Ranking the NFL’s top 10 interior offensive linemen for 2022

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We all love “best-of” lists, but what if people around the NFL created their own? To preview the 2022 NFL season, we surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from edge rusher to interior offensive lineman. This is the third edition of these rankings, and there are several players who moved up or dropped from last year’s lists. Today, we focus on the guards and centers.

Here’s how our process worked: Voters gave us their best 10 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, hundreds of interviews, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, more than 50 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. We had several ties, so we broke them with the help of additional voting and follow-up calls with our rankers. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy — even the honorable mentions.

The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2022. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who are the best players today? Pretty simple.

We’ll roll out a position per day over 11 days. Here’s the schedule: edge rushers (July 5), defensive tackles (July 6), off-ball linebackers (July 7), cornerbacks (July 8), safeties (July 9), interior offensive linemen (July 10), quarterbacks (July 11), running backs (July 12), wide receivers (July 13), tight ends (July 14) and offensive tackles (July 15).

This year’s list of the NFL’s top 10 interior offensive linemen doesn’t leave much room for upward mobility at the top. Four of last year’s top five stayed in that same range, leaving a collection of ascending young players and well-aging veterans fighting for a spot in the list. Center, in particular, proved to be one of the toughest positions in all of football to judge because there’s little consensus about how the top three should be ordered.

Let’s look at some of the game’s top interior blockers as ranked by execs, coaches, scouts and players around the NFL.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 3
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: 1

Nelson tops this list for the third consecutive year, though with less conviction than in the past. Zack Martin and Brandon Scherff stole several of his first-place votes.

“He’s still the guy you would start a team with [at guard],” a prominent NFL coach said. “You just have to watch him to know he’s a special player who can dominate a game at times.”

Evaluators believe Nelson can handle a stout defensive tackle on his own, and he has made efforts to improve the whiffs that used to plague him when he went for the big play. He didn’t have his most consistent season in 2021, but he was also dealing with foot and ankle injuries throughout the season. Nelson’s 94.1% pass block win rate was 12th among guards last season, and his 71.7% run block win rate was 13th at the position.

Overall, Nelson’s 94.6% pass block win rate since entering the NFL in 2018 ranks seventh among guards.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 7
Age: 31 | Last year’s ranking: 2

Martin had one of his better seasons, registering a 93.9 Pro Football Focus rating, committing two penalties and allowing just three sacks in 1,036 snaps. His pass block win rate (94.7%) and run block win rate (72.4%) were both in the top 10 among guards. Nelson might be the golden child at the guard position, but Martin is the gold standard.

“He’s a pro’s pro, smarter than s—,” an NFC offensive coach said. “Never have to worry about him in a one-on-one in the run or pass game, doesn’t miss assignments, knows his body, trains, understands when to push and when to back off. He’s the quintessential guard.”

And he’s quintessentially durable. Martin has missed nine games in eight NFL seasons and has had a pass block win rate under 94% only once since 2017.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 9
Age: 30 | Last year’s ranking: 3

Scherff is elite when he’s healthy and available, as the Jaguars highlighted with a three-year, $49.5 million free-agent deal with $30 million guaranteed. He led all guards with a 76.7% run block win rate last season, winning on 211 of 275 opportunities. The problem is Scherff has averaged 11.4 games played over the past five seasons. He started 11 games in 2021, and the last time he played in every game was 2016.

Still, multiple execs picked him No. 1 here.

“Very quick off the ball to engage and stay locked into defenders,” an NFC coordinator said. “In pass protection, [he] has strength to stop power rushes at the line of scrimmage. That’s a good trait [versus] big defensive tackles. Good puller, too.”

Scherff’s pass block win rate dipped from 94.4% in 2020 to 93.0% in 2021, but that’s nitpicky. He still ranked 27th among guards.

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: 7
Age: 29 | Last year’s ranking: 6

When the Chiefs decided to shake the nightmares of Tampa Bay edge rushers chasing Patrick Mahomes all over the field in Super Bowl LV and get serious about rebuilding their offensive line, they started with Thuney as a cornerstone, giving him a five-year, $80 million free-agent contract. The veteran hasn’t disappointed, putting together another steady NFL season in 2021.

