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The Big Uglies - NFC

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 7/4/21 |

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 NFC division-by-division breakdown of the projected five starting linemen for each team at their likely spots. (Here is the AFC version from earlier this week.) 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. 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.

NFC East

Run 73.0
Tyron Smith Connor Williams Tyler Biadasz Zack Martin La'el Collins*
Pass 70.1
Run 56.1
Andrew Thomas Will Hernandez Nick Gates Shane Lemieux Nate Solder**
Pass 50.4
Run 68.9
Jordan Mailata Isaac Seumalo Jason Kelce Brandon Brooks*** Lane Johnson
Pass 76.3
Run 71.3
Charles Leno Jr. Ereck Flowers Chase Roullier Brandon Scherff Sam Cosmi
Pass 77.2

* - Missed 2020 season with hip injury
** - Opted out of 2020 season
*** - Missed 2020 season with Achilles injury

Cowboys: Smith is still one of the best in the league when he is right, but he played a mere 154 snaps in 2020. His back issues appear to be chronic at this point and will almost certainly result in him missing multiple games again this season. With that said, Dallas is better prepared for his absence(s) in 2021 after adding veteran Ty Nsekhe. Getting Collins back and playing next to one of the best linemen in the league in Martin should allow Ezekiel Elliott to bounce back in a big way. Collins has steadily improved in each of his first three seasons as a full-time starter and could take yet another step forward this year. Biadasz is considered the "obvious frontrunner" for the starting job in Year 2, meaning he has made noticeable strides in OL coach Joe Philbin's eyes after what was a trying season for just about every rookie.

Giants: New York cycled through two offensive line coaches in HC Joe Judge's first season. It will be up to new OL coach Rob Sale now to mold a somewhat lackluster line into what should be a reasonably solid unit. Thomas and Hernandez should form a dominant left side - at least in the running game - while Solder underwhelmed in his last full season with the Giants in 2019 (opted out last season). The big area of concern now is at right guard. Lemieux - a fifth-round rookie - registered a run-blocking grade of 45.3 and pass-blocking grade of 16.9 in 2020, per PFF.

Eagles: Brooks blew out his Achilles in mid-June and Johnson labored through an ankle injury almost as soon as the season started, creating chaos up front almost immediately. If those two return to form and Kelce maintains his recent level of play, few teams will be able to claim they have a better right side. The one thing keeping this line from being potentially great is a no-brainer starter at left tackle. Andre Dillard has reportedly put in some serious work this offseason and may finally be ready to justify the first-round pick Philadelphia spent on him in 2019. If not, Mailata will get another chance to be the long-term answer at the spot Jason Peters held down for so long.

Football Team: Roullier and Scherff have worked together for the better part of the last three seasons and generally done so at a high level. Flowers returns after a one-year stop in Miami, but he has proven to be an average-at-best run blocker throughout his career. Leno should end up being an upgrade in the run and pass game over 2020 starting left tackle Cornelius Lucas despite the fact the latter had a career year in many respects last season. Lucas could end up winning the starting right tackle job over Cosmi after the Football Team parted with last year's starter (Morgan Moses), but there is no question the line has enviable depth in 2021 either way.

NFC North

Run 72.6
Teven Jenkins James Daniels Cody Whitehair Germain Ifedi Elijah Wilkinson
Pass 54.8
Run 68.9
Taylor Decker Jonah Jackson Frank Ragnow Halapoulivaati Vaitai Penei Sewell
Pass 66.3
Run 69.3
David Bakhtiari Elgton Jenkins Josh Myers Lucas Patrick Billy Turner
Pass 74.5
Run 73.5
Christian Darrisaw Ezra Cleveland Garrett Bradbury Wyatt Davis Brian O'Neill
Pass 53.4

Bears: The Bears were on the verge of having a very solid starting five following the selection of Jenkins, but they felt the best answer to their salary cap problems at the time was to release LT Charles Leno. As a result, only Daniels and Whitehair stand out as proven foundation pieces for renowned OL coach Juan Castillo. Jenkins was considered by many to be a very good right tackle prospect but may need the better part of his rookie year before he looks comfortable on the left side. Ifedi can play guard or tackle, and the Bears may need to milk his versatility if one of C Sam Mustipher, G Alex Bars or Wilkinson fails to step up in camp.

