Fantasy Implications for Every AFC Offensive Line Before the NFL Draft
Before the NFL Draft and free agency, it can be hard to be bullish on certain teams and situations without getting a complete lay of the land. This is even more important when we look at how offensive lines are built, rebuilt, and sometimes completely desecrated during the offseason.
In this massive write-up, I’ve detailed every team in the AFC with their offensive line outlook and a few fantasy implications for 2021 heading into the NFL Draft. A couple of reminders about offensive lines:
- Many of these are fluid situations. They will change either through the draft, injuries, or camp cuts.
- Offensive line continuity is key. I’ve put an asterisk (*) next to every new acquisition or player I have penciled into the starting unit. There are other free agents that could come into the mix as well.
- If you see a “?”, I have genuine concerns and the replacement player for that hole on the O-Line is not someone I envision currently on the roster. Linemen are sometimes tricky to peg given we aren’t working with traditional statistics the way most of us view RBs or WRs. There are likely backups that teams have groomed to step in but to immediately dub an “in-house” backup offensive line with limited reps as the starter is a tough task at this point in the offseason.
Lastly, offensive line projection isn’t an exact science. There are certain names in the fantasy industry (ETR’s Brandon Thorn) that specialize in between-the-trenches and can give a good overview of what type of systems, blocking schemes, and holes each team has going into the season. I wrote an article a couple of years ago entitled Forecasting Offensive Lines & Drafting if you need a crash course on offensive line metrics and how sites like PFF and Football Outsiders grade.
Editor’s Note: For more insight into each AFC team and how the Fantasy Footballers project them for 2021, check out the Ultimate Draft Kit.
Baltimore Ravens: Nowhere to Go But Forward
While the production on the ground didn’t change as much from Lamar Jackson‘s MVP year to 2020, his TD rate took a massive hit but you can easily point to the offensive line. Jackson went from being pressured on 30.9 percent of his dropbacks (20th) to 37.0 percent (8th most) as the Ravens got only 5.5 games from their star LT Ronnie Stanley before he went down to a season-ending injury. They plummeted as a group to 23rd in adjusted sack rate allowed. This team certainly re-upped their commitment to the ground game signing former New York Giant (and Cleveland Brown) guard Kevin Zeitler, who is more good than great at this stage in his career. It’s also worth noting Patrick Mekari overtook the departed Matt Skura (Miami) at center midway through the season. The Ravens led the league in yards per carry and 10+ yard runs despite the perception that defenses had “figured them out”.
|Baltimore Ravens||Ronnie Stanley||Bradley Bozeman||Patrick Mekari||Kevin Zeitler*||?|
- UPDATE: With the recent news of the disgruntled Orlando Brown being shipped out of town, there is a giant hole on the right side of the line. Baltimore has two first-rounders now to invest in a long-term solution but replacing an All-Pro isn’t easy. This move drops Baltimore from a borderline top-10 unit to around top-20 in my early OL rankings. A massive hit.
Kansas City gets:
🏈 OT Orlando Brown
🏈 2021 second-round pick (No. 58)
🏈 2022 6th round pick.
🏈 2021 first-round pick (No. 31)
🏈 third-round pick (No. 94)
🏈 fourth-round pick (No. 136)
🏈 2022 fifth-round pick
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 23, 2021
- If Stanley recovers from injury, we can find a happy medium between Lamar’s MVP season and what we saw last year. In 2019, it wasn’t just the 11 “deep” TDs but he was lethal on intermediate throws, the type that actually moves the chains.
- In terms of the running game, J.K. Dobbins should be able to take another step forward and if Jackson throws to the RB more than 16 percent of the time, perhaps there is a legitimate ceiling for him to be a top-10 back. Dobbins’ production was heavily reliant on TDs (one every 11 carries) but he also showed the type of juice to rip off long runs. As Mike recently alluded to on the top-20 RB rankings show, nine percent of Dobbins’ runs went for 15+ yards, the highest percentage in the NFL.
Buffalo Bills: Let’s Run It Back
The Bills locked down the right side of their offensive line re-signing versatile C/OG John Feliciano and RT Daryl Williams (a top-10 graded RT according to PFF) for another three years. The key for GM Brandon Beane this off-season was to instill a sense of continuity especially when you can see they were on the edge of Super Bowl status. I also detailed the scheme change for Buffalo in 11-Personnel & Other Usage Trends that went into more detail about their extreme 3WR sets and the success they had.
