Do offensive lines matter? Of course they do. It’s the same answer I’ve given three straight years. These bruisers are doing the gritty work in the trenches so you’re RB1 can rush for over 100 yards and a score. The offensive tackles protect the quarterback from outside pressure. The interior linemen open up the gaps and try to block thicker defensive tackles aiming to plug up running holes. A really good offensive line blocking for really talented skill players is the ideal combination. Offensive lines are generally the tightest group of players on the field. They do everything together on-and-off the field. They don’t get the flash or recognition they probably should and you rarely hear of a prima donna offensive lineman. Offensive linemen can be some of the most selfless athletes you’ll ever come by. They understand the team aspect of it. They may never see the end zone, but they still contribute in moving the offense down the field.

It’s no coincidence that the Top 5 teams in terms of rushing yards per game last season also ranked in the Top 8 in run blocking grades according to Pro Football Focus:

1. Baltimore Ravens – 204.8 yards per game (78.2 run blocking grade; 3rd)

2. San Francisco 49ers – 153.5 yards per game (68.1 run blocking grade; 7th)

3. Tennessee Titans – 143.5 yards per game (67.5 run blocking grade; 8th)

4. Dallas Cowboys – 134.6 yards per game (71.8 run blocking grade; 5th)

5. Indianapolis Colts – 133.1 yards per game (85.1 run blocking grade: 2nd)

The Ravens stand out among the top because of a gaudy amount of rushing yards each game. Reigning NFL MVP, Lamar Jackson , was a massive contributor to that number. He ran for over 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. That’s an outrageous metric. And many people may say that Lamar Jackson created a lot of plays on his own and that’s fair. But the team also produced another 1,000 yard rusher in Mark Ingram and he found the end zone 15 times on 5.0 yards per carry. Furthermore, Gus Edwards rushed for 700+ yards and a pair of touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry.

Fantasy Football Outsiders offers up a unique approach to try and quantify the offensive line’s impact on running plays. They offer Adjusted Line Yards, which breaks running plays into four categories: losses, 0-4 yards, 5-10 yards, and 11+ yards. They believe that the offensive line is 120% responsible for losses, 100% responsible for 0-4 yard runs, 50% responsible for 5-10 yard runs, and 0% responsible for running plays of 11+ yards. The metric also tanks into account the down, distance, situation, opponent, formation, etc. There is some subjectivity that goes into this metric. If a running back can break off a big run for 25-30 yards and they don’t get touched, then a large credit needs to be given to the offensive line for opening up the hole. But as the running back progresses further down the field, then yes the offensive line is less responsible since it’s the playmaker advancing the ball. Here is where the previous five teams ranked in adjusted line yards:

  • Dallas Cowboys – 4.91 (2nd in the league)
  • Baltimore Ravens – 4.73 (3rd)
  • Tennessee Titans – 4.65 (4th)
  • San Francisco 49ers – 4.53 (8th)
  • Indianapolis Colts – 4.41 (12th)

For a little more clarity, in some instances the adjusted line yards may be less than the actual yards per carry for each team. For example, the Ravens averaged nearly 5.5 yards per carry. The numbers are a little inflated because:  1. The team had 23 big plays on the ground, which are runs of 20+ yards. Football Outsiders gives the credit to the runner there, and 2. The adjusted line yards stat is only quantified for running backs, not quarterbacks. So these adjusted line yards metrics are only looking at Mark Ingram , Gus Edwards , Justice Hill, etc. Lamar Jackson is an incredibly gifted exception to the rules as we saw last year in a historic rushing season for a quarterback. But as we saw previously, the offensive line did aid in the production of Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards .

Marshal Yanda will be a difficult piece to replace. Yanda made his eighth Pro Bowl last season and retired at the age of 35. Yanda was in the Top 20 in pass protection and Top 10 in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus. Yanda’s retirement shouldn’t trigger any panic, but it’s worth noting as he was a mainstay on that offensive line for so long.

The 49ers, along with Baltimore, were the only other team to run the ball over 30 times per game. For San Francisco, it was a little different. The Ravens had plenty of confidence in Lamar Jackson ’s arm and legs to make plays, while also running with Ingram and Edwards. However, you kind of get the sense the 49ers weren’t as confident with the ball in Jimmy Garoppolo ’s hands. San Francisco attempted 478 pass attempts last season, but 498 runs. Raheem Mostert , Matt Breida , and Tevin Coleman each had at least 120 rushing attempts and at least 540 yards on the ground. Mostert would lead the team with 772 yards and eight touchdowns followed by Breida’s 623 yards, and Tevin Coleman added six touchdowns on the ground to his own credit. It didn’t matter who had the ball in their hands, the offensive line churned out gaps for them to produce on the ground. Sure, a lot of it is offensive scheme as George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk grade as solid blockers as well, but it requires athleticism on the line. Kyle Shanahan loves to run a lot of zone blocking schemes and it takes a fairly athletic group of linemen to make those shifts and movements. San Francisco’s O-line will look a little different after Joe Staley , a six-time Pro Bowler, retired in the offseason. But San Francisco did go out and trade for Trent Williams to fill the void at offensive tackle. Williams will be tested after not playing last year. But he does have some familiarity with new head coach’s offensive style after Shanahan’s tenure in Washington from 2010-2013.

