By Justin Edwards, 4for4
Special to Yahoo Sports
Fantasy football is hard.
Each year begins anew with a draft class chock full of names you’ve likely only heard of in the two months prior, free-agent signings with unknown statistical impact, coaching hires and coordinator promotions that can and will affect play-calling. It’s a lot to wrap your head around. But this doesn’t stop us from logging on and scouring the internet for edges on our opponents through Twitter, draft guides, and, of course, 4for4. Yet amongst the thousands of articles and tweets at your disposal, there is still a key component left out by even the most astute writer’s analytical process: The offensive line.
Outlier plays (and players) can make “broken” plays or scramble drills make it seem like talent can rise above a lack of blocking. Maybe it can, but not for a sustained amount of time. What we’re looking for from our fantasy players is predictability, and in our season-long leagues, consistency. What is consistent is the fact that all quarterbacks in the league have a lower passer rating when pressured than when kept clean. Relating to fantasy scoring, a quarterback’s yards and completion percentage are the second- and third-most sticky statistics year-over-year, both exceedingly difficult things to do with a hand in your face or your back on the ground.
In the running game, it should come as no surprise when teams that emphasize investing in their offensive line and creating unique schemes produce consistent, fantasy-relevant running backs. Some of the best run-blocking units in the last half-decade have generated backfields we are prone to target. The Saints, Cowboys, Ravens, Titans, Vikings, and 49ers all fall into that category.
Offensive Line Metric and Applications
I have created a metric (All-Encompassing Offensive Line, or, AEOL — catchy huh?) to attempt to measure and weigh all of the most important stats which pertain to the unit up front that makes plays a success or failure. These statistics include — but are not limited to — Adjusted Line Yards, QB Hits Allowed, Offensive Line Penalties, and O-Line Coach Tenure, to name a few.
When I ran the AEOL against every fantasy point scored in the 2019 NFL season, I found that there was a 0.51 correlation between the metric and a team’s fantasy production. By isolating the top-10 and bottom-10 ranked offensive line units, I was able to clean up the correlation a little bit, further strengthening my hypothesis that the offensive lines on the far extremes of the rankings are the ones that we should be paying special attention to. Explaining away a little over half of a team’s fantasy points before we factor in who is touching the ball should raise some eyebrows and make us want to take a glimpse at who those top and bottom teams are, heading into the 2020 season.
You are in luck. Below are the offensive lines that are most likely to impact the fantasy scoring of their teams’ skill position players; the bottom-five offensive line units and the top-five offensive line units.
32. Cincinnati Bengals
Key 2019 Stat: 3.04 Blown Block Percentage (31st)
Additions: OG Xavier Su’a-Filo (Cowboys)
The Bengals haven’t had a starting-caliber left tackle since they allowed Andrew Whitworth to sign with the Rams following the 2016 season. Things should change in 2020 as last year’s 11th-overall pick, Jonah Williams, will start Week 1 after missing his entire rookie season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Granted, Cincinnati had now spent a first-round pick in each of the last two seasons (with Billy Price going as the 21st-overall pick in 2018), but ignoring the line until the sixth-round doesn’t feel like the best route to protect your franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow. The signing of Xavier Su’a-Filo lessens the burn of Billy Price’s slow NFL development but that’s more of a stopgap than a move that’s going to elevate the line out of obscurity.
Bobby Hart, who will be playing right tackle yet again, has been one of the worst starters at the position since being drafted by the Giants in the seventh-round of 2015. His competition comes in the form of undrafted free agent Josh Knipfel of Iowa State.
31. Washington Football Team
Key 2019 Stat: 9.8% Adjusted Sack Rate (31st)
Additions: OT Cornelius Lucas (Bears), OG Wes Schweitzer (Falcons), OG Saahdiq Charles (fourth-round)
Subtractions: OT Trent Williams
For a team predicated on winning the battle in the trenches, Washington didn’t elect to take an offensive lineman until the fourth round with left guard Saahdiq Charles. Charles will move from left tackle to the inside at the NFL level, but likely won’t be a Week 1 starter as he deals with some injuries. He fits the offense’s run scheme but his fatal flaws are in pass protection, where Washington already ranked 31st in adjusted sack rate in 2019. Free-agent additions Cornelius Lucas (16 career starts in six seasons) and Wes Schweitzer (part of 2019’s woefully under-performing Atlanta Falcons offensive line) are slated to anchor Dwayne Haskins’ blindside. There’s something to be said about practicing against some of the best edge rushers in the game, so we’ll see if they stay this far down the rankings for the entire season.
30. Arizona Cardinals
Key 2019 Stat: 8.4% Adjusted Sack Rate (t-28th)
Additions: OT Josh Jones (third-round)
Subtractions: OC A.Q. Shipley
There’s no doubt that the Cardinals got a steal — probably the biggest steal of the draft— when they selected Josh Jones with their 72nd overall pick. The tackle-desperate teams selected four of them by pick number 13 and with six going in the first round, it left Jones to slide right on through the second round. With so many holes at the tackle position already filled, Jones was the odd man out even though he was commonly ranked as a top-five option.
