Offensive Line Preview: NFC West

Stephen breaks down the NFC West Offensive Lines, previewing the impact they will have on the 2019 fantasy s

Welcome to the first installment of the 2019 Offensive Line preview. In this series, I will breakdown every offensive line by division. I will give an overview of each team and how their big men will impact their major fantasy players. To be clear, this is not a ranking. I do not care whether the Cowboys or Rams have the best offensive line. These breakdowns will provide context to your opinions/ideas of players.

 

One of my “pet peeves” of fantasy football draft season is when people blabber about offensive lines. Uninformed fantasy players make broad sweeping conclusions about O-lines that rarely have any real backing. My answer in previous football seasons was to remind myself that I knew basically nothing about them. I focused on the players I was drafting and only thought about the nameless giants up front only when it was obvious. Deep down, I knew this was not okay. It was better than blindly making assumptions, but it was not ideal. This year I am putting the time in. I am going through EVERY line. Every player. Are they healthy? How old are they? What can we expect from them in 2019 and what does it mean for his teammates that will be racking up fantasy points? I will start with the NFC West.

2019 Superlatives

Before I jump into each team from  I would like to predict a few superlatives in this division for the upcoming season.

Best Pass Blocker: Andrew Whitworth (LT, LA Rams)

This one seems easy, but both Joe Staley (LT, SF 49ers) and Duane Brown (LT, SEA Seahawks) are extremely adept at pass blocking. Despite an average age of 35 from these three veterans, it is almost without a doubt that the best pass blocker will be in this group. The average LT allowed a pressure on 6.17% of his pass-blocking snaps, while these three all sat below 4.5%. Whitworth boasted the best PFF pass-blocking grade of 88.5 in 2018, which makes him the front runner in 2019.

Best Run Blocker: Mike McGlinchey (RT, SF 49ers)

McGlinchey was a mauler at Notre Dame and unsurprisingly mauled his way to a stellar rookie year in 2018. While he was not the cleanest pass blocker, he was exceptional in the run game. Rob Havenstein (RT, LA Rams) might have something to say about this award as he bested McGlinchey (and the rest of the tackles in the league) in PFF run-blocking grade last year. My bet is for McGlinchey to improve in his second year and walk away with this one. His pedigree as a run blocker dates back to his first year in college and I expect the elite performance to continue as he further adjusts to the NFL.

Most Improved/Breakout Player: DJ Humphries (LT, AZ Cardinals) 

This was a much harder choice. Humphries has not shown much prowess as a pass protector (62.9 grade) in his first three seasons but has shown some impressive ability as a run blocker in limited snaps. If Humphries stays healthy and starts the entire season, we may finally see him take a step forward. The former first-round pick finds himself in a contract year, which provides further motivation for him to get better. Humphries has plenty of room to improve and has a huge incentive to do so. Weston Richburg is another option for this award. Richburg had a few elite seasons in the past with Giants and his drop in play may be more related to a nagging knee injury rather than talent.

 

San Francisco 49ers

Position LT LG C RG RT
Player, Age Joe Staley, 35 Laken Tomlinson, 27 Weston Richburg, 28 Mike Person, 31 Mike McGlinchey, 25
Snaps 2018 1,005 1,028 968 1,000 1,055
Pressure % 4.11% 5.00% 5.56% 5.62% 6.11%
2018 PFF Grade 82.2 64.2 51.9 67.2 73.2

Right away your eye should be drawn to the “Snaps 2018 ” row. All five of these players had a full, mostly healthy season. Even more impressive, all of these players were on the Niners last season. Returning five healthy starters is one of the most important factors for an offensive line, which puts the Niners in a good place. They are lead by the always consistent veteran Joe Staley who has stabilized the left tackle position for years. He shines the most in pass protection, allowing a minuscule 4.11% pressure rate compared to the league average for tackles of 6.17%. Staley can be counted on to protect Jimmy Garropolo’s blindside in 2019.

On the other side, the Niners have the 2018 first-round pick Mike McGlinchey. As you can see in the chart above, McGlinchey was an average pass blocker as a rookie which pales in comparison to his natural ability as a run blocker. McGlinchey’s run-block grade of 78.2 was the second-highest in the league last season among tackles. This dichotomy in his play was expected. McGlinchey was known to be more polished in the run game at Notre Dame. I was concerned that he would be below average in pass protection, but the 2018 season has dissuaded those concerns. By simply showing out as average in pass protection as a rookie, he has given me optimism that he can excel in both areas of the game.

