Fantasy Impact of Offensive Line Performance in the 2018 Preseason
Editor’s Note: This guest post is by Justin Edwards. Follow him on Twitter @Justin_Redwards and check out his work at Pro Football Focus.
I wrote earlier this summer in the TwoQBs Draft Guide (go buy one) about the positive and negative effects that offensive lines can have on quarterbacks. A simple summation of the fantasy impact of offensive line performance be articulated in three sentences:
- Fantasy points from QBs are most closely correlated to Passer Rating, not counting stats.
- Every QB has a worse passer rating under pressure than he does from a clean pocket.
- Some teams are much better at keeping QBs clean than others.
I invite you to go read the draft guide article before you continue with this one, but it isn’t necessary. This piece examines how offensive lines have performed thus far in the preseason and what it means for your fantasy quarterbacks when the regular season kicks off.
In most cases, the first three weeks of the preseason will fill box scores predominately with snaps by second- or third-team players, but this will all be valuable in our study as well. By finding the talent gaps between starters and reserve players, we can lock down which teams could be significantly hurt by injuries to starting offensive linemen. By digging even further, we can find O-lines already over- or under-performing in quarterback protection, either because of talent infusion or early season injuries.
Without further ado, let’s see where every NFL team stands this preseason in hurries allowed per game and compare to their previous three season averages:
The above chart is sorted to show which teams have better protected their quarterback (positive numbers up top) versus teams that have allowed more hurries per game than their previous three full seasons (negative numbers at the bottom). As a league, the difference between our previous 48 game sample size and this 3 game sample size is a minuscule 0.029 hurries/game. It’s pretty incredible how the stat stayed so true to regular season performance despite entire offensive and defensive line units rotating off the field during preseason.
As opposed to looking at these numbers in the big picture, let’s pull out individual teams and try to pinpoint how they have seemingly improved or downgraded their pass protection.
Concerning QB Guardians
The big glaring dark red box up there belongs to the Super Bowl 52 champions. Last season, Philadelphia was middle of the road as a pass-blocking unit and found much of their success through the now famous RPO, other forms of misdirection, and generally efficient play calling. It’s surprising nonetheless to see this team at the bottom of the barrel in any category, even one we wouldn’t consider they’re strongest suit. Their match-up against the Patriots a couple weeks ago showed a glaring lack of depth with Halapoulivaati Vaitai (we’ll call him Vaitai from here on out) starting in place of Jason Peters (as the 36-year old Peters recovers from a torn ACL). Even though Vaitai played hundreds of snaps at left tackle after Peters went down last year, Big V has looked overwhelmed this preseason, allowing 9 hurries in 99 pass blocking snaps. His PFF pass-blocking grades over those games have been 35.6 and 19.3. The team has every right to be on edge about whether Jason Peters can get back to his All-Pro form.
The Eagles as a team have allowed more hurries than anyone else in the preseason. Last year’s MVP candidate Carson Wentz was almost joined in the infirmary by Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles after Foles took a hit that appeared to tear his arm out of its socket. Foles ended up fine in terms of health, but played poorly in the following game against Cleveland. With reports mounting that Carson Wentz will not be ready for the start of the season and a shaky offensive line, Philly’s QB room is one to avoid.
As PFF’s 30th-ranked pass-blocking team through the preseason, we can immediately take away there’s trouble brewing along Dallas’ offensive line. The most grievous concern is center Travis Frederick, who has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which your immune system attacks your nerves. (It sounds very painful, but he is expected to make a full recovery, so I don’t feel like an animal discussing the fantasy football impact of this medical issue.) Frederick is expected to return this season, but could easily be out until Week 9 if the Cowboys place him on injured reserve. If they do, they’ll be without PFF’s third-ranked pass-blocking center since 2017 (not to mention the third-ranked run-blocking center) for 56% of the fantasy season.
