By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
Fantasy managers can make better decisions knowing which NFL teams will more often dominate or be dominated in the trenches. Last week I ranked all 32 offensive lines based on my expectations for their run blocking in 2019, which even in today’s pass-happy game is a big part of most running backs’ fantasy production.
If a quarterback is elusive in the pocket, defensive pressure won’t reach him as quickly. For example, at the start of Deshaun Watson’s rookie year, the lumbering Tom Savage was doomed behind Houston’s porous protection, but the agile Clemson alum could thrive anyway.
Still, the better the blockers play, the more opportunities a team’s fantasy assets will have to rack up points in the passing game. And no matter how cagey the QB is, a poor line limits play-callers’ options and increases the potential for disaster on every snap. With that in mind, let’s re-rank the league based solely on pass protection.
In 2018 the Saints were third in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate, a refined measure of pass-blocking, and no QB has faced less pressure than Drew Brees over the last two seasons. Even breaking in a new center, this well-oiled machine can be relied on for fantasy goodness.
Barring injuries, there is no weak link in the chain with this ascendant collection of talents. By midseason in 2018, the Colts were clearly elite, and it’s easy to imagine them finishing 2019 as the NFL’s best. In his second year back from a serious shoulder injury, Andrew Luck may take advantage of this to test defenses deep with more regularity. (And let’s hope for good news on his calf injury.)
David Bakhtiari is the best pass-protecting left tackle in the sport, and RT Bryan Bulaga is no slouch either. While this line is not impregnable vs. interior pressure, center Corey Linsley is probably top five at his position. New OL coach Adam Stenavich is Kermit-the-Frog green, which isn’t ideal. Fortunately, the starters don’t need much guidance — they have a combined 31 years, 408 games and 325 starts (including playoffs) of NFL experience.
This lofty ranking is due less to glowing 2018 metrics than to Jeff Stoutland’s coaching and the chemistry of a stable lineup. Drafting tackle Andre Dillard, a nightmare for pass rushers at Washington State, represents a big upgrade on Jason Peters’ often-used understudy, Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Patriots come out on top by year’s end, but circumstances continue to test their resilience. Masterful OL coach Dante Scarnecchia must be eager to mold Isaiah Wynn into an All-Pro, but the top-notch prospect is coming off an Achilles’ tear that cost him his rookie year. Wynn has to replace Trent Brown, who defected to Oakland. It might take a little time for this line to round into form.
6 - Chicago Bears
The Bears allowed the fewest pressures in the league and only three lines committed fewer penalties. All five starters return and Kyle Long’s tendency to miss games is the only concern.
While the Steelers’ 2018 metrics were superb, they lost tackle Marcus Gilbert to Arizona and OL coach Mike Munchak to Denver. Matt Feiler and Shaun Sarrett, hardly household names, have mighty big shoes to fill. After being Munchak’s apprentice for the last five highly successful seasons, Sarrett should be able to keep a veteran unit on track, but we’d be wise to have a smidgen of doubt with someone so inexperienced at the helm.
8 - Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys will spend 30% of their salary cap on their offensive line this year, which is by far the league’s largest percentage. The return of center Travis Frederick solidifies this as the NFL’s most illustrious o-line, on paper. However, with serviceable Joe Looney in the pivot, Dallas was a lowly 28th in Adjusted Sack Rate, so there is room for improvement at other positions. La’el Collins and Connor Williams weren’t at the level of their line-mates Zack Martin and Tyron Smith. If the lesser names can contribute more, this group could again be the gold standard.
9 - Atlanta Falcons
In Alex Mack and Jake Matthews, the Falcons have top-10 pass blockers at two positions, so that’s a heckuva start. Even with a suspect right side, the Falcons’ line was fine in 2018, but they devoted draft resources to shoring up that weakness. Rookies Chris Lindstrom — one of the nation’s best QB bodyguards last season — and Kaleb McGary — athletic but less refined — could be immediate upgrades. Give them a few games to build cohesion, but these birds are on the rise.