The interior of this offensive line offers much less promise. Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person are neither exciting nor horrible. They both are around average when it comes to protecting the quarterback and are less effective in the run game. This may seem like a knock on these players; however, finding average lineman in the NFL is more challenging than it sounds. Laken Tomlinson carries some name awareness as a former first-round pick, but with four years of similar average play, his true talent level is probably below that pedigree. We round out the starting five with Weston Richburg. Richburg was well below average in 2018 in both facets of the game. Offseason knee surgery explains some of the poor performance, however, he is going to miss some time in training camp as a result. When fully healthy, Richburg can be a solid contributor as his elite 89.4 overall grade for the 2015 Giants suggests.

Overall, the Niners are stronger pass blockers than they are run blockers. Mike McGlinchey was the only player that had a lower PFF pass-blocking grade than a run-blocking grade. With some expected improvement, McGlinchey could become an elite tackle on a team that already has one across from him. Jimmy Garropolo should be safe behind this line, which is part of the reason I have been taking flyers on him in drafts and mocks. Kyle Shannahan’s playcalling and scheme uplifts the entire offense, including the line. Consequently, I do not expect any significant regression from any of the starting five. Even with subpar run blocking from the interior, Shannahan should be able to utilize McGlinchey’s ability and athleticism to set the edge for the speedy running back group of Jerrick McKinnon,  Tevin Coleman, and Matt Brieda. This line will likely not dominate, but it should not scare you away from drafting any of the 49ers skill players.

 

Arizona Cardinals

Position LT LG C RG RT
Player, Age DJ Humphries, 25 JR Sweezy, 30 Mason Cole, 23 Justin Pugh, 29 Marcus Gilbert, 31
Snaps 2018 522 948 942 343 362
Pressure % 8.19% 5.05% 5.87% 8.92% 4.71%
2018 PFF Grade 68.8 45.5 50.9 50.7 68.5

The Cardinals offensive line was a disaster in 2018. Josh Rosen was doomed from the beginning as he simply had no time to throw. The good news? A lot has changed since then. They have a new head coach in Kliff Kingsbury, a new offensive line coach (Sean Kugler) and at least two new starters. JR Sweezy is replacing Mike Iupati at LG and Marcus Gilbert is replacing the awful combination of Joe Barksdale and Korey Cunningham at RT. The newcomers should be an upgrade for the 2019 Cardinals, but both have their own set of problems. The 30-year-old JR Sweezy is much better in pass protection than Iupati but has seen his PFF grade drop in 3 consecutive seasons. Marcus Gilbert has been very solid for the Steelers, but he has trouble staying on the field. Also on the wrong side of 30, Gilbert has only played 773 snaps in the past two seasons (one full season would be around 1,000 snaps).

The returning players DJ Humphries, Mason Cole and Justin Pugh were expectedly brutal last season. Mason Cole is battling for the starting job with veteran AQ Shipley who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Shipley, 33, is much more talented than Cole and despite the current depth chart, I would expect Shipley to take control of the job and bring some stability to the position. In Shipley’s last full season, he allowed a pressure on only 2.5% of his snaps as compared to Cole’s 5.87% (league average center 3.43%). Humphries is in a contract year that will determine his career arc. In his first four seasons, he has seen little success when protecting his QB. Last year was no different as he allowed a pressure on a whopping 8.19% of his pass-blocking snaps. Justin Pugh was once an above-average player, but like Sweezy has seen his play decline. Pair that with health questions, and I am not impressed with the guard position on this team.

So what does this mean for 2019? The Cardinals are one of the most exciting and polarizing teams with phenom rookie Kyler Murray at the helm. They focused on the skill positions in the draft selecting Murray, Andy Isabella, and Hakeem Butler while ignoring the offensive line. Bringing in Gilbert could be a shrewd move, but this line still has its gaping holes. With that being said, Kingsbury’s five-wide college-style offense has the potential to alleviate some of the pressure on the offensive line. With quick passes and the utilization of Murray as a runner, this offense could neuter the pass rush before it even gets started. In addition to quick passes, putting more receivers on the field should lessen the box count–allowing the line to have more favorable matchups when they are run-blocking. David Johnson should benefit from more surrounding talent as well as the light boxes I mentioned above. This scheme has the potential to overcome the lack of talent up front that a traditional offense would struggle with.

 

Seattle Seahawks 

Position LT LG C RG RT
Player, Age Duane Brown, 34 Mike Iupati, 32 Justin Britt, 28 DJ Fluker, 28 Germain Ifedi, 25
Snaps 2018 1,122 477 1,044 662 1,044
Pressure % 3.99% 4.91% 3.18% 3.80% 5.78%
2018 PFF Grade 81.5 62.9 55.3 50.4 55.6

The Seahawks line can’t protect the quarterback, right? Russell Wilson is always running for his life. Well that’s true except for last year. This line was not fantastic, but they have risen from the bottom of the league. Surprisingly, they were the 18th best pass-blocking unit in 2018 according to PFF grade. All five lineman allowed pressure at rates lower than league average in 2018, which corresponds with the aforementioned improvement. This all starts with Duane Brown. The Seahawks acquired Brown in the middle of the 2017 season, and the move has paid off. Brown has consistently been one of the very best pass protectors in the league since 2011. I expect Brown to continue his high level of play and give the Seahawks a solid foundation for the passing game.