However, the interior of the offensive line is labeled more as serviceable than “pile-movers”. They succeded on “zone-running” plays much more than “gap” as a unit but many point the blame at RBs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. Singletary still has his moments between the 20s; Moss is a plodder and someone the Footballers have been down as the reason this team didn’t break many long ones.
|Buffalo Bills||Dion Dawkins||Ike Boettger||Mitch Morse||Jon Feliciano||Daryl Williams|
- Continuity is key for a young QB and after nearly winning the MVP, there is no reason to doubt Josh Allen couldn’t do it again with this offensive line. He was pressured on 37.1 percent of his dropbacks (9th most in the league) but he lowered his sack rate from 7.6 to 4.3 percent. That’s either incredibly impressive or somewhat fortunate considering Allen’s playing style. I am a little lower than consensus on Allen right now as his 39th overall ADP in BestBall leagues is a bit over-the-top as I detailed on the DFS Podcast.
- The speculation that this team adds an RB in the first two rounds is immense as they’ve had Najee Harris and Travis Etienne mocked to them by numerous experts. Nevertheless, taking a stab on one of the incumbent RBs in BestBall isn’t the worst strategy if you want a flier on players no one wants.
Cincinnati Bengals: Penei to the Rescue?
We only got to see 11 weeks of Joe Burrow before succumbing to a gruesome season-ending injury. He took 32 sacks in that span (tied for the second-most in the league) but was pressured on 32.2 percent of dropbacks which is middle of the pack. I broke down why overgeneralizing this situation with “their O-Line was bad” is missing part of the picture:
It's probably a both/and situation BUT
The narrative of "Cincinnati's offensive line was so bad" last year falls short of also unpacking that Joe Burrow held onto the ball wayyy too long at times.[THREAD 1 of 5] pic.twitter.com/cENFLcyfBw
— Kyle Borgognoni (@kyle_borg) April 16, 2021
The Bengals have long been linked to Oregon OT Penei Sewell at the 5th overall pick. However, it is worth noting that the acquisition of LT Riley Reiff wasn’t exactly cheap. The former Lion and Viking will cost them $7 million and that isn’t backup money in this league. The pressure rate is what gets the headline but the Bengals haven’t been able to effectively run the ball in a division with fearsome defensive fronts. Their schedule SRS ranked 29th of 32 teams last year revealing just how rough their opponents were in 2020.
|Cincinnati Bengals||Riley Reiff*||Michael Jordan||Trey Hopkins||Quinton Spain||Jonah Williams|
- Burrow needs more time AND the offensive line needs to get better. However, most early projections for Burrow’s recovery timeline make starting Week 1 a tough possibility. If Brandon Allen is starting for the first quarter of the season, things could get rough. As a whole, I plan on being a bit lower on the Cincinnati offense as Tee Higgins is getting a ton of steam in the industry after a solid rookie year. Allen averaged 6.5 yards per attempt and apart from one monster game against Houston (which does that count?), he was atrocious completing just 58 percent of his passes in his other four games.
- Joe Mixon is an enigmatic case as detailed recently on the top-20 RB rankings podcast. When he’s on the field, he can be productive but as RB14 off the board, I’m seeing him drafted near his ceiling especially if Burrow is out. Sewell by himself won’t be able to completely shift an interior offensive line with two porous guards (Jordan & Spain) currently slotted in.
Cleveland Browns: King of the Hill
This is a wrecking crew and there’s a reason Pro Football Focus ranked them #1 to end the 2020 season. Could they get even better in 2021? There is a scenario where Jedrick Wills Jr. takes another step forward and the interior continues to mash. The other side of the coin is this unit benefitted from a good bill of health. Teller only played in 11 games missing two different multi-game stints before returning for Week 17 and the playoffs. The tackles missed only two weeks combined and Bitonio & Tretter were iron-men in the regular season. We can’t project players missing games but there’s a reason the Cowboys went from a top-5 unit to outside the top-25: their starters missed a combined 48 games. If I’m a betting man, their status as “King of the Hill” will likely be removed.
I went into more detail on this unit and their jump to elite status in Why Offensive Lines Matter with Coaching Changes. Not only did Baker Mayfield‘s pressure rate drop but the team’s overall efficiency on offense went from 22nd in points per game to a respectable 14th in 2020.
|Cleveland Browns||Jedrick Wills Jr.||Joel Bitonio||J.C. Tretter||Wyatt Teller||Jack Conklin|
- Nick Chubb is an outlier as I detailed in the Footballers’ early top-10 RB rankings. He’s entering a contract year and his value is about as high as it could ever go. In dynasty, Jason mentioned this might be the time to move him. Kareem Hunt is a hold as detailed in a recent Dynasty Download segment.
