Fantasy Takeaways: Offensive Line Winners & Losers
Below, we take a look at offensive line winners and losers of the NFL off-season and examine the fantasy takeaways from each situation.
Offensive Line Winners
The Browns had one of the better pass protection units in the NFL last year but struggled with run blocking. To ensure their pass protection remained solid, the team matched Alex Mack's five-year, $42 million offer sheet from Jacksonville to keep him entrenched at center. And then in May, the Browns took a step forward in becoming more physical when they selected Joel Bitonio with the 35th overall pick. Bitonio is slated to start at left guard and his punishing style is perfect for Kyle Shanahan's run-first approach. The starting five of Mack, Bitonio, seven-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz is one of the more talented lines in football.
Jerry Jones is rightfully criticized for his mishandling of his team's salary cap but he and his scouts deserve credit for building one of the better lines in football over the last few years. The Cowboys received solid offensive line play from Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Doug Free and Ronald Leary in 2013, and all four players return this season. Thanks to the addition of first-round pick Zack Martin (who was considered one of the safer prospects in this year's draft), Dallas looks to be even stronger up front in both pass protection and run blocking. While they may not stop anyone from scoring, the Cowboys' offense should rack up plenty of points in 2014. Jones has now invested three first-round picks in his offensive line in three of the last four drafts and his decisions are paying dividends.
Fantasy Takeaway: DeMarco Murray is looking like a steal in the 2nd round of fantasy drafts.
St. Louis Rams
In early March the Rams' offensive line looked like it was going to be a concern after Rodger Saffold signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract with the Raiders. But in a strange reversal of fate, the deal fell through and St. Louis wound up re-signing Saffold to a new five-year contract. In May, the team also selected massive offensive tackle Greg Robinson, who will play left guard as a rookie. Assuming Jake Long returns to full health following an ACL tear suffered in Week 16 last year, the Rams are going to have one of the better run-blocking units in the NFL this season. That said, there is one caveat when it comes to projecting St. Louis' offensive line play heading into 2014. Long, Saffold and center Scott Wells all have durability concerns and if one of them goes down (or Long needs more time to recover), the team's depth will be tested. Fortunately the Rams signed former Pro Bowler Davin Joseph to provide insurance at guard and both Saffold and Robinson offer versatility and flexibility when it comes to playing either inside or outside.
Not much went right for the Falcons in 2013, especially along the offensive line. Projected starting right tackle Mike Johnson suffered a season-ending injury in training camp, left tackle Sam Baker was limited to just 190 snaps due to injuries and players like Garrett Reynolds, Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes were disasters. But GM Thomas Dimitroff took the necessarily steps this offseason to make up for past mistakes by signing free agent guard Jon Asamoah (who upgrades the running game) and investing a top 10 pick in Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews (who upgrades the pass protection). Questions remain about Baker's health, but this offensive line looks significantly better than it did at the end of the 2013 season, at least on paper. (Re-signing center Joe Hawley, who played well last year when he replaced Konz, also helps.) At the very least, Atlanta's passing game should look more like it did in 2012 than it did in 2013, although that has as much to do with a healthy Julio Jones and Roddy White as the improvements along the O-line.
Fantasy Takeaway: Steven Jackson could have a nice comeback campaign if he can stay on the field. Jackson has double-digit TD potential and is currently available in the 7th round of fantasy drafts.
Miami's offensive line situation could only go up following the issues the team had a year ago. Gone are Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito and John Jerry, in are former Chiefs' left tackle Branden Albert and first-round pick Ja'Wuan James. Albert provides a huge upgrade over Bryant McKinnie while James can't be any worse than Tyson Clabo, who played better towards the end of the season but struggled mightily in the first eight games.
Fantasy Takeaway: Miami's running back situation remains in flux but Ryan Tannehill should have more protection, which not only gives his fantasy projection a bump, but also paints a bright picture for guys like Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, too.
It's incredible that the Cardinals were able to win 10 games last season despite receiving some of the worst offensive line play in the NFL. The team signed one of the better free agent offensive lineman on the market in Jared Veldheer, who provides a massive upgrade over Bradley Sowell and Nate Potter. Another underrated aspect of Arizona's offensive line projection for 2014 is the fact that Jonathan Cooper returns to the starting lineup after missing all of 2013 due to a fractured fibula suffered in August. He was one of the more heralded prospects in the '13 draft class and teamed with Veldheer, forms a much improved left side in Arizona.
Fantasy Takeaway: Andre Ellington is primed for a breakout year, but the fate of the Cardinals offense hinges on keeping 34 year old Carson Palmer upright. Palmer was sacked 41 times last season, the highest total of his career. Unfortunately, this is a trend that follows Bruce Arians.
Offensive Line Losers
Kansas City Chiefs
Truth be told, the Chiefs' offensive line may not be any better or worse than it was a year ago. We simply don't know how the largely untested quintet of Eric Fisher, Donald Stephenson, Jeff Allen, Rodney Hudson and Rishaw Johnson/Zach Fulton/Jeff Linkenbach is going to perform. Either way, the Chiefs had a lot of turnover in just one offseason. The team lost former starters Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz in free agency and now own one of the youngest offensive lines in all of football. Considering Fisher also had shoulder surgery this offseason, it's fare to wonder if Jamaal Charles and KC's running game will suffer a setback in 2014.
Fantasy Takeaway: Jamaal Charles finished 2014 well atop the RB leader board and is the clear-cut #1 RB again this season, despite continued concerns at OL.
The Bills had issues at left guard last year when Doug Legursky had to step in for the struggling Colin Brown just six games into the season. The team decided to fix that problem by giving Chris Williams a four-year deal in March, even though he was hands down the Rams' worst offensive lineman in 2013. The Bills did draft Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio with the 44th overall pick but health remains an issue for him and he's largely considered a boom-or-bust prospect. Unless Williams and Kouandjio surprise, it doesn't appear as though the Bills got better up front this offseason.
Fantasy Takeaway: The Bills rushed a league high 546 times in 2013 while C.J. Spiller managed to finish as only fantasy's #27 RB. While there's no denying Spiller's upside, he'll need improved line play and an increased role to justify his current 3rd round price tag. Fred Jackson was last season's #10 RB and currently available in the 10th round of drafts, but will likely lose some touches to draft day acquisition Bryce Brown.
The Panthers took a hit this offseason when Jordan Gross and Geoff Hangartner decided to retire. With Travelle Wharton also heavily considering retirement, only Ryan Kalil and Byron Bell provide Carolina with experience up front. Trai Turner is expected to start at right guard and while he provides an upgrade over journeyman Chris Scott from a run blocking standpoint, he'll likely suffer some rookie growing pains. Lack of experience could also be an issue for Nate Chandler, who is battling with Bell to man one of the two tackle spots and who has changed positions multiple times in the last few years. Pressure is also on left guard Amini Silatolu, who is talented but was limited in OTAs after rehabbing from ACL surgery. Much like Kansas City's offensive line, Carolina could be fine up front but at this point there are more questions than answers after the team suffered a ton of turnover this offseason.
Fantasy Takeaways: Boasting the league's worst group of wide receivers, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will already be facing stacked boxes. Throw in questions at offensive line, and this could be an offensive train wreck if Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood don't exceed expectations. The one positive here is draft day price (ADP). Williams is available into the 11th round while Stewart is going undrafted in most leagues.