Four Offensive Line Upgrades That Matter

by John Evans · Fantasy Football

Offensive lines are an often-overlooked component of fantasy football. A dominant line can elevate average players’ production, and an especially vulnerable one can limit superstars to scrubs’ stats on any given Sunday. The strength of a line should be a tiebreaker when deciding who to draft or start, if it’s a close call. There’s no doubt that in this COVID-19-shadowed season, upheaval on offensive lines will create fantasy conundrums from week to week. Entering draft season though, we can evaluate projected starters’ talent, cohesion and experience to draw helpful conclusions.

These four teams have been undermined by blocking deficiencies in the past. Should we worry about their impact on our points producers this season, or can they pave the way for greater success? Let’s take a look.

Cleveland Browns

Fielding shaky starters at tackle proved costly for Cleveland last season. Baker Mayfield was frequently harassed by outside pressure, and an already-unimaginative offense was disrupted. Bringing in right tackle Jack Conklin addressed this need in a big way. The former All-Pro is a force in the running game and a clear upgrade to Mayfield’s protection. To shore up the left side, Cleveland tapped Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, whose freaky athleticism made him the No. 10 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Wills is already a terror for run defenders and has the agility to stymie most pass-rushers. Lining those two up alongside All-Pro Joel Bitonio and trusty J.C. Tretter gives Cleveland a crew with clear top 10 potential. That’s a huge swing from last year. With four offensive-line opt-outs, depth has suddenly become a question mark, but that will prove true for many teams one way or another.

Coaching is often a key factor for line play. New OL coach Bill Callahan is among the best in the business. New head coach Kevin Stefanski’s system will assuredly be more sensible than the previous regime’s, putting the line in more favorable situations. It all adds up to Cleveland improving upon Mayfield’s 77.6-percent (No. 30 among qualified quarterbacks) Protection Rate and the 77.5 (No. 20) Run-Blocking Efficiency afforded Nick Chubb. Only Derrick Henry and Damien Williams averaged more yards after contact than Chubb. On many plays, he got it done without much help. The new-look line will give Browns ball-carriers larger avenues to daylight, making Chubb a leading contender for the league rushing title. Kareem Hunt is equally capable should Chubb go down. While this will be a run-first attack, Mayfield’s improved efficiency will keep him in the low-end QB1 mix and give Odell Beckham Jr. weekly fantasy WR1 upside.

Houston Texans

Continuity is king in offensive line play, and over the last five years the Texans have had anything but. Entering the 2020 season, no news is good news for Houston as they return all five starters, including Pro Bowler Laremy Tunsil. Even with tackle Tytus Howard missing half of his rookie campaign, this group has grown cohesive since adding Howard and guard Max Scharping in the 2019 NFL Draft. While he was unsurprisingly inefficient, wizened veteran Carlos Hyde churned out a 1,000-yard season behind a line that offered him a 78.0 (No. 18) Run Blocking Efficiency rating and helped him average a respectable 2.1 yards before contact per Pro Football Reference. Only 20 RBs enjoyed a higher average (five being 49ers or Ravens), so the Texans’ o-line should benefit whoever is toting the rock in 2020.

In seasons past, we worried about Deshaun Watson’s ability to remain healthy behind one of the worst pass-blocking lines in the league, but they made big strides in 2019. Watson enjoyed an 84.8-percent (No. 12) Protection Rate. With five solid starters, there’s no weak link in the chain, which is critical in pass pro. Only seven teams surrendered more sacks, but Watson’s tendency to hold the ball and extend plays has more to do with that than major shortcomings in his protection. His pressure rate dropped by nearly 10-percent in 2019.

Check out Deshaun Watson’s 2020 Projection on PlayerProfiler’s “World Famous” Draft Kit:

With the offensive line’s turnaround complete, they should give Houston’s skill players a production boost. Having a group that’s already gelled is an especially meaningful advantage in this COVID-marred campaign, with teams getting precious little time to integrate new players and develop chemistry. While Watson is currently the sixth quarterback off the board in many drafts, he is a real contender for a top-three finish even without DeAndre Hopkins. He makes a great value stack with Will Fuller or Brandin Cooks.

Denver Broncos

Mike Munchak’s coaching consistently elevated the play of Pittsburgh’s offensive linemen. Last year, he took that acumen to the Mile High City. In 2019, Denver’s Phillip Lindsay finished No. 6 in yards before contact, an indicator that his offensive line did its job. Bringing in one of the league’s most reliable, versatile guards in Graham Glasgow is an immediate upgrade for this unit. A new pivotman could be cause for concern, but if third-rounder Lloyd Cushenberry starts at center, it gives the ground game an immediate lift even if his pass pro isn’t as far along. He delivers tooth-loosening run blocks.

Add that to a healthy season from heralded former first-round-pick Ja’Wuan James and this would be a road-grading group. Unfortunately James won’t be there to help, as he opted out due to COVID concerns. Stepping in again is former UDFA Elijah Wilkinson, whose play was undistinguished in 12 starts for an injured James last season. Still, with Glasgow and Cushenberry in the fold, we can expect Denver’s o-line to be competent, at worst. If promising second-year guard Dalton Risner takes a step forward, that may offset the downgrade from James to Wilkinson.

Free agent acquisition Melvin Gordon has certainly toiled behind some subpar o-lines in his NFL career. 2019 wasn’t a banner year for the former Wisconsin Badger, but his 27.6-percent Dominator Rating is still a top-10 mark. While Lindsay could siphon more snaps than expected, the table is set for MGIII to thrive in a high-powered offense. His ADP at the end of the third round is justified.

Los Angeles Chargers

Melvin Gordon‘s former team has perennially struggled in the trenches, but moves were made this offseason to shore up the Chargers’ o-line. Tackle Bryan Bulaga is often banged up, but when he’s in the game, the former Packer is an asset in both pass pro and run blocking. Guard Trai Turner, acquired from the Panthers, has made five straight Pro Bowl appearances and has shown flashes of greatness. Pairing Turner with proven veteran Mike Pouncey should solidify the interior of this line. However, with the left tackle spot up for grabs, they may have as many as three new starters. With that much personnel turnover, building cohesion will take time, and this line might struggle early.

That said, even last season’s group had a 5-percent sack rate, seventh-best in the league. This passing game should go as far as Game Script and Tyrod Taylor can take them. Given his mobility, the weapons at his disposal and the number of cushy matchups on the Bolts’ schedule, Taylor is intriguing at his draft cost. The man formerly known as TyGod is vying with Nick Foles to be the last presumed Week 1 QB starter drafted.

Regression is coming for Austin Ekeler’s league-leading 6.9 yards per touch average. Still, as ball-carriers, Chargers backs will find more room to roam than in seasons past. With the strengthened line, Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson offer lotto ticket appeal as Ekeler’s understudies and potential early-down pounders, should one fall by the wayside. Jackson is currently the better bet, but he has to stay off the trainers’ table.