10 - Kansas City Chiefs
Even one key injury would change the complexion of this thin position group, but led by human “Wrong-Way sign” Mitchell Schwartz, K.C.’s quintet was fifth in Adjusted Sack Rate. Even with an iffy left guard position, they should again give Patrick Mahomes ample time to work his magic.
11 - Baltimore Ravens
Marshal Yanda is on the back nine of his storied career and young bookends Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. are building blocks for a Baltimore line that finished 8th in Adjusted Sack Rate. With pedestrian players manning the center and left guard spots I don’t expect the Ravens to duplicate that finish, but if more talented teams stumble they might rank as high again.
12 - Carolina Panthers
The Panthers persevered through a wave of potentially crippling injuries and scrapped their way into the top 10 of Football Outsiders’ pass-blocking metric. If their grit is rewarded with greater health, the results could be impressive for esteemed OL tutor John Matsko and his charges. Taylor Moton is on his way to becoming one of the NFL’s best pass-protecting left tackles, and newly acquired center Matt Paradis can stifle interior pressure with the best of them.
13 - Los Angeles Rams
It feels strange to rank the Rams this low but experience and communication are even more important in pass-blocking, and a lot of both went out the door with John Sullivan and Rodger Saffold this offseason. Under Aaron Kromer’s tutelage, the youngsters could shorten their inevitable learning curve and LA still has a premier pair of pass protectors at tackle, so it may not be long before the line’s play rebounds.
14 - Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars’ three best linemen missed a combined 26 games, skewing their statistics. There is much bounce-back potential here, especially if left tackle Cam Robinson can complete his slow recovery from a torn ACL. To thrive, Nick Foles needs a clean pocket, and I’m reasonably confident these cats can give it to him.
15 - Detroit Lions
Detroit’s blocking wall crumbled in the second half of the season, allowing the second-most QB hits from Weeks 9 to 16. That said, the Lions have a solid nucleus and no turnstile players to worry about, assuming that ballyhooed sophomore Frank Ragnow regains his college form.
16 - San Francisco 49ers
Returning the same five starters gives this group a boost, but questions remain about the Niners’ performance in pass pro. Rookie Mike McGlinchey mauled people in the running game but did not fare as well on passing plays. Dynamic defensive tackles (like division rival Aaron Donald) can give the vulnerable interior of this line fits.
17 - Denver Broncos
Incoming offensive line coach Mike Munchak has a lot to work with here, but turnover on the depth chart means the group will have to gel. Creaky vet Joe Flacco better hope that ex-Dolphin Ja’Wuan James is an immediate hit at RT, or Flacco may get hit immediately.
18 - Tennessee Titans
LT Taylor Lewan’s recently announced four-game suspension does NOT get the season off on the right foot, as the last thing the increasingly brittle Marcus Mariota needs is o-line instability. Next man up Dennis Kelly is demonstrably worse on the left side, and the Titans’ early schedule is scary. In happier news, the addition of guard Rodger Saffold should help them repair their tarnished reputation as a powerhouse line, but at this point, they need to prove it to me.
19 - New York Giants
Last season the G-Men fielded one of the weaker o-lines in the game, but bringing in a great guard like Kevin Zeitler isn’t their only reason for optimism. Center Jon Halapio flashed brightly before going down in mid-September, and rookie Will Hernandez allowed just 29 pressures on his 664 pass-blocking snaps. For fantasy managers, New York’s quarterbacks and pass catchers (are there any left?) present a greater concern than the big guys up front.
20 - Cleveland Browns
Even before shipping Kevin Zeitler out of town the Browns had question marks at both tackle spots, and guard Austin Corbett has a lot to prove, too. If you’re worried that Baker Mayfield’s pass protection will be abysmal, it should be reassuring to know that new OL coach James Campen is coming off a long and distinguished tenure in Green Bay. Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter frustrate pass rushers every week, so barring injury, this unit shouldn’t doom the receiving threats.
