Offensive lines can dramatically affect the play of your fantasy team. Quality line play can turn a good running back into a great one (see Peterson, Adrian). By the same token, poor line play can turn a talented guy like Steven Jackson into a track-suited sideline spectator.
In breaking down the O-lines, I have tried to steer clear of the obvious calls. Dallas, New England, Indy and San Diego all have great fantasy players and great lines. By the same token, Detroit, Miami, Baltimore and Houston are afflicted by terrible line play, on top of having few fantasy players of impact. No need to tell you what you already know.
I'm here to provide help at the margins. If you're wondering where to slot, say FrankGore or Larry Johnson, on draft day, a breakdown of their offensive lines might help you determine their relative value. The following lists 10 offensive lines of note: five teams with quality fantasy players that will be particularly helped by the quality of their O-lines and five that will be noticeably hurt.
A Cinderella story, outta nowhere, the Cleveland Browns surprised a lot of people last season, due in large part to their improved offensive line. The line provided plenty of time for QB Derek Anderson to wing it, allowing only 19 sacks (5th in the league). They were also maulers, opening large enough holes for the team to finish eighth overall in rushing. Leading the charge was first round draftee LT Joe Thomas. Thomas proved to be every bit deserving of the third overall pick, making the Pro Bowl in his first season at a notoriously difficult position. Flanking him was Pro Bowl alternate LG Eric Steinbach, who also proved worth his weight in gold ... $50 million of it to be exact. The free agent contract the Browns gave him before the 2007 season was one of the smartest moves the newly revived franchise has made. Ryan Tucker will probably hold onto the starting RG spot, as he played well there in relief of the injured Seth McKinney. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The Carolina front office and coaching staff appear to have disjointed objectives when it comes to the offensive line. The team moved to a zone blocking scheme last year to account for the lack of size across the offensive line, but someone forgot to tell GM Marty Hurney to keep acquiring quicker, smaller offensive linemen, so he went in the opposite direction. LG Mike Wahle and C Justin Hartwig have moved on, replaced by former LT Travelle Wharton and '07 second-round pick Ryan Kalil, respectively. Wharton packs a lot of beef into a 6-4 frame, which won't lend itself well to launching himself at defenders' knees, a basic tenet of the zone blocking scheme. At RG, the Panthers brought in Toniu Fonoti, who ate himself out of the league last year. The tackle situation could go either way. Former first rounder Jordan Gross flip-flopped back and forth between RT and LT over the last few years. On the left, he's just a guy; on the right, he really shines. Of course, the Panthers' brain trust is set to move him back to LT in '08. Brilliant. The team traded up into the first round of the '08 draft to acquire new starting RT JeffOtah, a "win now" pick if there ever was one. Basically, Carolina is starting out the '08 season with a completely re-vamped offensive line, which is unfortunate in that the players look to be square pegs shoved into round holes.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers are another zone blocking team that relies on guile and athleticism over brute force. This strategy helps them immensely in the passing game, where they allowed the fewest sacks-per-pass attempt in the league. The running game wasn't as solid, although it took the Packers until week nine to settle on Ryan Grant as their starting running back. Once that happened, the team turned around its fortunes in the running game, and Grant rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in the second half of the season. The strength of this line is at the tackle positions, with bookends Mark Tauscher and ChadClifton guarding the flanks. Clifton made the Pro Bowl at LT, and Tauscher is a solid player on the right. The interior of the line is strictly blue collar, with overachievers Jason Spitz at RG and C Scott Wells. The Packers are looking for one of their many young linemen to step up and secure the LG spot.
St. Louis Rams
For all their O-line injuries last season, the Rams may as well have traveled to their games in an ambulance. The list of injuries is as long as my arm, but LT Orlando Pace is at the top. After playing only nine games over the last two seasons due to a variety of ailments, Pace is now attempting to come back from a torn rotator cuff. What kind of player will he be at this point in his career? That is probably the biggest question mark looming over this franchise. Last season, Pace was replaced by Alex "False Start" Barron, who stays just healthy enough to hurt his team by playing. Barron will move back to RT if Pace is healthy enough to go. RG Richie Incognito is a magnet for both injuries and penalty flags, but the team has few other options. The Rams did right in paying up to bring in former Titan Jacob Bell to play LG, but that's like putting a band-aid on cancer. And the linemen are not the only ones who get beat up. The Rams have given up nearly 100 sacks over the past two seasons, so playing QB in St. Louis has become a dangerous occupation.
New York Jets
After their line performed so poorly in '07, the Jets went on a spending spree. They brought in an old friend of Coach Eric Mangini's, Damien Woody, to shore up the RT spot. Woody is a natural center, but for $11 million guaranteed, he would line up as punt returner for the Saskatchewan Roughriders if they told him to. He is probably more suited to RT at this point in his career, as he's flirting with the 350-pound mark. Former Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Faneca was also a recipient of the Jets' largesse. He got himself a sweet summer job as counselor at scenic Camp Hempstead for just slightly north of the minimum wage (5 years, $40 million). In addition to dominating defensive lines from the LG spot, his job will be to whip underachieving former first round picks LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson and C Nick Mangold into shape. Ferguson has been criticized for letting his weight drop and for getting beat by any defensive end with a bag of tricks, but he has "it" in him to be a player. Mangold has been good, but not great. Both could use the steadying influence and wisdom of vets like Woody and Faneca. Quick, somebody call Bill Murray! I have an idea for Meatballs V! But seriously, the Jets O-line will improve dramatically with these two wily old veterans in the fold.
