Entering the 2021 season, there are a host of different players on both sides of the line of scrimmage with something to prove, whether being in a contract year, needing to rebound from a bad season, or because they’re playing a critical role towards the success of their team. For this article we’ll focus exclusively on the offensive line to highlight ten players that need to play well to improve their outlook and value for the future. Their level of play will have a significant role in how their teams fare in the 2021 season and beyond.
1. Andrew Thomas - Giants
Thomas is coming off of a disastrous rookie campaign that was exacerbated by the fact that he was the first tackle (4th overall) taken in a loaded class where the next three tackles picked after him (Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton, & Tristan Wirfs) significantly outplayed him. Thomas has prototypical size to work with, but his technique was a wreck and showed no signs of improvement during the preseason. Thomas struggles to find proper set points on rushers, resulting in persistent over or undersetting with delayed strike timing. This leads to rushers being able to convert speed to power and run through his inside shoulder, cross his face, or knock down his hands to capture the corner way too quickly.
Thomas has a new line coach entering his second season and is set to play alongside a new left guard in recently acquired former Raven Ben Bredeson. Without any continuity to lean on, he will need to find a way to revamp his technique as the season goes on. Thomas is still just 22-years old and has a long runway to improve over the coming years, but the situation around him doesn’t seem to be very conducive for success this season. Thomas will likely need to figure things out in spite of what’s around him both in terms of personnel and coaching.
2. Austin Jackson - Dolphins
Jackson enters his second season after a rough rookie year that’s partly understandable given his age (21-years old in 2020) and being just a year removed from donating bone marrow to his sister a month before his junior season at USC. Jackson spent the better part of that college season working his way back from the toll the procedure took on his body before declaring for the draft. Given his unique circumstances, it was possible to overlook his raw technique under the assumption that he would continue to improve. However, that development needed to happen quickly because he was the 18th overall selection in the draft.
It’s troubling that Jackson had a dreadful preseason where he looked overwhelmed on far too many reps. With lagging footwork, use of hands, and overall play strength, Jackson is heading into his second year as a liability until proven otherwise. Considering the buzz around this Dolphins squad as a team on the rise and in playoff contention, with a young QB in Tua Tagovailoa needing to lead the charge, the microscope will be put on Jackson to drastically improve over the course of the season.
3. Andre James - Raiders
When the Raiders traded their offensive line’s best player in Rodney Hudson to the Cardinals, they immediately followed it up with an extension for James, handing him the reins to the pivot for the 2021 season and likely beyond. James never snapped a football before joining the Raiders in 2019 after spending his career at UCLA exclusively at tackle. He enters his third season with one career start and 116 career offensive snaps (all during the 2019 season).
James only appeared in one preseason game (23 total snaps) this year and did show some impressive physicality that popped on film, but a glaring level of uncertainty remains in his game. James needs to establish himself quickly after Hudson’s departure, making him a no-brainer for inclusion onto this list. Considering that Hudson was the epitome of consistency (four missed games in six years with the Raiders) who brilliantly handled the pre-snap phase and line calls for the Raiders’ offense, the team’s divergence to James is a bold move. That decision will likely limit their ability to navigate blitzes, pressures, and exotic looks as seamlessly as they did when Hudson was calling the shots.
How James deals with the pressure of replacing Hudson will be one of the more interesting storylines that I’ll be studying this season.
4. Orlando Brown Jr. - Chiefs
The 2021 season will be Brown’s first year as a full-time starter at left tackle, fulfilling a lifelong dream imprinted on him by his late father and former Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Sr. The younger Brown accrued 12 starts last season at left tackle due to Ronnie Stanley’s season-ending ankle injury. He also started 40 games at left tackle for Oklahoma before turning pro, making him more familiar with the mechanics of playing on the left side than most.
The question really lies in the stark difference in scheme and offensive philosophy, switching from the league’s most run-heavy approach in Baltimore to protecting the blindside for the league’s most valuable quarterback in Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City passed the ball 224 more times than the Ravens during the 2020 season (630-406) and 136 more times in 2019 (576-440). Assuming the Chiefs adapt their offense to suit the skill-set of Brown and other newly added linemen up front into a slightly more balanced approach with more gap run concepts (which we saw in the preseason), the adjustment for Brown shouldn’t be as strenuous.
Andy Reid is a Hall of Fame coach because of his ability to design his system around his players, which will undoubtedly help Brown find a comfort zone, but Mahomes is still the team’s best player. Passing the ball will always take precedence. How Brown acclimates to having to protect more than he’s accustomed to will be one of the most fascinating and important layers of the Chiefs season.
5. Mike McGlinchey - 49ers
This off-season, the 49ers picked up Mike McGlinchey’s fifth-year option for the 2022 season despite an unsteady year in 2020 where his anchor and overall consistency in pass-protection took a concerning dip. McGlinchey was noticeably lighter on film, which took a toll on his play strength and seemingly led to a lack of confidence in his technique that I hadn’t seen from him to that extent over his first two seasons. McGlinchey has always been a significantly better run than pass-blocker with a clearly defined ceiling as a middle-of-the-road pass-protector due to having average range on an island against top competition. He needs a bounce back year to repay San Francisco’s faith in him.
