Why Offensive Lines Matter with Coaching Changes (Fantasy Football)
Last week, the Fantasy Footballers finished their NFL Coaching Changes for 2021 podcast. I reviewed all seven new head coaches and 13 new offensive coordinators in a recent article including some fantasy forecasts and fun facts with some of those coaches. Alliteration aside, it’s a perfect time of the year to get a great lay of the land for new coaching regimes.
Before we simply plug and play with our projections for 2021, I’ve found one overarching theme that developed from coaching changes over the last few years: offensive line play.
Projecting Offensive Lines
Now going into the season, 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. In summary, my main takeaways were:
- Offensive line grading must be taken in context especially when utilizing a plethora of different sites (Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, and Next Gen) to validate your fantasy football decisions.
- The predictions from year-to-year are not an exact science but nevertheless cannot be ignored. Injuries and poor QB play can hide the potential of an offensive line.
I cannot emphasize enough how valuable offensive line play is when everyone else has their eyes on the rest of the offense. While pass patterns and alignment might change with new coaches, there are five guys in the middle who will be in on every single snap, and that type of continuity is needed even more when there is change. In other words, 45 percent of the personnel on every single offensive play in the NFL is going to be manned by the “hog-mollies up front”, as Giants GM (and your best friend) Dave Gettleman likes to say.
How can we take advantage of this and properly add this piece of the puzzle to the grand mosaic that is fantasy football forecasting?
2020 Coaching Changes
For context, here were the five head coaching changes and 11 offensive coordinator changes from 2020. I’ve compared the team’s performance through a couple of simple categories (point per game, passing yards, and rushing yards) to give us a brief overview of any significant progression from year-to-year.
|Team||New HC||New OC||2019 PPG||2020 PPG||2019 Pass Yards||2020 Pass Yards||2019 Rush Yards||2020 Rush Yards|
|Carolina Panthers||Matt Ja Rhule||Joe Brady||20||24||20||18||14||21|
|Chicago Bears||—||Bill Lazor||29||22||25||22||27||25|
|Cleveland Browns||Kevin Stefanski||Alex Van Pelt||22||14||22||24||12||3|
|Dallas Cowboys||Mike McCarthy||—||6||17||2||8||5||17|
|Denver Broncos||—||Pat Shurmur||28||28||28||26||20||13|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||—||Jay Gruden||26||30||16||21||17||28|
|Los Angeles Chargers||—||Shane Steichen||21||18||6||6||28||18|
|Los Angeles Rams||—||Kevin O’Connell||11||22||4||13||26||10|
|Miami Dolphins||—||Chan Gailey||25||15||12||20||32||22|
|Minnesota Vikings||—||Gary Kubiak||8||11||23||14||6||5|
|New York Giants||Joe Judge||Jason Garrett||18||31||18||29||19||19|
|Washington Football Team||Ron Rivera||Scott Turner||32||25||32||25||22||26|
I’ll offer a couple of overarching themes that have developed while analyzing coaching changes over the last couple of years.
The Offensive Line is the Way Forward
For example, the biggest discrepancies in offensive production from 2019 to 2020 were directly tied to offensive line play.
Cleveland went from a subpar 22nd in points per game to a respectable 14th en route to their first playoff berth in more than 15 years. While Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were solid in 2019, they were absolute wrecking balls on the ground hiking the team’s rushing yards per game to 3rd best in the league. How can we credit Kevin Stefanski and Alex Van Pelt’s success? Look no further than Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive line. They allocated significant financial resources towards securing free-agent Jack Conklin to a $42 million deal and the No. 10 overall pick on Alabama OT Jedrick Wills Jr.
Baker Mayfield played solid if not unspectacular for much of the season but you could see the major difference in the pocket.
|% Dropbacks Under Pressure||Adj Comp % Under Pressure||Sacks Taken|
But beyond the pressure, the efficiency of the entire offense rose to levels we hadn’t seen since Baker’s rookie season. Kevin Stefanski’s offense that he brought over from Minnesota was predicated on feeding the RBs in zone-blocking schemes. Nick Chubb is an outlier as a pro in terms of yards per carry and breakaway ability and Kareem Hunt is no schlub. In other words, Cleveland’s offense, while it did not support lots of fantasy goodness at WR due to Odell Beckham Jr.’s injury, was set up for success at the most important point of its offense: between the trenches.