21 - Seattle Seahawks
If stats don’t lie I’m too high on Seattle, as only Miami and Houston had a less-impressive Adjusted Sack Rate. The only new face is veteran Mike Iupati, whose pass pro is clearly slipping. What I see, though, is a well-coached unit that graded well individually and has a top-flight pass protector at the vital LT position in Duane Brown. It may be a moot point — Russell Wilson needs only the bare minimum of help from his line.
22 - Minnesota Vikings
Shockingly, the Vikings were 9th in Adjusted Sack Rate despite surrendering the most QB pressures in the league. To me, they didn’t pass the eye test. The hope here is that rookie Garrett Bradbury will revive Pat Elflein’s once-promising career by letting him move from center to guard, where he should be more comfortable.
23 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bruce Arians’ deep-passing philosophy will put this unit to the test, but the Buccaneers held up fairly well last year (even the much-maligned Donovan Smith), and they have maintained more continuity than many o-lines. Just don’t ask them to run block.
24 - Buffalo Bills
Looking at last year’s results isn’t much help with a team that’s undergone a makeover as extreme as Buffalo’s. The opposite of the Bucs, the Bills have just two returning starters, but they’ve brought in a wave of notable veteran and rookie talent to restock the cupboard. Buffalo could get off to a rough start before finding the best lineup and developing rapport.
25 - Oakland Raiders
In a predictable development for Tom Cable haters, Oakland’s o-line plunged from one of the league’s best to bottom tier. Injuries had a lot to do with that, but a unit featuring Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson should have allowed their skittish quarterback more time to throw. While the two vets provide a solid core, LT Kolton Miller had a trying rookie season in which he proved his toughness, but little else. Without good coaching, new RT Trent Brown may prove an overpriced investment.
26 - Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers fared pretty well in Adjusted Sack Rate (13th) despite underwhelming seasons from Dan Feeney and Sam Tevi. News of Russell Okung’s pulmonary embolism is concerning — the talented left tackle is Philip Rivers’ most trusted guardian. Rivers is no stranger to suspect pass protection, but with a bad break or two, this could be the Bolts’ worst fivesome in years.
27 - Washington Redskins
If disgruntled tackle Trent Williams doesn’t forgive the franchise, Washington’s line may see their Adjusted Sack Rate plunge past 2018’s poor finish at 24th. That mark was largely due to the group’s annual rash of injuries, so they could greatly out-perform this ranking if their luck turns and the optimal lineup sees the field all season. Don’t count on it.
28 - New York Jets
Depending on your feelings about Kelechi Osemele, whose once-sterling standard of play fell off a cliff late in his time with Oakland, this is a pretty undistinguished group. New OL coach Frank Pollack did preside over the heyday of the Dallas line during his 2013–2017 tenure, and last year he coaxed a respectable performance out of Cincinnati’s undermanned front.
29 - Cincinnati Bengals
Hopefully, guard Christian Westerman builds on a promising campaign, because the Bengals may be even more undermanned in 2019. Losing Clint Boling (retirement) and Jonah Williams (shoulder) doesn’t bode well for a line lacking proven pass protectors.
30 - Houston Texans
Houston climbs out of the cellar with the addition of rookies Tytus Howard and Max Scharping, but it’s no sure thing they develop into reliable starters quickly (or at all). Though many quarterbacks would be in real trouble here, the phenomenal Deshaun Watson has been largely line-proof in his young career, so beyond a heightened injury risk fantasy gamers needn’t fret too much about the Texans’ potentially terrible line.
31 - Miami Dolphins
While Laremy Tunsil is legit, Miami’s line is the lowest-paid in the NFL, and it shows. This is a red alert for the passing game, given the Dolphins’ quarterback situation. There’s no Deshaun Watson or even Kyler Murray here.
32 - Arizona Cardinals
In theory, Kliff Kingsbury’s quick-passing scheme and Kyler Murray’s mobility should mitigate the danger of poor line play. If this grand experiment fails though, the blocking may well be to blame. Arizona is devoid of effective pass protectors beyond free-agent acquisition Marcus Gilbert. Murray is a high-risk, high-reward proposition.