- The Browns switched up their offensive system last year with Kevin Stefanski dropping from 64 to 44 percent of their sets being 3-WRs. Cleveland found a winning formula and it likely will continue with 12-personnel and an emphasis on protecting Mayfield in the pocket. With such an emphasis on the tight-end position, the low volume towards their wide receivers could be a turn-off for many. Investing in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at their discounted ADPs in BestBall isn’t a bad way to zig while everyone else zags.
Denver Broncos: Lock-ed & Ready
The Broncos have had a legitimately good off-season shoring up their defensive secondary signing former Chicago CB Kyle Fuller to pair with Ronald Darby and franchising safety Justin Simmons to pair with the re-signed Kareem Jackson. They also extended defensive end, Shelby Harris, to a 3-year, $27 million deal. Their offensive line unit is one of five teams currently projected to return all five starters. Continuity is definitely key although Lloyd Cushenberry is arguably the worst-graded starting center in the league. Garet Bolles delivered on his 1st round pedigree and 2019 2nd rounder Dalton Risner looks like a solid starter for years to come. At right tackle, Ja’Wuan James opted out and Dotson stepped in admirably. This grades as a good-not-great unit. Nevertheless, we know Drew Lock is the main issue in Denver and Trey Lance is the current betting favorite to land with the Broncos. Regardless, Betz detailed the Broncos as a team he likes to hit the over of 7.5 wins.
|Denver Broncos||Garett Bolles||Dalton Risner||Lloyd Cushenberry III||Graham Glasgow||Ja’Wuan James/Demar Dotson|
- When Drew Lock had time to throw last year, it was actually rough. He was in the bottom-5 of completion percentage with 2.5+ seconds to throw. Nevertheless, Denver is a team worth stacking in BestBall especially since the passing options to are so late in the process. Courtland Sutton (WR34), Jerry Jeudy (WR37), Tim Patrick (WR84), and K.J. Hamler (WR86) are going off the board late enough to snag in a mini-stack with upside with Lock. This is the type of contrarian take only if you are playing in large-field tournaments like Underdog’s Big Board.
- Melvin Gordon is going to be fed touches and the competition behind him shouldn’t scare you off from securing him as a solid albeit unspectacular RB2. The offensive line turned him into a plodder for much of the year ranking 28th in PFF’s Run Blocking grades but he still forced the 5th most missed tackles among RBs. Those missed tackles are more indicative of his skillset with more big plays than people give him credit tying with Alvin Kamara for 5th most run of 15+ yards.
Houston Texans: I Mean… I Just Can’t.
I apologize Texans fans (to all six of you) for the paragraph you are about to read. Aside from the legal implications of Deshaun Watson this offseason, the talent across the board on this team is… well… lacking. The offensive line has long been a punching bag for the rest of the league to take advantage of. Houston was so desperate a couple of years ago they overpaid for Laremy Tunsil, basically a top-half OT, not exactly elite. Watson is tied for the 4th most sacks taken through a player’s 1st four years in the league. As I mentioned earlier with Burrow, this isn’t just an indictment on the line but Watson holding onto the ball longer than the majority of players in the league.
Guard Zach Fulton (signed by the Giants) and former 2nd round pick Nick Martin (3-year deal with Las Vegas) both are gone. Although both suffered through a poor year in terms of run-blocking, they also were on the field more than any other Houston lineman. 2019 1st rounder Tytus Howard was a reach and been “hidden” at RT as a serviceable but unspectacular performer. It’s rough in the streets folks.
|Houston Texans||Laremy Tunsil||Max Scharping||Justin Britt||?||Tytus Howard|
- You just kinda have to grin and bear it. For fantasy, there isn’t much to discuss here especially with a middling RB group (David Johnson, Mark Ingram, and Phillip Lindsay) and a giant question mark as to who will be the QB.
- With such little draft capital in their hands, here’s hoping they make sound decisions instead of reaching for need. There are so many holes on this roster that it’s going to take some sharp decisions by new GM Nick Caserio to bring in the New England way of hitting on offensive linemen in the draft and building from within.
