By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
Fantasy owners are always looking for an edge. Where is the new frontier of information for analysis that league rivals might not have? How can they better understand aspects of the game that are predictive, but not widely studied?
The answer is offensive line play. It’s the most mysterious, unfathomable, ever-shifting component of football. But hey, I’m here to do the legwork so you don’t have to, keeping tabs on depth charts, stats and player performance to make difficult fantasy decisions easier for you. I don’t claim to be an offensive line guru with “in the trenches” experience of my own, but I can directly translate the available knowledge in this area to help savvy fantasy gamers gain an edge on their competition. When two players look like a toss-up to you, gleaning insight into the performance of their o-lines should provide a tiebreaker.
My first two articles assess the potential impact of each team’s line on the fantasy production of running backs and quarterbacks (who, obviously, affect their performance of their pass catchers). After last week’s look at the running game, it’s time to evaluate the impact of line play on each team’s aerial attack. Surveying the league, I expect that the top 16 to 20 lines will likely help their field generals to varying degrees, and the bottom 10 to 12 will hinder them. The order teams appear in reflect my degree of certainty about each line’s outlook.
Continuity and chemistry are even more important in pass protection than in the running game, so personnel turnover incurs a higher penalty here. When a line is adjusting to shifting defensive fronts, blitzes and stunts, it’s vital to be in sync and constant communication.
1. New Orleans
The Saints surrendered the fewest pressures in the league last year, and that was with their left tackle missing six games. The return of Terron Armstead, a silky smooth pass protector, bodes well for Dree Brees’ blind side.
In Week 1, Pittsburgh is set to field the same starting five for the third year in a row, which speaks to the mind meld the Steelers have achieved. Last season Football Outsiders charted them as league leaders in adjusted sack rate, and that was with elite tackle Marcus Gilbert missing nine games. Expect Big Ben to stand tall and survey the field with impunity.
Minus Jason Peters the champs were actually 12th in adjusted sack rate, so they cede the second spot to their in-state rivals, but Peters rejoins a gifted group. None of these guys are a liability, so Carson Wentz won’t be worrying about his knee in the Philly pocket once he returns.
We’re splitting hairs with the top four, as Dallas fields a dream team in the trenches. Joining three All-Pros are second-round pick Connor Williams, who’ll let La’el Collins move back to his natural tackle position, and solid swingman Cameron Fleming. The Cowboys learned from Adrian Clayborn’s six-sack performance for Atlanta when LT Tyron Smith missed Week 10 last year.
In 2017 the Titans were tops in one of Football Outsiders’ key metrics, averaging 62 snaps without a blown block. Assuming right tackle Jack Conklin doesn’t spend the first six games on PUP due to a postseason ACL tear, the Titans have a fistful of pass protectors who can vie with the league’s top sack artists. LT Taylor Lewan will justify his big new contract.
Another top line that should only be better in 2018. Right guard was the weak link in the chain, but free agent addition Brandon Fusco can help keep Matt Ryan’s uni clean this season.
If there’s substance to rumors that the Raiders might cut Donald Penn, a stalwart of this formidable line since 2014, their ranking will suffer. Whether it’s the 35-year-old’s age, Lisfranc injury or salary that necessitate the move, it would be vastly preferable if instead Penn can keep up his high level of play. Jon Gruden is already planning to start a raw rookie in UCLA’s Kolton Miller and turnover at both tackle spots would be bad news for Derek Carr.
8. Los Angeles Rams
Tier break here as the Rams lack a trouble spot but aren’t an impregnable shark cage for Jared Goff. Jamon Brown’s two-game suspension dings the line’s chemistry score, and last year’s key additions Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan are much closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Still, if they can keep the good vibes going this group will give Goff the few seconds he needs in Sean McVay’s rapid-fire attack.
Another team that was stingy with sacks allowed, the Jags did a fine job keeping Blake Bortles upright last year. Then they signed Carolina guard Andrew Norwell, who permitted a mere 13 hurries in 2017. Cam Robinson had a rookie year to forget, but if the early-second-round pick refines his technique this group could be one of the best.
When it came to keeping pass rushers at bay, the 2017 Ravens were top five by most key measures. However, this unit will have a hard time duplicating last season’s startling success. Two starters will play in other cities this season and three more are changing positions. Getting the great Marshal Yanda back from injury is huge, but he’s pushing 34 and nursing a shoulder injury.
While Philip Rivers does excel at throwing the ball away, the fact remains that the Chargers absorbed the fewest sacks in the league last year. Ex-Dolphin Mike Pouncey is a big improvement on what L.A. rolled out at center last year. Of course, the injury gods seem to curse the Chargers every year and they lack the depth to shrug off any major losses in this quintet.
12. Kansas City
K.C. returns the same starting five from 2017 that ranked 17th in Football Outsiders’ metrics, but super-sub Zach Fulton signed with Houston. It’s a thin group with little margin for error. That said, the right side is rock-solid. Patrick Mahomes needn’t be unduly worried about his time to throw.
