NFL Offensive Line Overview: Fantasy Playoffs Pt. 2

From pass protection to run blocking, every aspect of the modern NFL offense runs through the O-line. Aside from skill position players themselves, nothing has a larger impact on the outcome of a play call than the battle up front. In the Offensive Line Overview series, we look at which of the league’s 32 offensive lines are trending up and down.

Heading into the second week of the fantasy playoffs, lineup decisions become more tense than ever. The difference between a safe play and a smart one can determine everything about a matchup, especially when a league’s top teams go head to head. Information remains the key to victory, with savvy owners diving behind start-sit lists and projected points. In the interest of closing out the year strong, when things count most, let’s take a look at the state of offensive lines around the league.

Risers:

Tennessee Titans

Titans fans and fantasy believers have called for Derrick Henry to be given a bellcow’s workload since he was was initially drafted in 2016, and his performance during Thursday’s win over the Jaguars — in which the 24-year-old rushed 17 times for 238 yards and four TDs — was a convincing showing. Henry capped the career day with a highlight-reel, straight-up disrespectful 99-yard TD that tied the NFL record for the longest run from scrimmage. It’s no coincidence that the Titans’ O-line played their best run-blocking game of the year alongside Henry’s breakout game, creating substantial holes on almost a play-to-play basis. The unit’s pass protection also managed to shut down a Jaguars’ pass rush which had just shut out the Colts, and did not give up a single sack or quarterback hit during the win. It’s certainly concerning that Jack Conklin, who sustained a knee injury Week 14, has been placed on injured reserve — but the Titans still belong firmly in our “risers” category. Backup right tackle Dennis Kelly, who’s expected to slot into the starting lineup for the rest of the season, didn’t allow a single pressure during his 21 offensive snaps.

What to Watch: Henry has spent much of the year being out-touched by Dion Lewis, but his Week 14 performance will certainly start some conversations about workload behind closed doors in Tennessee. It’ll be shocking if Henry isn’t given a larger opportunity against the Giants on Sunday.

 

Cleveland Browns

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For the second straight week the Browns’ O-line has managed to improve upon itself. The unit has come together well down the stretch, as has Cleveland’s offense as a whole, and paved the way for a win against the Panthers in Week 14. LG Joel Bitonio has put any doubts about his capabilities to rest, and his strong showing Sunday came at just the right time for his campaign at a Pro Bowl nod. The line wasn’t credited with a single sack or quarterback hit during the win, in which rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield passed for 238 yards and logged a 126.9 passer rating. Mayfield made the most of his solid protection and bought consistent time to find his wideouts, who also excelled  — though Cleveland’s pass catchers didn’t rack up stats to jump off the page during the Week 14 win, the unit looked as dynamic as any in the league. Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, David Njoku and Rashard Higgins each made highlight reel plays exactly when they needed to, in what was one of the team’s strongest overall showings of the season. Browns fans have more reason for hope than they have since the team re-entered the league, and fantasy owners aren’t likely to sleep on the team’s skill position players anytime soon.

What to Watch: Rookie running back Nick Chubb looks the part of a draft hit. He’s scored a touchdown in five straight games, and has racked up 760 rushing yards on only 144 attempts. The two big knocks on Chubb coming out of the draft were injury concerns and lack of pass-catching chops, both of which are now solidly buried. The 22-year-old appears to have fully returned to form after his devastating college injury, and Chubb has now caught at least three passes in four straight games — and more importantly, has looked reliable (if not dynamic) doing so.

 

Chicago Bears

The Bears managed to do something in Week 14 that we haven’t seen much of this season: manhandle the Rams’ defensive line. Chicago’s O-line did not give up a single sack during the primetime win, and held Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald to only one quarterback hit. The standout play of rookie guard James Daniels, who more than held his own against Donald throughout the contest, is incredibly encouraging for Chicago’s offense going forward. In a game where OT Bradley Sowell hauled in a touchdown pass, one can safely say that the Bears’ offensive line is capable of doing it all. An outstanding performance in the run-blocking situations, coupled with one of the league’s best defenses, led to the Rams scoring a meager six points. The Rams entered Week 14 averaging 34.9 points per game, and had never scored fewer than 23 this season.

What to Watch: Jordan Howard exceeded 100 rushing yards in a single game for the first time this season in Week 14, and saw his highest amount of carries (19) since Week 8. If the Bears are able to continue to dominate up front and on defense, Howard will see more run-heavy gamescripts focused on protecting the lead going forward. In what has been an overall disappointing fantasy season for Howard, he’s got a clear path to finish the year strong.

 

Fallers:

Minnesota Vikings

In what has been an incredibly disappointing season for the Vikings, ownership has already begun the process of cleaning house and figuring out where things went wrong. On paper, the team looked primed for a Super Bowl run — they’d kept all of the major pieces that propelled them to the 2017 NFC Championship game, and added a significant upgrade at their most important position in Kirk Cousins. One obvious takeaway is that the offensive line is in dire need of repair. Minnesota’s O-line had a truly rough day during Monday’s loss to the Seahawks, which looked nothing but familiar at this point of the season. Poor pass protection has led to significant degradation in Cousins’ mechanics, and it’s not difficult to see why. Cousins has been pressured on dropbacks more than any other QB in the league this season.

What to Watch: Dalvin Cook was once again unable to either break 100 rushing yards or score a TD on the ground, preventing any sort of balance on offense — a stark contrast compared to the offense that ranked second in the league in rushing attempts last year. The second-year runner hasn’t exceeded 15 rushing attempts since Week 1, and will be difficult to trust in fantasy playoff lineups.