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Fantasy Football: Ranking run-blocking units from best to worst

Sony Michel and the other Patriot RBs should benefit from a top-of-the line run-blocking unit. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

By John Evans

Special to Yahoo Sports

NFL training camps are underway, and that means the ballet of the big guys begins anew! It’s time to scrutinize the technique of dancing bears and speculate on the health of hog mollies.

You may be thinking, “Hey, I came for the fantasy football advice, not offensive line analysis,” but blocking can have a big impact on the production of skill players. In musical terms, football is a symphony, not a solo, and the success of each performer is inexorably linked to that of his bandmates.

Let’s start with run blocking. In 2018 I began studying the effects of offensive line play on fantasy football, and I found a strong correlation between blocking and running back production. Other than the spectacular Saquon Barkley, who thrived despite bottom-10 run blocking (thanks to big plays and heavy usage), the eight most productive RBs in Yahoo scoring had o-lines that finished in the top 15 in Football Outsiders’ measure of run blocking: Adjusted Line Yards.

What’s more, five of those lines made the top 8! An RB’s talent will always be a key factor, but it’s more likely that a line makes a running back matter rather than the other way around.

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After studying all 32 of the NFL’s offensive lines, I can order them based on my confidence in their run-blocking potential. These rankings do not take into account the capabilities of their running backs, the quality of their offense as a whole, or their weekly opposition. In a vacuum, this is how I see the skill, coaching, experience, and chemistry of each unit as we enter the preseason. This analysis will provide a foundation for all the RB advice I bring fantasy managers throughout the year.

1 - New England Patriots

With RT Trent Brown being replaced by Isaiah Wynn, a player with zero NFL experience who is coming off a torn Achilles, this ranking is a tribute to Dante Scarnecchia. “Scar” moves the needle more than any OL coach in memory. Under his tutelage, individual players invariably improve and starting fives rise to the top of most metrics. Last year the Patriots were 3rd in Adjusted Line Yards, and they’re one of the safest bets in the sport to be top five again.

2 - Indianapolis Colts

Last July I thought my rank of 20th accounted for upside with a promising group. To say these young stallions lapped my expectations would be an understatement. Indy was 4th in Adjusted Line Yards and with another year of experience, they could rekindle memories of the fabled Cowboys line of 2016. There’s no weak spot in the wall and after a dominant rookie year, LG Quenton Nelson has the look of a foundation piece.

3 - Dallas Cowboys

Three-fifths of that celebrated Cowboys front is back, assuming center Travis Frederick completes his comeback from Guillain-Barré syndrome. In the running game, Frederick and RG Zack Martin are perhaps the NFL’s best one-two punch up the gut. Even without its stellar center, Dallas was well above average in 2018, especially in converting short-yardage opportunities. It’s easy to imagine Ezekiel Elliott riding herd on opponents behind this deep, powerful OL corps.

4 - New Orleans Saints

Despite a shockingly poor year from LG Andrus Peat, the Saints were 2nd in Adjusted Line Yards. No team in the NFL saw their backs stuffed behind the line less often than New Orleans. OL coach Dan Roushar doesn’t have the name recognition of Scarnecchia, but he just might get there. Though the Saints must replace the retiring Max Unger with an NFL neophyte, rookie center Erik McCoy can rely on his peers — tackle Terron Armstead makes line calls for the Saints – and a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk might be the league’s best run-blocking tackle tandem.

5 - Denver Broncos

Whoa, I bet you didn’t see that coming. Yet the Broncos were 6th in Adjusted Line Yards last season and Phillip Lindsay averaged more than three yards per carry before contact, a significant endorsement for his blocking. Now Denver has Mike Munchak coaching their linemen, who seemed to routinely turn UDFAs into Pro Bowlers in his five years developing big men for the Steelers. It may not happen instantly but Munchak will work his magic in the Mile-High City, and he has plenty of talent to do so there.

6 - Green Bay Packers

The Pack lacks a traditional masher, but no starter should be less than average and last year the group was nipping at Denver’s heels in Adjusted Line Yards. They can definitely open holes for Aaron Jones, and a healthy Aaron Rodgers should only make their job easier.

7 - San Francisco 49ers

Rookie Mike McGlinchey established himself as a premier run blocker from Day One, and the 49ers’ other tackle (Joe Staley) had already earned that reputation. The rest of this bunch isn’t exceptional but they’re more than adequate to execute Kyle Shanahan’s highly effective outside-zone scheme, which rolled up the league’s 13th most rushing yards despite having Jimmy Garoppolo for just three games.