Indianapolis Colts: Retooling & Refocusing
Anthony Castonzo’s early retirement was a blow for this elite offensive line but the Colts seem committed to ensuring that they are tough inside the trenches. You know all about Guard Quenton Nelson who is due for a major contract extension soon but RT Braden Smith quietly has set himself up for a great payday as well. While blocking for the cement-footed Philip Rivers last year, Smith allowed only one QB hit and zero sacks on 937 snaps. I’m currently putting a big fat question mark in place for LT as the Colts don’t have anyone on the roster I’m projecting as their solution. There’s speculation that Nelson could move to LT because he’s a straight mauler. But assistant offensive line coach (and Hall of Famer center) Kevin Mawae recently said “you can’t just plug players in anywhere on the line”. The trite phrase “Indianapolis has a great O-Line” actually is starting to seep so deep in public perception that many are failing to notice the changes taking place.
|Indianapolis Colts||?||Quenton Nelson||Ryan Kelly||Mark Glowinski||Braden Smith|
- Protecting Carson Wentz is a different task for this offensive line than Rivers. The type of protections and the way he moves in the pocket is entirely different and last year we saw him hold onto the ball so long that it caused some ugly turnovers.
Here are the leaders (and stinkers) from 2020 in terms of completion % with more time in the pocket… pic.twitter.com/k4DDICddQk
— Kyle Borgognoni (@kyle_borg) April 20, 2021
- It’s hard being bullish on Wentz as he’s going to have to “unlearn” some bad habits he acquired in Philadelphia in terms of mechanics. But this is a solid interior unit to regain some of the confidence and easy short-area passes that made him such an effective red zone passer a couple of years ago.
- It shouldn’t shock anyone if the Colts RB group finished inside the top-5 again in terms of total fantasy points. How those points will be divided up is a different question. Last year, Jonathan Taylor received the headlines at the end of the year but this Frank Reich seems to have a special affection for Nyheim Hines. He tied for the 3rd most RB receptions in the red zone in 2020 and there were a handful of weeks for fantasy where it seemed they flipped the switch and went all-in on Hines down the stretch in games. Taylor’s ceiling we all envisioned for 2021 took a hit with Marlon Mack surprisingly being re-signed. With the offensive line also retooling, Taylor is more of a second-round pick for me this year instead of a “locked-and-loaded” 1st rounder.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Build for the Future
With a new coaching staff, there is a lot of optimism with the Jaguars (finally!). On the offensive line front, Cam Robinson was franchised not because he’s an elite tackle but the fact that continuity is key for a young QB. His $13.8 million price tag is actually cheaper than resigning him and Trevor Lawrence can step in Week 1 with at least someone protecting his blindside. Guard Andrew Norwell had his deal restructured and he still among the top-10 at his position. 2020 4th rounder Ben Bartch received a ton of praise in the pre-draft process and looks like a solid backup in the interior.
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Cam Robinson||Andrew Norwell||Brandon Linder||A.J. Cann||Jawaan Taylor|
- We know what Jacksonville is doing at #1 but if one of the elite tackles slip to 25, it wouldn’t shock me to see Teven Jenkins or USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker taken. EDGE is the position they are being linked to most in mocks there. Still, when you have the most draft capital in the league, using some of their assets to grab a tackle that slips in the 1st round should be a priority to protect your franchise QB.
- Expect Jacksonville to spend some of their early draft capital on the defensive side of the ball while adding another depth piece to the offensive line. Despite James Robinson‘s fantasy success last year, the Jaguars still ranked 32nd in rush attempts and he was the only RB among the top-20 to score ALL of his TDs while trailing. Robinson’s situation could certainly change after the draft so he’s more of a hold in dynasty.
Kansas City Chiefs: Hire MIB
Ok, what I mean by that is you’re going to need Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to wipe clean the memory of the Super Bowl after the onslaught of pressure Patrick Mahomes. But on top of the stain of Mahomes running for his life, the Chiefs released BOTH of their starting tackles as former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz were both released. The Chiefs dipped deep into their pockets to short up part of the line with a massive deal (5 years, $80 million for guard former New England guard Joe Thuney. Thuney will definitely help and Mike Remmers was re-signed to a one-year deal. He should slide back to his natural RT position after being embarrassed in the Super Bowl having to fill in at LT. Lost in the shuffle of all of Kansas City’s offensive line problems was the fact they had two important players opt-out. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was the first player in the NFL to opt-out and 2020 3rd round pick Lucas Niang didn’t play a down. With veteran Kyle Long added, the Chiefs suddenly have a plethora of depth at a position barren in the playoffs.
|Kansas City Chiefs||Orlando Brown*||Joe Thuney*||Austin Blythe/Austin Reiter||Laurent Duvernay-Tardif||Mike Remmers|
- UPDATE: The Chiefs made a deal for former Ravens OT Orlando Brown to be the franchise protector of Patrick Mahomes. This is a stunning move a week before the draft and one that should be applauded after what we saw last year in the Super Bowl.
