News & Analysis

Fantasy football takeaways from PFF’s offensive line rankings: Cam Newton, Baker Mayfield, Todd Gurley and more

Last week, PFF's Steve Palazzolo released his offensive line rankings for all 32 teams heading into 2020. While Steve took an analytical approach by using PFF’s play-by-play data to project the best and worst offensive line units for the upcoming season, I went a different direction to find specific fantasy football assets likely to be affected by their teams' offensive lines in 2020. 

Using PFF’s offensive line rankings as a foundation, this article will highlight some key fantasy football takeaways and narratives for the 2020 season.

Jonathan Taylor is primed for success

Taylor entered the 2020 draft process with the blueprint to be an every-down running back in the NFL. Hopes were high even before he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, who rank No. 1 among all offensive lines heading into this season. Although this group excels across the board, it shines particularly bright in the run game. Both Braden Smith (86.4) and Anthony Castonzo (70.2) ranked inside the top-15 tackles in PFF’s run-blocking grade, while Quenton Nelson (90.1) ranked No. 2 among all guards with 500-plus snaps in 2019. Starting center Ryan Kelly (74.6) ranked No. 5 among centers to round out an extremely scary run unit heading into 2020. This same unit helped propel Marlon Mack to 1,091 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns on 247 rushing attempts in 2019. 

Heading into this season, the Colts have added college football’s most productive running back over the last three years. Taylor led all NCAA running backs in attempts (830), rushing yards (5,643) and rushing touchdowns (48) from 2017-2019. He was a volume running back in college but still managed to show efficiency with a high number of carries. He racked up 196 missed tackles forced on runs (No. 1 among NCAA running backs with 400-plus attempts) and 0.24 missed tackles forced per rushing attempt (No. 11) from 2017-2019.

He also accumulated an insane 3,501 (No. 1) rushing yards after contact — the next closest player over that time span was A.J. Dillon with 2,851. There’s no concern for Taylor, who ranks No. 26 among running backs in our fantasy projections this year. Expect big things for the rookie in 2020. 

Is Baker Mayfield on the comeback trail?

Last year was a brutally underwhelming season for the Cleveland Browns. Mayfield finished 2019 with a 71.5 passing grade (No. 19 among all quarterbacks with 100-plus dropbacks) behind an offensive line that allowed pressure on 25.3% of its snaps (No. 19). Giving the former No. 1 overall pick adequate protection was the Browns' top offseason priority, as they added star right tackle Jack Conklin and first-round pick Jedrick Wills to bookend the offensive line in 2020. The added firepower up front gives the Browns the No. 6-ranked offensive line heading into the season. This is a massive jump forward from the No. 23 offensive line at the end of 2019.

Both Joel Bitonio (86.0) and J.C. Tretter (85.5) finished 2019 in the top five in pass-blocking grade at their respective positions to round out what looks like a strong group from an overall protection standpoint. Mayfield accumulated 3,827 passing yards (No. 14) on 534 passing attempts (No. 10) and had 27 big-time throws (No. 9) in 2019. With the pass blocking prowess of this newly molded offensive line — and no shortage of offensive weapons — Mayfield is in line to produce fantasy points through the air. With some added time to throw, Mayfield should see an uptick in efficiency from his 59.4% completion percentage (No. 36) while adding serious value on a per-game basis. 

Pump the breaks on Todd Gurley’s resurrection 

The Falcons' offensive line was far from potent last season. Alex Mack (72.1) and Jake Matthews (79.7) remain the highest-graded offensive linemen of the group. Kaleb McGary posted an underwhelming 53.0 grade (No. 79 among tackles) while Chris Lindstrom struggled to see the field due to injury. Furthermore, only Mack posted a run-blocking grade above 70.0 last season. From the most positive lens, this unit has a lot of work to do in order to earn its ranking of No. 24 on PFF’s offensive line rankings heading into 2020.

The relationship between running back and the offensive line is an ecosystem — under normal circumstances, one doesn’t thrive without the other. Gurley’s ecosystem in Los Angeles was extremely conducive to his success. At his peak, the Rams boasted an offensive line with four players inside the top-30 graded offensive lineman between 2017 and 2018.

Matt Ryan has averaged 612 pass attempts over the last two seasons, while the Falcons have run the ball on only 37.8% of their offensive plays during that period. Gurley’s time as an elite fantasy running back has likely come to an end. Operating in a pass-heavy offense behind a struggling offensive line, expect Gurley’s fantasy totals to mirror last year’s.

Cam Newton is due for a resurgent year behind the Patriots offensive line

It’s no secret that New England has one of the best offensive line units in the NFL. Standout guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney are centerpieces of a Patriots offensive line that ranks No. 7 heading into 2020. Both Thuney (79.4) and Mason (73.0) graded inside the top 15 guards in 2019. Second-year tackle Isaiah Wynn showed solid pass-blocking chops, allowing just 16 quarterback pressures and finishing with a 75.0 pass-blocking grade (No. 34) among all tackles in 2019. 

Historically, Newton’s game thrives with heightened offensive line play. In 2013, when he was No. 15 in passing yards and No. 12 in passing touchdowns, Newton’s line ranked seventh in PFF’s rankings while grading in the top 10 in both pass blocking and run blocking. In 2015, when Newton ranked No. 2 in passing touchdowns and No. 16 in passing yards, Carolina’s offensive line was ranked as the No. 2 overall unit.