8 - Los Angeles Rams

This represents a fall from grace for one of the league’s most effective lines from a year ago, but that’s what happens when you replace two mainstays with inexperienced players. While OL coach Aaron Kromer is one of the league’s best, he’s charged with turning Brian Allen, Bobby Evans and/or Joseph Noteboom (it’s okay to say, “Who?!” here) into solid NFL starters. If anything, my ranking is optimistic, but LA still has elite bookends at tackle and a proven scheme.

9 - Baltimore Ravens

Speaking of scheme, the Ravens’ throwback offense (and fleet-footed quarterback) may have inflated this line’s metrics once Lamar Jackson took over for Joe Flacco, but the fact remains that Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda are bonafide studs — albeit at opposite ends of the age spectrum. Their careers converge for another year and could build upon a Top 10 finish in Adjusted Line Yards, No. 1 ranking in Football Outsiders’ Power Success (short yardage), and Top 3 finish in Stuffed Percentage, especially if talented tackle Orlando Brown takes a step forward in his second year.

10 - Carolina Panthers

Despite being beset with a biblical plague of injuries in 2018, the Panthers still performed well in the running game, and this bodes well for their future. Pilfering Matt Paradis from the Broncos, a top-tier run-blocking center, solidifies the Panthers’ bright outlook.

11 - Tennessee Titans

The Titans have been talented underachievers for a while now, but it’s hard to overlook the potential of this star-studded front, especially with the arrival of ex-Ram Rodger Saffold to shore up a chronic weakness on the interior. Were everyone to stay healthy this group could help the team surpass 2018’s 7th overall finish in rushing yards, which would be very good news for Derrick Henry.

12 - Philadelphia Eagles

Perhaps we should blame the running backs because a line that may arguably be the NFL’s best overall produced pedestrian run-blocking numbers in 2018. Somehow only four teams mustered fewer rushing yards than Philly last year. And yet, on paper, the Eagles have two of the league’s best people-movers at their positions in Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson, and the other starters aren’t weak sisters either. Expect better results in 2019, whether it’s rookie Miles Sanders or another full-blown committee as beneficiaries.

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13 - Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers actually specialize in pass protection, which makes sense given Ben Roethlisberger’s trigger-happy approach. Losing miracle worker Mike Munchak and long-time tackle Marcus Gilbert will hurt, but there are still no big liabilities on a line that was highly effective in short-yardage situations and had a low percentage of runs stuffed.

14 - Los Angeles Chargers

Tier break here, because while Los Angeles’ numbers looked good last season they seemed to do it with smoke and mirrors. Only LT Russell Okung has played particularly well in the running game, and yet the Bolts finished 5th in Adjusted Line Yards. This ranking is less a bet on the emergence of long-heralded, long-delayed Forrest Lamp than the value of chemistry (LA returns all five starters).

15 - Atlanta Falcons

Cohesion is a challenge for the Falcons, who are turning over the right side of their line with rookies Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. Pass protection is usually the last skill to develop in the pros, but it’s more reasonable to assume the athletic youngsters are an immediate upgrade on run plays. Atlanta already has two top-drawer talents in center Alex Mack and LT Jake Matthews, so given time this newly deep OL corps should thrive.

16 - Kansas City Chiefs

Depth is the main concern for the Chiefs, who have been living dangerously for years now and just let center Mitch Morse walk. Andy Reid’s system is turnkey and K.C. still boasts an excellent pair of tackles, but the interior of this line is officially suspect.

17 - Seattle Seahawks

Incoming OL coach Mike Solari did wonders for this suddenly run-first offense, as the Seahawks finished just outside the top 10 in Adjusted Line Yards. To match that finish they will rely heavily on stud Duane Brown and will probably need newcomer Mike Iupati to regain peak form, as their 2019 lineup lacks impact run blockers.

18 - Chicago Bears

Now we’re in the realm of projection, as this line could be one of the league’s best but their run-blocking resume leaves much to be desired. In 2018 the Bears were a lowly 28th in Adjusted Line Yards. That said, their runners did little with their opportunities and returning Cody Whitehair and James Daniels to their natural positions (guard and center, respectively) should reap dividends for David Montgomery and/or Mike Davis.

19 - Jacksonville Jaguars

This is a high-upside group, as a perfect storm of injuries decimated 2018’s promising squad. If those seas calm, we could have a highly formidable bunch of run blockers here, as no projected starter is subpar in that skillset. Rookie tackle Jawaan Taylor should definitely put a smile on Leonard Fournette’s face, as he was one of the college game’s best road graders.

