Believe it or not there is one player in fantasy football even less respected than the kicker, and that’s the offensive line. Though we do not draft these gridiron warriors, their impact on our fantasy teams may be a revelation for some. Most fantasy owners have no clue which teams boast the best offensive lines against the rush or the pass. For most of us it may just be more information than we have the time to research or absorb. Some owners debunk the Strength of Schedule impact on fantasy football, and some may dismiss an offensive line’s impact, but of the two, the O-line can be more meaningful when considering who to draft, and who to sit or start each week. Does your league scoring ding you when your QB gets sacked? Many leagues do, and it’s good to know which teams protect their QB the best. I won’t bore you or fry your brain with the names of these fantasy helpers, just which players are prospering or struggling because of them. Let’s take a look at the best and the worst, and how they can conceivably harm or help your fantasy franchise.
–The Dominant Dozen O-lines–
- Denver Broncos ~ The Broncos gave up only 12 sacks and had a 4.8 YPC on the rush. Denver has the all around best O-line in the game. Every season the Broncs trot out RB after RB and they all do well. Jay Cutler will certainly take more than a dozen sacks in Chicago. Fantasy Impact: While the team is somewhat in disarray elsewhere the O-line should continue to open holes for whichever RB gets the nod, and lackluster QB Kyle Orton gets a bump up due to excellent pass protection.
- New Orleans Saints ~ Given how often and obvious the pass is used in N’awlins, the fact that their O-line gave up a paltry 13 sacks is phenomenal. Their rush blocking is decent (4 YPC), and will improve with stability at the RB position. Fantasy impact: Drew Brees should once again be the elite QB in fantasy circles. His pass blocking O-line keeps him on his feet which allows him to do his thing and stay healthy. This in turn makes WR Marques Colston a top 10 pick at WR.
- New England Patriots ~ In 2007 the Pats had one of the best offensive lines around. They also has Tom Brady behind them. Their run blocking was still excellent last season with a 4.4 YPC despite a merry-go-round at the RB position. I expect this season the pass protection will be stellar as well. Coach Bill Belicheck can ill afford to lose his signal caller again. Look to see this O-line back up in the top 5 in 2009. Fantasy impact: Brady should stay safe and upright and remain an elite QB fantasy arm. The team sack total should be half of the 48 they gave up last year. The RBBC nightmare will still tally great yardage, but it will be too diluted to make any of these guys fantasy worthy unless one steps up. Laurence Maroney could be that guy and makes a nice late round sleeper.
- Tennessee Titans ~ People wondered how Kerry Collins managed to lead this team anywhere close to the playoffs last season. Thank the O-line which surrendered only 12 sacks, and gave Lendale White and Chris Johnson the room to gain 4.3 YPC. The same front five return this season, and 80% of them are under 29. Fantasy impact: White and Johnson should again see great run blocking and whoever ends up as QB will have excellent protection.
- Atlanta Falcons ~ Rookie QB Matt Ryan and first time RB starter, Michael Turner, both had amazing seasons. Ryan was sacked only 17 times, and the Atlanta O-line helped the running game to a 4.4 YPC clip. Fantasy impact: The team faces a brutal strength of schedule this season, but Atlanta’s offensive line will continue to protect Ryan and open big gaps for Turner and Co. WR Roddy White and tight end extraordinaire, Tony Gonzalez should find time to get open plenty, and often.
- N.Y. Giants ~ The Giants led the league last season in rushing, and their O-line made that possible with a rush block that had the highest YPC in the league (5.0). On the pass blocking side they gave up 28 sacks, but eight came in one game, and some credit for that folly has to go to Eli Manning himself. Fantasy impact: Look for the Giants O-line to make all three Giant’s RBs (Jacobs, Bradshaw and Ware) fantasy viable this season. Manning should have solid protection allowing him to find his new Plaxico amongst the teams 30 or so wide receivers. As of today, Dominik Hixon, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham are the lucky three.
- Carolina Panthers ~ DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart combined for about 100 TDs last season, and the Panther’s O-line helped open holes that led to a 4.8 YPC, tied for second in the league. The offensive line also kept their QBs on their feet with only 20 sacks, good for sixth in the league. Fantasy impact: The Carolina O-line will help make Williams and Stewart fantasy studs again, and help keep Steve Smith a top five fantasy WR.
- Philadelphia Eagles ~ The team was ranked seventh in pass blocking with only 23 sacks, and had a 4.0 YPC on the ground. This season the run blocking should be marginally improved, and the pass blocking should remain in top form, which is good news for Donovan McVick. Fantasy impact: I see big things coming for the Eagles offense this season, and that front five will allow McNabb and RB Brian Westbrook to be top 10 at both positions. WRs Jerry Maclin and DeSean Jackson should have plenty of time to get open and make fantasy pulses pound.
- NY Jets ~ You don’t think RB Thomas Jones managed that career rushing year on his own do you? The Jets offensive line made enough gaps for the Jet’s RBs to hit a wonderful 4.7 YPC. Imagine what a young RB like Shonn Greene could do with an O-line like that. They weren’t too shabby on the pass protection either, allowing only 30 sacks in all. Fantasy impact: Look for all three RB’s, Jones, Greene, and Leon Washington to be fantasy worthy. Greene perhaps not right away, but he’ll get into the mix, and this O-line will make him a fantasy stud. If the offensive line stays healthy they should give young rookie QB Mark Sanchez time to find WRs, Jericho Cotchery and David Clowney, and his tight end Dustin Keller should have a sweet season as well.