The rest of the line is nowhere near Brown’s level, but all played relatively well in 2018. New LG Mike Iupati is replacing JR Sweezy and, despite shortcomings in the passing game, he is still a capable run-blocker (70.2 PFF grade). I would prefer Sweezy in a vacuum but Iupati fits with Seattle’s philosophy. DJ Fluker and Justin Britt are not the most talented players, but they both performed above expectations within this scheme last year. Right tackle Germain Ifedi rounds out the starting five. He has improved as a pass-blocker in each of his first three seasons posting his highest PFF pass-blocking grade in 2018 of 70.2. His run-blocking remains poor, but Ifedi is creeping towards average. It’s a solid improvement over his first two seasons.

From a talent perspective, this line is still limited. Duane Brown is the only lineman capable of elite-level play and is 34 years old. The offensive line is no longer poor enough to hold back the  Seahawks, but I would not consider it strength either. Wilson should continue to be hyper-efficient behind one of the better pass-blocking lines he has had in his career. As for the running game, it is important to note that the 2018 offensive line was not as dominant as the raw stats have many to believe. The unit was improved, but the rushing success was more related to volume than exceptional line play. The 2018 Seahawks were second in the league in attempts (534), first in the league in rushing (2,560 yds), and 5th in YPA (4.8), but they were only 22nd in run blocking grade. This combination leads me to several different conclusions. One, Chris Carson was great last year. Two, the scheme and coaching was successful enough to elevate the subpar line. Three, Russell Wilson’s talent as a passer and runner open up the run game for this team.  Thankfully, this recipe is in place again this year. The 2019 Seahawks seem poised to grind their opponents into the ground whenever possible.

 

Los Angeles Rams

Position LT LG C RG RT
Player, Age Andrew Whitworth, 37 Joseph Noteboom, 24 Brian Allen, 24 Austin Blythe, 27 Rob Havenstein, 27
Snaps 2018 1,246 79 37 1,309 1,309
Pressure % 4.50% 0.00%* 0.00%* 4.77% 4.26%
2018 PFF Grade 83.1 70.8 67.3 71.8 84.3

Man, Sean McVay is a genius. Much ink has been used to describe McVay’s success but his work with the offensive line needs more attention. He took aging (36 years old in 2018) Andrew Whitworth, solid but unexceptional tackle Rob Havenstein and 7th round nobody Austin Blythe and elevated them to one of the best offensive lines in the game. McVay is part of the reason I expect Whitworth to remain the best pass blocker in the division even as he turns 37 years old. Havenstein improved both his pass-blocking grade and his run-blocking grade in 2018.  Similar to McGlinchey he has shown elite-level play as a run-blocker already grading out as the best run-blocking tackle in the NFL. Entering his 5th year, Havenstein could leap to elite level status if he continues on his current trajectory and improves in pass protection.

Austin Blythe deserves his own paragraph. As a 7th round pick in 2016 Blythe had seen very little playing time before 2018. The snaps he did get were poor, especially in pass protection as he posted PFF grades south of 40… yikes! In 2018, he played every snap going from nothing to an above-average pass protector. His grade rose 40 points! The offensive line was fantastic last year and Blythe’s step up was a huge part of that success.

Hopefully, Blythe’s story provides a road map for the remaining two players on this line. Brian Allen and Joseph Noteboom were essentially redshirt rookies last year as they both saw very limited snaps. It is hard to know what to expect from both of them in 2019, but we can only hope McVay elevates their play as well. Allen was a solid college player at Michigan State posting the 5th highest PFF grade for Centers in his class. Noteboom has the size (6’5″, 321 lbs) and athleticism (4.96 40-yard dash) that coaches drool over, but he is raw from a technical standpoint. The three returning players anchor this offensive line, but these young replacements will have to step up if they want to remain a top unit in the league.

The Rams line on paper is the best in the division and has a chance to scratch the top ten in the league. While the upside is there, there is a lot of risk involved as well. Age could finally catch up to Whitworth and the two “rookies” could struggle in their first real taste of NFL action. While Blythe’s ascension is remarkable, there is no guarantee he will hold that level of play. Even considering the downside, this line has a good chance of being a strength for the 2019 Rams.

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