Let’s play the meme game.
With all due respect to Bo Mitchell and his outstanding analysis of the preseason All-NFC North skill positions, such debates are — as the kids like to say — tired.
You want wired? Let’s break down the big sexys.
The proliferation of fantasy football and its associated stats arm every keyboard warrior with the numbers to build an argument for their favorite backs and receivers. Most touchdowns? Most yards? Some obscure analytic that requires a slide rule to compute? All at your fingertips for the glamour boys.
Yawn. Where’s the beef?
Time to get weird, dive into the trenches and dust off the 5XL crystal ball to steal a glimpse of the future of the Black & Blue Division. Without further ado, your preseason 2020 All-NFC North offensive line.
There was some solid pivot play in the Black & Blue last year; unfortunately for Vikings fans, little of it came from first-round pick Garrett Bradbury. The rookie’s 57.5 Pro Football Focus overall grade ranked 28th among qualifying centers, and his numbers across the board were lower than any single-season career marks from any of the other three players slated to start at center for NFC North teams this season.
Worse, Bradbury’s lowest-graded efforts tended to come within the division — especially in pass protection. Four of Bradbury’s six lowest overall single-game grades came against NFC North teams, as did four of his five worst pass-blocking games — including a John Blutarski-esque 0.0 against the Packers in Week 16.
The good news for Bradbury is that he’s young enough to improve. Looking back at other first-round centers over the past decade, only three played as many regular-season snaps as Bradbury’s 989 during their rookie campaign. The two who followed up with a similar number (Indy’s 2016 first-rounder, Ryan Kelly, was injured and played just 394 snaps as a sophomore) both improved from Year 1 to Year 2.
Chicago’s Cody Whitehair was a Pro Bowl center in 2018, but his PFF grades have declined steadily since his 87.5 mark as a rookie. Whitehair spent the first half of last season at left guard, and after a rough initial game at center against the Lions he was mostly solid the rest of the way. Still, his game is heading in the wrong direction to be projected as the division’s best this year.
That makes this a two-horse race between Green Bay’s Corey Linsley and Detroit’s Frank Ragnow, both of whom posted top-seven PFF grades at the position last season. Linsley has been a steady force in the middle of the Packers’ line, earning grades north of 73 in five of his six pro seasons. Last season’s mark was boosted by two strong showings in the postseason and the fact that he rarely posted a clunker; contrast his one sub-40 pass protection grade and zero overall marks south of 53.0 with the five sub-40 pass blocking grades and five sub-50 overall grades Bradbury recorded.
Clearly, Linsley would be a solid choice. But the nod here goes to Ragnow, whose 74.9 overall PFF grade ranked sixth among qualifying NFL centers last season. Ragnow’s grades improved across the board from a good rookie campaign, putting him on an upward trajectory the Vikings hope Bradbury can emulate. Plus, anyone who’ll give you a virtual hang and a fishing lesson gets extra consideration.
On the surface this is an underwhelming battle lacking a reliable option. But dig a little deeper and you have four players drafted in the fourth round or earlier all fighting to carve out their personal NFL niche.
The Vikings are expected to trot out Dru Samia at right guard following what was essentially a redshirt rookie season. There is obvious potential here, but potential’s just a fancy French word that means “hasn’t done anything yet.”
Detroit goes a step younger, with 2020 third-round pick Jonah Jackson the Lions’ anticipated starter. Scouting reports credit Jackson with position versatility and respect his pass blocking but ding him for his work in the ground game. That’s not enough to make him the pick here, either.
So the battle boils down to Mounds View product Billy Turner and former first-round pick Germain Ifedi. The Bears plan to kick Ifedi inside, where he played his rookie season in Seattle. The vast majority of Ifedi’s snaps since then have come at tackle, but nothing in his previous play has lived up to his Day 1 draft status. The change of scenery and position could do him good, but the smarter selection is Turner, who after starring for the Mustangs in high school and collegiately at North Dakota State appears extremely comfortable in green.
A third-round pick of the Dolphins, Turner saw extensive action in his second season in South Beach before bouncing briefly through Baltimore and winding up in Denver. A pair of lightly-used campaigns led to enough work in 2018 to warrant a free-agency contract in Green Bay. Following a slow start, with sub-40.0 pass-blocking grades in four of his first five games with the Pack, Turner rebounded to post the best PFF mark of his career (64.8) and was especially effective down the stretch. Unfortunately for Minnesota, it looks as if letting the son of former Viking (and Packer) Maurice Turner slip across the state border could come back to haunt them at least twice in 2020.
As far as the home team is concerned, we buried the lede. The NFC North features solid right tackle play, but ultimately the local favorite comes out on top.