Further down the line, All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith is nursing a hamstring strain, and PFF’s fifth-ranked pass-blocking guard in 2017, Zack Martin, is dealing with knee issues. All this adds up to an offensive line that needs some depth, evidenced by the four extra hurries they’re allowing per game above last season’s total. I suggest not depending on Dak Prescott for the first half of the season and exploiting a buy-low situation for the second half. Both of the Cowboys’ match-ups against the Eagles’ terrifying front seven are in the back half of the year, but with a fully healthy O-Line, Dallas should make it more of a fair fight.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is adept at moving around inside and outside the pocket and is no greenhorn when it comes to dealing with offensive line woes. Green Bay recently played an Oakland team with defensive starters going mostly against Packers backups last weekend. On top of that game inflating the pass rush numbers against the cheese heads, I know that no amount of analysis here is going to talk you off of playing Rodgers in seasonal formats. Maybe we can twist this as a primer for daily fantasy sports, though. Green Bay’s passing attack should have some serious problems against high-end pass rushing crews. Week 2 against Minnesota and Week 3 against Washington will be two rough spots for Rodgers right off the bat.
Uplifting QB Guardians
New York Jets
In addition to allowing the fewest hurries in the preseason thus far, the Jets also own the widest gap between current and previous performance. What’s more impressive is how the projected starters have combined to allow only three QB hurries, leaving all of the team’s sacks allowed on the shoulders of the backups. Left tackle will be a point of worry among the front five, as Brent Qvale has been anything but strong as he gets more snaps with Kelvin Beachum nursing a foot injury. Qvale ranks 30th in PFF’s pass-blocking grade among the 42 tackles who have logged 100-plus snaps this preseason. Essentially, he is the 30th-best pass blocker among backups, and he ranks 35th in run-blocking as well. If Beachum is unable start the season, New York’s impressive hurries-per-game improvement may all be for naught as Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah eats Qvale’s lunch, dinner, and after-meal espresso in Week 1.
However, if the improvement we’ve seen across the Jets’ line continues into the season, the table will be set for Sam Darnold (or Teddy Bridgewater) to begin the season against three teams with pitiful interior pass rushes (Detroit, Miami, and Cleveland). None of the three has an interior lineman who ranked top-50 in hurries last year, now that Ndamukong Suh (ranked 11th) resides on the west coast. Let’s hope Beachum returns healthy or New York decides to tether a tight end to Qvale.
Another team with a rookie quarterback and a former Vikings signal-caller has been showing out impressively. Almost any showing would be an improvement on the 52 sacks Arizona allowed last season (tied for third-most) and 147 hurries (fourth-most). The return of Mike Iupati should be an immediate upgrade. Iupati missed all but one game last season and gave way to Alex Boone, who finished with a PFF pass-blocking grade of 61.1, which ranked 39th out of 45 qualifying guards. Arizona’s third-round selection in this year’s draft, Mason Cole, will be asked to man center after A.Q. Shipley tore his ACL earlier this month, and Justin Pugh will man right guard. This is all to say there are still a lot of question marks surrounding the lack of pressure the Cardinals have allowed thus far. When all is said and done, I don’t believe this offensive line will be good enough to keep Sam Bradford healthy for long. Josh Rosen will see the field before this season is over.
Though not the most improved, Cincinnati’s situation is near and dear to my heart. I have been pounding the table for the revival of Andy Dalton, High-End Fantasy QB2, for months, and the final straw was a wait-and-see accounting of the Bengals’ revamped offensive line. They delivered. Allowing the fewest hurries per game in the preseason is unlikely to last into the regular season, but it is a far cry from 2017, when they ranked in the bottom third in hurries/gm despite taking the fewest snaps in the entire league. Through this three game sample of preseason games, Andy Dalton has a yards per attempt of 10.5 (third in the NFL) and a passer rating of 130.9 (second in the NFL).
I don’t expect Dalton to be a top-five quarterback, but the additions of left tackle Cordy Glenn, center Billy Price, and tackle Bobby Hart (for depth), plus the subtraction of center Russell Bodine (who was terrible), the Bengals have an opportunity to keep their quarterback upright and get more use out of their intriguing weapons.