Offensive lines. They are important. You know this, I know this, we all know this. But I mean let's be real, grading offensive lines is pretty tough. It's one of those things where most of us only know when we're seeing bad o-line play. Think of Adrian Clayborn absolutely undressing Dallas' Tyron Smith-less offensive line to the tune of six sacks back in Week 10.
Things get a little dicier when trying to grade good offensive line play, and murkier still when trying to isolate good run blocking. How much of it is the running back just being good? How much of it is the line?
Usually what football fans are left with is o-line evaluators pining away about the powerful poetry on display by the hogs in the trenches. We're given grades and rankings but with very little understanding of how these grades and rankings were compiled.
This is not a knock on said evaluators either. Highlighting the nuance and the technique needed to play as a cohesive offensive line is both enlightening and entertaining. I love reading and seeing that stuff.
But like "The Six Million Dollar Man," we have the technology to give you precise numbers on offensive line production. With embedded microchips now tracking player movement, the team at Next Gen Stats can tell us exactly how much push the offensive line is getting up front and that in turn allows us to apply cold, hard numbers to run-blocking units.
The stat is called "yards gained before close" (YGBC for short), which basically tells us how much yardage the offensive line is generating before a defender gets to within one yard of the ball carrier. More push up front means more potential production for a running back.
And as I discussed a couple months ago, and as you'll see below, YGBC is an incredibly strong predictor of running back efficiency.
As you'll see below, most lines generate positive yardage on run plays but a handful are posting a negative number. This generally means that a defender (or two) is routinely piercing through the line and potentially blowing up running plays. Whenever I think about negative YGBC my mind instantly harkens back to Jadeveon Clowney's complete evisceration of that poor Michigan RB back in college.
(Note: the figures below are for running back production only, it does not include quarterback runs, so the number is a little out of whack for teams like Carolina that feature designed QB runs. The thought being that incorporating QB sneaks and scrambles isn't a true indication of a line's ability to run block. Feel free to criticize that if you so please but I think it makes sense.)
BEST RUN-BLOCKING UNITS
New Orleans Saints
» YGBC: 1.15 (1st)
» RB rush yards: 1,724
» RB yards per carry: 5.39
By the way, can I just say Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has absolutely killlllllled the draft the last two years. The Saints took Marshon Lattimore 11th overall (stud), Ramczyk 32nd overall (stud) and Kamara in Round 3 (stud). In 2016 they took Sheldon Rankins in the first round (stud) and Michael Thomas in the second (stud). That's five Pro Bowl-caliber players in two drafts. Amazing. OK, back to the column.
Los Angeles Rams
» YGBC: 0.59 (3rd)
» RB rush yards: 1,198
» RB yards per carry: 4.28
Remember how I said the YGBC number was highly predictive of running back efficiency? Well, Todd Gurley is your poster boy as to why this stat matters. Gurley averaged a woeful 3.2 yards per carry last year behind what was considered a very weak offensive line. The numbers bore that out as the Rams had one of the five worst YGBC numbers in the NFL, posting NEGATIVE 0.08 YGBC per carry.
This year they're one of the five best in YGBC and unsurprisingly Gurley is posting 4.4 yards per carry.
» YGBC: 0.53 (6th)
» RB rush yards: 1,456
» RB yards per carry: 4.28
Joe Flacco has been hurt/bad this season. The wide receivers have been hurt/bad this season. The tight ends have been hurt/bad this season. And yet, through it all, here comes little known, Irish step-dancing, Alex Collins emerging through the rubble. No question he is a talented back with, no surprise, quick feet and good vision but the big boys up front have done a great job getting push and knocking defenders back.
Keep in mind this is with Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda lost to injury and with the sudden retirement of starting offensive lineman John Urschel. Even with the losses up front, the Ravens have kept the running game relevant despite everyone knowing the pass game is incapable of throwing downfield. Tough to do. John Harbaugh has done an amazing job adjusting to his personnel this year.
WORST RUN-BLOCKING UNITS
» YGBC: -0.14 (31st)
» RB rush yards: 1,101
» RB yards per carry: 3.95
Miami's offensive line has been extremely shaky all year, missing blocks and allowing penetration into the backfield on a consistent basis.
Yet despite this, in Weeks 13 and 14 Drake has been amazing, averaging 117 rushing yards per game and doing it while averaging a very healthy 4.88 yards per carry.
For fantasy purposes I don't know what to make of it as the season comes to a close.
I can tell myself a story where Drake is on a "Todd Gurley rookie season" type run right now where he far outproduces his teammates only to come crashing back to reality in the very near future. But is that near future in Week 15 on the road versus the Bills or next year when I inevitably fall in love with his athleticism and vastly overpay for his services?
It should also be noted that prior to this insane two-game stretch that Drake did average 4.76 yards per carry on 42 carries, so he's been effective even in small doses. The offense was just so bad that no one noticed.
» YGBC: -0.08 (30th)
» RB rush yards: 852
» RB yards per carry: 3.23
Unlike with Drake, in standard-scoring leagues I am firmly fading the Theo Riddick two-touchdown performance in Week 14.
Even facing one of the league's worst defenses in Tampa Bay, Riddick still only averaged 2.9 yards per carry and the Lions as a team averaged 2.6 yards per carry.
I'm not chasing the random rushing touchdowns that Riddick got. I could be convinced to play him in PPR if Ameer Abdullah is benched again, but otherwise, there is neither volume or opportunity in this backfield especially given the run-blocking woes.