Jones has the ceiling to become a fantastic right tackle, and may even be able to slide to the left side later in his career, but he’s going to need some time to polish his game. He needs to better use his length, strength, and strike variance to keep defenders out of his frame. Though the initial plan was for Jones to compete for his position, the COVID-19 opt-out by Marcus Gilbert could thrust the rookie into an immediate starting role and the speed of the NFL may be too much for him with such limited practice time.
29. Miami Dolphins
Key 2019 Stat: 3.87% Blown Block Percentage (32nd)
Additions: OT Austin Jackson (first-round), OG Robert Hunt (second-round), OG Erick Flowers (Washington), OC Ted Karras (Patriots)
Subtractions: OC Daniel Kilgore, OG Evan Boehm
On one hand, the Dolphins attacked the offensive line through the draft and free agency more than any other team in the league. They signed former Patriots center Ted Karras and spent both a first and second-round pick to shore up the trenches.
On the other hand, the Dolphins return the least amount of starters from 2019 during the most tumultuous offseason in recent memory. According to research done by Thomas Emerick, offensive line continuity can be an easy marker for year-over-year success from the group. Miami certainly has added more raw talent to their roster (and is a key component of why they are no longer ranked number 32), but it remains to be seen how long it will take before they gel.
28. New York Jets
Key 2019 Stat: 3.8 Adjusted Line Yards (30th)
Additions: OT George Fant (Seahawks), OC Connor McGovern (Broncos), OG Greg Van Roten (Panthers), OT Mekhi Becton (first-round)
Subtractions: OT Kelvin Beachum, OG Tom Compton
The Jets fall into a similar boat as the Dolphins, having invested the most monetary capital in the trenches this offseason, but that leaves them with only two returning starters and a whole lot of new faces that will need to get acquainted in a hurry.
Newly signed center Connor McGovern turned a much-improved third season into a three year, $27-million contract. McGovern will be an immediate improvement on Jonotthan Harrison, who had to take over for Ryan Kalil after Kalil un-retired and managed to only play 343 snaps.
Tackle George Fant completed a similar deal after his third season in the league, inking a three year, $30-million contract. While still young with room to grow, Fant has logged nearly the same amount of snaps as a heavy/jumbo package tight end (454) than he has as a pure OT (477) over the last two seasons in Seattle. It’s up in the air how much he will be improving this team.
The road for the Jets to make a big step out of this tier of offensive lines rests on the talented — and giant — shoulders of rookie Mekhi Becton.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
Key 2019 Stat: 1.75% Blown Block % (2nd)
Additions: OG Stefen Wisniewski (Chiefs)
Subtractions: OG Ramon Foster
It’s hard to argue that there was a more disappointing offense in 2019 than the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that applies to every single facet. Quarterback injuries, James Conner going down, Juju Smith-Schuster suffering from an Antonio Brown hangover, and yes, even the offensive line.
Because of the experience of the Steelers’ line (478 combined game starts, second-most in the league), they remained disciplined enough to not drop off in number of penalties (33, ninth-fewest) or Sports Info Solutions’ Blown Block% (1.75 - second-lowest). Regardless, the utter dominance they have shown over the last decade or so was not on display, finishing the season with 3.84 Adjusted Line Yards, above only the lowly Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
A bounce-back is sure to be in store but it’s worth wondering how much longer they can have an upper-crust unit without a makeover, as every single starter on the line is over 30 years old. Eleven-year veteran Ramon Foster retired at season’s end, but 2019 may have been the worst of his career since his 2009 rookie year so new left guard Stefen Wisniewski will only have to play around league-average to soften the blow.
A down year for a Steelers’ offensive line is still good enough to be a strong finish for most teams, and leading the charge as the most consistent producer of late is left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. A big reason for Pittsburgh’s nearly league-leading Blown Block% falls on the massive shoulders of Villanueva, who registered zero blown blocks in the run game, the only linemen to do so (173 qualifying linemen).
Age may catch up very soon but finishing the season as the best line in football is also well within their range.
4. Dallas Cowboys
Key 2019 Stat: 4.3% Adjusted Sack Rate (2nd)
Additions: OT Cam Erving (Chiefs), OC Tyler Biadasz (fourth-round)
Subtractions: OC Travis Frederick
Center Travis Frederick battled back after missing all of 2018 with Guillain-Barre syndrome and was selected to a Pro Bowl for his troubles. It’s an amazing story and he should be able to live the rest of his life as a healthy individual, but he opted to retire in the offseason. Even with the Pro Bowl selection, it was clear that Frederick was no longer the best center in the league and he felt that since he could no longer perform at his highest level, the rest of his career would be a struggle.
Because the 2019 version of Frederick was simply very good instead of elite, it should not be as big of a drop from him to Joe Looney, who has taken 1,200+ snaps at center for the team over the last two seasons. Looney will have to play strong to keep his starting role for the entire season, as he’ll have rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Biadasz nipping at his heels. Biadasz started all 41 games of his college career (freshman, sophomore, junior) and became the first Rimington Trophy winner (best college center) in Wisconsin history. Hip surgery in the spring of 2019 may have caused some inconsistency in play for his final season and was likely the cause of his drop into the fourth round. He’s another bit of depth for a team that always seems to have plenty.