- Indianapolis Colts ~ The Colts O-line is excellent when healthy. Last season they had trouble staying that way. They were still fourth in pass protection with only 14 sacks surrendered, but their rush blocking was dismal. Look for a marked return to greatness in the rush and continued high performance in pass blocking. Fantasy impact: A healthy O-line means continued fantasy gold from Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez. RB Joseph Addai should have a resurgent year, and rookie RB Donald Brown will prosper as well.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers ~ Derrick Ward is one lucky SRB. He goes from the top rush block team (Giants) to another excellent run blocking team in the Bucs (4.1 YPC). With their new zone-blocking attack this should be even better news for Ward, and fellow RBs Earnest Graham and Cadillac Williams in 2009. The pass protection gave up 32 sacks on a team with questionable quarterbacking. They will once again have their hands full with Byron Leftwich under center, but they should be fairly solid. Fantasy impact: The O-line gives Tampa’s RB corp a great wall to run behind and open holes for them. The downside is the O-line can’t do much about coach Raheem Morris’ plan to use a three-headed RBBC. New addition, tight end Kellen Winslow is a nice fantasy pick up, as Leftwich should have enough time to get him the ball frequently, even if he can’t get to his deep receivers as readily. That means I’d avoid Antonio Bryant.
- Cleveland Browns ~ Things aren’t all bad for Cleveland. Their offensive line was fairly stable on pass protection last season allowing only 24 sacks despite not having a strong QB to protect. Expect an improvement this season on their rush blocking which under-performed last year. They have made some upgrades this spring, and new coach Eric Mangini is all about a bruising wall of pain upfront. Remember his Jets O-line helped Thomas Jones and co. to 4.7 YPC. Fantasy impact: While many people are writing veteran RB Jamal Lewis off this season, I expect him to have a year more similar to Thomas Jones’ 2008 season. The team has too few receiving options and the ground game is going to reign supreme. Rookie RB James Davis is a great sleeper pick as well.
–Bottom Feeder O-lines–
- San Francisco 49ers ~ The ‘9ers O-line gave up a league worst 55 sacks in 2008, and their YPC hovered at 4.0. They did nothing in the off-season to improve themselves up front so it’s going to be another miserable year by the bay. Fantasy impact: RB Frank Gore is going to need to stay fresh because the yards will be hard fought again this year. WR Josh Morgan is still a worthwhile late round investment. He is the best receiving threat in San Francisco (with or without Crabtree) in 2009, and should get decent opportunities even if his QB gets decked after every pass.
- Pittsburgh Steelers ~ Improbable that the Super Bowl champions would be ranked in the bottom five for anything, but their offensive line is terrible. Losing Alan Faneca last season to the Jets didn’t help an already woeful O-line which did nothing of note in the off season to improve on a pass protection which gave up 49 sacks on a QB renowned for shaking tackles. Their rush blocking helped poor Willie Parker and the boys to a weak 3.7 YPC. Some of which we can blame on the RBs, but for a run-first team, those are not good numbers. Fantasy impact: Don’t expect big running numbers from any of the Steelers backfield this season unless this O-line mans up. Roethlisberger is again going to take more sacks than touchdowns thrown, but Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes still remain solid fantasy mid-round picks.
- Seattle Seahawks ~ The Seahawks offensive line was a mess of injuries all season, including their anchor, Walter Jones, who had knee surgery. This helps explain their lowly O-line performance. The team was also without its primary QB a good portion of the year, so they should be better in 2009, if the offensive line can stay healthy, but so far it seems that offensive line, including Jones, is crumbling around the team. Fantasy impact: Hassleback should still find enough open room to be a viable low end #1 fantasy QB. Avoid their running game entirely. I don’t think even Denver’s O-line could help Julius Jones become fantasy viable. If Hassleback is healthy then WRs TJ Houshmandzadeh, Nate Burleson and TE John Carlson are all worth mid-draft looks, but don’t reach for Housh.
- Cincinnati Bengals ~ The return of QB Carson Palmer should help this offensive line’s sad pass block numbers (51 sacks). The team only brought back two starters from last season, so they should see improvement. Fantasy impact: I’d still avoid the running game. Cedric Benson will get a lot of carries, but the team netted a 3.6 YPC last season, and Benson is not great at breaking tackles for hard yards. Palmer should have a solid year if he stays healthy, and look for a recharged Ochocinco to regain his form. However, my prediction is Chris Henry will out-produce all Bengal WRs if he can stay out of trouble.
- Detroit Lions ~ These guys were simply putrid as a team last year, so all the blame can’t be laid to rest on the offensive line for an 0-16 season. However, 52 sacks and a 3.8 YPC is an embarrassment to any O-line. In their defense they dealt with numerous injuries last season. A healthy squad can improve the run blocking, but I’m not expecting big things on the pass blocking side. Fantasy impact: Kevin Smith is hurt somewhat by the weak O-line, but again, if healthy they should help him get the team into the 4+ YPC range. WR Calvin Johnson has his work cut out for him as the only certified receiving target, and a cloud of maybes at QB. Rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew could help open things up, but all fantasy options on this team will lose some value due to their poor offensive line production.