NFL PRR Following 2021: Offensive Linemen

Offensive line play was at its best in 2021, with multiple linemen having career years and rookies dominated in their first season. Similar to last season, we will be ranking players based on their PFF grade, while taking a deeper look at how effective and efficient they were in run and pass blocking in terms of pressures and sacks allowed and penalties committed. Linemen with at least 350 pass block snaps and 200 run block snaps will be the only ones considered. With this in mind, let's take a look at who the best blockers were in the NFL this past season!

Photo: AP Photo/Adrian Kraus

 

12. Quenton Nelson (Last Season: #5)


It hurts me to put Quenton this low, but this was definitely his worst season yet. Even with saying that, he still deserves to be among the top 12 linemen on the season. In 13 games and 448 pass blocking snaps, he allowed just 15 pressures and 1 sack, with only 3 pressures allowed on screens and play actions. Even though he had a run block grade of 70.4, tied for 66th in the NFL, it looked to me as if this isn't accurate, as he created large gaps for Jonathan Taylor to burst through. Taylor averaged 7.7 yards per carry, and averaged 5.34 yards after contact, while running behind Quenton Nelson. Although his grades don't agree, I believe Nelson was worthy of a top 12 selection this season.


11. Tyron Smith (Last Season: Unranked)


Through just 11 games, Tyron showed why he is still one of the most feared left tackles in the NFL. On 460 pass blocking snaps, he allowed just 11 pressures and 2 sacks, with a 2.17% pressure rate allowed. That's one pace for 1 pressure per game on almost 42 pass blocking snaps per game. That's a dominant pace and worth making the list, despite missing a third of the season. He also posted the 6th highest run blocking grade at 90.5, and didn't commit a single penalty through 278 run blocking snaps. This helped breakout running back, Tony Pollard, put up impressive numbers, while also keeping Dak clean in the passing game, which was pivotal after his gruesome ankle injury the year prior. If Tyron can stay healthy and play a full season, he may put his name in the top 5 next year.


10. Jordan Mailata (Last Season: Unranked)


Rugby star turned elite left tackle, Mailata proved a lot of doubters wrong this season. In 14 games and 461 pass blocking snaps, Mailata allowed just 20 pressures and 3 sacks, and a total of 4 QB hits including those 3 sacks. This is more impressive when you look at his true pass set pressure count, as he only allowed 9 pressures and 1 sack, the only time he allowed Hurts to get hit in true pass set plays. He kept Hurts upright in Jalen's first full year as a starter, and he dominated in the run game as well. On 453 run blocking snaps, he posted a 87.8 PFF run block grade, 13th highest among all offensive linemen. He played great in both the run and pass, and asserted himself as one of the best tackles in the league.


9. Joe Thuney (Last Season: Unranked)


After a scene change from New England to Kansas City, Thuney played lights out. He recorded the 2nd highest pass block grade in the NFL, posting an 88.8 grade on 805 pass block snaps. He allowed just 16 pressures and 1 sack through 17 games, for a pressure rate of 1.99%, coming close to matching the next man on the list. His run blocking was decent, as he posted a 71.3 run blocking grade on 379 rushing snaps. Running isn't the Chiefs forte, which is why his pass blocking grade put him as the third highest rated guard on the list.


8. Lane Johnson (Last Season: Unranked)


While dealing with some mental health concerns, Lane Johnson was still able to lock down pass rushers this season. In 13 games and 416 pass blocking snaps, Lane allowed 11 pressures and 0 sacks, a feat he's never accomplished in his NFL career. He was solid in run blocking, where he posted a 76.8 run blocking grade on 404 snaps, and dominated on zone plays, posting a 80.3 grade on 245 plays in that category. Add in a touchdown catch, and Lane put together a great season. Lane is coming up on the end of his career, which could be the end of an era where Jason Kelce, and recent retiree, Brandon Brooks, dominated the right side of the offensive line for the Eagles.

Photo: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports


7. Creed Humphrey (Last Season: Unraked)


Creed came in and won the starting center job on day 1. Not only that, but he was the highest graded rookie offensive linemen at 91.4 overall grade. He excelled in the run game, tying for the 3rd highest run block grade in the league with a 92.5 on 379 rushing snaps. He was particularly great in zone schemes, posting a 91.9 grade on those plays. In pass protection, he allowed just 10 pressures on 805 snaps, giving him an absurd pressure allowed rate of 1.24%, one of the lowest rates in the league. He allowed Mahomes to get hit only twice, between 1 sack and 1 QB hit, and showed great power and IQ as a rookie. Creed will dominate the league for years to come, and may be the best center we see during his era.


