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The Big Uglies - AFC

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 6/29/21 |

There is generally a lot of lip service paid to offensive lines in the fantasy community. For the most part, fantasy analysts and managers overwhelmingly tend to reach the following conclusions about teams as it relates to offensive lines:

1) they must have a good pass-blocking line if the quarterback doesn't take a lot of sacks and
2) they must have a good run-blocking line if multiple backs on the same team run "well" consistently.

As is typically the case in this industry, such analysis is far too simplistic and far from 100 percent true. So why does that logic seem to reign supreme? I tend to believe it is because there are no well-established stats (or easily) available to the public - other than those that players accumulate at other positions - to inform the general fan as to how those five linemen are performing play after play. A nuanced film watcher's educated guess might be right about 90 percent of the time, but only each team's offensive line coach can legitimately claim he knows what each of his linemen should be doing - and who they should be blocking - on every play.

Shockingly, those offensive line coaches are not going to share that information with Joe Q. Fan anytime soon.

Why does any of this matter? If "it all starts up front" as coaches have been saying for decades, then getting a sense of how proficient an offensive line is at clearing space for a running back or protecting a quarterback should mean quite a bit to the fantasy game.

I have factored in offensive line play into my final grade for players on the Big Board for several years but hesitated to add it to the preseason article series for fear of drawing a collective yawn for my writing efforts. Many people could care less about the hot dog is made. They care a lot more about how the hot dog tastes. Those fantasy managers need to understand that avoiding such subject matter only increases the chances of a potential bust landing on our fantasy team this summer.

Below you will find an AFC division-by-division breakdown of the projected five starting linemen for each team at their likely spots. (Here is the NFC version.) The number off to the right side of each table is last year's average of Pro Football Focus' grade for the group, regardless if they played for that team or not. This year's rookies (in italics) obviously did not earn a grade in 2020, so their boxes will be colored black and they will not figure into the average score.

I will use the same color-coding system as I did during my Defensive Weak Spots four-parter. Here are those articles again if you were a little late to the party: East | North | South | West

Green box - Player graded 80 or higher in that particular discipline per PFF (100 pt scale)
White box - Player graded between 70 or 79.9 in that particular discipline
Yellow box - Player graded between 60 or 69.9 in that particular discipline
Red box - Player graded 59.9 or lower in that particular discipline

To clear up any possible confusion on the layout, the row above the lineman's name for each team is how they graded as a run blocker. The row below their name is how they graded out as a pass blocker.

AFC East

Run 68.7
Dion Dawkins Cody Ford Mitch Morse Jon Feliciano Daryl Williams
Pass 64.8
Run 57.5
Austin Jackson Solomon Kindley Matt Skura Robert Hunt Liam Eichenberg
Pass 55.7
Run 77.7
Isaiah Wynn Michael Onwenu David Andrews Shaq Mason Trent Brown
Pass 67.6
Run 71.2
Mekhi Becton Alijah Vera-Tucker Connor McGovern Greg Van Roten Morgan Moses
Pass 65.3

Bills: Buffalo's offensive line remains largely intact from last season, as only Ford (knee) failed to finish the season. Continuity is a consistent theme for Buffalo considering OL coach Bobby Johnson enters his third season with this group, so it seems reasonable to assume last year's grades will serve as a baseline for this season's.

Dolphins: The selection of Eichenberg was a much-needed boost for Miami. The biggest issue right now might be inexperience; of the five players listed above, only Skura has been in the league more than a year (and he spent his first five seasons with Baltimore). Then again, the work the Dolphins have done improving the skill-position talent should make everyone's job easier up front.

Patriots: Lost amid the struggles of New England's offense as a whole was how well the line performed. Losing LG Joe Thuney sets this unit back, but the returns of Wynn (knee) and Brown (left for Raiders as a free agent after the 2018 season) makes his departure more palatable. The Patriots could boast the league's best run-blocking line in 2021 if Brown can stay on the field.

Jets: The Jets should be significantly better in 2021, if only because new HC Robert Saleh was able to convince new OL coach John Benton to leave San Francisco and join him. The addition of Vera-Tucker - arguably the best guard in the draft - to a healthy Becton (he only missed two games but dealt with shoulder and chest injuries off and on) gives New York a potentially formidable duo to open up lanes on the left side. Signing Moses in late June bumps George Fant into a more palatable swing tackle spot and should allow the Jets to run with great confidence to either side.

