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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Witnessing Greatness – Offensive Linemen

There are 267 men in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Hall’s website breaks the individuals down into pre-modern era (careers that peaked prior to the 1950s) and the modern era. Of the modern era players, the Hall divides the inductees into the following categories: halfbacks & fullbacks, quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers, defensive backs, placekickers, coaches, and contributors. Of those 11 categories, offensive linemen make up more of the Hall of Fame’s composition than any other modern era (or pre-modern era) category.

This may be counter-intuitive. The difference makers in football, the play makers, are skill position players: quarterbacks, running backs, defensive backs, linebackers, etc. Play makers make singular plays that often decide winning and losing.

However, the game of football, on every single play, is won or lost in the trenches, at the line of scrimmage. Big plays can’t exist without the routine plays to set them up. And big plays cannot happen if the men up front do not give those plays an opportunity to happen. Therefore, it was not very surprising, to me, to see that the big men up front, who make great runs and passes possible, owned the plurality of Hall of Fame inductions.

Today, let’s look at some current NFL offensive linemen and their Hall of Fame linemen and their Hall of Fame prospects


Jeff Saturday, center, Indianapolis Colts

Hall of Fame inductions for lineman are correlated with a different type of statistic than skill position players. Skill position players’ careers are evaluated heavily on per play, per game, and per season statistics. Linemen, offensive linemen in particular, are often evaluated on broader criteria, such as longevity, durability, team accomplishments, and awards like Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams. Their legacies are, to some degree, dependent upon the performance of their teammates as a reflection of their efforts.

Jeff Saturday fits this profile like a glove. The 36 year old center has been the quarterback of the line that facilitated the success of, some would argue, the greatest quarterback in the history of the game in Peyton Manning. Saturday is in his 13th NFL season, a starter for 12.

He has only missed 6 games in those 12 years. Saturday is a five time Pro Bowler, all in the last six years, and made the Associated Press First All-Pro team twice. Saturday guided the Colts’ O-line through over several playoff wins, and two Super Bowl appearances, including a Super Bowl XLI championship, following the 2006 season.

If Jeff Saturday is not inducted into the Hall of Fame, no center from the 2000s, still playing in the NFL, is getting inducted!
They could be inducted at the same time. 1

Steve Hutchinson, guard, Minnesota Vikings

Steve Hutchinson may not be a household name. Few linemen are. Hutchinson’s teams have spent little time under the spotlight during his 11 NFL seasons, in spite of not missing a start for seven consecutive seasons (2003-2009). Hutchinson was a Pro Bowler and a first team All-Pro with the 2005 NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks and 2009 NFC runner up Vikings. Other than those two seasons, Hutch has had limited opportunities to shine under the national media spotlight.

Regardless, Hutchinson has been named to seven Pro Bowls and seven AP All-Pro honors, five on the first team. That speaks volumes. While the casual fan can easily overlook the contributions of an interior lineman, the aforementioned awards are a statement by that player’s peers and AP writers, the people whose professional reputations depend upon covering the game, that a player is among the very best at his position. Seven years is double the average NFL career. Hutchinson was among the elite for that length of time. I’m sure he would have all-world running back Adrian Peterson’s vote.

Hutchinson has opened lanes the size of the freeway for AP. 2


Jason Peters, offensive tackle, Philadelphia Eagles

Peters toiled in the mediocrity of the Buffalo Bills in the earlier part of his career. He still managed to stand out and reach the Pro Bowl twice, protecting the blind side of a cornucopia of Johnny-come-lately quarterbacks. He picked up where he left off after being traded to the Eagles in 2009, making the NFC Pro-Bowl squad the last two seasons, for four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances (2007-2010).

While the Eagles offensive line as a whole has been…well…offensive in 2011, Peters has repeatedly been singled out by sports writers (and star running back LeSean McCoy) as being a bright spot. Peters’ only Achilles’ heel in a possibly Hall of Fame candidacy is injury. Peters, in the last five seasons, including 2011, has not played 16 games.

He has missed two games during this season and missed eight games over the last four years. While not particularly lengthy absences, Peters needs longevity to reach Canton. At age 29, he can recover from nagging injuries and perform at a high level. His injury problems today, however, could strip away games or performance levels from his career in three to five years.

That is a grown man, not to mention a professional football player that Peters is flinging into the air. 3

Logan Mankins, guard, New England Patriots

Logan Mankins is so dominant at his position that he was named to his first, and only, AP First All-Pro team in spite of missing seven games, nearly half of the season, due to a contract holdout. Mankins was handsomely compensated this past offseason, and Pats quarterback Tom Brady, I am sure, is thankful.

The 29 year old Mankins has been a starter since his rookie year and never missed a start. This is a significant contributor to the long term success of Brady and the Patriots offense. Mankins is likely to reach his third consecutive Pro Bowl this year. All Mankins needs to do is stay healthy for 3 to 5 more years and a bronze bust is in his future.

Mankins got his "Paulie from Goodfellas" on!
"Oh? The line isn't what it was without me? F__k you! Pay me!" 4

Chris Snee, guard, New York Giants
Snee is among the elite guards in the NFL. Coming off of his third consecutive Pro Bowl season in 2010, Snee has been a pillar of consistency. Snee is an important part of why quarterback Eli Manning is having one of the most efficient years of his career.

