"You should start your piece by saying, 'I swear this is not about offensive lines.'" - Alex C. Wilk , NFL Fantasy Live producer
Even going back to Emmitt Smith's heyday, the debate over how much credit should be given to Smith's talent versus his hulking offensive line has always been a
waste of time
fun watering hole debate.
But the difference between then and now is that we have an actual way to measure how much push an offensive line gets, and how much yardage an offensive line creates with the power of Next Gen Stats.
This measure of offensive line generated yards can be a strong predictor of efficiency, regardless of talent. For example, let's look at Todd Gurley last year. His offensive line allowed -0.08 yards before a defender got within one yard of Gurley, ranking as one of the five worst offensive lines in that regard. As a result, he struggled mightily while constantly getting hit in the backfield.
This year? Totally different story. After adding a quality left tackle in Andrew Whitworth (and a host of other offensive weapons) the Rams are now generating 0.8 yards before a defender closes in and are just outside the top five in that statistical category. This has helped Gurley improve his yards per carry average from 3.2 to 4.1. That differential in yards per carry is nearly identical to the differential in the yards generated by the offensive line.
What OL generated yards doesn't predict is talent or volume which is where the human element comes in. Gurley being the explosive, talented runner he is will obviously make more of the opportunities presented to him than a lesser back. Also, predicting volume is more art than science. If the fantasy community had their way Christian McCaffrey would be getting 25-30 touches a game. Alas he's not and his stats thus far have been muted.
As one of my producers noted, this piece is ostensibly about fantasy running backs, but it's essentially grading the run-blocking efficiencies of various offensive lines around the league as measured by Next Gen Stats.
So with that, let's get it.
BEST RUN-BLOCKING UNITS
These are the units you want to buy into as they appeared fully equipped to help running backs put up good to great stats.
Where it gets interesting is in Minnesota, Washington and Tampa Bay. All three locales feature some kind of committee but their excellent line play thus far should encourage you to trade for, or pick up, the appropriate back.
McKinnon (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) doesn't necessarily profile as an every-down workhorse and won't be moving forward, but the former option quarterback from Georgia Southern is a terrific athlete. Moreover, he CLEARLY had more success taking what the line gave him, churning out yards and keeping the offense on track in terms of down and distance against the Bears. Murray will obviously still have a role, especially around the goal line, but I'd much rather roll the dice with the guy who flashed his 4.41 speed Monday.
In Washington my irrational man crush on Samaje Perine will never die but the dream appears to be in stasis for at least this year. Rob Kelley is an interesting buy-low candidate right now as he comes off the bye week, theoretically healthier from his sore ribs, but Chris Thompson is the back to own, as he is dominating the backfield snaps and targets.
You already know about his pass-catching prowess but Thompson, behind this line, is averaging an outrageous 7.1 yards per carry right now. Obviously, that will go down but expect continued success rushing in addition to his receiving work. With potentially high-scoring dates against San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Dallas forthcoming, I'd be buying all day.
Finally, I know they tried to roll out some kind of three-headed committee in Tampa Bay in Week 5 but, come on, this backfield belongs to Doug Martin. Not only does he look spry and recommitted, the line is doing a terrific job getting push up front for him. We saw big chunk plays versus New England but the sledding gets much tougher the next three weeks against the Cardinals, Bills and Panthers. Still, I believe in Martin's resurgence and strongly believe he will continue to produce.
WORST RUN-BLOCKING UNITS
How does an offensive line even put up a negative number you ask? Well, it's all about line integrity. Very rarely will an entire offensive line be pushed back on a run play. What happens is a single defender pierces through and gets into the backfield, which generally results in the ball carrier either being tackled for a loss or at the very least rerouting him away from his intended hole for a limited gain.
Are you trading Zeke? Probably not. But if you could sell Elliott's name value and get Kareem Hunt in return you make that deal in a heartbeat. At the very least I would manage expectations versus stout run defenses moving forward.
One of the more under-reported storylines this offseason was Cincinnati's offensive line. With the aforementioned Whitworth going to the Rams and Kevin Zeitler going to Cleveland, the Bengals o-line was re-worked for the worse. Many in the fantasy community keep pushing the "Joe Mixon snap-share" narrative but I will happily pass. Giovani Bernard clearly deserves a continued (if not expanded) role and Jeremy Hill will still annoy fantasy managers with an occasional score. Given the offensive line and the committee, I'd be trying to trade away Mixon if possible.
The Jets are doing better than literally everyone on planet Earth was expecting but from a fantasy standpoint this offense is still borderline untouchable. With both Bilal Powell and Matt Forte nursing injuries, Elijah McGuire does have excellent sleeper appeal this week, but after that? I'm all out on their backs except as a deeper-league flex play at best.
For the Colts, I know Marlon Mack is an interesting name and he's certainly worth an add as a "just in case" but I personally won't be chasing the points. Sorry for the spoiler alert, but from what I understand "Blade Runner 2049" is about a dystopian future where Frank Gore is still rushing for 850 yards. Look, as a 40-time jocker, I love Mack's explosiveness but his murky workload behind a heavily bandaged offensive line is unappealing, to say the least.
Seeing the Eagles here as a bottom-five unit is an honest-to-goodness head scratcher. From everything I've seen, they've been fine. They're certainly trending the right way after a Week 1 performance where they only mustered 58 yards on 24 carries. In the four games since, the Eagles have racked up 582 rushing yards on 124 attempts, good for an extremely healthy 4.69 yards per carry.
It should also be noted that LeGarrette Blount is averaging an extraordinary 5.8 yards per carry over 56 carries. And no, it wasn't just the Chargers game, Blount has been north of five yards per carry in each of his last three games. Rather quietly Blount has averaged nearly 12 points per game in standard-scoring leagues over his last three and has looked like anything but the bust he was painted to be after the first two weeks of the season.
I'm in the minority here but I think Blount is a low-key bargain who I would make strong offers to acquire via trade. With the Eagles cooking offensively, the goal-line hammer who is also racking up solid yardage could be extremely valuable.
» Daps to this new hip-hop track from Keith Ape and Ski Mask the Slump God (lyrics NSFW). It's grimy as all get out but I can't get enough of it. Neither artist is anywhere near mainstream but if you've heard vaguely of Keith Ape (he raps almost entirely in Korean) it's because he became an underground legend after releasing a song with Waka Flaka called "It G Ma" a couple years back.
» Daps to UFC Flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson, who pulled off what is, in all seriousness, the greatest submission in the history of the sport when he threw Ray Borg from a suplex into an armbar. Typing it out does it no justice whatsoever. It was incredible. Eye-popping. Crazy. Insane. I lost my damn mind and replayed it 47 consecutive times just to understand what happened. To pull off that move in a championship fight is ... is ... I don't know what, but it's not supposed to happen. Ever. And yet it did. Amazing.