It’s easy to draw parallels between Newton’s success and good offensive line play — as is the case with most quarterbacks. However, this is a layer that’s glossed over when discussing Newton’s potential as a legitimate comeback player in 2020. Newton is poised to regain his status as an elite fantasy quarterback behind an offensive line that has depth and quality talent across the board.

Denver’s offensive line will elevate skill position players to fantasy success

Denver was successful on the offensive line front in 2019. And despite some turnover this offseason, the Broncos might be headed for an even better season from their 2020 unit. The team added reliable veteran Graham Glasgow to fill the void left by Ronald Leary and drafted Lloyd Cushenberry to replace center Connor McGovern. Glasgow (74.1) graded No. 9 overall among guards with 500-plus snaps and dominated in the run game, where he held the sixth-overall run-blocking grade at 74.2. Glasgow helps lock down the right side with returning tackle Ja’Wuan James, who ranked No. 30 among tackles in 2018 before getting injured last season. On the left side, Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner both ranked inside the top-30 players at their respective positions in 2019, earning their highest grades in the pass-blocking department.

The culmination of this offensive line makeover screams balance, even with a rookie starting at center. A healthy blend of reliable veterans and young talent at the position help the unit rank No. 14 among offensive lines heading into 2020. From a fantasy perspective, this is an easy sell at all skill positions.

Sophomore Drew Lock had a strong five-game stretch to end the 2019 season. He logged 1,020 passing yards (No. 22), seven passing touchdowns (No. 15) and a 64.1% completion percentage (No. 12) among all quarterbacks with 100-plus dropbacks in that span. Behind a reworked offensive line, he should see a big leap in fantasy production in 2020.

Denver added a productive RB in Melvin Gordon, who ranks sixth in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns since entering the NFL in 2015. Gordon played with an inferior offensive line during his career with the Chargers yet managed to accumulate 184 (No. 1) missed tackles and 2,652 rushing yards after contact (No. 8). Gordon will thrive behind the best run-blocking unit he’s had in his career. As for the wide receivers, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler should see cohesive fantasy success with Lock. Expect this offensive line to be the key to fantasy success for all of Denver's offense.

Temper expectations for Los Angeles Rams running backs

Running backs rarely have the talent to transcend bad offensive line play. The ones who do tend to do so with volume. With that said, the Rams' offensive line looks to be a flawed component, which ultimately causes concern for fantasy expectations among their running backs in 2020.

What was considered a top-15 unit in PFF’s 2019 preseason offensive line rankings now ranks No. 25 heading into 2020. Continuity was a major issue for the Rams' offensive line last season, with eight different offensive lineman seeing 250-plus offensive snaps. Only Andrew Whitworth (72.8) posted an overall grade above 70, which put him at No. 26 among tackles last season.

Most worrisome for the fantasy outlook of this backfield is the lack of run-blocking prowess from the Rams unit up front. Their highest-graded run-blocker in 2019 was center Brian Allen (67.7), who finished No. 12 at his respective position and No. 46 among all offensive line players last season. Projected starters Austin Corbett, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein all posted run-blocking grades of 53.8 or lower — each graded outside the top-50 at his respective position in PFF’s run-blocking grade.

On top of the offensive line being nothing short of a liability, fantasy gamers also have to decipher who receives the larger share between Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson. Akers is known for his ability to produce beyond what his blockers offer. In 2019, he racked up 76 missed tackles forced (No. 8 among NCAA running backs with 200-plus rushing attempts) and averaged 0.33 missed tackles forced per attempt (No. 13) behind a historically bad Florida State offensive line.

Meanwhile, Henderson had a slow adjustment to the Rams’ wide-zone run scheme but did show promise in efficiency with 3.7 yards after contact per attempt and 0.26 missed tackles forced per attempt on just 39 total rushing attempts. Akers gets the nod in perceived value from a draft capital standpoint, but Henderson has a year in the Rams' scheme under his belt. With a limited offseason and question marks on the offensive line, fantasy expectations have to be reduced for this group in 2020.

This is not the year Sam Darnold becomes fantasy relevant

The Jets have fielded some sub-par offensive lines during Darnold's short career — their most recent unit finished No. 28 in PFF’s 2019 rankings. The current crop of players set to hold the O-line together doesn't paint a positive picture heading into 2020 despite several acquisitions this offseason.

Mekhi Becton, Greg Van Roten and Connor McGovern are new additions, but each has question marks. Becton, an athletic rookie from the University of Louisville, was an outstanding run-blocker in college. However, his 64.7 pass-blocking grade on pass sets shows the need for improvement in an area where Darnold needs as much help as possible. Roten (74.3) is coming off a good season, ranking No. 22 in pass blocking among all guards in 2019, while McGovern (82.5) ranked No. 5 among centers in pass-blocking grade. While both guys are coming off career years, it’s fair to note that Roten has had an up and down career since 2012 and McGovern’s huge leap from 2018 could be a fluke.

Even with the addition of a first-rounder like Becton, Darnold’s fantasy value remains low behind a line that seemingly inched toward actual success. Last year, Darnold averaged 2.8 seconds to throw (No. 21) and ranked in the middle of the pack in yards per attempt (6.9; No. 18) and completion percentage (61.8%; No. 22). He ranked No. 9 in turnover-worthy plays (23) and had an air yards percentage of 52.6% (No. 27).

It’s hard to see the fantasy relevance for a middling quarterback whose offensive line only got slightly less bad than the year before. Factoring in the absence of any true dominating offensive weapons, Darnold is in line for another mediocre fantasy season behind a mediocre offensive line.

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