Which offensive lines can unlock fantasy running back bargains?

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette could exceed expectations this season behind sound offensive line play. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette could exceed expectations this season behind sound offensive line play. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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 will 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). Let’s begin with the ground game. Surveying the league, I expect that the top 16 to 20 lines will likely help their ball-carriers 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.

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Please note that these are not rankings for Week 1, or even September; they’re my attempt to predict how the line will perform over the entire season. For example, Kansas City enters the season with more continuity than Chicago, but over the long haul I think the Bears have a better chance of becoming punishing run blockers. Barring big shakeups their trust and communication should be fine by midyear. The Colts and Giants, on the other hand, have more new parts to integrate. Even if the starting five never changes, it could take a full season to become a well-oiled machine.

1. Dallas

The offense around Ezekiel Elliott may concern gamers, but the line shouldn’t. Dallas has addressed last season’s shortcomings and will likely re-ascend to rare air atop any rankings.

2. Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh didn’t play up to par in 2017, but the unit ranked seventh in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards even with Marcus Gilbert (a top 10 tackle) missing nine games and two starters suffering down years. Le’Veon Bell has nothing to worry about.

3. Los Angeles Rams

The graybeards in this group may see their skills erode soon, but until they do Todd Gurley will enjoy some of the best blocking in the NFL.

4. New England

Even if the Pats’ replacement for new Giant Nate Solder isn’t his equal, under the direction of the masterful o-line coach Dante Scarnecchia their run-blocking will pave the way for someone’s success. One (and potentially two) of the Patriots’ running backs will thrive behind this group of road-graders.

5. Atlanta

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will receive rock-solid run-blocking from a unit that presumably shored up its perennial weak spot (right guard) with the signing of solid veteran Brandon Fusco. Center Alex Mack is a beast.

6. New Orleans

The ball-carriers deserve some of the credit for last year’s league-leading ground game, as only rookie phenom Ryan Ramczyk really dominated as a blocker. But this line can be counted on as a cohesive unit.

7. Oakland

Assuming this talented bunch sprinkles plenty of power among their zone-based plays, they should blast open some gaping holes for Marshawn Lynch and/or Doug Martin. Jon Gruden has always favored that style, so I’m bullish on the Raiders’ rushing attack. Using a fullback, as Chuckie plans to do, won’t hurt.

8. Philadelphia

Last year the RBs made this line look better than it was, but four out of five starters are studs. Their metrics will definitely improve if nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters has sipped from the fountain of youth – he’s 36 and only played seven games last year before tearing his ACL. Jay Ajayi’s fantasy GMs should be more concerned about divided touches than the blocking – he’ll break off some big runs, for sure.

9. Tennessee

On paper this is an elite squad, assuming Jack Conklin’s ACL recovery goes smoothly, but they sure struggled in their second year of “exotic smashmouth.” New OC Matt LaFleur should invigorate the offense and the line, which has no glaring weak spot. While Dion Lewis got better blocking in New England, Tennessee isn’t a big step down. Derrick Henry should get the long runway he needs to thrive.

10. Jacksonville

The addition of first-team All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell vaults the Jags into the top 10, as last year their backs averaged nearly two yards before contact (second in the league) despite stalwarts Jermey Parnell and Brandon Linder missing three games apiece. Assuming Cam Robinson’s rookie struggles were just that, Jacksonville will create daylight for Leonard Fournette and he will exceed expectations this year. I’m buying.

11. Baltimore

Marshal Yanda, one of the most dominant guards of his generation, went down in Week 2 last year and Baltimore barely missed a beat. Now the Ravens get Yanda back, as well as versatile Alex Lewis. While there is risk here (Yanda’s age and shoulder injury, for starters) the metrics and grading say Alex Collins should have ample opportunity to advance the ball.

12. Green Bay

Like the Ravens, Green Bay overachieved in the face of injury last year. The Packers’ plan is to start two undrafted free agents and a fifth rounder on the interior, but longstanding OL coach James Campen can clearly make do. Whoever totes the rock should have a pretty easy time of it, so target the Packers’ backs.

13. Chicago

Losing Josh Sitton hurts, but the robust run blocking of rookie James Daniels could compensate. The return of OL coach Harry Hiestand, one of the best in the biz, also helps. If ferocious RG Kyle Long stays healthy, these Bears will maul many a front seven this year. Jordan Howard is an underrated fantasy asset, even in PPR.

Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard is in line for a big season and is being undervalued in drafts. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard is in line for a big season and is being undervalued in drafts. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

14. San Francisco

Turnover can wreak havoc with a line’s chemistry, temporarily, but all the pieces are now in place to field a fearsome five in San Francisco. Notre Dame rookie Mike McGlinchey and ex-Giant Weston Richburg bolster weaknesses at two spots. By October this group could be true people-movers. Jerick McKinnon just needs to do his part.

15. Tampa Bay

Solidifying the center position with ex-Raven Ryan Jensen will benefit Bucs backs on inside runs. If Demar Dotson’s knees hold up, Tampa Bay’s big uglies will be imposing. But that’s a BIG if.

