Free Agency: Offensive Line Risers and Fallers
Why did Todd Gurley’s yards per carry sink from 4.9 in 2018 to 3.8 last year?
The easy answer is that balky knee. But the truth is that the Rams’ offensive line was a big factor in Gurley’s decline.
After losing G Rodger Saffold and C John Sullivan last offseason, Los Angeles sunk from 5.49 Adjusted Line Yards created to 4.27, according to Football Outsiders. That 1.22-yard drop was even bigger than Gurley’s decline in yards per carry.
But you didn’t hear much about L.A.’s offensive line last year. O-line play continues to go overlooked by fantasy football players — and remains an avenue where we can gain an edge.
With 2020 free agency just about in the books, let’s run through the offensive lines that look better and those that look worse heading into the new season.
Los Angeles Chargers
It feels like the Chargers’ offensive line has been a problem forever. They made real strides toward fixing that this offseason.
First, Los Angeles got the better end of the Russell Okung for Trai Turner trade. The 31-year-old Okung appears to be a player in decline. He missed 10 games last season and graded out poorly in the other 6, especially in run blocking. Turner, on the other hand, is smack dab in his prime at 26. He’s ranked middle of the pack in Pro Football Focus’ grades the past 2 seasons but turned in a pair of top-15 finishes between 2015 and 2017.
The Chargers then filled the hole left by Okung’s departure by signing OT Bryan Bulaga. The long-time Packer has remained effective into his 30s, ranking 21st and then 13th among OTs in PFF’s overall grades the last 2 years.
With Bulaga and Turner joining C Mike Pouncey, the Chargers are at least solid at 3 of the 5 offensive line spots.
Poor offensive line play was a big reason this offense was a disappointment last year. The new front office made fixing that a priority in free agency, handing OT Jack Conklin a 3-year, $42 million deal that makes him the league’s 8th highest paid tackle in average annual salary.
The 25-year-old was a big part of Tennessee’s success last year, finishing 5th in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades among 60 qualifying OTs. Conklin ranked a solid 31st in PFF’s pass-blocking grades and 12th overall.
He projects as a big upgrade at RT over 2019 starter Chris Hubbard, who finished 58th among those 60 qualifying OTs in PFF’s overall grades.
After re-signing LT Anthony Castonzo, Indy will return all 5 offensive line starters from last year’s squad.
Continuity and individual talent are equally important on the O-line — and the Colts have both in spades now. They were 1 of 7 teams to finish top 12 in both Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate last season. PFF graded them 13th in pass blocking and 2nd in run blocking.
This unit could be even better in 2020.
New York Jets
It’s all relative with the Jets. They’ve improved from a pathetic offensive line to a potentially passable unit.
The best move New York made in free agency was snagging C Conner McGovern. The former Bronco finished 10th among 31 qualifying centers in PFF’s 2019 grades. He was especially dominant in pass protection, ranking 5th in that department. Good news for QB Sam Darnold.
The Jets made a couple of other minor moves, signing G Greg Van Roten and OT George Fant. Van Roten turned in a quietly solid 2019 for Carolina, finishing 21st among 64 qualifying Gs in PFF’s overall grades. He ranked 17th in pass blocking. Fant never emerged as a full-time starter in Seattle and was mediocre when he did get on the field. But it wouldn’t take much for him to be an upgrade over 2019 starter Brandon Shell.
The Jets still need to add another OT, which will hopefully happen in the draft. But they at least made some progress on the O-line in free agency.
Baltimore’s offensive line won’t look the same without G Marshal Yanda, who retired this offseason. The 13-year vet and 8-time Pro Bowler remained elite last year, ranking 4th among 64 qualifying Gs in PFF’s overall grades. He joined Philly’s Brandon Brooks and Dallas’ Zack Martin as the only 2 Gs to finish top 6 in both run and pass blocking.
Baltimore also dumped OT James Hurst after February’s PED suspension. He was important depth for the Ravens, playing 194 snaps as the team’s #3 OT this past season.
Don’t be surprised if last year’s #3 O-line in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards takes a step back in 2020. Of course, QB Lamar Jackson can help mask any decline.
Green Bay Packers
OT Bryan Bulaga has been protecting QB Aaron Rodgers since 2010. But he’s off to Los Angeles now, set to be replaced by Rick Wagner, who was dumped by the Lions in early March.
That looks like a significant downgrade for Green Bay. While Bulaga ranked 27th in PFF’s pass-blocking grades and 6th in run-blocking last year, Wagner was down at 52nd and 48th. We’ll see if he can at least bounce back to 2018 levels that saw him finish 29th and 42nd. But the Packers are rolling the dice on the protection in front of a 36-year-old QB.
The Cowboys have a hole in the middle of their O-line after C Travis Frederick surprisingly announced his retirement in mid-March. The 29-year-old missed the entire 2018 campaign with his Guillain-Barre Syndrome and wasn’t quite his dominant self last year. But Frederick still ranked a solid 12th among 31 qualifying Cs in PFF’s overall grades. He was a top-6 C in each of his first 5 NFL seasons. He’s set to be replaced by Joe Looney, who finished 22nd in PFF’s overall grades in place of Frederick back in 2018.
Dallas also lost a couple of depth guys in G Xavier Su’a-Filo and OT Cameron Fleming, who combined to play 565 snaps last season.
Jack Conklin was a key cog in the Titans’ strong offensive line last year — especially in the running game, where he ranked 5th in PFF’s grades among 60 qualifying OTs. But he bolted for Cleveland in free agency.
Now, Tennessee did soften the blow a bit by re-signing OT Dennis Kelly. He’s been solid as a backup for the Titans over the past 4 years but hasn’t reached 400 snaps in any of those seasons. (For reference, Conklin played 1,108 last year.)
So Kelly is still largely unknown and is more likely than not to be a tangible downgrade from Conklin.
The Panthers will have at least 3 new starters on the offensive line this season after losing OT Daryl Williams, G Trai Turner and G Greg Van Roten over the past month.
Carolina acquired OT Russell Okung in the Turner trade with the Chargers, so Williams’ departure isn’t a concern. In fact, a healthy Okung should be an upgrade.
But Turner and Van Roten are significant losses on the interior. Both guys ranked top 30 in PFF’s overall grades out of 64 qualifying Gs last year. The only addition the Panthers made in free agency was John Miller, who’s been subpar across 5 seasons with the Bills and Bengals.
This will be a unit to monitor closely this summer — especially with a new coaching staff and QB in Carolina.