Lions: There may not be a lot to like in Detroit this season, but the Lions should have long-term solutions at the three most important spots along the line. Decker has been a top-notch pass-protector for most of his five years in the league, while Ragnow registered near-elite grades in the running and passing game last season. While a few growing pains should be expected, Sewell may be the rare rookie who plays like a veteran almost immediately. Jackson is bound to improve in his second year after he was thrown to the wolves as a rookie with no offseason. Vaitai has settled in as a league-average guard.

Packers: Although the above grades do not necessarily reflect it (particularly in Jenkins' case), Green Bay should have no concerns about the left side of its line. Jenkins is an emerging star with the ability to play every position on the line at a high level. The Packers took a hit when Corey Linsley accepted the Chargers' offer to become the highest-paid center in the league. Myers will be a temporary downgrade, but he should be able to hold up as he gets his feet wet in the league. Although Patrick and Turner are not going to turn many heads on the right side, both should be locked into starting roles for the foreseeable future.

Vikings: O'Neill is the one player on Minnesota's line that may keep OL coach Rick Dennison's blood pressure in check. Cleveland is entering his second year and Bradbury has yet to take off in the way a first-round pick is expected to at center. Dennison is another one of the top handful of offensive line coaches in the league, so he will most likely get the best out of both. While longtime LT Riley Reiff - who bolted for Cincinnati this offseason - may be on the back nine of his career, it will be a tall order for Darrisaw to match his level of play as a rookie. Conversely, Davis' predecessors set such a low bar to clear that he should be an upgrade regardless if he plays on the left or the right side.

NFC South

Run 65.0
Jake Matthews Jalen Mayfield Matt Hennessy Chris Lindstrom Kaleb McGary
Pass 60.4
Run 63.0
Brady Christensen Pat Elflein Matt Paradis John Miller Taylor Moton
Pass 59.1
Run 70.4
Terron Armstead Andrus Peat Erik McCoy Cesar Ruiz Ryan Ramczyk
Pass 65.2
Run 75.3
Donovan Smith Ali Marpet Ryan Jensen Alex Cappa Tristan Wirfs
Pass 68.5

Falcons: Although Alex Mack is nearing the end at age 35, losing him and his experience to San Francisco is far from ideal. His departure leaves Matthews as the one starting lineman in Atlanta who is not still on his first contract. Lindstrom was arguably the team's best lineman last season in only his second season. McGary also took a noticeable step forward despite the fact he remained a below-average run-blocker. Hennessy took over for Mack in the pivot late in the season but was mostly a disaster as a run-blocker, likely convincing the front office to spend a fourth-round pick on Drew Dalman this spring. Mayfield will be making the difficult transition from a redshirt-sophomore right tackle at Michigan to the likely Week 1 starter at left guard.

Panthers: Moton just missed finishing in the green as both a run- and pass-blocker. Christensen appears to be the favorite at left tackle and was notably PFF's highest-graded collegiate offensive lineman ever. Carolina believes he can play both tackles spots and even guard. His competition for the spot is not great; free-agent addition Cam Erving is more suited as a swing tackle, while Greg Little has shown little durability through two years in the league. Miller has been a league-average guard for the better part of six seasons and will likely remain so. Elflein was horrible in each of his 2020 stops and has not rediscovered the promising form he showed as a rookie with the Vikings in 2017. Paradis was one of the best centers in the league with the Broncos as recently as 2019, but he has been mostly average through two years in Carolina.

Saints: New Orleans has made line play a priority for the better part of HC Sean Payton's tenure and it shows. Few teams can match the dynamic duo of Armstead and Ramczyk at tackle. McCoy is only entering his third season and has already established himself as one of the better centers in the NFL. Ruiz was the team's first-round pick in 2020 and should experience a dramatic improvement with a full offseason under his belt. Peat may be the weakest link for the Saints and he has made three Pro Bowls in his five seasons.