New Chiefs LT Orlando Brown has been a Pro Bowl player at both RT AND LT.
The man has rare size, length and power with unique footwork to match it. He'll need a new contract too, but he's an ascending star LT.
Today is a good day for Patrick Mahomes.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) April 23, 2021
- One of the stronger positions I’ve taken at the beginning of this off-season is being ahead of ADP on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It seems like everyone has a bad taste in their mouth after he was hyped up to a top-5 selection in redraft. While his TD inefficiency (one every 45+ carries) is the headline, it’s safe to see 280+ opportunities coming his way in a 17-game season even if the offensive line is league average. In 2020, he was one of 14 RBs with 235 opportunities or more. He did that in 13 games.
Las Vegas Raiders: Abandon Ship
The Las Vegas Raiders have tipped their hand this off-season getting out of cap trouble by cutting ties with three of their five starters and it’s only March 9th people! Richie Incognito and Gabe Jackson were released and Trent Brown, who they paid over $36 million to play 16 total games the last two seasons, is shipped back to New England. Other than Kolton Miller, this offensive line looks drastically different and is in danger of being a bottom-tier defense.
— Octagon Football (@OctagonFootball) March 30, 2021
Derek Carr benefitted last season from more than adequate protection posting career highs in passing yards, yards per completion & QB Rating. Through the first six games, his TD:INT ratio was 13:2 with a 72 percent completion rate. However, there was a sharp turn in his performance going 14:7 with a 64 percent completion rate the rest of the way. You could point the finger to Incognito playing in just two games and the fact Good was moved around three times playing RT and LG after subbing in at RG for Jackson in 2019. Parker started only two games at RT in 2020 and is a project at best.
|Las Vegas Raiders||Kolton Miller||Denzelle Good||Nick Martin*||Richie Incognito||Brandon Parker|
- He was pressured on just 30 percent of his dropbacks (9th lowest in the NFL) and has been a monster on 3rd downs the last two seasons. If I had to give you a ray of hope, there is an outcome where the Raiders and Carr just let it fly. I’ve been pretty bullish on Henry Ruggs III for this year in BestBall after being completely off him as a prospect in 2020. Carr is a fine QB2 who will have real ceiling moments this year. I also detailed the Raiders as a team I like to hit the under of their current Vegas win total (7.5)
- Josh Jacobs‘ stock has taken a massive hit this off-season for a myriad of reasons. The Kenyan Drake signing is downright puzzling but to see a game-script-dependent RB’s line picked apart this off-season is devastating. Unless his ADP, dips outside of RB2-ville, it’s hard seeing a scenario where you would feel comfortable with Jacobs in fantasy. He can provide some burst games so maybe he’s going to be low-rostered DFS play more than someone in redraft you feel comfortable with. Knowing this information early, it’s hard foreseeing Josh Jacobs taking a huge step forward in 2021 unless he sees upwards of 40 receptions. His splits are predicated on the Raiders winning and using Jacobs in positive game scripts.
Los Angeles Chargers: Nowhere to Go but Up?
A team I expect to take a step forward in this department is the Los Angeles Chargers. You might say there’s nowhere to go but up (32nd ranked according to PFF) but before free agency began they lost Mike Pouncey to retirement. They responded with one of the biggest splashes in free agency:
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 15, 2021
Linsley was PFF’s highest-graded center in 2020 and anchors a line that put Justin Herbert in positions where he was constantly under pressure in 2020. Their 2020 center (Dan Feeney) saw more snaps there than any other center but was graded out as bottom-3 at the position. An upgrade is almost an understatement. As mentioned in the Shocking Stats episode, Justin Herbert was the only QB who’s Passer Rating under pressure was higher (99.4) than his total Passer Rating (98.3). He can’t replicate that type of performance and likely won’t need to although he was also unbelievable on 3rd down as well. Former Steelers OG Matt Feiler was relatively cheap to bring in and should provide adequate protection at guard.
|Los Angeles Chargers||Storm Norton||Forrest Lamp||Corey Linsley*||Matt Feiler*||Bryan Bulaga|
- Watch for the Chargers to address this with their 1st round pick at 13. If Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater or Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins is there, he’s a building block to protect Justin Herbert for years to come. NFL.com’s Peter Schrager slated Slater there in his most recent mock.
