Fantasy Football: Offensive Lines & Their Effect Entering 2018 Season
I totally understand if offensive lines aren’t your thing. In fact, if you could name all 5 starting linemen on your hometown team I’d be quite impressed. However, when it comes to fantasy, it really does matter what condition your “hog-maulies” upfront currently are in.
I spent earlier this off-season asking the simple question: “How much do we actually know about predicting O-Line performance?”
I examined Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders and NFL’s Next Gen Stats to compare and contrast the various metrics and methods used to compile their pre-season and end of season rankings. For a more in-depth look, see Forecasting Offensive Lines in Fantasy. I found that each site’s predictions from year-to-year were not infallible (see Cleveland Browns) nor were they to be ignored (see Philadelphia Eagles).
I wanted to look at PFF’s recently released preseason rankings for 2018 and make a couple observations that might give us some clarity before fantasy draft season commences. PFF is the standard in this industry of taking a play-by-play approach to grading players. For offensive lines, PFF OL unit grades are based on a number of signature stats (hurries, hits, sacks, and total pressures allowed) encapsulated in their PBE rating (pass-blocking efficiency) as well as individual run-blocking grades.
Pre-Season PFF Rankings[lptw_table id=”54694″ style=”default”]
O-Line Observations: Major Leaps
Detroit Lions (+11)
Wow! We’re going to start this article talking about the Detroit Lions and their running game. (Press eject if you’re scared) According to PFF, the Lions improved more than any other offensive line during the off-season drafting rugged center Frank Ragnow, who is moving to left guard, as well as the return of hopefully healthy LT Taylor Decker. Surprisingly this unit ranked 27th in pass block efficiency in 2017 with the 5-most pressures allowed so they’re baking in a lot of improvement in this rank. Kerryon Johnson has some major upside if he gains the Lions’ share of carries (see what I did there) and if his draft price somehow doesn’t soar any higher thanks to Jason. But this ranking is mostly projection as we’re never seen this franchise showcase a top-10 unit before. The quick passing game with Matthew Stafford has often hidden their lack of talent on the line and destroyed any hope for a serviceable running game. Imagining a balanced attack for the Lions in this high scoring division is enticing.
Washington Redskins (+9)
Washington has quietly restored their O-Line, moved on from Kirk Cousins to the efficient Alex Smith at QB, and drafted a bruising RB in Derrius Guice. This could be a steady unit headed by LT Trent Williams and standout sophomore RG Brandon Scherff. With Chris Thompson clearly not ready to return, Guice can move into seeing 3-down work and you should believe his offensive line is more than sufficient. While it’s not clear to see who becomes the alpha within their receiving corps, I’m not shying away from taking a stab at Jordan Reed at his current draft price.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+8)
This O-Line was exposed against the Jaguars in the playoffs but returns everyone from a unit routinely ranked in the top 10. David DeCastro is an All-Pro and one of only two linemen to receive top-10 grades in run and pass blocking. Ramon Foster should return to form on the interior. This line allows Le’Veon Bell to make his patented patient pauses and Big Ben the ability to produce 2 top-24 WRs. Regardless of what happens with Bell’s contract situation, he gets to run behind one of the best groups in the league.
Other notable jumps: Colts (+8), Dolphins (+9)
O-Line Observations: Notable Declines
Buffalo Bills (-22)
This is an utter train wreck. Cordy Glenn was traded to Cincinnati, Eric Wood was forced to retire and the enigmatic Richie Incognito recently decided he wants to go into politics. Huh? They had a fluky grade last year as Football Outsiders had Buffalo as the 2nd worst pass-blocking unit while PFF had them as the 2nd highest pass-blocking efficiency rating. So what gives? The PFF grade didn’t penalize the OL as Tyrod Taylor skewed the number of total sacks. His scrambling ability in the pocket stressed the line as he became responsible a league-high 14 “QB sacks”. With a completely depleted talent core and LeSean McCoy‘s suspension in the air, it’s best to completely stay away.
Carolina Panthers (-11)
This unit leans heavily to the right as RG Trai Turner and RT Daryl Williams are elite. However, the loss of guard Andrew Norwell to the Jaguars stings and will cause issues that haven’t been brought up nearly as much as they should. Remember Norv Turner is the new OC and his tendencies are fairly predictable in terms of running the ball and utilizing a bell cow RB. Who knows if Christian McCaffrey will see 25-30 touches as Turner and Ron Rivera recently exclaimed… Perhaps we’ll see how this plays out during the season but it shouldn’t be ignored.
New England Patriots (-8)
When the Giants made Nate Solder the richest tackle in the NFL, the Patriots did what that always do and find a cheaper alternative. Drafting Isaiah Wynn out of the University of Georgia made sense and this unit overall is still legit. Where the Patriots excel is allowing players to play multiple positions and utilizing their RBs in multiple looks so if Rex Burkhead, James White or Sony Michel is on the field, the defense can’t read pass or run. Don’t let their PFF decline dissuade you in any way of drafting a Patriot RB. Instead, let your sanity be your guide.
O-Line Observations: Other Fantasy Relevant Ranks
New Orleans Saints (9th)
This is a somewhat confusing rank. In 2017, PFF had New Orleans as 18th in run blocking while Next Gen had them first and Football Outsiders 2nd overall. FO rated the Saints #1 in 2016 as well. Their success on the ground dictated that the offense transitioned from a Drew Brees-led 5,000 yard type of season to a more run-oriented system with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. It’s the pass-blocking that still remains elite (#1 in PFF) with RT Ryan Ramczyk. This could give you some value in drafting Drew Brees‘ secondary weapons (Cameron Meredith anyone?) later on.
Los Angeles Chargers (24th)
This is far too low in my opinion. They have been decimated with injuries year after year (and again this off-season.. Oh the carnage!) and yet there is some optimism that this is a Super Bowl caliber team still. Forrest Lamp missed all of his rookie season but projects as a solid RG while Mike Pouncey can easily put behind the worst graded season of his career. With tons of fantasy relevant players on this roster, don’t let this preseason grade scare you off too much. Imagine what Melvin Gordon could do with even a slight improvement of this line…
Minnesota Vikings (28th)
Another team with obvious post-season aspirations and a new franchise QB has some frightening concerns on the O-Line. Despite all the off-season money thrown at Cousins and now Stefon Diggs, the O-Line was relatively untouched with only RG Mike Remmers being graded average among the starting five and he’s starting training camp injured. PFF had this unit down for the 3rd most pressures allowed in football last year. Dalvin Cook‘s biggest worry won’t be his torn ACL but the blocking in front of him. New OC John DeFilippo is innovative but I think this could kill some of the ceiling potential currently baked into Cousins, Thielen, and Diggs’ draft price.
Houston Texans (32nd)
This one is shockingly silent on the airwaves. DEAD LAST. Beyond talking about Deshaun Watson‘s obvious TD regression, it is alarming to see that Watson’s sack rate was 8.5%, which was a bottom 5 mark for QBs. Our memory is somewhat fuzzy but these Texans last year played without J.J. Watt the entire year and their defense gave up THE MOST POINTS IN THE LEAGUE at 27.2 per game. Watson was put in a position to force the ball in negative game scripts and showed on film some major turnover-prone ways. Watson’s 3.9% INT rate would’ve ranked 3rd worst in the league with his 16-game pace being 18.3 INTs. That would’ve placed him behind only Deshone Kizer for worst in the league. Yikes! He’s on my DO NOT DRAFT LIST and this O-Line is another reason why.