Offensive Line Impacts on Fantasy QBs through Week 4
Patrick Mahomes: challenger of across-the-body physics, adversary of the norm, enemy of the conventional, and MVP at the quarter mark of the 2018 season. As we come down from the high of the first four games of Mahomes’ “true” rookie season, we watch the rocks below get closer and closer. Those rocks are every other quarterback in the National Football League, and the sharp pointy edges are the special ones that not only can’t get an accurate ball out of their hands on the run, they have a hard enough time from a collapsing pocket.
Even Mahomes, the Kid Wonder, takes a drop of 1.2 yards per attempt (9.1 to 7.9) and a drop of 23.3 percent in adjusted completion percentage (83.3 to 60.0) when clean versus under pressure. The fact remains, whether a quarterback is playing out of his mind like Mahomes or playing like, um… whatever Josh Allen is playing like, an offensive line keeping the big mean men out of the pocket is of utmost importance for maximum fantasy production.
It’s imperative to find your edges in fantasy football. One stone far too often left unturned is the impact of offensive line on the ceiling of a team’s signal-caller. Below I have sectioned the NFL into three tiers of protection: the elite, the mediocre, and the harmful. You’ll see some correlation right away (quarterbacks with high scoring weeks up top, disappointing performers near the bottom, etc.), but I’ll dig into some individual teams as we go.
Before we write off Mitchell Trubisky’s six-touchdown performance in Week 4 as a fluke (I know I already had before digging into the data), maybe we should look at how clean his offensive linemen have kept him. The second-year quarterback could be learning his new system with the help of staying upright for long stretches of snaps in a row. Tampa Bay racked up only two hurries in Sunday’s game, and Chicago earned a remarkable 90.7 Pass Blocking grade via PFF, the fourth time in four weeks that they have earned a grade of 82 or higher. Trubisky’s trench men currently rank as the #1 pass blocking team in the NFL. Furthermore, the Bears’ four opponents to this point have averaged 10.92 hurries per game in all contests not involving Chicago, which means they are preventing more than 6 hurries on average over the competition. We’ll see if they can continue this dominance over Miami’s defenders, who rank in the middle of the league with 10.25 defensive hurries per game.
Speaking of the Dolphins, they are atop the league in preventing pressures allowed. Ryan Tannehill has attempted only 16 passes while under pressure, the least of any quarterback with at least three games under his belt. While I certainly don’t want to poo-poo Miami’s offensive line play, there is something else brewing below the surface. Adam Gase wants nothing to do with the deep ball. Tannehill only has 13 pass attempts 20-plus yards down the field (and only four completions). Even more telling, Tannehill’s average time to throw is 2.32 seconds, behind only Derek Carr’s 2.27 seconds. While we can still expect consistent back-end QB2 performance floors from the Miami signal-caller, the ceiling simply won’t be there for many huge performances this season.
I’m absolutely convinced this year’s Los Angeles Rams are the 2007 New England Patriots with a much better supporting cast. While Jared Goff is not (yet) Tom Brady, he is standing untouched in the pocket, which allows him all the time in the world to measure up the deep ball and trust his wide receivers. Goff is holding the ball for 2.5 seconds or longer on 60.3% of his dropbacks, the third-highest rate in the NFL. The difference between him and the two gentlemen ahead of him in this category (Deshaun Watson and Josh Allen) is that Goff is doing it by design (322 yards and 5 TDs on deep passes). Watson and Allen are doing it out of necessity (23 combined sacks and seven interceptions). Though not as extreme as Chicago’s numbers, L.A. is outperforming their expected hurries per game by 3.83 (their opponents up to this point have averaged 8.83 hurries against everyone except the Rams).
The best bet to fall out of this tier in the near future are the Dallas Cowboys. They are outpacing their expected hurries per game by a slim 1.33, something that can be attributed to the lack of good pass rushing teams they’ve encountered to this point. The next three opponents for Dallas before their Week 8 bye are Houston (who are turning their low amount of hurries into a large amount of sacks), Jacksonville (who have 13-plus hurries in every game except Week 3 vs. Tennessee), and Washington (third most hurries in the league). Dak Prescott should be under pressure for the next month before his off-week breather and hopeful return of center Travis Frederick. Sadly, Dak’s position as the overall QB25 could be his high-water mark until the fantasy playoffs.