Thuney’s 96.6% pass block win rate led all offensive guards, and he offers Kansas City positional flexibility as a guard and center. His 71.3% run block win rate was also 16th among guards, showing his impact in multiple areas.

What makes Thuney great, per an NFC executive: “Great technique, awareness, uses his intelligence to stay in control of the game. He’s just really dependable.”

To cap it all off, Thuney has started all 97 possible regular-season games during his six-year career, and he has been attributed only 10 total sacks against over that time.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 30 | Last year’s ranking: 5

For a Browns franchise that seems to thrive off the unpredictable, Bitonio might be the surest bet for their fatalistic fans. Over nine seasons, Bitonio has become one of the league’s most consistent linemen. He posted a 95.9% pass rush win rate and a 93.6 Pro Football Focus rating last year, but his career numbers are also quite impressive. Bitonio has five straight seasons with at least a 94% pass block win rate.

The Browns believe he has only improved later in his career. And he is among the NFL’s most durable, missing zero games over the past five seasons.

“Rare combo of quickness, pull ability, one-on-one pass pro ability and power,” an NFL personnel director said. “Excellent second-level run-blocker. Does everything at a high level.”

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 31 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

Jensen wasn’t a major factor in the voting over the past two years, stuck in honorable mention status. But this year, he outdistanced all centers by a wide margin.

“I think he’s the best center in football,” a veteran NFL defensive coach said.

As an NFC offensive coach added, “He’s wild as s—. Every play, he’s talking and playing physically to back it up.”

Jensen’s metrics aren’t outrageous. His 92.4% pass block win rate was No. 23 among centers last year, and his run block win rate was No. 27 at 62.5%. He had five penalties against and recorded a 69.9 rating from Pro Football Focus. But it’s the attitude and physicality that sets him apart.

“The last two years, his game has taken off,” a recently retired Pro Bowl offensive lineman said. “His explosion in the passing game really stands out. He sets a tone for the entire team.”

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: 7

Jenkins is a matchup problem because of his versatility, in more ways than one. He is a problem for defensive linemen, logging snaps at guard, center and tackle during his three years in Green Bay. But he also is hard to peg in this exercise because he fits the interior line and offensive tackle criteria.

At 6-foot-5 and 311 pounds, Jenkins slid from guard to tackle last season because of David Bakhtiari‘s injury. And with Bakhtiari returning this year, Jenkins could play guard or right tackle for the Packers. Jenkins also is recovering from a torn left ACL he suffered in late November.

“Can be good at either spot but maybe better at guard,” an NFL scouting director said. “He doesn’t have a big weakness really — big, strong, athletic.”

Jenkins had a 78.2% run block rate last year — ninth among tackles — and his pass block win rate of 91.6% would have tied Tristan Wirfs at No. 12 had it qualified for tackles. And his pass block win rate over 2019 and 2020 at guard was 94.7%, sixth at the position.

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 34 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

Voters saw decline in Kelce’s 2020 tape and moved him to honorable mention, only to watch him explode to first-team All-Pro status during an impressive 2021 campaign. How many 34-year-old veterans are getting substantial raises? Kelce made $9 million in 2021 and looked poised to retire. Instead, he is set to earn $11.25 million — plus an extra $3 million in incentives — to play a 12th season.

His 72.2% run block win rate (fourth overall at the position) and 95.7% pass block win rate (seventh) were both outstanding, and he was attributed just one sack against in 17 games.

“He plays with anger, which serves his supreme athleticism well,” an NFC player personnel director said. “Couple that with good coaching and the system there [in Philadelphia], and he’s able to prolong his career.”

As an NFC offensive coach added, “Mentally, he’s on another level; and physically, he moves like no other I’ve ever seen.”

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

Those who love Teller really love him, with the four-year pro earning several top-five votes. He is a great success story as a fifth-round pick traded by Buffalo in 2019. He used his spot in Cleveland as a springboard to a four-year, $56.8 million extension last year.

