By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
In the NFL, much is decided in the trenches, in the mud and grass (or, less romantically, on the artificial turf). An offense’s ability to run the ball and protect the passer greatly depends on the large men going toe-to-toe with their (sometimes larger) opposites across from them. This weekly struggle greatly impacts the numbers that appear in your fantasy team’s box score, so understanding it can make your decisions easier and more successful.
The mission of this series is to use offensive line performance to help you break ties between closely ranked players. Telling you why you should just follow our composite rankings isn’t particularly helpful, so I’ve found three instances where my research has led me to favor the lower-ranked player in Week 4, at least in Yahoo Daily Fantasy contests.
Carlos Hyde (RB 10, $23 in Yahoo DFS) over James Conner (RB 8, $25)
For years now, a big game against Oakland has been a sparkling gem on the resume of running backs like Shaun Alexander all the way to Doug Martin. True to form, the Raiders are currently the NFL’s 4th worst rush defense in yards per carry allowed. While Cleveland’s blocking has been pedestrian, Oakland’s best run defenders are Clinton McDonald, a journeyman defensive tackle who’s logged 28 snaps since being signed off the street, and Marquel Lee, a promising linebacker but one who’s played just 15 mostly undistinguished games in the NFL. Football Outsiders ranks the Raiders an underwhelming 24th in their run defense metric, while the Browns’ blocking has been better so far. The talented interior of this line should dominate the line of scrimmage in Oakland and, with an aggressive Baker Mayfield under center, the passing game will demand more attention. That makes life much easier for Hyde, whose workload has been heavy regardless of game script.
Meanwhile, the Steelers’ offensive line has lost continuity due to injury and is performing well below their standards. Against a Ravens team that always gives them problems and is currently Football Outsiders’ 11th toughest run defense, the recuperating Pittsburgh line faces a stern test. Yes, Vegas has given this game a generous over-under, and with luck the Steelers’ line will be back to full strength. However, they haven’t faced a front seven in Baltimore’s weight class this year; Cleveland, Kansas City and Tampa Bay do not qualify. With Hyde being $2 cheaper in Yahoo DFS I’d capitalize on that pricing, and his ownership percentage will be lower, but in season-long formats Conner’s near-certainty of a touchdown makes this a risky call.
Kenyan Drake (RB15, $17 in Yahoo DFS) over Lamar Miller (RB14, $16)
It’s not easy to tout Kenyan Drake when he’s been extremely unproductive this year, notably so against the aforementioned Raiders last week. He’s averaging a paltry 10 carries a game. That said, Drake is definitely Miami’s passing-down back. Their foes in Week 4 are a New England Patriots club desperate to get their season back on track after consecutive losses. At home with shiny new toy Josh Gordon now in the mix, Tom Brady is likely to prove that Miami’s defense is a bit of a mirage after wins over the Titans, Jets and Raiders; hardly a murderer’s row of offenses. This is not a Frank Gore game the wily vet has one catch so far. Drake should get plenty of action in a shootout or extended comeback attempt. What’s more, the Patriots are struggling to stop the run, so whatever carries the dynamic Drake receives should be fruitful.
After ripping off 98 yards against those Patriots in the Texans’ opener, Lamar Miller has averaged 39 rushing yards per game. He’s an able pass-catcher, which raises his floor, but the fact remains that in Week 4 Houston faces an Indianapolis defense that has been one of the season’s biggest surprises. The Colts are top 10 in yards per play and points allowed. Defensive tackle Margus Hunt is playing out of his mind. It’s not an ideal matchup for a team with what may be the NFL’s worst run-blocking line — none of Houston’s linemen have sniffed close to an average grade through three games. Miller’s pass-catching has saved his bacon so far, but Drake is the better receiver on a team without DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. Miller’s best chance to outscore Drake is another TD catch like the late grab that bailed out fantasy gamers vs. the Giants in Week 3. Don’t count on it.
Matt Breida (RB21, $20 in Yahoo DFS) over Kerryon Johnson (RB19, $18)
Losing Jimmy Garoppolo is a crushing blow to the 49ers’ offense. However, it won’t doom Matt Breida vs the Chargers. Like Kerryon Johnson, Breida topped the century mark last week, but this explosive runner’s o-line matchup is far more favorable than Johnson’s. San Francisco’s run-blocking is currently third-best in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Rookie Mike McGlinchey is stoning people in the running game and Darius Philon is L.A.’s only interior defender to hold up well in that department thus far. Another rookie, Kyzir White, has been their best linebacker vs. the run, but the fourth rounder isn’t making anyone forget Junior Seau just yet. The Chargers are bottom 10 in Football Outsiders’ run defense metric with White, and he may sit out on Sunday.
It’s likely that C.J. Beathard and company trail Los Angeles’ high-powered offense, and they may even find themselves chasing points in garbage time. That scenario actually favors Breida, a capable receiver out of the backfield. Last year the clearly risk-averse Beathard targeted backs and tight ends relentlessly, inflating Carlos Hyde’s catch totals, and it won’t be Alfred Morris filling that role in Week 4. Alf is the archetype for stone-handed running backs. L.A. has allowed the NFL’s seventh-most receiving yards to RBs (185), so unless fullback Kyle Juszczyk steals all the targets, this is a sneaky way for Breida to produce even if the Bolts are boat-racing Beathard.
It bears mentioning that Breida’s Burst Score on PlayerProfiler.com falls in the eye-popping 99th percentile and his overall athleticism isn’t far behind (SPARQ-x: 88th percentile). That shot-out-of-a-cannon explosiveness has helped the Niner average a remarkable 8.4 yards per carry and break off six runs of 20 or more yards in just three games this season. The NFL’s co-leading rusher through Week 3 is an affordable $20 in Yahoo DFS.
Meanwhile, I have concerns about Kerryon Johnson in Week 4. Though his 2018 outlook is brightening quickly, last week’s breakout game came against a Patriots defense that has been exploited on the ground all season. The good news is that Detroit’s run blocking ranks 9th in Football Outsiders’ metric. After a rocky start, rookie Frank Ragnow is finally rounding into form. However, he’s the only member of this unit who isn’t faring far better in pass protection than he is in the ground game. Center Graham Glasgow may struggle to dislodge nose tackle Antwaun Woods, a force against the run who is helping Dallas hold runners to the NFL’s fifth-lowest yards per carry. Losing Sean Lee does hurt the Dallas run D, but he’s been off his game this year. Fellow linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have done a better job limiting the gains of ball-carriers. I’d rather pay up the extra $2 and start Breida.