AFC North

Run 64.1
Ronnie Stanley Ben Cleveland Bradley Bozeman Kevin Zeitler Alejandro Villanueva
Pass 74.8
Run 59.7
Jonah Williams Jackson Carman Trey Hopkins Quinton Spain Riley Reiff
Pass 65.0
Run 75.0
Jedrick Wills Jr. Joel Bitonio J.C. Tretter Wyatt Teller Jack Conklin
Pass 79.3
Run 46.5
Chukwuma Okorafor Kevin Dotson Kendrick Green Trai Turner Zach Banner
Pass 67.8

Ravens: Baltimore should be able to rest easier assuming Stanley is completely healed from the ankle injury that required two surgeries by the time camp rolls around (which is expected to be the case). It is impossible to know for sure if Zeitler has much left at 31 years old, but the pre-200 version would be a considerable upgrade on 2020 starter Ben Powers. Villanueva is not a one-for-one replacement for Orlando Brown Jr., but it is a swap the Ravens should be able to live with given the improvisational abilities of Lamar Jackson & Co.

Bengals: Simply keeping Jonah Williams on the field for a full season would be a huge boost for the Bengals' offense, while Reiff should be a considerable upgrade on Bobby Hart. With that said, Carman's arrival is not near enough to turn this long-suffering unit around quite yet. Making matters worse, OC Frank Pollack's offensive lines with the Bengals (2018) and Jets (2019-20) have ranked 24th, 28th, and 31st in pass blocking in the last three seasons, per PFF.

Browns: Cleveland has the best of both worlds. Bill Callahan is widely regarded as the best offensive line coach in the league and may have the most talent to work with in the league. Wills was easily the weakest run blocker in Cleveland as a rookie, but a significant improvement is likely in store for him with a full offseason. The rest of the line enjoyed career years. Callahan deserves a lot of credit for that, as does Nick Chubb and the Browns' heavy use of play-action. While a repeat of the career years should not be expected, each has established himself over multiple seasons as an above-average - if not Pro Bowl-caliber - offensive lineman.

Steelers: For a team that wants to recommit to the running game, Pittsburgh has the look of a squad that will need Adrian Klemm to coach his tail off in his first year as the offensive line boss. David DeCastro's release forced the Steelers to sign Turner, who may not be much of a downgrade from the limited 2020 version of DeCastro if he can avoid the injuries that dogged him last season with the Chargers. (Turner was a five-time Pro Bowl selection in six years with the Panthers.) A healthy Turner would allow Pittsburgh to stick to its original plan of starting Green over J.C. Hassenauer at center. Dotson could easily be the long-term answer at left guard but has some work to do as a run blocker. The tackle combination of Okorafor and Banner may be the worst in the NFL right now, so quick passes will once again be a staple of this offense. Depth across the line is a problem as well.

AFC South

Run 61.0
Laremy Tunsil Max Scharping Justin Britt* Marcus Cannon** Tytus Howard
Pass 65.3
Run 67.5
Sam Tevi Quenton Nelson Ryan Kelly Mark Glowinski Braden Smith
Pass 69.1
Run 62.2
Cam Robinson Andrew Norwell Brandon Linder A.J. Cann Jawaan Taylor
Pass 72.0
Run 71.8
Taylor Lewan Rodger Saffold Ben Jones Nate Davis Dillon Radunz
Pass 59.0

* - Did not play in 2020
** - Did not play in 2020 (opt-out)

Texans: New OL coach James Campen oversaw the league's top pass-blocking line in Green Bay in 2018, but his lines have struggled with the Browns (2019) and Chargers (2020) over the last two seasons. While Tunsil and Howard are nice bookends, Campen is going to have his work cut out for himself inside. Britt and Cannon did not play at all last season and are 30 and 33 years old, respectively, while Scharping is only in his third year and missed a big chunk of last season. Even if Deshaun Watson's status was not in doubt, it would be hard to love this line. Without Watson's ability to extend plays, Campen may lose his mind with this unit.