- Running the ball wasn’t exactly the most effective part of the Chargers’ offense last year. (See Kalen Ballage getting 15+ carries a couple of weeks. They had the worst run-blocking grade as a unit (46.5) in the league according to PFF. But Austin Ekeler still needs to be considered among the elites for fantasy. He’s not a big TD guy compared to other runners as he’s scored just nine total rushing TDs in his 4-year career. But the counterargument is that RB receptions are the great equalizer. Eight rushing TDs are the same as 60 receptions and three receiving TDs, which seem like a floor for Ekeler. He saw 18 opportunities per game in 2020 in his first year as the lead back. Don’t let the offensive grade from 2020 scare you off. Ekeler is a borderline top-10 back in 2020.
Miami Dolphins: Ummmm… Does Anyone Else Notice This?
After a year where it seemed the Dolphins were “ahead of schedule” and made a run at a playoff spot, Miami has become a trendy pick for the playoffs in 2021. Their current Vegas win total (9) suggests they could be knocking on the door after going 10-6 last year. But stockpiling picks is a sound strategy as long as the team you are building and the resources you allocated move you towards having elite positional units. Guard Ereck Flowers is a former top-10 pick and has settled into serviceable territory on now his fourth different team and Matt Skura had some solid years in Baltimore but is also subpar. Their tackle situation is arguably the worst in the league.
After ranking 30th in PFF Run-Blocking Grades and 21st in Pass-Blocking in 2020, we can’t just simply conclude they are a bad unit. Their play designs also hid their inefficiencies with their quarterbacks utilizes quick throws and simple roll-outs. Ryan Fitzpatrick had the 2nd shortest average time to throw in the league behind only Ben Roethlisberger and the shortest time to scramble in the NFL. Tua Tagovailoa, on the other hand, averaged 5.5 yards per attempt when he had 2.5+ seconds in the pocket, the 2nd lowest total in the league. In other words, when he did have time, he dumped it off.
|Miami Dolphins||Austin Jackson||Ereck Flowers||Matt Skura*||Solomon Kindley/Jesse Davis||Robert Hunt|
- The 6th pick of the NFL Draft is a true pivot point. The Dolphins traded back a couple of spots and have mostly been linked to receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle. However, if Penei Sewell is sitting there, he would be an overwhelming upgrade to what they currently have on the roster. Peter Schrager mocked Oklahoma State OT Teven Jenkins to the Dolphins at pick 18. Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw is also in the mix. It feels like Miami has to address this with one of their first rounds picks. Right?
- Despite the ineptitude of the offensive line, Myles Gaskin was somehow a super-relevant fantasy RB when on the field. He wasn’t particularly elusive and only had three runs of 15+ yards on the season. But he was a volume king (17+ touches per game) that was effective running out of shotgun at 4.5 yards per carry on those sets. This is how Miami hid their line. There is speculation that Miami will add a back on Day 2 of the draft but Gaskin should still be relevant. I would wait until after we see where the rookies fall as his draft price plummets and then add him as a late-round back. If it’s an early-down runner like UNC’s Javonte Williams or Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, it’s even better because Gaskin showed he was an excellent receiver last year averaging 9.5 yards per reception, the highest in the league among RBs.
New England Patriots: Quiet Confidence
You can point to whoever you want for the Patriots 7-9 season but they are still the blueprint for drafting and maintaining offensive line dominance year-to-year. Shaq Mason is an underappreciated part of what made New England’s rushing attack work receiving the highest PFF grade on “zone-blocking” running plays in the league. He needs to receive more recognition after being a key cog on the New England for six years now since being drafted in the 4th round in 2014. David Andrews was courted by many teams but decided to re-up for his 6th season in Foxboro. Joe Thuney’s departure hurts but this team knows how to retool. Trading for LT Trent Brown after letting him walk two years ago is almost laughable. Uncle Bill is playing chess while the rest of the league is playing Checkers. They did the same thing with former center Ted Karras, who, after playing one year in Miami, decided to come back to New England.