Chicago will once again employ Bobby Massie, who’s been a quietly productive option since arriving from Arizona. However, his PFF grades last season were the worst of his career, and without Kyle Long holding the Bears offensive line together this season it’s tough to see him reversing that trend.
The Lions bring in Halapoulivaati Vaitai from Philly, where playing mostly in relief duty he had a couple good years and a couple not-so-good campaigns. He’s topped 500 snaps in a season just once, so it doesn’t make sense to project his career-best 72.8 grade from 2019 sticking across a full season in Detroit.
Vaitai is replacing Ricky Wagner, who exits Ford Field for Green Bay on the heels of his lowest PFF grades as a professional. Wagner’s 2019 is the only blemish on an otherwise rock-solid career that spans both Baltimore and the Motor City, but after watching his grades fall across the board last year a bounce-back in Green Bay is far from a certainty.
Which brings us to Brian O’Neill, who built on an efficient rookie campaign with across-the-board improvement in Year 2. A season-low 50.7 in the playoff loss to San Francisco was a downer but shouldn’t overshadow his sterling sophomore effort; while the Vikings decide what to do with Riley Reiff and rookie Ezra Cleveland on the left side, the future is bright on the right with O’Neill serving as the line’s anchor.
On paper this might be the deepest and most competitive offensive line position in the division. The weakest link — and it’s not all that weak — appears to be Detroit’s Joe Dahl, who after two backup campaigns north of 70.0 posted a 64.9 overall grade in 13 starts for the Lions. The other three projected starters in the division all posted 69.1 grades or better.
That group includes Reiff, who I’m projecting to move inside with rookie Cleveland taking over at left tackle. At least for the purposes of this exercise, Reiff is Minnesota’s best option at the position despite having no NFL experience at guard. He’s posted PFF overall grades of 71.1 and 74.1 the past two seasons, and bringing those numbers inside would plant him atop the division’s left guard rankings. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Reiff live up to those numbers this season.
Instead, however, preseason honors here come down to a pair of young bucks. Green Bay’s Elgton Jenkins came out of the gates with a standout 75.7 overall grade in his NFL debut Week 1 against the Vikings, then carried that play throughout his rookie season — most notably topping 70.0 in three of his last five games, including the playoffs. Giving him the nod here would hardly be a leap.
But like baseball I’m trying to have a representative from each team, so in this case the tie goes to Chicago’s James Daniels. The Bears’ center for the first half of last season, Daniels moved to left guard in Week 10 and after struggling for a couple weeks closed the campaign with five straight games grading out at 68.5 or better. Both he and Jenkins are on the rise, and Reiff is the stable veteran; all three are on the podium, but the view from here says Daniels enters the season above the others.
Last but not least, the marquee position amongst offensive linemen. And while it features the lone 2019 Pro Bowler among NFC North linemen, it’s a closer battle than you might initially think.
With Reiff slotted at left guard, Cleveland is the Viking up for consideration. It’s not a complete stretch for him to play well enough to top this division; after all, Minnesota’s last Pro Bowl offensive lineman was Matt Kalil in 2012 — his rookie season. But that’s still a big ask for a second-round selection, especially in a division loaded with left tackle talent.
Chicago’s Charles Leno is only a year removed from a Pro Bowl campaign of his own. However, after four impressive seasons his performance took a nosedive last year. Leno’s 47.5 run-blocking grade was more than a dozen points lower than any previous full season, and his overall grade of 58.6 was his first full season south of 70.0. Even a bounce-back from the Bear left tackle might not crack the top tier in this stacked division.
Taylor Decker, the Lions’ first-round pick in 2016, burst onto the scene with an outstanding rookie campaign. His PFF grade dropped nearly 20 points his sophomore season, though he’s built it back up each of the past two seasons to last year’s 75.5. That’s good, and he’s clearly heading in the right direction, but it still doesn’t reach the apex of the division.
Green Bay’s David Bakhtiari was the only 2019 Pro Bowler among the 20 projected NFC North starting offensive linemen despite his worst season — PFF grade-wise, at least — in four years. The 2018 PFF Pass Blocker of the Year dropped 10 points off his overall grade, clocking in at a still-respectable 78.6. If the worst of Bakhtiari is still better than the best of the rest of the division, it’s easier to overlook a down season and bank on him returning to form.
And with that you have our preseason picks for the All-NFC North offensive line, from left to right: Bakhtiari, Daniels, Ragnow, Turner and O’Neill.
On Thursday, Bo Mitchell will visit the dark side and complete the set with his All-NFC North preseason defensive team. Stay tuned, I know you will!