Colts: Tevi is more of a swing tackle who will (hopefully) keep the left tackle seat warm for Eric Fisher (Achilles), who is expected to return around the first part of November. If Fisher can rediscover his pre-injury form before the end of the year, he could end up being an upgrade over the retired Anthony Costanzo. Otherwise, Chris Strausser's potentially dominant unit remains virtually intact for another season.

Jaguars: Jaguars OL coach George should have the same starting group he's had since arriving in 2019, as the only real change from last year is potentially having Linder available for more than nine games. Jacksonville enters this season with a much better supporting cast, so the linemen should benefit. The problem is no one from this group has noticeably improved or made a name for himself under Warhop.

Titans: Lewan's grades are surprising. The fact he struggled to reach a yellow grade as a run or pass blocker after spending most of his career in the 70s and 80s suggests he suffered from the lack of a regular offseason before tearing his ACL in Week 6. The Titans' trusty interior of Saffold, Jones and Davis should only improve with another year of working together, while Radunz was a solid choice to fill the void left behind at right tackle after Jack Conklin bolted for Cleveland last offseason.

AFC West

Run 68.6
Garett Bolles Dalton Risner Quinn Meinerz Graham Glasgow Bobby Massie
Pass 73.7
Run 68.4
Orlando Brown Jr. Joe Thuney Creed Humphrey L. Duvernay-Tardif* Mike Remmers
Pass 75.4
Run 67.1
Rashawn Slater Matt Feiler Corey Linsley Oday Aboushi Bryan Bulaga
Pass 70.7
Run 65.0
Kolton Miller Richie Incognito Andre James** Denzelle Good Alex Leatherwood
Pass 71.8

* - Did not play in 2020 (opt-out)
** - Logged just one snap in 2020 and 116 in 2019

Broncos: Mike Munchak is generally considered one of the top two or three best offensive line coaches in the game. In his second year of working with Bolles, he was able to turn a lineman known more for committing too many penalties into one of the best offensive tackles in the league. What's more is that Risner and Meinerz should eventually develop into Pro Bowl-caliber players at their positions. The right side of the line is less inspiring - especially after Massie was added to replace the injured Ja'Wuan James - but Munchak will almost certainly get the most of Glasgow and Massie as well.

Chiefs: Kansas City has likely upgraded every other position across last year's Week 1 starting line except for right tackle (Remmers replacing Mitchell Schwartz). Brown and Thuney should form one of the best left sides in the league, while Humphrey was unquestionably one of the draft's best center prospects. Duvernay-Tardif might have his hands full keeping Kyle Long from winning the right guard job after opting out last season, but the winner of that battle should have no problem setting a higher bar at right guard than Andrew Wylie did in 2020.

Chargers: Los Angeles got better in a hurry with the additions of Linsley and Slater, just a few months after sporting the worst run-blocking unit and third-worst pass-blocking unit in the NFL, per PFF. Linsley was PFF's top-ranked center in 2020 and has been a regular inside the top 10 for a while. Slater earned major points in the eyes of scouts when he essentially blanked Chase Young in 2019 while the former was at Northwestern and the latter was at Ohio State. If Bulaga can avoid the injury curse that seems to hang over the Chargers' line year after year, then perhaps LA won't see a repeat of Justin Herbert facing pressure on 37 percent of his drop-backs again.

Raiders: Las Vegas curiously parted with Rodney Hudson and Trent Brown and held onto soon-to-be 38-year-old Incognito, who played only two games last year before he was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. (Hudson and Brown were supposedly jettisoned mostly for age and cap reasons.) To his credit, Incognito has been a stud when he has been on the field and stayed focused on his job throughout his career. However, he is the only starter on this line that has proven he can consistently block well in the running game for a team that wants to pound the rock. Miller and Leatherwood should join him soon, but it may be too much to ask for it to happen in 2021. The team made a major investment into James this spring, first trading away the reliable Hudson before handing James a three-year extension based mostly on 117 career offensive snaps.

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and has appeared as a guest analyst on several national sports radio shows and podcasts, including Sirius XM's Fantasy Drive, FantasyPros and RealTime Fantasy Sports. He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.