Winning fantasy owners have discovered a secret: the productivity of their “skill position” players is often tied to the success of that team’s offensive line.
In many instances, the correlation is obvious. The Colts are perennially among the league leaders in fewest sacks allowed; as a result, Peyton Manning stays upright, stays healthy, and consistently produces elite quarterback numbers. The Jets have put together a dominating run blocking unit spearheaded by center Nick Mangold; that group was directly responsible for Thomas Jones producing a couple monster years in the twilight of his career.
But astute fantasy owners will dig a little deeper, looking for that edge to help them unearth a sleeper or avoid a talented player whose situation has him set up to fail.
With that in mind, here are some less-heralded offensive lines whose specific skill sets can be capitalized on, the information used to split a tie between similarly-ranked runners or identify which members of a passing game might be put in the best position for success.
Note: This article may reference several stats from sources such as Football Outsiders (FO), the Football Scientist (FS), and Pro Football Focus (PFF); without getting too deep (it was my understanding there would be no math), here’s a quick primer on what those numbers measure:
- Adjusted Line Yards — an FO stat that assigns responsibility for rushing yards to the offensive line based on where those yards were gained in proximity to the line of scrimmage
- Power Success — an FO stat that tracks the percentage of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go (or first or second down and goal to go from two yards and in) that resulted in a first-down or touchdown
- Stuffed — an FO stat measuring the percentage of rushing attempts where the back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage
- Adjusted Sack Rate – an FO stat measuring sacks per pass attempt tweaked for down, distance, and opponent
Buried down at #22 in the overall offensive line rankings, the Seahawks have a sleeper run blocking unit that could turn Justin Forsett into the next Ray Rice. Seattle returns three-fifths of the line that put up sub-par numbers in the ground game, but the key to the turnaround doesn’t rest solely with first-round pick Russell Okung and offseason acquisitions Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts. Instead, the key is a 69-year-old former running back/defensive back out of Davidson College: offensive line coach Alex Gibbs.
Gibbs is a bona fide legend, having coached in the NFL since 1984, but it’s his most recent work that has earned him the reputation of a zone-blocking master. Going back to his stint with the Super Bowl Broncos, 11 of the last 14 offenses Gibbs has worked for as either an offensive line coach or assistant head coach have averaged 4.5 yards per carry or better; 10 of those teams have ranked in the top five in the league in rushing.
And it’s not as if Gibbs has been fed a steady diet of elite backs: Gibbs’ offensive lines have produced 15 1,000-yard rushing seasons during his tenure, with at least one by a back from each of the seven rounds of the draft. That means for every first-rounder (Warrick Dunn three times, Michael Vick once) that’s rushed for 1,000 yards behind a Gibbs line, there’s a second rounder (Clinton Portis, twice). And a third rounder (Steve Slaton). And a fourth (Olandis Gary), fifth (Sammy Winder), two sixths (Terrell Davis four times, Mike Anderson once), and a seventh (Marion Butts).
Even better news for the committee headed by Justin Forsett that includes Leon Washington and Julius Jones: Gibbs gets immediate results. His last three first years saw the Broncos, Falcons, and Texans increase their rushing rank by an average of 18 spots, their rushing yards by an average of 31 yards per game, their yards per carry by 13 positions, and their ypc average by 0.7 yards. So a typical Gibbs boost would bump the Seahawks to 128 rushing yards per game and a per-carry average of 4.7 yards—and Forsett (and, to a lesser extent, Washington and Jones) would stand to benefit.
Rare is the opportunity for something positive to be said about the Lions; seems as if they’ve been in rebuilding mode since... well, ever. But one thing they seem to have done right is cobble together a decent offensive line. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a dominant unit like the Jets or Dolphins. But the Lions’ o-line has two factors working in its favor that could lead to some sneaky fantasy assistance.
One of the keys in the development of a strong offensive line, and the Lions have continuity on their side. This marks the third straight season that four of Detroit’s linemen—LT Jeff Backus, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, and RT Gosder Cherilus—had gone into the season as starters. The only revolving door has been at right guard, where this year the Lions take advantage of the Seahawks’ switch to a zone blocking scheme by acquiring Rob Sims. The 6-3, 312 pound Sims wasn’t a fit for the zone scheme, but his power game will mesh nicely with what the Lions do.
Second, if you look at the Lions’ breakdown of rushing success last year, they fared extremely well running outside Backus to the left (averaging 6.9 yards per play around left end) and off Gosder to the right (averaging 4.6 yards per carry off right tackle). The Lions traded back into the first round to draft speedy but undersized running back Jahvid Best, who seems almost ideally suited to run anywhere but between the tackles. And if Detroit does opt to venture inside, the addition of the underrated Sims is a substantial upgrade over the tandem of Daniel Loper and Manuel Ramirez that manned the position in 2009.
Individually, this group grades out quite well; only Gosder posted a negative score according to Pro Football Focus’s ratings, and if he continues to improve like he did as a sophomore last season he’ll be out of the red in no time. If they’re able to avoid injuries and play together for a full 16 games, don’t be surprised if they allow Best to turn in numbers like similarly sized (and speeded) backs Jamaal Charles last year (1,120 yards at 5.9 yards a pop) or Chris Johnson the year before (1,228 yards at 4.9 a carry).
Here’s a case of using a team’s weakness to your advantage. Last year the Raiders were abysmal at protecting their quarterbacks; not only did Oakland give up 49 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus no team gave up more pressure per pass play. To address the problem, Oakland drafted tackles Jared Veldheeer and Bruce Campbell, though the latter is likely to shift to guard at the NFL level. However, at present neither is running with the ones, which means we’ll once again be treated to the stylings of left tackle Mario Henderson.
Continuity is nice, but according to PFF Henderson graded out as the worst tackle to take at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps last season. No tackle allowed his quarterback to be hit more often (17 times), and only Jacksonville rookie Eben Britton allowed more quarterback pressures than Henderson’s 38. All of this is compounded by the fact that only five teams threw the ball less than Oakland.
How can this help, you ask? It’s not as if new Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell is unfamiliar with being under pressure; the Redskins gave up 46 sacks and were only marginally better than the Raiders in keeping their quarterbacks upright. Campbell’s solution in Washington was to throw to his tight ends, targeting Chris Cooley and Fred Davis a combined 121 times for 77 catches, 841 yards, and eight touchdowns.
Those numbers are slightly better than the 66-805-3 Oakland tight end Zach Miller put up in 100 targets from lesser quarterbacks. Given that a) Miller has already demonstrated his ability to put up decent numbers; b) Campbell has already demonstrated his willingness to check down to the tight end when under pressure; and c) the Raiders will be trotting out either the same revolving door of a left tackle or an unproven rookie, it stands to reason that Miller is poised to deliver a Brent Celek or Owen Daniels type of season at a fraction of the cost.
And just think: because you know how bad Mario Henderson is, you’ll be the one swooping in to snag Miller and laugh all the way to your league title.