What made last year’s film so alarming for McGlinchey was how often he abandoned his technique, was off-balance, and out of sync from the ground up with his footwork and base. He has reportedly added back some weight, but the same issues popped up in the preseason against 250 pound edge-rusher Uchenna Nwosu. In Kyle Shanahan’s run-heavy, play-action based scheme, life is much easier on the O-line in pass-protection than most other places, so McGlinchey won’t have to be great in protection. However, he needs to climb back towards average for the offense to fully realize its potential.
6. Garrett Bradbury - Vikings
After a rocky rookie season where his marginal size, length, and play strength for the position were glaring, Bradbury incrementally improved to a more functional level last season but still lags behind the expectations that come with being a top 20 pick. Bradbury’s division (Kenny Clark and Akiem Hicks) and the league as a whole is absolutely stacked with talented defensive tackles who are far bigger and longer than him, which makes matters worse for Bradbury and highlights his weakness. This has put the burden on him to find creative yet sustainable ways to work around his limitations, such as increasing his functional strength, refining his technique, hand placement, and strike timing.
Bradbury can pick off second level targets at a very high level as a run-blocker while reaching shades consistently, making him a plus starter for the Vikings zone run scheme. Year three is when players are often expected to hit their stride and really settle into who they will be as pros, so the belief is Bradbury will make an appreciable jump into the above average range as a player. His reliability against higher end competition as a pass-blocker will need to pick up for that to happen.
7. Billy Price - Giants
With just 19 starts over his first three seasons and subpar film when on the field, Price has failed to live up to expectations as a former first-round pick. Baked into the disappointment are an assortment of serious injuries over that span, including a foot injury that kept him out for six games during his rookie season and plantar fasciitis in his second season that worked its way up his kinetic chain before developing into back issues. This led to the Bengals declining his fifth year option this off-season before trading him to the Giants for defensive tackle B.J. Hill.
After a solid preseason, Price will likely get a crack at the starting center job in New York. Price’s marginal arm length and wingspan are his Achilles heel as a pro because they reduce his margin for error in his strike timing as a pass-blocker. There are several quality starting centers (Corey Linsley, Ben Jones, Chase Roullier, and Matt Paradis) across the NFL with similar measurements, so it isn’t a death knell, but Price will have to be that much better at learning when to pick his spots to be aggressive in protection. Price’s ultra-physical playing style, which has made him a high-quality run-blocker, also works against him.
Walking that fine line and finding the right balance between being aggressive and using more tact while only having a couple of weeks to learn a new system before the season starts are tall tasks but need to happen for Price sooner rather than later to prove that his promise as a prospect wasn’t a mistake.
8. James Daniels - Bears
Daniels was part of the same 2018 draft class as Price and has had a near equal level of inconsistencies as a pro, partly due to injuries and being unable to settle down at one position. In 2021, he’s set to play his third position on the interior of the line at right guard, where the Bears hope Daniels can finally find a long-term home. While Daniels was picked 18 picks after Price, his ceiling was clearly higher due to premier physical traits and youth. Daniels was only 20-years old when he was drafted.
Daniels looked like he had finally figured things out from a technique perspective last year at left guard before having his season cut short in Week 5 with a torn pec. Now in his fourth season, Daniels is still just 23-years old and has an opportunity to realize his immense potential. The Bears desperately need for that to happen because of the bleak outlook for their offensive line. This is one of the more underrated storylines in the trenches that I’ll be watching closely this season.
9. Will Hernandez - Giants
Continuing on the topic of the 2018 draft class, Hernandez was picked in-between Price and Daniels. He had outstanding film coming out of UTEP as a prospect. While Hernandez has been more of a fixture on his offensive line with 39 starts in three seasons, he is switching positions from left to right guard in 2021. Hernandez has some clear areas of his game to rely on for success, such as power, play strength, and underrated athletic ability, but he has a propensity for mental errors and shaky technique that result in too many glaring losses as a pass-blocker. This has kept him in the middle of the pack or slightly below average relative to his peers, despite having flashes of much more.
Hernandez is entering a contract year while playing a position he hasn’t lined up at since high school. The microscope will certainly be on him after this season when teams go back and review the film to determine his value on the open market if the Giants decide to let him test free agency. Chances are New York will retain Hernandez if he can reduce the errors and let his strengths shine. How the position switch impacts his development will be one of the more interesting case studies in the trenches this season.
10. Cody Ford - Bills
The Bills allocated a lot of resources over the last two off-seasons towards their offensive line and still don’t have long-term answers at the guard spots. Ford primarily played right tackle during his rookie season in 2019 to cover for an injury, but it became clear as the year progressed that his best fit was inside. He began last season at right guard before having to switch to the left to account for another injury. Ford recorded seven total starts (five at LG, two at RG) before suffering a torn meniscus and being put on injured reserve.
Up until this point, Ford hasn’t had a chance to settle into one spot, but he should have that opportunity at right guard in year three. The Bills need him to play the bulk of the season and perform well to provide a solid return on their second round investment while also preventing both guard spots from being positions of need in the 2022 off-season.
Ford is a hulking, powerful presence at guard with ideal size and length. He excels generating movement off the ball as a run-blocker and delivers powerful strikes as a pass-blocker. As long as he’s healthy, the traits and flashes on film suggest that he will develop into a solid starter.