6th round rookie Michael Onwenu was one of the best rookie offensive linemen in the league and he should slide in at left guard with former 1st round OT Isaiah Wynn returning. His 5th year-option is on the table for over $10 million but it’s likely the team will let him walk after he’s struggled to stay on the field missing 30-of-48 career games.
|New England Patriots||Isaiah Wynn||Michael Onwenu||David Andrews||Shaq Mason||
- While much of the New England off-season chatter has focused on the plethora of signings, the offensive line should be even better than it was in 2020 as the 4th ranked unit. Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith both are solid blockers as 12-personnel seems to be the avenue moving forward. What does this mean for fantasy? I’m bullish on the running game for BestBall in a market that has depressed their values. Yes, there will be variance week-to-week if it’s Damien Harris, Sony Michel, or James White. There’s a reason Cam Newton ran for the 2nd most rushing TDs in the league. Patriots RBs combined for the 9th most fantasy points.
- Harris is one of my favorite Zero-RB candidates for 2021 and someone I’m grabbing ahead of ADP. For a team with 31.4 rush attempts per game, Harris’ edging out 15 per game is actually solid. According to PlayerProfiler, he ranked 8th among RBs in juke rate and 6th in true yards per carry. Currently, he’s being drafted as the 35th RB off the board at 167 overall aka the end of the 14th round!
New York Jets: Moving in the Right Direction
As detailed in the coaching changes article, there is going to be a massive overhaul of how the Jets’ offense functions moving from an Adam Gase-led trash heap to Shanahan disciple Mike LaFleur’s scheme. The question is if the Jets have the pieces in place along the offensive line to make their zone running concepts actually click. Tevin Coleman was brought in because Kyle Shanahan and his followers must have some weird obsession with his skillset. But the offensive line started to gel towards the end of the year when Gase was almost out the door and he did something none of us saw coming: win. In fact, in the Jets’ “upset” against the Rams in Week 15, this unit allowed only two sacks to Aaron Donald and company and they followed that up with an impressive win against Myles Garrett and the Browns.
If there is an area of positivity, it’s that this offensive line can roll into 2021 without a ton of “meet-and-greet”. Only Guard Pat Eflein is out but his signing with Carolina was heralded as an overpay by many. Beckton is going to be a beast for years and Connor McGovern started all 16 games. Lewis graded out solid in the run game before getting hurt and he has one of the best mustaches in the league. However, the left guard spot also allowed pressure on 29.2 percent of Sam Darnold‘s dropbacks last year, the highest in the NFL. Van Roten is a journeyman and replacement level. Big George Fant is remembered best for his years in Seattle but he easily could be replaced in the draft. Finding some depth on the offensive line likely will be part of the draft plan on Day 2 & 3.
|New York Jets||Mekhi Beckton||Alex Lewis||Connor McGovern||Greg Van Roten||George Fant|
- The rookie QB (Zach Wilson or Justin Fields) will be given the keys from Day 1 but what makes this Shanahan scheme so QB-friendly is putting them in positions on roll-outs to hit wide-open receivers. George Kittle was a master at this but don’t expect Chris Herndon (insert laughter) to do the same. For fantasy, it’s hard imbuing real fantasy production with a rookie QB but if they nab the right prospect, they could succeed with their athleticism.
- The Jets signed two intriguing WRs in Corey Davis and Keelan Cole. Cole is the one I’ve been taking towards the end of drafts as a flier although Davis is the more physical of the two. Taking a New York Jets receiver is always a drag when you’re in a draft room. At RB, who knows exactly who will end up with enough touches to be relevant. Travis Etienne has been mocked at pick 23 so he certainly would be intriguing. But if they don’t spend early draft capital at the position, it’s likely the Jets don’t have a player end up in the top-24 at any of their respective positions. Woof.
Pittsburgh Steelers: This is Worse than We Thought
While Juju Smith-Schuster might be the headline of the Pittsburgh off-season, there’s been little chatter about how historically bad this offensive line … likely got even worse heading into 2021. Franchise mainstay Maurkice Pouncey retired, Matt Feiler left via free agency, and LT Alejandro Villaneuva still remains unsigned. B.J. Finney was brought back after bouncing around last year in Cincinnati and Seattle. Zach Banner tore his ACL in Week 1 and is slotted in for now at LT, which isn’t promising. OT Joe Haeg was also signed away from the Buccaneers but he’s a depth piece at best. In other words, this group isn’t a finished product by any means.