On the other hand, Dallas‘ season was the sum of many things gone awry. Obviously, Dak Prescott‘s season-ending injury was devastating but the offensive line also suffered through injuries as well. The Cowboys have long been championed as one of the league’s premier O-Lines that you could basically bank on come draft time for Ezekiel Elliott. But was there room for this group to slip or had we all succumbed to group-think into locking in another top-5 season from their O-Line?
While the offense kept the same offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore, a supposedly “reborn” Mike McCarthy was the new head coach calling the shots for the offense. Here’s how Dallas changed from one year to another:
|Points per Game||Rush Yards Per Game||Sacks Allowed|
I’m not here to provide hindsight analysis and simply given you the reasons for what just occurred in the 2020 season. Dallas’ offensive line dropped from PFF’s #4 at the beginning of the season all the way to 27th! Now, much of that was due to Tyron Smith playing minimally and La’el Collins being out for the entire year. But the Cowboys are a case in point that everything we project in terms of fantasy football needs to be measured in percentages. There was an outcome, whether it be a Dak injury or the offensive line regressing under a new coach, that needed to be baked in.
Ok, those are both extreme examples but let’s look at the Rams. The offense was basically built to protect itself from Jared Goff. The juggernaut offense we saw go all the way to the Super Bowl a couple of years ago vanished and what Sean McVay & Kevin O’Connell decidedly worked on was the offensive line. This team’s identity was on its all-world defense and running the football, especially down the stretch with Cam Akers. In two playoff games, he averaged 24.5 touches for 136 yards and a touchdown, good enough for 21.4 fantasy points per game. On the season, Rams RBs had the 8th most rushing attempts in the NFL.
But it was the offensive line that had a massive improvement year-to-year finishing as PFF’s 4th highest graded run-blocking unit, up from 26th in 2019. Much of that was minimizing risk and allowing Goff to be pressured on less than 30 percent of his dropbacks.
Some Things Never Change
It can be easy to get excited with the new. Heck, part of our brains (the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area or SN/VTA for those wondering) is attracted to novelties.
In fantasy football, the information we collect is simply comparing what we’ve seen to what we hope for. Phrases such as “there’s nowhere to go but up” are dangerous because even offenses at the bottom have a 3rd scenario at play that might sound boring but true: things could stay the same.
In the case of offensive coordinators, many of them are on their 2nd or 3rd go-arounds and an example of retread in the NFL. In other words, we knew what some of these OCs were. It’s hard to be bullish on some of those teams. I’ll highlight a couple of teams that didn’t take a step forward despite the change. In fact, it’s like nothing actually changed…
- Chicago hired Bill Lazor for some reason and I’m still trying to figure out why. Despite being an offensive coordinator in Miami and Cincinnati, his offenses never finished in the top-10 of any meaningful category. Yikes! But the Bears offensive line couldn’t do much to help Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky finishing 25th in pass blocking according to PFF. Outside of Allen Robinson II and the occasional Jimmy Graham TD, the passing offense was anemic and that’s being generous.
- The Broncos brought in Pat Shurmur and many had Denver as a sexy choice to breakthrough in Year 2 with Drew Lock. I wrote up the Broncos as a predictable Vegas win total whiff as 7.5 wins seemed a bit bullish for the offense to improve… especially if the offensive line wasn’t addressed. Rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry was PFF’s worst graded center and apart from Garrett Bolles, the unit was underwhelming. Denver ended up scoring the 5th fewest points in the league as Lock made a decision to chuck it 20+ yards downfield more frequently than anyone in football, without much success.
- After being let go in Washington, Jay Gruden landed on his feet (for one year) in Jacksonville with Gardner Minshew the 45th. It was hard to go in on an offense led by the jorts-wearing QB with an offensive line that was bottom-10 in both pass and run blocking in 2019. They went into the season projected as a bottom-7 O-Line headlined by OGs Andrew Norwell and Brandon Linder. The tackle spots were a concern and it’s a bit head-scratching that Jacksonville franchise-tagged the underachieving Cam Robinson for 2021. The point is this offense had little chance of improvement as a whole ranking 30th in points per game and 32nd in total rushing attempts.
