Often overlooked, the offensive line matters in both real life and fantasy
Here’s a revelation for you: Good blocking helps the running game. You already knew that, but how much did you consider it in your drafts last year? Probably not as much as you should have.
ProFootballFocus.com has four years’ worth of ratings for both individual players and whole teams (see chart, below). Among the top 16 teams — or the top half of the NFL — in run-blocking in each of those years, at least 10 have also finished among the top 16 in fantasy scoring for running backs.
The 2011 season produced 10 such teams. In 2009 and ‘10, 11 of the top 16 in PFF run-blocking also ranked top 16 in running back points. In 2008, 13 of the top 16 did.
Conversely, each of the past four seasons has also seen at least 10 of the 16 worst run-blocking teams rank in the bottom 16 in running back scoring.
Top running backs can still overcome poor blocking, as Chris Johnson did in 2010 — but not in 2011 — and mediocre running backs won’t turn stud just because of a few holes (Shonn Greene). It’s undeniable, however, that some talented big guys up front make life easier in the backfield.
With that in mind, which lines will help their runners most?
New England is the only team to rank among the top 10 in run-blocking for each of the four seasons PFF has graded. The Patriots finished second from 2008-10 and then third in 2011. Last year was the only time within that stretch that the team failed to rank among the league’s top eight in fantasy scoring for running backs. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will begin with an advantage whenever they step onto the field. And don’t expect the retirement of left tackle Matt Light to hurt. Replacement Nate Solder was rated the team’s best run-blocker as a 2011 rookie right tackle.
The Saints ranked fifth in run-blocking in both 2011 and 2009, and fourth in 2008. They dipped to 16th in 2010, hurt by a down year for star guard Jahri Evans. Other guard Carl Nicks bolted for Tampa and a big free agent contract, but Baltimore free agent Ben Grubbs replaces him. Grubbs ranked eighth and 15th, respectively, among NFL guards in run-blocking the past two seasons, according to PFF.
Right tackle Wayne Hunter took a lot of the blame for the Jets’ decline last year, but every lineman other than center Nick Mangold performed worse than the year before. And yet, the team still managed to rank 12th in run-blocking. Hunter remains the weakest link, but he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere unless Vladimir Ducasse beats him out in camp. Either way, this should remain a solid group. Now the Jets just need a running back to play up to the line’s level.
The Eagles will miss left tackle Jason Peters. The question is: How much? PFF ranked Demetress Bell 21st among 76 qualifying tackles in run-blocking last year. That came over just seven games, and injury has been the biggest impediment to Bell’s career. He’ll play next to the No. 1 run-blocking guard in the league last year, Evan Mathis. The rest of the group is solid and led by veteran coach Howard Mudd. Most would probably be surprised to find out that the Eagles ranked 14th and ninth in run-blocking the two years preceding Mudd’s arrival. Upside remains with center Jason Kelce and guard Danny Watkins as well.
The Jags finished each of the past two years among the top 10 and each of the past four among the top 16. Guard Will Rackley needs to improve, and there needs to be much less Guy Whimper. The team didn’t draft a challenger there, so it must feel good about Eben Britton.
The Cards boasted the sixth-best run-blocking unit in the league last year, according to PFF, but still felt the need to upgrade. The Cardinals signed guard Adam Snyder to replace Rex Hadnot and drafted Ole Miss tackle Bobby Massie. Massie, a potential steal, could push disappointing left tackle Levi Brown.
— By Matt Schauf, originally published in the 2012 Athlon Sports NFL Fantasy Football preview magazine
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