He is an imperfect player, to be sure — he had 10 penalties and four sacks allowed last season — but his pancake blocks inspire YouTube clips, and his improvement is timely. His pass block win rate last year of 94.7% is up from 92.9% in 2020 and tied Martin at seventh among guards.

“I love the attitude and physicality he plays with — not a refined player,” an AFC personnel evaluator said. “Will make some mistakes while going for the big play. But you can live with that because he’s a tone-setter.”

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 30 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

Long unheralded in Green Bay, Linsley was a catalyst for the Chargers after signing a five-year, $62.5 million deal in free agency in 2021. The Chargers believe Linsley was worth every cent as a calming force for quarterback Justin Herbert.

Here’s the best way to quantify Linsley’s value: The Chargers ranked fourth in the NFL in expected points added at 116.4, a sizable jump from the previous year’s 14th-ranked EPA (99.42). Internally, the Chargers credit Linsley as a big part of that jump.

“I think for what they do, he’s the best center because he’s so smart and instinctive that he makes life easier for Herbert,” said a high-ranking NFL official unaffiliated with the team. “He might not be able to overpower like other guards and centers, but his technique is top notch, and you’re going to play a clean game with him offensively.”

His command of the offense shows up. The Chargers had three delay of game penalties all year, and Linsley had just six total penalties all season. And he allowed zero sacks on 1,013 snaps to go along with a 95.9% pass block win rate (fifth among centers).

Honorable mentions

Ryan Kelly, C, Indianapolis Colts: A fixture in the top 10 over the past two years, Kelly is consistently one of the NFL’s best centers because of his strength and power advantage up front. But his 62.0% run block win rate ranked 28th among centers, and his 91.8% pass block win rate was 25th. “He’s a good player but probably gets overinflated by playing next to Quenton [Nelson],” a high-ranking NFL team official said.

Creed Humphrey, C, Kansas City Chiefs: A stellar rookie season has Humphrey poised for next year’s top 10. “He’s coming,” a prominent NFL coach said. Humphrey ranked tops among centers in Pro Football Focus rating (91.8) and pass block win rate (97.7%), and his run block win rate (71.8%) was fifth. “Really came on late in the year,” an NFL personnel evaluator said. “He presented a lot of problems for us.” But one NFL vice president says Humphrey is good but “a little overrated” and wants to see more.

Frank Ragnow, C, Detroit Lions: Injury knocked Ragnow, our No. 4 interior player and best overall center last year, out of the top 10. He missed 13 games because of a toe injury that required surgery. From an NFC scout: “You can do just about anything with him as an offense. He can run the show up front, and he’s athletic and versatile to get on the move and play in space.”

Laken Tomlinson, G, New York Jets: The former first-round pick by Detroit had a successful five-year stint with the 49ers, earning his first Pro Bowl in 2021 and signing a three-year, $40 million free-agent deal with the Jets. “He’s a perfect example of how scheme and fit matter,” an NFC executive said. “He started slowly [in Detroit] but was a great fit in San Francisco, which used his athleticism.”

Erik McCoy, C, New Orleans Saints: Last year’s No. 10 interior player had a 94.8% pass block win rate last season, 10th best among centers. “Sometimes he looks like the best center in the game,” an NFL personnel evaluator said. “But the consistency is not always there.”

Alijah Vera-Tucker, G, New York Jets: Vera-Tucker played 975 offensive snaps as a rookie for the Jets, a clear building block for an offense that could be on the rise in 2022. Vera-Tucker ranked 62nd among 68 guards in run block win rate last year (62.5%), and his 90.5% pass block win rate was 43rd. His presence in the honorable mention category is more an acknowledgement of where his career is going as opposed to a reward for his rookie year. “I loved him in college, thought it was disappointing last year,” an NFL scouting director said. “Had trouble sustaining blocks.”

Also receiving votes: Rodney Hudson (Arizona Cardinals), Trey Smith (Kansas City Chiefs)

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