6. Andrew Whitworth (Last Season: Unranked)


The 40-year old Walter Payton Man of the Year showed he still has what it takes to embarrass pass rushers. Whitworth posted the highest pass block grade of any lineman with a 90.7, the only one to earn an elite grade, allowing just 16 pressures on 597 pass block snaps across 15 games. He did allow 5 sacks, but that is dull in comparison to how he dropped pass rushers into the dirt play after play. He only posted a 71.2 run blocking grade on 329 rushing snaps, so that does bump him down the list a bit. Still though, for his age, Whitworth showed he still has what it takes to be a top notch linemen in the NFL.


5. Corey Linsley (Last Season: #8)


Last year's and this year's top center helped keep second year QB Justin Herbert upright, having another fantastic season in a row. He allowed just 10 pressures on 724 pass blocking snaps, and never let Herbert get sacked. He backed up his stellar pass blocking with dominant run blocking, earning a 84.6 run blocking grade, 20th highest in the NFL. He was especially great in zone schemes, posting a 90.4 grade on those plays, 10th in the league. Linsley is coming towards the end of his career, and will be paramount for Herbert's continued success of the next few years.

Photo: AP Photo/David Zalubowski


4. Joel Bitonio (Last Season: Unranked)


After just missing the list last season, Joel cracks into the top 5 this year. Joel is one of four offensive lineman to rank in the top eight in both pass blocking and run blocking, tallying 85.9 and 92.5 grades respectively. He allowed 17 pressures on 631 pass blocking snaps, along with 2 sacks, while only allowing 11 pressures and 1 sack on 236 true pass sets. The Browns thrived off play action, as they ran behind Joel 476 times, and they especially dominated in the zone game, where he posted a 93.9 zone blocking grade, putting him at 2nd best in the entire league. The Browns have the best guard tandem in the NFL between Joel and Wyatt Teller, and Joel was able to shine this season.


3. Tristan Wirfs (Last Season: #9)


The highest graded right tackle in the NFL had an unbelievable second season, weighing in as the anchor on the Bucs offensive line. On 796 pass blocking snaps, Wirfs allowed just 14 pressures and 2 sacks, and especially dominated during true pass sets, allowing just 9 pressures and 1 sack on 347 snaps. His 74.6 run blocking grade on 386 snaps is decent as well, and he did solid on gap scheme plays (power, trap, etc.), earning a 73.8 grade on 236 snaps in that category. Tom Brady and Leonard Fournette had some of their best seasons to date, and the main reason was the near perfect play from Wirfs this season.


2. Zack Martin (Last Season: #6)


After a "down year" in 2020, Zack Martin fired back this season and played his best football to date. In 16 games, Martin was the only offensive lineman to rank in the top 3 for both pass protection and run blocking, earning 88.7 and 92.8 grades in both categories respectively. In the pass, he allowed just 19 pressures and 1 sack on 688 snaps, with 16 of those coming on 293 true pass set snaps. Although that does result in a somewhat high 5.46% pressure rate, that doesn't diminish his dominance when finishing off pass rushers. He was spectacular in the run game as well, as he committed 0 penalties on 413 run blocking snaps. He played the best football of his life this season, and he showed no signs of slowing down.

Photo: James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys


1. Trent Williams (Last Season: #1)


Trent goes back to back after posting the highest overall PFF grade in history with a 96.6 grade. In 15 games and 509 pass blocking snaps, Trent allowed just 16 pressures and 1 sack, while committing 6 penalties. Although the penalty count seems high for a player as dominant as him, it shows his aggressiveness, and it pays off when he doesn't get called for holding. On 427 run blocking snaps, Trent recorded a 97.9 grade, with a 98.6 zone blocking grade across 238 snaps. This is unprecedented, as PFF has never seen such a dominant grade in their history of grading. He scored almost 5 points higher than Joel Bitonio, and proved once again why he is the most dominant lineman in the NFL. He got a nice pay day from San Fran last offseason, and it's looking like it'll pay off immensely over the next couple of seasons.

 

Final Notes:


I'll be honest, it's tough narrowing down the 12 best offensive lineman when you can make the case for 10 other guys to be on the list. Wyatt Teller was left off, even though he had better grades that Quenton Nelson in pass protection and run blocking. Sometimes I, who uses PFF like the NFL's bible, can admit their grades don't make the most sense. Whenever you turn on the tape of Nelson, he's decimating guys left and right. Not to say Teller didn't do the same, but Nelson did it better and longer all season long, despite missing 4 games. To boot, Nelson was better in pass protection, as he allowed 9 less pressures and 3 less sacks, regardless of playing less games.


Other guys who missed out on the list were JC Tretter, Jason Kelce, Andrew Thomas, Rashawn Slater, and Michael Onwenu. All of them had terrific seasons, but were outplayed by the names above. This list will get even harder next year, as we seem to have the deepest offensive line draft class we've seen in decades. Oh well, I guess that's next year's problem. Until then, been on the look out for the next installment of the PRR: Safeties!

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