. Joshua Garnett, 49ers
Like Lamp, Garnett is not listed atop the depth chart and will thus have to beat someone out to earn a last chance to shine. The 49ers have already declined the option on the 2016 first-rounder, so they have little confidence Garnett can ascend. Fortunately for him, Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person do not form the most formidable guard duo, and presumably there will be room for Garnett to insert himself. But right now, his career is defined by injuries, a lost starting job and probably a future as a backup unless something changes this season.
3. Cameron Erving
Erving is yet another former first-rounder who has found himself on the outside looking in. After flopping in Cleveland, he found a starting job in Kansas City, where he similarly proved a liability. The Chiefs’ tackle duo was too good for so much pressure to come at Patrick Mahomes, and Erving’s pass blocking was largely to blame. Now, he seems to be the Chiefs’ swing tackle and interior reserve, as he is listed behind Eric Fisher on the depth chart. He is only 26 and has spent four years in the NFL, but the 2015 19th-overall pick appears to have a lesser career trajectory than expected. That is, unless he can make a push this preseason and reassert himself as a starter.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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