Ranking the NFC South’s offensive line groups: Falcons have the most intriguing bunch

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As NFL offenses continue to evolve, the importance of having a good offensive line remains as true as ever.

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The Falcons learned that lesson last season, and they’ve taken a number of steps to sure things up in front of Matt Ryan moving forward. But the NFC South is home to some of the league’s best offensive linemen, including a pair who start up front for the Falcons.

Here are the position rankings for the NFC South’s offensive line units:

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Aggregate score: 3.6

  • Top player: Donovan Smith
  • Drop-off factor: 4
  • Group production: 4
  • Best player: 4
  • Consistency: 2
  • Depth: 4

Tampa Bay is the only team in the division returning all five starters along its offensive line, but that consistency is really the only thing the Buccaneers have going for them. Donavan Smith has been a solid tackle during his four seasons with Tampa Bay, and both Ryan Jensen and Ali Marpet are capable NFL players, but there isn’t really a standout player in the group.

The Buccaneers lone signing of note on the offensive line in free agency was Earl Watford, who was a starter in Arizona in 2016 and 2017 before playing in a backup role with the Browns last season. Tampa Bay gave up 41 sacks in 2018, which was right in the middle of the pack for the NFL, but they allowed 109 quarterback hits, tied for the fourth-most in the league. On the ground, the Bucs were one of the worst rushing units in the league, averaging 95.2 yards per game.

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3. Atlanta Falcons

Aggregate score: 2.4

  • Top player: Alex Mack
  • Drop-off factor: 3
  • Group production: 3
  • Best player: 1
  • Consistency: 4
  • Depth: 1

The Falcons’ offensive line is very much a position group in flux. Injuries took their toll up front for Atlanta in 2018 as starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco were lost for the season fairly early on. The Falcons aren’t content to roll with the status quo again in 2019, and they have six notable new linemen in the mix to battle it out for training camp, including veterans James Carpenter and Jamon Brown as well as first-round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary.

Pro Bowlers Alex Mack and Jake Matthews are very competent players to build around up front, but it remains to be seen who the team plugs in around them and how they perform together. Because of the level of change within the group, 2018 doesn’t offer much information for how the unit will fare in 2019. In this division, the Falcons’ offensive line has highest level of variance for possible outcomes. It wouldn’t be surprising is they move up on this list at season’s end, however.

2. Carolina Panthers

Aggregate score: 2.2

  • Top player: Matt Paradis
  • Drop-off factor: 2
  • Group production: 2
  • Best player: 2
  • Consistency: 3
  • Depth: 2

The Panthers have an interesting group up front. After losing both starting tackles – Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams – to season-ending injuries prior to the season, Carolina turned to Chris Clark and second-year tackle Taylor Moton to step into a starting role. Moton responded exceptionally well, becoming a true bright spot on the season, and he figures to be a starter opposite of Williams moving forward.

Ryan Kalil’s retirement after the season was a major blow, as the All-Pro center has been a mainstay on the Panthers’ offensive line since he was drafted in 2007. But Carolina likely won’t miss a beat at the position after signing former Broncos center Matt Paradis, who has been one of the steadiest players at his position since 2015.

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1. New Orleans Saints

Aggregate score: 1.8

  • Top player: Larry Warford/Ryan Ramczyk
  • Drop-off factor: 1
  • Group production: 1
  • Best player: 3
  • Consistency: 1
  • Depth: 3

An argument can be made that the Saints’ offensive line is boosted by the scheme run in New Orleans, but that would also be a disservice to the level of talent on that group. Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat and Larry Warford are all Pro Bowlers, and third-year tackle Ryan Ramczyk seems poised to join them very soon. Despite losing Pro Bowl center Max Unger to a surprise retirement, the Saints are really solid at four of the five positions up front.

In the draft, the Saints targeted the center position, adding former Erik McCoy in the second round. He will presumably compete with free agent signee Nick Easton, who started 12 games for the Minnesota Vikings last season. Regardless of who wins that job, though, they are bolstered by a talented group that allowed just 20 sacks last season, the second-fewest in the NFL.

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