By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
While it’s still the early days of draft season, ADP data is rolling in! I’ll try to view players’ draft value through the lens of offensive-line analysis, one of the last frontiers for fantasy gamers seeking to complement traditional decision-making with something your league-mates may not be aware of yet.
Fade: Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets
Le’Veon Bell is going seventh overall in half-PPR drafts, despite his new team’s offensive line coming in dead last in Adjusted Line Yards last season, which is Football Outsiders’ signature stat for run blocking. Taking this and many other factors into account, I ranked the Jets 27th in my recent assessment of run blocking. Over Bell’s last four seasons with Pittsburgh, the o-line’s average finish in Adjusted Line Yards was sixth, a tribute to the running lanes he was afforded.
Yes, Bell is one of the best two-way backs in the biz, but Sam Darnold has yet to pepper a RB with targets at either the collegiate level or as a rookie. That’s not a staple of Adam Gase offenses, either. In his six years as a play-caller, only twice has an RB topped 50 catches. That’s probably Bell’s floor, but I’d still rather take Davante Adams, Michael Thomas or Julio Jones, who are going after him.
Value: James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell is a vastly better player than James Conner, but his former backup usually goes a handful of picks later and the situation is so much better in Pittsburgh. While the Steelers’ vaunted line may take a step back this season, it’s still well above average. The main concern for Conner’s critics is competition, and the Steelers’ new RB coach had versatile Jaylen Samuels at NC State. However, Mike Tomlin has traditionally leaned on a bell-cow back and, despite Conner’s comments to the contrary, I think he’ll still be featured far more than most lead runners in 2019’s “Share The Load” NFL.
The still-potent Pittsburgh offense should give Conner many more goal-line opportunities than Bell in NYC. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers’ line was fantastic at paving clear paths to the paint in 2018. Only four teams had a higher Power Success rate and only four saw their RBs stuffed at or behind the line on a lower percentage of runs. If I’m drafting at the turn I like pairing Conner with one of the top WRs.
Fade: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Fantasy drafters are making Joe Mixon the 10th back off the board, which means they’re expecting him to duplicate his highly efficient 2018. Last season Cincinnati didn’t have a Sean McVay-disciple at the controls, but their offensive line played much better than in Mixon’s rookie year, when he was held to less than 950 total yards and four touchdowns.
If the Bengals have used up all their bad luck, new coach Zac Taylor is a wunderkind, A.J. Green comes back on schedule and the o-line gels, this offense will be excellent and the sky is the limit for Mixon. Unfortunately, the line endured more than its fair share of misfortune this offseason and, with another injury or two, could be every bit as bad as the 2017 edition. I’d feel better about Mixon’s ADP if it dips into the late second round.
Value: Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys
Cooper has been no model of consistency in his four pro seasons, but this is his first real shot at living up to the potential many saw when the Alabama wideout was drafted 4th overall. After his midseason trade to Dallas, Cooper was on pace for 1,289 yards and 11 touchdowns if he played 16 games in a Cowboys uniform. Assuming that the o-line improves as expected with the return of center Travis Frederick, Dak Prescott will spend much of his time operating out of a clean pocket. While Cooper’s former quarterback, Derek Carr, prefers safer throws, Prescott trusts his electric receiver to make plays. In Amari, you could be getting a top-10 WR more than 30 picks into your draft.
Fade: Antonio Brown, Oakland Raiders
Cooper’s former quarterback will now be responsible for Antonio Brown’s fantasy value. Brown’s comically bizarre cryotherapy mishap has caused his ADP to drop recently, but I still see bust potential here. The Raiders’ o-line was in shambles last year and proved that Carr needs a clean pocket to produce. When he’s protected, he’s quite good. When he isn’t, his efficiency plummets. Meanwhile, “Mr. Big Chest” made hay on Ben Roethlisberger bombs. Last season, 22% of the future Hall-of-Famer’s targets came 20 or more yards downfield, and in 2017 only eight receivers had a deeper yards per target total. But Carr has never shown great willingness to go deep. Last year the Oakland signal-caller threw a pass that traveled 20 or more yards in the air on just 9.2% of his attempts.
As a Raiders fan, it pains me to say this, but I expect a lot of baffled, angry body language from Brown when his QB, beset by a nasty pass rush, checks down to the back or tight end.
Value: Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
It’s rare for a back who could provide low-end RB1 production to be going late in the third round, but that’s the case with Marlon Mack. He may not be the most natural of runners, but the South Florida product has one of the NFL’s best run-blocking units in front of him. Indy was 4th in Adjusted Line Yards last year and made life a lot easier for their ball-carriers. As the early down pounder for a high-powered offense, Mack is a threat to score double-digit touchdowns but should also break off his share of long runs.
Fade: David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
David Njoku is TE9 right now, and I’d rather have TE10 (Pittsburgh’s Vance McDonald). The former Hurricane is an ascendant talent, but his team may call upon him more as a blocker than a receiver with so many pass-catching options and a suspect pair of tackles. If the Browns get steady play from Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard then it may be bombs away for Baker Mayfield, but Njoku’s current draft cost seems pricey based on the o-line concerns and his production to date.
Value: Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
Latavius Murray does not have the deft feet of the man he’s replacing in the Big Easy, but he does inherit Mark Ingram’s pulverizing o-line and dynamic offense. Over the last two seasons, Murray has been highly effective breaching the end zone behind Minnesota’s much weaker run blocking, so TD-vulture is his floor and at worst he’s the best handcuff in fantasy. While I wouldn’t pencil Murray in for Ingram’s touch total, Sean Payton won’t give Alvin Kamara the heavy workload of a Christian McCaffrey. That simply isn’t necessary with this line and surrounding cast, so Murray should get more run than his current ADP suggests. He’s a bargain in the eighth round of your 12-team draft.
Fade: Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
The ex-Clemson receiver is a great red-zone target, but so is Hunter Henry (remember him?) and Keenan Allen is no slouch either. By some metrics, the Chargers’ pass protection was atrocious last year, and they didn’t bring in exciting reinforcements. At WR22, Williams’ ADP has me scratching my head. Tyler Lockett, Calvin Ridley, and Allen Robinson are all going later in Yahoo drafts! Sure, Williams snared a lot of touchdown tosses last year, but the unpredictability of those is what led people to PPR in the first place.
Value: DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles
The quintessential deep threat over the last decade, DeSean Jackson needs time to dust defensive backs and time he shall have, thanks to an o-line that is among the league’s best at pass protection. Carson Wentz has already demonstrated a deep-ball mind-meld with his new weapon, so the table is set for Jackson to have a great season. That potential is not being reflected in the high-flying Eagle’s draft cost right now. DeSean should be more like WR35 than WR49, which is currently his ADP in half-point PPR leagues.