13. Detroit Lions
Last year the Lions were quite poor in terms of pressures and sacks allowed. I’m not sure why, because Detroit has devoted ample resources to its o-line. Key starters did miss time, most notably ascendant left tackle Taylor Decker (eight games). Detroit should take a step forward with Frank Ragnow in the fold, as the rookie excels in pass pro. Like most QBs, Matt Stafford’s stats improve noticeably when he’s given time to throw.
Albeit with another quarterback, Washington’s offense was humming before the onslaught of offensive line injuries crippled its production. Bookend tackles go a long way in pass pro and the Redskins have that, assuming the injury bug doesn’t bite Trent Williams again. In his 10 games played he didn’t allow a sack last season.
In Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler, the Browns boast one of the NFL’s best guard tandems. But Cleveland must replace left tackle Joe Thomas, who has retired after a remarkable career. Ex-Steeler Chris Hubbard should be solid on the right side but Thomas’ replacement, Shon Coleman, has a lot to prove.
16. Green Bay
Much of Green Bay’s lousy showing last year was due to injury or Brett Hundley’s propensity for taking sacks. The Pack should get back on track in 2018. The tackles are top drawer – especially QB bodyguard David Bakhtiari – which goes a long way toward neutralizing edge rushers. Interior pressure could pose a problem though, especially if new starter Justin McCray flops at right guard.
17. New England
Tom Brady’s sixth sense when slithering away from defenders takes some of the pressure off his line. Turnover at tackle threatens the Pats’ chemistry, but their interior is adamantine.
18. San Francisco
Three new starters are never good news for the cohesiveness of a line, so Jimmy Garoppolo might be harried early and often. But as this talented unit gels, the pocket it will provide will be cleaner.
Adding a steady hand like Josh Sitton should improve Ryan Tannehill’s already passable protection. At center, Daniel Kilgore is probably not a big step down from Mike Pouncey, but he’s not a clear upgrade either.
20. Tampa Bay
The Bucs may be three fifths of the way to a good line, but their right tackle has trouble staying healthy (Demar Dotson) and their left tackle (Donovan Smith) gave up 7.5 sacks last year. Who knows how this shakes out?
If we knew that Kyle Long could stay healthy and Cody Whitehair would bounce back, the Bears would be ranked higher. But the fact is Mitchell Trubisky didn’t get much help a season ago, and unless those things happen he probably won’t in 2018. Fortunately, he’s a quick-footed kid.
The Colts’ o-line led the league in sacks allowed last year. The play of Jacoby Brissett had a lot to do with that, but the Colts were wise to bring in three new starters. In time Andrew Luck will enjoy the best blocking of his pro career, but early on he’d better have eyes in the back of his head.
23. New York Giants
Personnel changes make the Giants’ immediate outlook murky. If rookie Will Hernandez is as good as advertised, pairing him with ex-Pat Nate Solder should stabilize a shaky situation. But there are no guarantees Eli Manning gets the time to go through his progressions and take advantage of New York’s plethora of weapons.
Minnesota’s metrics were good last year, but a lot of that had to do with Case Keenum playing phenomenally under pressure. Beyond Mike Remmers, none of their linemen grade well. Historically, Kirk Cousins struggles when pressured. Ruh-roh.
I’m a bit surprised to see Seattle this high, myself, but three fifths of this line is adequate in pass protection. The guards could be terrible, but you may be aware of Russell Wilson’s mobility. He’ll be fine.
This was another unit submarined by indecisive quarterback play, but only two starters are assets in pass protection. The moxie and maneuverability Case Keenum showed in Minnesota will come in handy here. It’s not an ideal situation.
Andy Dalton was running for his life last year. Newcomers Cordy Glenn and Billy Price bring veteran savvy and youthful vigor, respectively, but Glenn’s checkered injury history and Price’s relatively poor pass-blocking in college make confidence hard to come by.
Andrew Norwell didn’t let pass rushers lay a finger on Cam Newton last year, but he’ll be blocking for Blake Bortles in 2018. With tackle Daryl Williams’ timeline for return unclear, Cam’s ability to absorb punishment will be tested to the utmost.
29. New York Jets
The Jets’ tackles aren’t terrible, but the line as a whole struggled badly last year and no inspiring reinforcements are waiting in the wings. If Kelvin Beachum were to go down, this would instantly be the worst starting five in the NFL. Sam Darnold may want to wait until next year.
Say what you want about Richie Incognito, his ability to fend off a pass rush was prodigious. The guard is one of three strong pass protectors missing from the Bills’ line this year, and the 2017 edition was second-to-last in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. The outlook isn’t rosy for whoever “wins” the QB competition in camp.
Center A.Q. Shipley is a pretty good pass protector. That’s the extent of the positives for Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen. If potential building blocks D.J. Humphries and Justin Pugh ball out this ranking will look foolish, but neither player was great in pass pro during an injury-marred 2017.
Were Deshaun Watson to get hurt again, we’d kick ourselves for overlooking just how poor his blocking was. At least Zach Fulton, whom the Texans pried away from Kansas City, is a potential difference maker, and the Texans have turned over four of five starting spots from Week 1 of last season. Up is the only way to go from a historically bad campaign.