Snee missed a game against Buffalo in October, his first missed game since 2004. He has opened up holes for a bevy of running backs and was a member of the Super Bowl XLII championship team. He was named first team All-Pro in 2008 and was a member of the second All-Pro teams of the the Sporting News and Associated Press in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Once an offensive lineman, like Snee, establishes a reputation for excellence and consistency, longevity and good health are typically gateways to Canton. With only one missed game in seven years, Snee appears to be well on his way.

Snee only surrendered two sacks last season. 5

Matt Light, New England Patriots

Even the most die hard of football fans can only name so many offensive linemen. They rarely touch the football and you hear their names in a game more often for what they fail to do, such as failing to protect the quarterback or failing to remember the snap count. Eleven year veteran Matt Light of the Patriots is one of the few well known names among football enthusiasts.

One would think that the man who protects the blind side of a future Hall of Fame quarterback, Tom Brady, would be as strong a candidate as any left tackle to reach Canton. This is where I, a blogger, defer to people with more knowledge than I have.

Pro Bowl appearances, while voted on, in part, by fans, are very heavily weighted by the votes of players and coaches, who know, better than anyone, who the best are among their peers. While I, the fan, may think Light is a no brainer for the Pro Bowl every year, he has only made it three times, in 2006, during the 16-0 Patriots’ regular season of 2007, and last year. That looks great on a resume and will make an NFL player very rich, but is far from a Canton credential for 33 year old lineman.

Light was named to the AP First All-Pro team in 2007, no easy feat. In addition to earning three Super Bowl rings, he has only missed more than two games twice in his career, playing in and starting a full 16 game season seven times. The Patriots, as a whole, surrender very few sacks and Light is the anchor of the line.

Still, when Light’s career is over, unless he plays 15 or more seasons (remaining a starter and with few injuries) and can tack some more awards and/or championships, it is not inconceivable that Light may have a very long wait for that phone call from the Hall of Fame committee.

Erik Walden and Matt Light - Green Bay Packers v New England Patriots
Eric Walden (Packers, right) is spinning like a top, but not getting anywhere near Tom Brady, thanks to Light. 5

Leonard Davis, guard, Detroit Lions
The expression “better late than never” applies in many aspects of life. It is a tough sell for Hall of Fame candidacies, though. It may be the toughest sell for offensive linemen, whose greatness is heavily tied to long term consistency.

A three time Pro Bowler, Davis has been a key cog in the Dallas Cowboys machinery, opening holes for potent Cowboys running attacks and protecting the Pokes’ star quarterback, Tony Romo. Through the first 10 years of his career, Davis, a starter since his rookie season, only missed 5 games, starting all 16 games in each season between 2006 and 2010.

Pretty impressive, right? The problem for Davis is that his standout abilities were not recognized until the seventh year of his career, when he joined the Dallas Cowboys, when he reached his first Pro Bowl. In addition, Davis moved from left tackle, the most important O-line position for a team with a right handed quarterback, upon joining the Cowboys, signaling that he did not stand out at the highest level until moving to a less critical position.

At age 33, Davis would need to “run the table”, so to speak and play several more healthy seasons at an exceptional level of performance to receive serious Hall of Fame consideration. In spite of Davis’ durability throughout his career, however, the Cowboys cut Davis this past offseason, citing declining play (and a mammoth salary). The Detroit Lions, this season’s feel good story, signed Davis last week, in desperate need of an experienced guard. Still, this is not a good sign for the Hall of Fame prospects of a player who reached the mountain top later in his career than many who do.

Davis, middle, looks on at practice with his new team. 7

Jake Long, tackle, Miami Dolphins

The 6 foot, 7 inch, 315 pound behemoth was the first pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. He has lived up to expectations, reaching the Pro Bowl every year of his career, never missing a game, and never missing a start. The Dolphins need a lot of help, but left tackle is not one of those areas.

See that? that's Julius Peppers not ripping through an opposing tackle, for once. 8

Joe Thomas, tackle, Cleveland Browns

One word: stud. Thomas was the third pick in the 2007 draft. He had made the Pro Bowl every year. He has started every game. He has never missed a start. He is only in his fourth season, but was Second Team AP All-Pro in 2008 and First Team the last two seasons. Since Thomas has been in Cleveland, Browns running back Peyton Hillis made the Madden NFL ’12 cover. Last year the Browns offensive line has gave up the second fewest tackles for a loss in the NFL. Coincidence? I think not.

Ask Colt McCoy if Thomas pulls his weight. 9
D’Brickashaw Ferguson, tackle, New York Jets

Since being selected #4 overall in the 2006 NFL draft, Ferguson has been a pillar of consistency. He has started every game since his rookie season and never missed a single game. Ferguson is riding a string of back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances. While the Jets offensive line has a host of interior problems, Ferguson has kept quarterback Mark Sanchez’s blind side secure. Sanchez’s rapid progress, helping his team reach the AFC Championship Game in his first two seasons, has helped Ferguson get the positive recognition that he deserves. If his next ten seasons are like the first six, Ferguson will be a lock for Canton.

L.T. is barely visible to the photographer. Could you imagine what a defender has to deal with? 10

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thank you SO much for catching that and calling it to my attention!

  3. I’ve learned a lot from your blog here! Keep on going, my friend, I will keep an eye on it.