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Fantasy Football’s Unsung Heroes: The Offensive Line

Posted By Brandon Galvin On Sep 1 2010 @ 5:16 pm In Fantasy | 1 Comment

The key to fantasy success, as in professional football, is consistency. Arguably the biggest key for NFL teams to remain consistently competitive and achieve success lies in the trenches. The dirty work is handled by the selfless, unsung heroes of each team, the offensive line.

Recently, the offensive line has been given more credit in the media. Legends such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady constantly credit them for their success. Most fantasy players tend to overlook the importance of a powerful and superior offensive line when evaluating the success of a running back in the past, present and future.

The top fantasy running backs in 2009 ran behind the best offensive lines in the NFL. Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Thomas Jones top the list of top running backs of 2009 for their ability to generate fantasy points each week.

Since the Tennessee Titans signed Kevin Mawae in 2006, long considered one of the top blocking centers in the NFL, their rushing attack has remained one of the most efficient in the league. Chris Johnson may be the fastest player in the league, with arguably the quickest step, but his offensive line created gaping rushing lanes for Johnson to maximize his abilities.

Johnson set an NFL record with 2,509 yards from scrimmage as he rushed for over 2,000 yards in 2009. He rushed for over 100 yards 12 times last season, and 11 consecutive times to close out the season. This consistency is what each and every fantasy player strives for to be competitive each week.

Many were unsure Chris Johnson could produce elite numbers heading into 2009 fantasy drafts because of touchdown vulture LenDale White.

It is evident that run first teams with powerful offensive lines have the ability to produce for multiple backs on the same team. Since 2006, the Titans have averaged 2,278.5 yards rushing while only giving up 21.5 sacks per year. Vince Young’s ability to scramble may inflate their rushing total. Entrenched as the starter, Young should take pressure off Chris Johnson and the offensive line in 2010 and assist the rushing attack.

Michael Oher instantly improved the Baltimore Ravens offense when they stole him with the 23rd overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. They also added center Matt Birk, a six-time pro bowler during his 10 years with the Minnesota Vikings. Birk provided stability and experience to a young offense. He was a key contributor to Ray Rice’s 2009 fantasy season.

Rice rushed for over 1,300 yards and seven touchdowns. The Ravens rushing attack increased from 4.0 yards per rush play in 2008 to 4.5 in 2009 and will likely continue the pace in 2010 as the team gains experience. Ray Rice instantly vaulted into the top five on many offseason big boards and has already displayed great patience and solid footwork to go along with great hands for his growing superstar QB Joe Flacco. He should remain a top fantasy running back for the next few years as long as his offensive line stays intact.

Most fantasy players look for the ‘sexy’ pick in their draft and overlook steady performance. Thomas Jones entered the 2009 season at 31 years old. However, he has displayed durability, missing just three games in six years. He was running well and behind arguably the best offensive line in the AFC.

It is certain that Thomas Jones went on to outperform wherever he was drafted in 2009 fantasy drafts. Those who drafted potential “boom” picks such as Darren McFadden, Knowshon Moreno, or Reggie Bush ahead of the “safe” pick Thomas Jones were kicking themselves by the end of the fantasy season.

Backed by a run first coach, Jones set career highs in carries (331), yards (1,402) and touchdowns (14).  Jones ran behind two-time Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold, nine-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, a 2010 Pro Bowl alternate.

Although Thomas Jones and Alan Faneca will not be back with the Jets organization in 2010, Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson and Joe McKnight should all see great success. They will run behind an offensive line that has averaged 4.6 yards per rushing play over the past two seasons and will likely improve.

Maurice Jones-Drew was among the top backs in fantasy points scored by the end of the season. However, Jones-Drew did not epitomize the consistency most fantasy players are looking for week in week out as they strive to make the fantasy playoffs. Fantasy players search for dependability in their first round picks, which is unfortunately where Jones-Drew failed.

Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 1,391 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. However, 429 yards and eight touchdowns came in three weeks of the season, and all before Week 9. After Week 10, often considered crunch time in fantasy circles, Jones-Drew rushed for over 100 yards just once. In this stretch, he tallied a meager three touchdowns over the final seven games of the regular season.

