By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Cohesiveness, competitiveness, know-how and decisiveness.
These are the factors that allow an offensive line to dominate the competition. That’s what Marc Trestman is looking for as the 2013 season inches closer to its starting point.
There’s almost no way he’s going to see a high level of play at the start of the season. The Bears offensive line may have as many as four new starters this season, and even though left tackle Jermon Bushrod is a top 10 player at his position and left guard Matt Slauson will make a lot more good plays than bad ones, the offensive line is anything but a proven commodity.
Center Roberto Garza returns and he is an effective player.
If you’re buying Kyle Long at right guard, you need to think twice. Size, strength, intelligence and blood lines are all check marks on the positive side of the ledger. However, he has no experience. Hardly any time at the major college level and he will get a hard baptism Sept. 8 against the Bengals and left defensive tackle Domata Peko. When the Bengals shift their formations and put Geno Atkins head up on Long, that will be a problem.
Right tackle is another mystery. While fifth-round draft pick Jordan Mills was shifted up the depth chart ladder to the starting position, there’s no reason to think that’s anything but a temporary move. J’Marcus Webb could very well reclaim the position, and he has been ineffective throughout his career.
At this point, the Bears’ offensive line ranks among the bottom half in the league. They should be much better as the season progresses, but they don’t compare with the best offensive lines in the league.
Here are the top five right now:
1. New England Patriots – Few offensive lines can come close to the Patriots when it comes to pass blocking. Despite having the fourth-most passing attempts in the league, they allowed the fifth fewest sacks. Left tackle Nate Solder is powerful and smart. Left guard Logan Mankins is a skilled pass protector. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is mean and nasty but also has the skills to stay pass rushers who can string moves together. The Pats also have plenty of depth as Dan Connolly can fill in at center and guard without a hitch when any of the interior starters need a break.
2. San Francisco 49ers – The Niners are much better at run blocking than pass blocking. Led by left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati, the 49ers tend to open huge holes for Frank Gore and not just small cracks. The 49er running backs averaged 5.1 ypc last year (third in the league). If the line was more efficient at pass blocking, Jim Harbaugh might never have switched from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick last year. Kaepernick excels at zone reads and taking advantage of the offensive line’s strengths and minimizing its weaknesses. Most of his big plays come when he is on the move.
3. Denver Broncos – The Broncos probably have the best left tackle in the league in Ryan Clady. He is the glue that holds this solid line together and he’s the one who helps Peyton Manning sleep well at night. Nasty on running plays and dogged in his pass blocking, he simply wants to win every battle. Left guard Zane Beadles and center J.D. Walton are both entering the prime of their careers and have three full years of experience. They are clearly dependable. Right tackle Orlando Franklin is one of the best pass protectors at his position in the league.
4. New York Giants – Tom Coughlin’s team may have failed to make the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl following the 2011 season, but don’t blame the offensive line. The Giants were a much better blocking unit in 2012 than 2011. The Giants allowed the fewest sacks (20) and were the seventh-best run blocking unit. Will Beatty is solid and dependable at left tackle and makes up in tenacity and know-how what he lacks in athleticism. Left guard Justin Pugh becomes a full-time starter in his second year. He won most of his battles when he had a chance to play last year. Right guard Chris Snee and center David Baas are quite dependable for Eli Manning.
5. Cleveland Browns – The Browns tend to be one of the more hopeless teams in the league, and Brandon Weeden’s lack of mobility at the quarterback position means that the offense tends to be at a disadvantage. However, the offensive line, led by left tackle Joe Thomas is young, talented and improving. Center Alex Mack has a chance to make the Pro Bowl this year while right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was one of the top-rated rookie blockers in 2012.
Honorable mention: Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Bucs, Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.