You could look at the Steelers’ lower sack totals and their 4th overall Pass-Block grade and claim they did a good job protecting Big Ben… except they couldn’t! In 2020, Pittsburgh made a conscious decision to get the ball out of Big Ben‘s hand quicker to protect their QB. He had the highest percentage of dropbacks under 2.5 secs in the pocket, the most completions per game in that timeframe, and the lowest pressure rate. They did this also to hide the fact they were arguably the worst running team in the league. For a 13-win team, it was apparent down the stretch this was a broken offense.
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Zach Banner*||Rashaad Coward*||B.J. Finney*||David DeCastro||
- The actionable info for the Steelers is to take a wait-and-see approach with their running backs. I’m sorry but I can’t in good conscience recommend Kalen Ballage… or Benny Snell… or anyone else you might think they are running out there. They are the team linked most closely to Alabama’s Najee Harris. Even though I believe in the talent, unless he sees 60+ targets the value just won’t be there for me. He’ll be overdrafted because of the landing spot without drafters realizing how broken this offensive line is in terms of running the ball. 31st in run blocking grade isn’t by accident. Maybe new offensive coordinator Matt Canada (who is from Indiana) can fix things as Ben Roethlisberger‘s massive amount of dropbacks doesn’t seem repeatable for 2021.
- Eric Ebron is the name lost in the midst of Pittsburgh’s trio of wide receivers. He is worth mentioning as a late-round TE because perhaps you forgot his guy saw 91 targets last year in 15 games. He had five finishes in the top-10 which isn’t much to write home about but also saw the 4th most red-zone targets among all TEs in 2020. He’s maddening sometimes with the occasional drop but with Vance McDonald retired, the door is open for Ebron to be a viable option. Currently going as the TE23 in BestBall, he’s all but abandoned but I’d gladly take him as my TE2 in that format.
Tennessee Titans: Working from the Inside Out
I’ve devoted some space in a recent Vegas Unders article with Matthew Betz about why we are fading the 9.5 wins for the Titans this year. I won’t pile on more reasonings for the offensive regression but rather set the scene for this offensive line and their tackle issues. Dennis Kelly is still a free agent leaving a massive hole at RT. Kendall Lamm was signed to a two-year deal after not sniffing the field much in Cleveland last year until injuries. He’s a solid veteran but a major step back from Kelly who started every single game last year. Ty Sambrailo filled in when Taylor Lewan went down for five games but he’s a patchwork swing tackle at best. Lewan carries the biggest name on this line and has been with the team since they selected him 11th overall in 2014. He should bounce back from his injury-plagued year to protect Ryan Tannehill‘s blindside.
For all the issues I unpacked on the edges, this team is built to run especially on the inside. The Titans had PFF’s highest run-blocking grade as a unit which makes sense when you’re trying to clear the way for Derrick Henry. Roger Saffold is a humongous guard and still trucking in his 11th year. Nate Davis played all 16 games and took a massive leap from his rookie year. And lastly, Ben Jones is one of the elite centers in this league but he rarely gets the recognition he deserves. He allowed zero sacks finished with PFF’s 5th highest grade at the position.
|Tennessee Titans||Taylor Lewan||Rodger Saffold||Ben Jones||Nate Davis||Kendall Lamm*|
- I’ve mentioned Tannehill’s efficiency metrics almost ad nauseam but his sack numbers over the last two years also drastically shifted. In 2019, he was sacked at an alarming rate of 9.8 percent. In 2020, teams were noticing as he was blitzed on 33 percent of his dropbacks but ended with only 24 sacks taken and a solid 4.8 percent. A.J. Brown and company made defenses pay as Tannehill had PFF’s 3rd highest grade for QBs when blitzed and the 4th most passing yards on those plays in 2020. That’s astounding considering Tannehill finished 15th in total passing yards. He’s set up to be another late-round QB worth looking at in 2021 although regression is knocking on the door soon.
- Arguing against the Big Dog is a losing proposition. I love some Derrick Henry. Now let me point out a couple of areas of concern and get out of your way. His offensive line isn’t the problem although instilling a new offensive coordinator is a variable to consider. Henry feasted on bad defenses in 2020 (+5.69 fantasy points versus bottom-16) and somehow was way better on the road (+8.3 points) than at home. But the key stat for me is in the five Titans losses in 2020, he had four total receptions for 12 yards. He averaged 11.6 fantasy points per game in those compared to nearly 24 points per game in wins. If the Titans are closer to eight or nine wins in 2021, does that bump him down in your book?