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By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
Over the last few weeks I’ve examined the NFL’s offensive lines and how their projected level of play will influence the production of the running backs and passers they block for. After spotlighting sets of RBs going in both the early rounds and middle sections of fantasy drafts, it’s time to take a look at the QBs.
You don’t need me to tell you that Drew Brees will be shielded by one of the league’s best lines, or that Deshaun Watson better keep his health insurance up to date playing behind Houston’s nondescript corps of pass protectors Instead, I’ll highlight one QBs whose o-line is shakier than many fantasy gamers realize and another whose line should greatly outperform its 2017 results.
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
Expectations are justifiably high for Cousins. A gutsy but cerebral quarterback is joining a loaded offense that, hopefully, will get a full season from running back Dalvin Cook, who was on his way to setting the league on fire before suffering a torn ACL in Week 4. Sounds like a point-scoring machine, doesn’t it? Sure, the Vikings are transitioning from Pat Shurmur as offensive coordinator to former Philadelphia QB coach John DeFilippo, but DeFilippo was instrumental in helping to tailor the Eagles’ attack to the specific skills of Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. Both assistants come from the esteemed Andy Reid coaching tree, so the scheme should remain sharp. But there is a doomsday scenario here that even the most rabid of Vikings fans can recognize…
The offensive line could be the Norsemen’s Ragnarök. After a 5-0 start, the 2016 Vikings endured a cataclysmic 3-8 finish that can largely be attributed to the misfortunes of their offensive line. After losing both starting tackles, Minnesota was forced to start T.J. Clemmings for 14 far-from-glorious games. The depleted line gave Sam Bradford minimal time to throw (they did keep him healthy, which in retrospect seems like a minor miracle) and the Vikes finished the year bottom-five in total yards.
Minnesota upgraded the line entering 2017 and it showed as, depending on who you ask, its performance ranged from adequate to pretty good. Here’s a number that does not lie, however – Case Keenum was pressured on 39.3% of his dropbacks, third most in the NFL. That the line surrendered just 11 sacks, third fewest in the NFL, may seem to contradict that stat, but eels are jealous of how slippery Keenum was in the pocket. Though he escaped countless sacks only three QBs absorbed more hits, according to Football Outsiders.
One thing that allowed Keenum to get rid of the ball so quickly was Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs getting open for him. Those weapons will be at Cousins’ disposal, too. But there’s no doubt that Keenum played extremely well with pass rushers breathing down his neck. In this decade, only three quarterbacks have received a positive DVOA (Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted grade against the curve) while under pressure: Chicago-era Josh McCown (2013) and two 2017 quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Case Keenum.
Someone who hasn’t been phenomenal with the defense in his face: Kirk Cousins. In 2017 he was frequently under duress, as Washington’s line was riddled with injuries. However, he was slightly below average in the very same metric Keenum was stratospheric in. It’s not that Cousins ducks under pressure. The dude will stand in there and throw, but sometimes bad things happen when he does. Over the last three seasons Cousins has thrown 36 interceptions and fumbled 31 times. Obviously, a lot of his turnovers occurred when pressured. In 2017 he threw the same number of interceptions as touchdowns (nine) in those situations.
Is Kirk Cousins doomed? Heck no. He has one of the 10 easiest schedules a QB will face this year. Minnesota is a legitimate Super Bowl contender that boasts a terrifying defense, meaning Cousins shouldn’t have to force a lot of plays that aren’t there. What’s more, the opposition will have to contend with the threat of Cook. A credible ground game makes play-action passing more effective, and play-action can neutralize the pass rush. Last season no team used it more than the Vikings, and no team was more effective when they did.
The risk here is that Minnesota’s offensive line is already down two starters from 2017 (Joe Berger, retired; Nick Easton, IR) and has two rehabbing injuries (Pat Elflein and Mike Remmers). Remmers, probably the team’s best pass protector, is dealing with an ankle injury. Setbacks are common with a bad ankle and the margin for error for this unit is now quite slim. Every year a handful of teams are forced to field street free agents late in the season, and these undermanned lines stick out like a sore thumb. More misfortune could make the Vikings’ blocking a sieve again, conjuring painful memories of 2016 and making Cousins turnover prone.
Looking at a cross-section of sites hosting fantasy drafts, Captain Kirk is generally the eighth quarterback selected, including on Yahoo. At that ADP he’s going a few picks ahead of peers Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford and Jimmy Garoppolo. I think he’s the rightful leader of that group and has more upside than any of them not named Luck, but the bust risk is higher than people think. In a standard 12-team league, I’m generally waiting until the top 10 quarterbacks are off the board to target this very deep position.
Alex Smith, Washington Redskins
It seems fitting to make the other quarterback I cover today the man who switched places with Cousins. Smith is going about 60 picks later on Yahoo – about five rounds in a 12-team draft. Only three quarterbacks scored more fantasy points than Smith last season, in what will almost surely go down as his career year. More than 20 passers often go ahead of Smith in drafts. The fantasy community seems to agree that without Pat Mahomes threatening his job, and outside of Kansas City’s high-flying offense, Smith will go back to his pedestrian ways in the nation’s capital.
While Smith is less likely than Cousins to finish in the top 5, the cheaper option will give us a steady diet of top 10–15 weekly finishes with top 5–10 weeks sprinkled throughout. Consider other options Weeks 13 and 15 – Philadelphia and Jacksonville – but Washington’s second date with the Eagles fortuitously falls in Week 17. For the most part Smith has a soft schedule ahead of him.
I mentioned the Redskins’ line earlier; so far they seem to be avoiding the injury bugaboo that hamstrung this unit last year. After getting off to a fine start, Washington’s offensive production eroded along with the health of their blocking wall. Eleven offensive linemen played at least 140 snaps and sometimes it wasn’t clear until game-time if they’d have enough healthy bodies to field a line. Needless to say, the unit never found its rhythm. (And T.J. Clemmings, like the “Where’s Waldo?” of underwhelming offensive line play, saw the field again.)
It’s easy to forget that in 2016 Washington’s pass protection was top tier, and with better health it could be again. In tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses, the line has an enviable set of bookends. While guard Brandon Scherff is more of a force in the running game than he is in pass protection, he’s still rock solid. Left guard might be a liability but if center Chase Roullier can build on a very strong rookie season, Washington won’t have to worry much about surrendering interior pressure. Smith was very efficient in the deep passing game last year, but he doesn’t have the arm or the inclination to frequently target the vertical routes that require a ton of time to develop. The Redskins will readily protect him long enough to hit receivers running the curls, deep crossers and posts Smith has the most success with.
The heartbreaking news of Derrius Guice’s season-ending injury means Washington will be passing the ball more than anticipated, yes, even with adding a 33-year-old Adrian Peterson. The offense’s efficiency will suffer, but a mediocre (or worse) ground game would make their quarterback carry more of the load himself.
It’s possible that Smith goes back into the game-manager shell he showed us in Kansas City before his stirring 2017 campaign. However, camp reports and preseason action show that Smith has a full command of Jay Gruden’s generally potent offense. The modest investment fantasy gamers need make to secure his services should pay dividends.