With more help from his offensive line, Jones-Drew undoubtedly could have given more to his fantasy owners each week. Jones-Drew may have had a great fantasy season looking at the final numbers, but fantasy players need the consistency to compete week in and week out. Jones-Drew however was not the only fantasy stud subdued by a subpar offensive line.

Despite running behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, Steven Jackson managed to produce on ability alone. Similar to Maurice Jones-Drew, Jackson fell short of his first round fantasy value throughout the 2009 season. He simply could not produce on a weekly basis. With his offensive line’s inability to provide open holes for Jackson and time for the passing attack to achieve success, Jackson finished the season with only four total touchdowns.

Jackson, however, is an exception for succeeding with a poor offensive line. Renowned as one of the best football players in the NFL, Jackson somehow managed to rush for over 1,400 yards. Despite inferior blocking from his teammates, Jackson boasted seven games with 100 or more rushing yards.

Steven Jackson has accumulated several injuries in past seasons and recently had minor neck surgery. One has to wonder the toll the past few years has taken on Jackson’s body. He constantly needs to make plays for himself due to his line’s inability to create running lanes and take pressure off of Jackson.

Considering Jackson’s first round price tag, the St. Louis Rams’ inexperience at the quarterback position, and lack of talent on the offensive line, Jackson and his fantasy owners will more than likely face an uphill battle throughout the 2010 fantasy season.

Prime examples of former fantasy studs plagued by ineffective offensive lines are LaDainian Tomlinson and Brandon Jacobs.

Tomlinson clearly lost a step in 2009. However, from game one of the San Diego Chargers preseason, the offensive line looked sluggish. They failed to provide the same holes and assistance Tomlinson was accustomed to running behind in previous seasons.

The New York Giants’ offensive line entered the 2009 season as arguably the best in all of football. In 2008, the Giants rushed for 2,518 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per rush play as a team. The Giants rushing attack fell to just 1,837 yards with an average of 4.1 yards per rushing play in 2009.

Jacobs must be held partially accountable for the immense decrease in production. He continuously looked lost running behind the line. The Giants line appeared to have lost a step as a whole. They failed to create enough push for their bruiser to run behind.

The New York Giants rushing attack is a prime example of how quickly things can change from year to year in the NFL. Many will look at the possibility of the 2010 Tennessee Titans regressing similarly to the 2009 New York Giants.

Looking ahead to 2010, several teams have bolstered their offensive lines. This could vault their respective running backs into the next echelon.

The Arizona Cardinals lost Kurt Warner to retirement and traded Anquan Boldin to the Ravens. They will rely heavily on their rushing attack as they turn to the unproven Matt Leinart or Derek Anderson.

Alan Faneca reunites with Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt to continue his tough nosed, hard working, and winning mentality. He is a solid addition to an offensive line that has improved over the past two seasons. They averaged 3.8 yards per rushing play compared to 3.4 in the previous two years.

With Faneca stepping in, a recommitment to the ground game and boasting their best runner in years with Chris ‘Beanie’ Wells, the Cardinals rushing game should continue its improvement and success. Wells rushed for 793 yards and seven touchdowns on 176 carries in his rookie season. Wells should eclipse these numbers. He could even see similar sophomore success in 2010 as Ray Rice did in 2009.

Although Wells has a history with injuries, he is a powerful runner and fast enough to break away from defenders. He will be a force inside the red zone. The talent up front will allow him to succeed consistently throughout the season.

If there is one sure thing about fantasy football and the NFL in general, it is that there is no sure thing. However, fantasy players need to maximize their picks throughout their drafts and cannot afford to overlook any aspect of the game. Fantasy players should take into account each team’s offensive line. Without the dirty work in the trenches, it is too difficult for teams and players to remain competitive.

There are exceptions to the rule, such as Rashard Mendenhall and Jamaal Charles. Even studs such as Steven Jackson and Maurice Jones-Drew have success running behind subpar offensive lines, though it compromises their value.

First round picks need to be dependable. Fantasy players cannot afford to have their superstars perform well only a handful of weeks throughout the season. Though a team’s fortune can quickly change from year to year, fantasy owners need to pay attention to the unsung heroes of the NFL, the offensive lineman who create holes for running backs and keep quarterbacks on the field.

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