Tyron Smith missed his annual three games again (exactly 13 games played in five straight seasons) but it never seems to matter much; the nagging injuries almost seem to recharge him, and even though this will be his tenth NFL season he’s only 29 years old. La’el Collins now has back-to-back impressive seasons over at right tackle and right guard Zack Martin continues his bid to become the best guard in the league.
3. Indianapolis Colts
Key 2019 Stat: Number of OL Penalties, 30 (t-4th)
The Colts are the only team in the top-ten who stayed almost entirely mum with their 2019 offensive line, and with a group as young and talented as this, it’s understandable why. Outside of left tackle Anthony Castonzo (a 31-year-old, nine-year starter), the rest of the starters are well below 30. As you can imagine when no offseason moves were made besides a fifth-round selection of guard Danny Pinter, the team will be returning all five 2019 starters. These starters finished eighth in adjusted sack rate and a less impressive 12th in adjusted line yards.
With a team this young, it’s easy to forget that there is still room for improvement; Braden Smith and Quenton Nelson — drafted in back-to-back rounds to begin the 2018 Draft — only have two NFL seasons under their belts. Nelson is already playing as one of the best guards in the league, while Smith — a former guard himself throughout college — is on the fast track to earning himself some solid tackle money by the time his second contract comes around.
Barring a downturn in injury luck, the Colts could be an auto click in the top-five o-line units for many years to come.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Key 2019 Stat: 4.73 Adjusted Line Yards (3rd)
Additions: OG Tyre Phillips (third-round), OG DJ Fluker (Seahawks)
Subtractions: OG Marshal Yanda
It’s no question having Lamar Jackson as your quarterback can make things easier for the traditional run game. But even if we ignore the Ravens’ 4.73 adjusted line yards, they still ranked in the top seven of almost every other offensive line statistic, including leading the league with the least QB hits allowed and the lowest blown block% (a statistic provided by Sports Info Solutions).
The big question mark here is how effectively they are going to be able to replace Hall of Fame-caliber right guard Marshal Yanda. Yanda retired after the 2019 season — his 13th in the league, all with Baltimore — and leaves a gap at the position that he has manned consistently since 2011. The Ravens did their due diligence to try and avoid this becoming a problem; adding DJ Fluker in free agency after drafting Ben Powers in the fourth-round of 2019 and further bolstering the position in this year’s draft in both the fourth (Ben Bredeson) and third rounds (Tyre Phillips). At this point, it looks like open competition, with Powers the likeliest to take over in Week 1.
Yanda will leave behind longtime running-mate Ronnie Stanley, who has slowly ascended into a star at the left tackle position. Of 173 qualifying offensive linemen in 2019, Stanley finished ranked 30th in blown block% in the passing game (1.33%) and third in the run game (0.45%). Across from him at right tackle, it would seem we’re witnessing the budding of a second star offensive tackle along this same line. Orlando Brown Jr., son of (you guessed it) former Ravens star Orlando Brown, has been putting in the work to eliminate some of his problems coming out of Oklahoma, namely hand usage and placement.
Brown’s sophomore season saw a big jump in pass protection and his three penalties tied him for third place out of 60 qualifying offensive tackles last year, which is a good sign that he’s not getting beaten by the outside rush very often. His third season in the league could prove even more impressive.
1. New Orleans Saints
Key 2019 Stat: 4.7% Adjusted Sack Rate (3rd)
Additions: OG Cesar Ruiz (first-round)
Subtractions: OG Larry Warford
The Saints line finished with the highest adjusted line yards in the league (4.92) last season, marking the fourth-straight season they have finished inside of the top two. That’s a crazy stat but it’s almost expected by the unit at this point, made all the more impressive with Andrus Peat again missing a handful of games and fill-in Nick Easton playing well below average in his stead.
With the departure of Bryan Bulaga in Green Bay, New Orleans boasts the undisputed best tackle duo in all of football with their offensive line bookended by left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, both of whom are on the correct side of 30. The new tackle tag team champions allowed three combined sacks last season (two of which came in their wild-card loss to the Vikings). The two monsters on the outside help to diminish a little bit of the mix-up along the interior of their unit.
Larry Warford was cut this offseason and first-round pick Cesar Ruiz will look to instantly slide into that right guard slot. Ruiz only has five starts at right guard, spending the majority of his college career with Michigan at the center position. The versatility of Ruiz and Erik McCoy — last year’s second-round pick who is currently slated to start at center — gives the Saints the freedom to flip them around if either begins the season struggling. Ruiz is surprisingly mobile at 6-foot-4, 319 pounds and should give an instant boost to Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray in gap and especially zone run plays.
Follow Justin on Twitter @Justin_Redwards
More analysis from 4for4: Perfect Draft: 1st in a 12-Team Yahoo! Half-PPR League
Justin has been playing fantasy sports since he booted up a Sandbox Fantasy Football league on his Gateway computer in Middle School. After nearly two decades in the restaurant industry, he's focusing his attention on making a living inside of the sports industry.