- The Giants decided they liked what they saw twice a year against Jason Garrett and the Cowboys that they hired the man intradivisionally. A lot of the Giants’ success was predicated on the growth of Daniel Jones at quarterback (spoiler alert: it did not happen) but the offensive line was the major area of concern. The Giants were the worst pass-blocking unit according to PFF in the league. 4th overall Andrew Thomas stepped in admirably but with Nate Solder opting out at the beginning of the season, the Giants season was a train wreck even before Saquon Barkley was injured.
- Sometimes its best to take a wait-and-see approach on some of the offseason overexcitement. Count me among those intrigued by Joe Brady’s hiring in Carolina after winning the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football after setting records with the Joe Burrow-led LSU Tigers. But forward-thinking and innovative schemes need the right players as well and Teddy Bridgewater clearly wasn’t going to be able to bring this offense forward. The Panther offensive line unit has one stud in RT Taylor Moton who was recently franchised. Apart from the Christian McCaffrey injury, this unit wasn’t upgraded in the draft and thus they remained fairly static rather than thrust ahead with what pundits were predicting out of this offense. Watch Carolina film, it was a lot of Robby Anderson drag routes
2019: Offensive Line Eye-Opener
2019 was brimming with optimism. The pandemic wasn’t even on our radar, you probably weren’t buying NFTs and the center of hype-ville for fantasy football was in Cleveland. With Baker Mayfield, remember how hyped the public was in 2019 when they started assembling their “super team” with Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt? New head coach Freddie Kitchens (remember him?) was tasked with grouping these big personalities together in Cleveland despite their offensive line cutting their starting offensive tackle weeks before the season started. I’m not trying to toot my horn but I remember tweeting out to see if I missed something…
Let’s take that same thought process and look back quickly at a year ago at the largest points per game gains from the 2019 season. It was even more evident that offensive line play was a key metric in analyzing coaching changes.
|Team||New HC||New OC||2018 PPG||2019 PPG||2018 Pass Yards||2019 Pass Yards||2018 Rush Yards||2019 Rush Yards||Offensive Line Rank|
|Arizona Cardinals||Kliff Kingsbury||—||32||16||32||24||32||10||PFF Rank: #22, FOutsiders Run Block: #21|
|Baltimore Ravens||—||Greg Roman||13||1||22||27||2||1||PFF Rank: #3, FOutsiders Run Block: #3|
|Dallas Cowboys||—||Kellen Moore||22||6||23||2||10||5||PFF Rank: #8, FOutsiders Run Block:: #2|
|Minnesota Vikings||—||Kevin Stefanski||19||8||13||23||30||6||PFF Rank: #19, FOutsiders Run Block:: #7|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Bruce Arians||Byron Leftwich||12||3||1||1||29||21||PFF Rank: #7, FOutsiders Run Block:: #23|
|Tennessee Titans||—||Arthur Smith||27||10||29||21||6||3||PFF Rank: #3, FOutsiders Run Block:: #4|
- We knew the Cowboys unit would be elite in 2019 but the Titans were one you could’ve taken advantage of especially with Derrick Henry being a 4th round pick. (I recently highlighted Henry and the success of other mid-round RBs in a comprehensive look at the last five years). The scheme and group led by the aforementioned Jack Conklin were one to potentially buy into. However, I don’t think anyone could’ve forecasted Ryan Tannehill coming in Week 7 and becoming the most efficient QB in the league.
- Greg Roman’s pedigree and approach as a run-first team was a great push in the right direction to making Lamar Jackson the premier late-round QB of 2019. The Ravens scorched the earth setting NFL records for yards on the ground.
- The Vikings transformed into a predominantly run-focused team that specialized in running the football through zone-schemes. All Dalvin Cook did was become arguably the best per-game fantasy contributor at the RB position outside of CMC.
The easiest takeaway is that offensive line assessment needs to be part of your toolbelt. But maybe a more nuanced approach might be to funnel your thoughts on scheme changes and coaches jumping in with how the organization decides to address their offensive line via the draft or free agency. Is this an area of emphasis or is it an afterthought?
At this point in the offseason, begin to sift through 2020’s coaching changes and ask a couple of simple questions: how did their offensive line perform in 2020? What did the organization do to address their holes? Am I factoring in offensive line play within the team’s context and overall offensive projections with this new coaching change?
I’ll give a follow up piece later this week with some early actionable information on offensive lines for 2021.