After discussing the top 25 tackles in the NFL earlier in the week, it’s now time to bring light to some of the most under-appreciated players in the NFL: the interior offensive linemen. The top interior offensive linemen in the NFL are just as good as the top tackles. A case can even be made that the two best linemen in the NFL both play on the interior. Of course, interior means either guard spot or the center, so all three positions will be well represented on this list.
When evaluating offensive linemen, the first thing I always look for is consistency. How does a player perform? I’m talking play to play, not just game to game. Can he string together consecutive drives of dominating play? This is more difficult on the interior because your match-up is more commonly changed as interior defenders rotate frequently and commonly switch positions based on the strong side of the offense’s formation. Not to mention the fact that it’s much more difficult to consistently block someone who weighs 320lbs+ than it is blocking someone who weighs under 290lbs.
Going along with the theme of consistency, I ranked players based on more than just the 2019 season. I also accounted for the 2017 and 2018 seasons so that one bad season wouldn’t completely affect a player’s ranking. However, if I feel one player has gotten consistently better over the past two years I will use that as a reason to rank them over someone who has gotten progressively worse or simply stayed at a similar level of play.
After consistency, I look at their ability to pass protect. As the NFL evolves, so must the lineman. It’s not enough to just be a dominant run blocker. A lineman must be just as potent as a pass protector if they want to play in the NFL. I focus on things like hand placement and footwork then take athletic ability into consideration. Finally, I look at their run blocking ability. Specifically, can they move defenders at the point of attack? How much push off the line of scrimmage are they generating?
No rookies are included in this list as they have yet to play a snap in the NFL and therefore haven’t earned their right to be compared to the players on the list. A pair of second-year players did make the list though. Both players showed enough as rookies to warrant a place among the top interior offensive linemen in the NFL. I also included five honorable mentions that were kept off the list for various reasons but I felt should be recognized. Without any more introduction, here are the top 30 interior offensive linemen in the NFL heading into the 2020 season.
Top 30 interior offensive linemen in the NFL
30. Kelechi Osemele, Free Agent
Kelechi Osemele was considered one of the top guards in the NFL no more than three years ago. While that may seem like a long time, he’s still only 30 years of age. One of the top run-blocking guards in the NFL, Osemele should still be an above-average guard. He’s a below-average athlete but provides dominant movement off the line of scrimmage. His veteran presence and consistent play should be welcomed on any team that has a hole on the interior offensive line.
29. Dalton Risner, Denver Broncos
The Broncos used the 41st selection in last year’s draft to select Dalton Risner, and he showed an immediate return on investment. As a rookie, Risner came in and started all 16 games, getting better every week. Risner was well polished coming out of college, and it instantly translated to the NFL. He only had three total penalties all season and none were for holding. He also only allowed three sacks all season.
Something Denver loved doing this past season was running counter behind second round pick Dalton Risner(66).
Risner gets down the line, locates the nearest defender, and leverages himself perfectly to allow Lindsay to follow behind untouched for 15 yards. pic.twitter.com/N2Uu9lzqX0
— Matt Valdovinos (@MVScouting) May 12, 2020
28. Brandon Linder, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars have had a relatively disappointing two seasons after making the AFC Championship game in 2017. One thing that hasn’t disappointing? The play of center Brandon Linder. Linder was a late third-round selection in 2015, but he was an instant contributor for Jacksonville, starting 15 games as a rookie.
Linder lacks great athletic ability but has elite length for the offensive interior. He’s an intelligent player who keeps his head on a swivel. Linder should continue to be a constant boost for a Jaguars team trying to find their identity in 2020.
27. Gabe Jackson, Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders possess one of the most talented offensive lines in the NFL. Gabe Jackson is a major reason why thanks to his consistent impact for the Silver and Black. The Raiders drafted Jackson in 2014, and he’s been a quality starter for the team since. Jackson is a poor athlete relative to others at his position.
However, he’s dominant at the point of attack and if he gets his hands on you it’s over. Jackson has had some minor injury issues over his career but when on the field he’s a great piece on a Raiders offensive line that has three members appear later on this list.
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 17, 2017
26. Larry Warford, Free Agent
The Saints chose to extend left guard Andrus Peat and draft Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz to play right guard in the 2020 NFL Draft. This leaves Larry Warford as the odd man out despite many, including myself, believing that Warford is the better player.
Warford was initially drafted by Detroit where he was a very good player but was later signed by the Saints and went on to have the best stretch of his year including three pro-bowl selections. He is a below-average athlete, but his strength jumps off the tape. Expect Warford to sign somewhere soon and instantly improve the offensive unit.
25. Mike Pouncey, Los Angeles Chargers
The first Pouncey twin to be listed, Mike Pouncey, was a very strong lineman for the Miami Dolphins before signing a deal with that Chargers prior to the 2018 season. Pouncey is one of the top pulling guards in the NFL.
Few teams ask their centers to get downfield as often as the Chargers do. Pouncey, unfortunately, lost his season in October when he was placed on the IR list with a knee injury. Returning at full health will be pivotal for a Chargers team that has just moved on from their longtime franchise quarterback.
24. Ryan Jensen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ offensive line was better than many give them credit for, a major reason being that their offensive interior was so strong. Ryan Jensen has steadily been one of the league’s most under-appreciated linemen. Jensen started his career in Baltimore, was a starter for a single season, and then signed with Tampa Bay to become their full time starting center.
Very potent at moving towards the second level and making key blocks, Jensen plays with a high football IQ, and his consistency is something to marvel at. His presence on the offensive line will help keep a lot of weight off the shoulders of Tom Brady.
23. Erik McCoy, New Orleans Saints
The Saints selected Erik McCoy in the second round of last year’s draft. At the time, I thought the value was off the charts. Turns out, it was. McCoy is an excellent athlete for the position, and his functional play strength is very good.
Still young, McCoy has a tendency to get grabby, finishing last year with eight total penalties, five of which were called for holding. I have no doubt that if McCoy cleans up his hand usage, he could find himself much higher on this list in the future.
Erik McCoy reaching the shade solo 😤 pic.twitter.com/dq8IUWdroL
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) November 26, 2019
22. Cody Whitehair, Chicago Bears
Cody Whitehair has been as consistent as they come since the Bears selected him in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Whitehair is an above-average athlete for the interior and is very potent when used as a puller.
He’s played both guard and center for the Bears in his career, and he’s the only player on the team that has played 100% of the team’s snaps over the past two seasons. With the retirement of Travis Frederick and Jason Kelce getting up in years, expect Whitehair to be in serious consideration for multiple pro-bowls over the next few years.
21. JC Tretter, Cleveland Browns
The Browns offensive line was widely regarded as one of the worst units in the NFL last year. This statement is false. Although the Browns had the worst tackle play in the NFL last year, they actually had two very good interior linemen that both made this list.
The first is center JC Tretter. Tretter is highly intelligent and his ability to pick up on delayed blitzes or pick up a teammates’ slack is excellent. If the Browns unit as a whole was better, I’d expect Tretter to see more attention from media and casual fans alike.