By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
The playoffs are officially in full swing in most fantasy leagues. Many of you may be analyzing and re-analyzing lineup decisions until the final seconds before kickoff. In these moments, a variable many gamers don’t consider the play of offensive lines.
Yet, we’ve all seen how a dominating line can pave a path to victory. On the flipside, we’ve also seen how turnstile blockers can render talented backs a crumpled mess on immediately doomed running plays.
Let’s take a look at the state of the offensive lines for four backs you may be counting on. I’ll rank them based on my confidence in their potential to be playoff anchors on your squad…
1) Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
It might be premature to say that Saquon Barkley is better than Todd Gurley, but his highlight reel has more “wow” plays on it than anyone not named Barry Sanders. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball. It’s entirely possible he passes Gurley to finish the season with the league’s most total yards. We are watching something very, very special here.
How much better would it be with an NFL-average offensive line? Hopefully we find out soon. For now, though, the Giants are a bottom-10 run-blocking unit who lead the league in open-field yards — a Football Outsiders metric that tells us Barkley’s big plays account for a disproportionate percentage of the Giants’ rushing yards.
An initially questionable group has been further undermined by injuries. Right tackle Chad Wheeler is pretty egregious in the running game. In fact, he’s actually less effective than the guy he replaced, Ereck Flowers. That said, since New York’s Week 9 bye, the o-line has seen no lineup changes. They’ve established continuity and they’ve helped Barkley break the rushing century mark in three straight games.
The purpose of these articles is to tell fantasy gamers when the play of an offensive line should impact our view of its running back’s potential. It would take New York fielding a college line to make Saquon a “sit” in the fantasy playoffs, regardless of who else you have. He’s a unicorn. The fact that the Giants’ o-line is playing better only raises his ceiling.
In addition to a glorious afro and an inspiring rags-to-riches story, Phillip Lindsay is fantasy’s RB4 over the last month. It’s not just stat-sheet production, either (he grades very well as a runner, receiver and blocker). Lindsay may see an expanded role after Emmanuel Sanders’ borderline-tragic Achilles tear in practice.
The next three weeks set up well, as opponents San Francisco, Cleveland and Oakland are among the league’s most permissive defenses when it comes to running back points. But can fantasy gamers count on Denver’s offensive line to come through for Lindsay in the postseason?
The answer is a resounding yes. Despite the loss of two starters to IR, the front five has continued to block well. They’ve piled up over 450 yards in the last three games. Tackles Garett Bolles and Jared Veldheer are dominating d-lines right now. Since Conner McGovern stepped in for injured center Matt Paradis, he has done an admirable job clearing a path on inside runs. Denver is currently fourth in adjusted line yards, Football Outsiders’ metric for run blocking.
Lindsay’s explosiveness does account for much of the team’s 5.4 yards per carry average — second-best in the NFL — as a high percentage of the team’s rushing yards are garnered beyond the line of scrimmage after the big guys’ job is mostly done. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Lindsay clocked the season’s fifth-fastest run (21.9 MPH), and that list includes plays by WRs and DBs. His explosiveness should only give us more confidence in him, and the o-line is still ranked 12th in effectiveness on short-yardage carries.
Don’t feel trepidation about Lindsay because he’s an undrafted free agent on an offense that is now short its opening day starters at receiver and tight end (as well as its second tight end). He’s an exceptional young player en route to breaking records for UDFA runners. Let Lindsay lead you to the promised land.
3) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Another team that has suffered more than its fair share of injuries is Cincinnati. Joe Mixon has managed to post decent numbers without A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, but he is in the midst of a touchdown drought and just the RB17 over the last four weeks. In that span, the gifted runner has averaged a paltry 12.25 carries per game. In general, his offense is quick to abandon the run, too.
Against Denver last week, Mixon split time with Giovani Bernard and played just 57% of the snaps in a game that didn’t get away from Cincinnati until the third quarter. It’s hard to understand why Mixon isn’t the focal point of the game plan, as he makes several “how’d he do that?!” plays per game, but his lack of heavy usage is disappointing.
The Bengals’ offensive line was atrocious last year. The fact that they’re no longer a liability has to be considered an edge for Mixon. While no starter has distinguished himself as a run blocker, Cincinnati is 17th in adjusted line yards and an impressive 7th on short-yardage plays as a group. However, injuries have forced the o-line to move their best starter, guard Clint Boling, to left tackle. The cohesion of this group is in serious question and it’s possible their play tails off down the stretch.
In Week 14 the Bengals face a Chargers team that limits big plays but will allow a back to accumulate yards if the play-calling permits. Mixon is a low-end RB2 this week — a player whose floor is a greater selling point than his ceiling. He won’t ruin you, but a big day seems unlikely. Fortunately, in Weeks 15 and 16, the Bengals take on the Raiders and Browns, teams whose defenses are generally an easy mark for running backs. Strong outings for Mixon are certainly possible in those key weeks.
Given Mixon’s talent, track record and relative health (keep an eye on this foot injury), there are really only seven or eight RBs I’d rather have at this point, so he probably belongs in most playoff lineups. Unfortunately, it’s not the “start with confidence” situation we expected when the offense around him was at full strength.
4) Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
Lamar Miller is on fire, which isn’t something anyone expected to type or read entering the 2018 season. Over his past six outings he’s averaged more than 110 total yards. In addition to a pedestrian Texans career up to this point, Miller is burdened with an offensive line that the consensus put at the bottom of the league entering the year. They’re still not great, but this group deserves credit for ranking at 20th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.
Solidly below average is an improvement on 2017’s woeful circumstances, and Miller himself is playing quite a bit better. At times, he’s reminded us of the player fantasy gamers desperately wanted to get more touches as a Dolphin, breaking off long runs and generally looking nothing like the plodder he’s been in Houston. Lately, though, the plodder on this depth chart has been Alfred Blue.
The playoff schedule for Miller is as follows: Colts, Jets, Eagles. Indy has recently stiffened against the run, but the Jets and Eagles were gashed in the last month. These are not frightening front sevens. Philly’s group could theoretically return to form at any time, but they might be thinking about their vacation plans by Week 16 if things don’t go their way.
Is Lamar Miller’s recent renaissance a mirage? Quite possibly, and we should never take his production for granted. That said, it’s hard to get away from him as the hot hand on a solid team playing out a soft schedule. In the fantasy playoffs, Miller is as good an RB2 as almost anyone.