20 - Detroit Lions

Another “what might have been” story, the Lions didn’t meet expectations last year but could surprise with their strong nucleus. Though playing Frank Ragnow at guard was a disaster in his rookie year, moving him back to his college position (center) may ignite a still-promising unit that will be asked to power a run-heavy offense.

21 - Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have only moved up four spots from last year, but I’m guardedly optimistic about the 2019 edition. Drafting center Garrett Bradbury should solidify a line that saw Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill post positive campaigns in the ground game. In a run-centric offense, this front five might give Dalvin Cook a realistic shot at the rushing title, assuming they stay healthy enough to gel.

22 - Cleveland Browns

Another tier break as we enter the bottom 10 and find teams with more question marks than reasons for excitement. The talent drain along Lake Erie has left the Browns with two strong starters, Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter, but not much else. Reclamation project Greg Robinson and unproven Austin Corbett could sink this line if they wilt under the pressure of high expectations.

23 - New York Giants

The G-Men stand a good chance of beating this ranking and being average, but there isn’t tremendous upside with a group lacking proven run-blocking expertise at the pro level. Newcomer Kevin Zeitler is a boon to the passing game but no bruiser on run plays.

Saquon Barkley's individual greatness — and not the line in front of him — was key to his 2018 success. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

24 - Buffalo Bills

Last season the Bills finished 30th in Adjusted Line Yards, but after throwing considerable resources at the problem they’ve made this one of the more intriguing lines in the league. There are no household names here but with guys like savvy vet Ty Nsekhe and rookie powerhouse Cody Ford in the fold, it would not be surprising to see the whole exceed the sum of its parts. Expect the Bills’ running game to hit its stride along with the o-line around midseason.

25 - Oakland Raiders

Turnover in this starting lineup depresses its ranking because if all goes smoothly the Raiders could see acquisitions Trent Brown and Richie Incognito lift their run-blocking to a more-than-respectable level. However, OL coach Tom Cable has not done a great job developing young talent in recent years, so there is considerable downside risk in second-year tackle Kolton Miller, and it will almost certainly take time for the new-look line to work well together.

26 - Washington Redskins

Theoretically, the Redskins should be higher, but injuries and free agency have depleted their formerly stalwart ranks to a troubling degree. Uncertainty over the playing status of star left tackle Trent Williams casts a dark shadow over a group that was near the bottom of the league in run-blocking last season.

27 - New York Jets

Raiders castoff Kelechi Osemele was one of the league’s best not that long ago, so if respected OL coach Frank Pollack can rejuvenate him this is another group that’s capable of outperforming its ranking. As of now though there’s no sure thing to hang your hat on, and Le’Veon Bell will have a rude awakening if he’s expecting Steeler-sized running lanes.

28 - Cincinnati Bengals

Long a hard-luck franchise, the Bengals saw their first-round pick Jonah Williams go down in June and take a stud tackle out of their starting lineup. Cincinnati’s run-blocking was well below average in 2018, and the group seems unlikely to improve with stalwart Clint Boling retiring. A bet on Joe Mixon this draft season is based entirely on his prodigious ability, not his front five.

29 - Arizona Cardinals

At this point in the rankings, fantasy gamers must wonder whether an o-line’s ineptitude could submarine even the most talented of ball carriers. Top-five fantasy pick David Johnson was done in by his surroundings in 2018, but there is new reason for optimism in the desert based on the wide-open attack of Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense and the addition of oft-injured tackle Marcus Gilbert, a potentially stabilizing force. Still, it’s unlikely to be the potency of his line that unlocks Johnson’s vast fantasy potential.

30 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The only reason the Bucs aren’t at the very bottom of these rankings is the continuity they enjoy, returning all five starters from a year ago. At least LG Ali Marpet is a good run blocker, and there is some hope for pivotman Ryan Jensen to regain his 2017 form.

31 - Miami Dolphins

Laremy Tunsil, a legitimately fine tackle, is nothing to write home about in the running game, and he’s the best this line has to offer. It’s a bleak picture for Kenyan Drake unless we’re counting on him catching a copious amount of passes.

32 - Houston Texans

The Texans aren’t measurably worse than the last few teams on this list, but they don’t have a single veteran who has proven himself a real asset in the running game. The power of the offense as a whole is Lamar Miller’s only hope for meaningful fantasy production. Fortunately, Houston’s offense wasn’t completely hamstrung by its poor line last year.

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