I hope that RB Michael Turner and QB Matt Ryan can sleep well at night with their respective newfound riches, because they will get no love from Atlanta's offensive line. For some insane reason, the Falcons are sticking with last year's power-blocking scheme that led them to finish near the bottom of the league in rushing, which was a big fall from the from their top ranking in '06, when they employed a zone blocking scheme of their own. The main culprits are RT Todd Weiner, RG Kynan Forney, and C Todd McClure, who are miscast in their roles as beefcake pile-pushers. Veteran LT Wayne Gandy was let go after the season, and first round draftee Sam Baker will take his place. Trading back into the first round of the draft to pick Sam Baker reeked of desperation on the part of the Falcons, and they're going to throw the kid to the lions as LT in a division rife with quality defensive ends.
It is a given that the Vikings have a quality O-line, but folks may not appreciate exactly how good it is. The pressure on this group is immense. First, everyone in the stadium knows that the Vikings will be running the ball on the majority of their plays, and yet they do it anyway, while generating half a yard per carry better than any other team in the league. Additionally, the team needs to provide as much time as possible for still-developing QB Tarvaris Jackson to make his reads. They don't do as well in pass protection as in run blocking, but more than anything, that is the result of the quality of RB Adrian Peterson, as compared to the inconsistencies of Jackson in his role. The Vikings' middle-to-left trio of C Matt Birk, LG Steve Hutchinson, and LT Bryant McKinnie is the best in football, bar none. Birk is a multiple time Pro-Bowler, and McKinnie is an above average tackle. The main attraction is Hutchinson, who very well might be the best lineman in football. It's no coincidence that wherever this guy plays, the University of Michigan, Seattle, or Minnesota, his team does exceptionally well running the football. With the help of this top-notch unit, Peterson will run wild on opposing defenses if he can stay healthy.
San Francisco 49ers
RB Frank Gore and QB J.T. O'Sullivan had better check that their insurance is paid up, because they are in for a world of hurt in '08. The Niners brought in mad genius Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, and his system is not overly focused on blocking. The O-line will be largely on their own, as backs, receivers, and TEs are expected to run pass routes, but not to stay in and help out with the blocking. This is a double whammy for the Niners' skill players, as the cupboard is bare on the o-line. In terms of pass protection, the Niners can only improve, finishing dead last in sacks allowed in '07. Look for that trend to continue. Last year's first round pick Joe Staley did a decent job at RT, but he gets a promotion to the left side this year; time to cowboy up, Joe. Future Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen retired, and it will be a battle royale between second round rookie Chilo Rachal and a cast of thousands for the two guard positions. If Jonas Jennings is healed up, and the unspecified "personal matter" that caused him to miss a game last year is resolved, look for him to hold down the fort at RT.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If the NFL gave an award for Most Improved Offensive Line in '07, it would go to the Bucs. This is the outcome of good planning, as the team spent the last several years focusing on upgrading this unit. The Bucs boast two excellent young guards in Arron Sears and Davin Joseph, both of whose career paths are on an upward trajectory. They will be teamed up with Tampa's big off season acquisition, C Jeff Faine. Getting Faine was a double bonus for the Bucs, as they weakened the line of division rival New Orleans and nicely upgraded their own. Faine will strengthen what was already a formidable interior line, allowing them to grind out the tough yards up the middle. The Bucs are not as solid on the perimeter, but they're not bad either. LT is where the action is, with Luke Petitgout coming back from an ACL injury to try to regain his job from former practice squad player Donald Penn, who was respectable in relief from Week 4 onwards. One thing to look out for is the Bucs penchant to allow sacks, but that is partially a function of QB Jeff Garcia's free-form style of play.
Kansas City Chiefs
Any conversation regarding the Chiefs' O-line automatically turns toward Willie Roaf and Will Shields, two guys who are retired and Hall of Fame bound, which does not bode well for the current roster. Let's get it out of the way up front: the Chiefs have the worst line in the NFL ... by a large margin. These guys can't pass block, they can't run block, heck, they're about as effective as the armless blockers from electric football. LG Brian Waters is the only guy on the line who is worth his salt, and he is in his thirties and on the down side of a respectable career. LT Damion McIntosh couldn't cut it with the lowly Dolphins, and he won't be doing much better in K.C. The Chiefs had better hope that their second first round pick, G/T Branden Albert, is worth what they gave up for him, because it was a lot. Sack masters like Jared Allen don't grow on trees. In fantasy terms, Larry Johnson gets a big downgrade running behind this bunch of stiffs. The only silver lining is that these guys won't exactly be going up against a murderer's row of defenses in the AFC West. Still, bad is bad, and the Chiefs' O-line will find new and exciting ways to get their skill players mauled in '08.