As vital as the offensive line is to the running game, it’s just as important for pass protection, if not more so. The quarterback is arguably the most important in all of sports. Obviously, containing him and preserving the QB is of the highest priority. If Quarterback is the most important position, left tackle is arguably the second-most important position. During his playing time, Walter Jones was arguably, pound-for-pound, the best player in the NFL. John Madden often called him the best player in the league at the time and Jones’ former head coach, Mike Holmgren, backed up Madden’s claims calling Jones the best offensive player he ever coached. Across 180 games over 12 years, Jones was only called for eight holding penalties, and 20 false starts. And what’s even more impressive, Jones was only beaten for a sack 23 times in his career. He gave up a sack once every 248 pass attempts. The conversation for greatest offensive tackle of all time starts and ends with Walter Jones (although I’m always up for a good debate). So yeah, these guys matter.

Currently we’re in a bit of an offensive tackle renaissance that doesn’t quite get the acknowledgement that it probably should. Despite the departure of Marshal Yanda on the interior line of Baltimore, Ronnie Stanley is emerging as possibly the best left tackle in the game. He didn’t allow a single sack all last season, and only two in 2018. In total, Stanley allowed just six pressures last season.

Houston fans have long been clamoring for a better offensive line for Deshaun Watson especially after he was sacked 62 times in 16 games in 2018. That’s nearly a sack every quarter. Lo and behold, they trade for Laremy Tunsil and the adjusted sack rate improved from 11.6% to 8.4%. There’s plenty of work that could still be done to improve the interior portion of the line, but Tunsil was only responsible for three sacks allowed last season and he received a pass blocking grade of 89.0.

Likewise, Terron Armstead is another vital offensive line piece down in New Orleans protecting Drew Brees . Armstead has allowed just one sack over the last two seasons. Both he and Ryan Ramczyk formulate the best tackle-duo in the league as neither allowed a sack last season and both were named All-Pro last season, and rightfully so. The Saints ranked third in the lead in adjusted sack rate at just 4.7%.

A good offensive line may not bump up a quarterback or running backs fantasy value. However, there is security knowing the protection is there. So what can we look for in 2020? Tom Brady is leaving the friendly confines of a solid offensive line in New England. He’s now in Tampa Bay where the Bucs wisely invested their first-round pick in Tristan Wirfs out of Iowa after last year’s O-line in Tampa exceeded expectations. His replacement in New England, Jarrett Stidham, might actually inherit a better situation than Brady this year. The combination of Isaiah Wynn , Joe Thuney , Shaq Mason , and Marcus Cannon make for a top ten group when healthy. Plus, David Andrews will be back at center after missing last season so there’s optimism that the Patriots will be able to at least keep Stidham on his feet.

But we’ve seen other teams try and put solid offensive lines around young quarterbacks. The Bengals are fortunate that they may already have their left tackle of the future to protect Joe Burrow. Cincinnati invested their 2019 first-round pick (11th overall) in Jonah Williams out of Alabama. Williams missed his rookie season after he needed surgery to repair a torn labrum. Likewise, other teams have been trying to find exterior linemen as well. The New York Giants drafted Andrew Thomas, who could eventually replace Nate Solder at left tackle. In my own opinion, Solder is wildly overrated (after allowing 11 sacks and 56 pressures last season), so while Thomas is a raw prospect he can’t be much worse than Solder. The New York Jets drafted Mekhi Becton to be their starting left tackle to protect Sam Darnold . And the Browns had a massive offseason adding Jedrick Wills Jr. with their first-round pick and signing Jack Conklin as a free agent. On paper that looks like a massive upgrade to their exterior offensive line.

The writing is on the wall. It’s pretty obvious that these guys matter. They’re vital to keeping starting quarterbacks healthy and opening gaps to get the ground game going. They won’t show up on the stat sheet, but their highlight reels can consist of some legitimate pancake blocks. The importance and value of an offensive line will be on full display in Philadelphia this season. Training camps haven’t even open and they’ll be without three key pieces from recent memory: Halapoulivaati Vaitai (signed with Detroit), Jason Peters (current free agent; unlikely to re-sign with Philly), and Brandon Brooks (torn achilles again). Philadelphia has boasted one of the five best offensive lines over the last three years. The obvious turnover and injuries are crucial to overcome, but they still have Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce with Andre Dillard taking over at left tackle. For a quarterback under as much scrutiny as Carson Wentz , he’s entering the 2020 season with arguably the worst offensive line he’s played behind as a professional.

It’s worth knowing which offensive lines rank among the best and which need help. In just a little over a month the Fantasy Alarm Draft Guide will break down all 32 offensive lines and rank them accordingly. Again, the fantasy impact is difficult to quantify, but a quality offensive line provides a nice security blanket to make you feel better about your draft picks.


Statistical Credits

  • Football Outsiders
  • Team Rankings
  • Pro Football Focus
  • Football Reference
  • Ourlads (Depth Charts)
  • ESPN