The Raiders just missed the cut as an “elite” protection group, and looking at their expected hurries per game of 12.50, it seems as if they are leaving 4.75 hurries on the field every game. As mentioned above, Derek Carr is spending the least amount of time in the pocket of any starting quarterback, and Oakland’s receiving numbers help tell the same story. Jared Cook leads the team with 34 targets, Jordy Nelson, who is essentially a tight end, is third with 24, and running back Jalen Richard is fourth with 22. Actual wide receiver, Amari Cooper, is second on the team with 28 targets and a YAC/reception of 4.8, ranking 33rd among WRs with at least 10 targets. His YAC average in his first 3 years of his career were 5.5, 5.4, and 6.3. Carr has started the season as a yardage monster, topping 275 yards in all four games, but shooting himself in the foot with seven interceptions. His career high interception total is 13, so with a little bit of normalization, we could see the fourth-year quarterback climb into the top-15 fantasy discussion soon.
Baltimore is a top-10 team in a litany of categories across both sides of the ball but ranks top-three in most of PFF’s defensive grades that hold any relevance. They are truly playing the perfect brand of Harball (you know, “Harbaugh” plus “Ball” ©). The Ravens have faced a gauntlet of pass rushing units in the early going, with three of their opponents in the top-15 and two in the top-10. Their only opponent not in the top-15 grades for pass rush, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have averaged 3.2 sacks per game, ranking 5th in the league. Baltimore’s offensive line has had a rough month but have outperformed their expected hurries per game by 4.0, leaving them well equipped to jump up a tier before they meet Pittsburgh and Cincinnati again in Weeks 9 and 11. Joe Flacco currently holds a very Flaccoian 64.3 completion percentage, despite his lower-end 7.3 yards per attempt (also very Flaccoian). His current standing as QB14 is likely near the ceiling of his season-end numbers, but as things stand, I don’t foresee a lot of regression coming.
Philadelphia has already gone through a lot in a short stint. They’ve had a new offensive weapon injury in seemingly every game, Nick Foles looked like Nick Foles until Carson Wentz returned in Week 3 (where Wentz looked a little like Nick Foles iwbh), and Philly’s O-Line allowed the most hurries in the preseason. All that said, the Eagles are slightly outperforming their expected hurries per game by 0.90 and look ahead to middle-of-the-road pass rushers from the Vikings, Giants, and Panthers in coming weeks. The return of true No. 1 receiver Alshon Jeffery should help stabilize this offense for both Wentz and the Eagles as a whole.
Down here in the land of the inept, the Vikings have pillaged the villages and planted their flag as the supreme rulers. Modern day gridiron matadors, one can only surmise that Kirk Cousins has gone on five separate dates since arriving in Minnesota and refused to call any of his five linemen’s Mothers after the occasions. Minnesota has allowed a whopping 7.25 hurries per game over expectation, given their opponents’ performances in all games not involving the Vikings. A defensive pass rush has hurried the quarterback 30 or more times in a single game twice this season. Both came against Minnesota. Allowing the carnage, right guard Mike Remmers ranks as PFF’s 50th-best pass blocking guard (out of 57), right next to left guard Tom Compton (49th of 57). Bringing up the rear is right tackle Rashod Hill, who ranks 53rd among 62 tackles. I have to assume Cousins does not “like that.” His fantasy output has remained above water (posting a very impressive QB5 performance to this point), but you have to imagine how much better Cousins could look if he had a clean pocket every once in a while. Don’t expect things to change in Week 5 against the Eagles’ ferocious front-four. Things settle down after that, though, as the Vikes face the Cardinals, Jets, Saints, and Lions before a Week 10 bye. (Aside: Dalvin Cook is going to swallow the Cardinals in Week 6.)
As we should probably suspect given two years of health questions and a Hail Mary performed by his backup in Week 3, Andrew Luck is not throwing the ball deep. His 7.0 percent of throws attempted 20-plus yards downfield ranks 33rd among qualified quarterbacks. How did Luck manage a ridiculous 464 yards and 4 touchdowns in Week 4? Well, 68 dropbacks did the trick. Yes, in a game where the Texans tallied the most hurries they’ve generated all season, the Colts threw their stack of papers in the air and decided to attempt only 14 rushes. Jordan Wilkins was the leading rusher with 16 yards on 8 carries. Telegraphing underneath throws for 60 minutes, Indianapolis set a season-high in hurries allowed. Ultimately, they could not win the battle by 1,000 papercuts, and we’re left wondering exactly how this offense will work going forward. In Week 5, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots are able to scheme away the short-middle of the field and force Luck to beat their defense deep, especially with T.Y. Hilton unlikely to play. It was worth a shot to draft Andrew Luck as late as we did in the preseason, but it remains to be seen if we’ll be able to cash in on a “boom” week.
Editor’s Note: All “hurries” and time in pocket info comes from ProFootballFocus.com.