16. Denver

A reshuffled line struggled in pass protection last year, but even with a weak right side Denver did right by their RBs and posted Football Outsiders’ No. 9 ranking in adjusted line yards. Should trade acquisition Jared Veldheer (Cardinals) regain his form at right tackle, it bodes well for the Broncos’ backs.

17. Washington

Another unit with upside, the new-era Hogs have the personnel to grind out tough yards on the ground. No line suffered more injuries last year, however, so their 2018 performance is pure projection at this point. Assuming that Derrius Guice is half the pure runner he looked like in college, he’ll do fine in D.C. By the way, Yahoo experts are split on Guice.

18. Detroit Lions

While I’m optimistic about the Lions, I can’t ignore their poor showing last year. Drafting Arkansas center Frank Ragnow could take them to the next level, especially if a healthy Taylor Decker regains his peak form at left tackle. There’s no way this running game is as anemic as it’s been, so Kerryon Johnson is a player I’m targeting if the price is right.

19. Cleveland

No line can lose a future Hall-of-Famer without feeling it. Though the Browns have talent, they lack a clear heir apparent to Joe Thomas. Cleveland struggled badly on runs to the right in 2017 and probably will again. Still, runs up the gut should be ripe for the taking, which suits the skillsets of Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb.

20. Indianapolis

It will take time for Indy’s revamped line to gel, but the future is bright. Adding a potentially generational talent in Quinton Nelson can do that for a unit, and the Colts didn’t stop there. An offseason talent infusion bodes well for the backfield. Still, don’t expect an immediate edge for Marlon Mack and company. These guys may not hit their stride until midseason.

21. Kansas City

Skill-position firepower, scheme and chemistry may transcend depth of talent for Andy Reid’s line, but injuries rendered the Chiefs’ crew subpar during Kareem Hunt’s mid-season swoon in 2017. That lack of depth, a tough schedule and Hunt’s ADP are the factors that have me fading the rookie phenom in his sophomore season.

22. Carolina

The departure of Andrew Norwell could devastate this unit, which is suspect beyond studs Daryl Williams and Trai Turner. I’m not confident that Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson will receive the quality run-blocking they need to succeed. Don’t expect CMC to improve his 2017 rushing totals.

23. Arizona

Last year, David Johnson’s understudies made the run blocking look worse than it was. If all goes according to plan he should receive adequate run blocking in 2018, and he does a lot of his damage as a receiver anyway. Still, if aging starters are injured or underperform this line could crumble quickly. It’s a concern.

24. New York Giants

After prying tackle Nate Solder away from New England and drafting versatile Will Hernandez (UTEP), the G-Men are marching in the right direction. Unfortunately, the rest of these guys may struggle to get any push in the running game. Saquon Barkley’s initial path to paying off his draft cost may come as a pass catcher.

25. Minnesota

This quintet scares me, even knowing the Vikes performed pretty well last year. On paper there isn’t a good run blocker in the bunch. Right tackle is a big question mark. Dalvin Cook seems capable of transcending mediocre line play, but four games is a small sample size. I’m leery of him, relative to ADP.

26. Miami

If it weren’t for the prowess of free-agent signing Josh Sitton, Miami might have the league’s most underwhelming run blockers. Fortunately, last year Kenyan Drake was a dynamo when churning out yards after contact and presumably can be again, if he isn’t mired in a committee backfield. I won’t downgrade him much on the line’s account.

27. Los Angeles Chargers

Melvin Gordon’s never gotten good blocking as a Charger. That’s unlikely to change this year, but fantasy owners know he’s a volume play who’s involved in the passing game. Inferior blocking is no death knell for Gordon’s fantasy value. Expect more of the same, but remain open to the possibility that promising youngsters Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp make big strides.

28. Cincinnati

The line that did Joe Mixon no favors in his rookie campaign has been retooled, as Cincy drafted Ohio State’s Billy Price and acquired Cordy Glenn from Buffalo to plug its biggest gaps (center and left tackle). However, Price is unproven and Glenn isn’t great in the running game, so noticeable improvement is far from a given.

29. Seattle

None of Seattle’s metrics were good last year but they’ve made moves to beef up their rushing attack, adding a bulldozer in D.J. Fluker and devoting a first-rounder to RB in Rashaad Penny. He’ll also benefit from the blocking of tight ends Ed Dickson and Will Dissly, which isn’t reflected in linemen rankings. We’d be much more excited about Penny if he was running behind the Rams’ blockers, obviously, but don’t consider the Emerald City a complete disaster area.

30. Buffalo

No o-line has been more ravaged by the vagaries of fate than Buffalo. Missing two key starters from last year, this diminished depth chart is unlikely to offer LeSean McCoy (or whoever) a lot of room to roam. If it’s McCoy, volume and receptions are the only thing keeping his fantasy value afloat at a 23.1 ADP (RB11).

31. Houston

It’s not good when a rookie you took in the third round (Martinas Rankin) may be your best run blocker, but that could be the case for Houston’s motley crew. The production of Lamar Miller, an RB who is anything but line-proof, will hinge on workload and (hopefully) touchdowns.

32. New York Jets

Gang Green’s metrics were mostly abysmal last year, and a modest upgrade at center is their only encouraging indicator. Expect to see a lot of Isaiah Crowell being buried in the backfield.

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