Buccaneers: As most folks already know, Tampa Bay's desire to "go for two" and bring every starter back this year means the entire offensive line remains intact. Wirfs should quickly emerge as one of the game's premier right tackles soon. Smith is coming off his best season and has been a 1,000-plus snaps-per-year fixture at left tackle since he was a second-round pick in 2015. Marpet is a rock-solid guard who probably should have made at least one Pro Bowl by now. Jensen fell off considerably as a pass-blocker in 2020 after being dominant one year earlier. Although Cappa has shown steady improvement in each of his three years in the league, the 26-year-old may have already settled in as a slightly above-average guard and no more.

NFC West

Run 65.4
D.J. Humphries Justin Pugh Rodney Hudson Justin Murray Kelvin Beachum
Pass 75.4
Run 72.1
Andrew Whitworth David Edwards Brian Allen* Austin Corbett Rob Havenstein
Pass 67.2
Run 68.9
Duane Brown Damien Lewis Ethan Pocic Gabe Jackson Brandon Shell
Pass 68.6
Run 83.6
Trent Williams Laken Tomlinson Alex Mack Aaron Banks Mike McGlinchey
Pass 65.4

* - Missed 2020 season due mostly to extensive rehab needed for 2019 knee injury

Cardinals: Humphries, Pugh and Beachum return to the same spots where they played 15 games together last season (Pugh missed a game or else all three would have made 16 starts together). Pugh and Beachum are now in their early 30s, which means we have probably already seen the best they have to offer. Hudson has also probably seen his best days as part of the 30-and-over club, but even his disappointing play last year - at least by his standards - would represent a significant upgrade over what Mason Cole provided in the pivot in 2020. Murray is the one question mark of the group (73.7 pass-blocking grade and 45.6 run-blocking grade last year). If he can bridge the gap between his run- and pass-blocking in 2021, Arizona could surprisingly boast one of the top lines in the NFC.

Rams: Whitworth is still among the best left tackles in the league despite the fact he will turn 40 in December. He missed the better part of the second half of the season with a knee injury and his absence had a noticeable impact on the offense. Havenstein has been an elite run-blocker in each of his last two full seasons and more than adequate protecting the quarterback. Edwards enters his third season and appears well on his way to carving out a long-term home at left guard. Corbett is reportedly the favorite to start at center right now, but the Rams should consider keeping Allen at his natural position - assuming he is completely recovered - and Corbett at the same spot he logged all 1,120 of his snaps last year.

Seahawks: Brown isn't quite in Whitworth territory, but he is a soon-to-be 36-year-old that has been an excellent left tackle for as long as many readers have been playing fantasy football. Lewis struggled with the pass rush as a rookie in 2020 - hardly surprising without a traditional offseason - but he definitely got the job done in the running game. (He is expected to stay at guard but move from the right to the left side.) Shell's career arc unsurprisingly improved upon leaving the Jets last season and established himself as a potential long-term answer at right tackle. Jackson's play has fallen off a bit over the last two years, but he should be a considerable upgrade over the broken-down version of (now-retired) Mike Iupati. Pocic appears to have settled in as an average player at center; he is the biggest question mark of the starting group.

49ers: While HC Kyle Shanahan's schemes typically help every player on his offense, it takes more than savvy play-calling and smart design for one team to have three green-graded run-blockers. Williams, Tomlinson and McGlinchey have a firm grasp on their jobs, with Williams generally considered a top-five left tackle when he is healthy. Mack is getting up there in age (35) and nearing the end of his career, but it should be noted he had one of the best years of his career in 2016 with Shanahan in Atlanta. Right guard is the only question in San Francisco, with second-round pick Banks and Daniel Brunskill set to square off in training camp for the right to start. The lack of a true weak link on this line is one of several reasons why the 49ers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2021.

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.