Although the offensive tackle position is generally regarded as the most important position on the line, strong guard play is a running game’s best friends. It’s up to the guards to pull, push their way into the second level, and hold their own against some of the most talented 3-4 DEs in the league at times. Players like Evan Mathis and Josh Sitton have become some of the most consistently dominant in the NFL at any position, and guards are no longer underrated; people have been forced to take notice. Logan Mankins, Mike Iupati, Jon Asamoah, Kevin Zeitler, Ben Grubbs, and Rodger Saffold were six tough cuts from this top ten, and there’s a lot of room for discussion and argument at the back end of the list. Note: I tried to use Football Outsiders stats to statistically measure a guard’s impact on the team’s running game, but it’s difficult to do since guards don’t necessarily stay in one area during a running play, such as pulling across the formation.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers David DeCastro
The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line used to be a huge issue for several seasons, but it looks like it won’t be a glaring weakness heading into the 2013 season. Ramon Foster and David DeCastro broke out last year to form a very solid guard tandem, the tackles are no longer an embarrassment, and center Maurkice Pouncey does a solid job of manning the middle. DeCastro is the star of this unit, and his run blocking will be key for the 1-2 punch of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount next year. The former first-round pick out of Stanford needs more help from his teammates in the running game, but he is the centerpiece player on a line that will pave the way for a very talented backfield duo (and perhaps rookie Dri Archer). Though his first half of the season was better than the second half, DeCastro finished the year as a stabilizing presence in pass protection with just two sacks allowed, per the Pro Football Focus, in addition to plenty of fine displays as a run blocker.
9. New Orleans Saints Jahri Evans
I miss watching Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans play together in New Orleans, because they formed the best guard duo in recent memory. Nicks is on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and struggling to get back into the league due to a nasty staph infection, but Evans is still going strong with a new partner in Ben Grubbs, who just missed the cut as well. Evans didn’t allow a sack last year, and he is a big reason why the Saints were one of the top ten teams in the league at running the ball up the middle.
8. New York Giants Geoff Schwartz
The Kansas City Chiefs lost one of the best guard duos in the NFL this offseason when Jon Asamoah signed with the Atlanta Falcons and Geoff Schwartz joined the revamped Giants offensive line. Schwartz was always a good player going back to his days as an unheralded G/T for the Carolina Panthers, and his versatility helps give him the nod over other talented guards in this league. The Chiefs finally allowed Schwartz to get his due on a national scale, and he’s a huge upgrade for the Giants, who couldn’t generate any push in the running game or keep Eli Manning upright last season, thanks to an old, injured, and incompetent line in 2013. Schwartz is a shiny, new piece for Manning and new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, and he’ll be a huge boost for newcomer Rashad Jennings in the running game. Schwartz can play pretty much anywhere on the offensive line, and he allowed just six hurries last year, per PFF. That’s an extremely low total, and the scariest thing is that he’s an even better run blocker.
7. Detroit Lions Larry Warford
In the coming years, Warford will shoot up this list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up being a fixture at the top of guard rankings three years from now. That’s just how good Warford was as a rookie, and I only left him out of the top five because of all the established talents at the position. Warford and LaAdrian Waddle were rookie stars, and they will anchor a Lions offensive line that should be one of the best units in the game for several seasons. With no sacks allowed and the third-highest adjusted line yards average on runs to his zone in the league (compared to all other right tackle runs), Warford was an immediate star as both a run blocker and pass protector.
6. Tennessee Titans Andy Levitre
After consistently playing at a high level for the Buffalo Bills, Andy Levitre was rewarded with a nice contract by the guard-needy Tennessee Titans last offseason after the Bills were unable to keep him around. He wasn’t as good as most of us expected, but Levitre was still one of the top guards in the league last year with just one sack allowed (ten QB hits allowed, though) and some quality run blocking. He’ll be even better next year, as he allowed just seven hurries and was an elite run blocker in 2012.