CROSSING THE LINE: Early-Draft RB Made Riskier by Poor Offensive Lines

By Gary Davenport
Gary Davenport The running back position in fantasy football is being hit harder than an open bar at a Wisconsin wedding in 2018.

If you've already drafted, this isn't news to you. But if you haven't, you'll soon discover that tailbacks are absolutely flying off the board this year. Per the Average Draft Position Data here at Football Diehards, a whopping nine of the first 12 players being taken in PPR drafts are running backs. As many players at that position are going inside the first three rounds as every other spot put together.

In other words, not only does an aggressive approach at running back appear wise in 2018, but you'd better be aggressive and smart. The only thing worse than not having good running backs is trying to get them early and whiffing on the picks.

This article aims to help you avoid that by examining a factor that's sometimes overlooked - how bad offensive line play can negatively impact a running back's performance. Sure, part of a back's job is to make people miss, but it's hard to make hay without holes to run through.

Using the advanced offensive line statistics at Football Outsiders, it's possible to pinpoint a handful of backs coming off boards in the first four rounds who could find the sledding tough in 2018.

Does this mean you should stay away from these backs entirely? No. But if you have two backs closely ranked and one is on this list, you may want to draft the other dude.

Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears (ADP: 21) If Howard had a bit higher fantasy ceiling or he was more of a factor in the passing game, the third-year pro would probably get more run as an elite fantasy option. But after rushing for at least 1,100 yards in each of his first two seasons, Howard's a popular choice as a second running back in 2018 - especially after the Bears added weapons that should help offer better balance offensively.

But there are concerns with Howard as well. Behind a banged-up Bears line that struggled in most rushing categories last year (the Bears ranked 26th or worse in line ranking, power un success rate and stuffed percentage), Howard's yards per carry fell over a yard last year to a relatively average 4.1. If injuries and/or struggles hit the line or Mitch Trubisky doesn't get significantly better, a low-upside RB2 could be Howard's best-case.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP: 22)

Chris Roling of Bleacher Report is one of a number of writers advising that Mixon's a player to target in Round 2 this year. "Mixon is worth it," Roling said, "as we have plenty of college film and flashes from a season ago to point to use as a predictor of usage and production during his sophomore year. If all goes well, it wouldn't be too much of a surprise to see Mixon outperform his ADP."

To be fair, the Bengals added left tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Billy Price in free agency and the draft, so the hope is that Cincy's line play will be substantially improved. But the room for improvement in the Queen City is alarming in its own right. The Bengals managed less than 3.8 adjusted line yards per carry in 2017 and ranked 24th in the NFL in both run blocking and power run success rate. Glenn and Price had better be good - and stay healthy.

LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills (ADP: 28)

McCoy's coming off a seventh-place fantasy finish in PPR formats after topping 1,500 total yards last year. But there are red flags galore surrounding "Shady." His age (30) and career workload (almost 2,200 carries). A murky quarterback situation and lack of passing-game weapons in Western New York this year. The off-field issues regarding a home invasion involving a former girlfriend.

Then there's Buffalo's offensive line - a line breaking in three new starters in 2018. Yes, the Bills were sixth in the NFL in rushing last year, but Buffalo's line checked in at 27th in line rankings and allowed just 3.67 adjusted line yards per carry. The Bills also struggled at the point of attack, ranking as the sixth-worst team in the league at "stuffs" (carries for zero or negative yards).

McCoy's going to be a seeing a lot of eight-man fronts behind a revamped line that sorta sucked at run blocking in 2017. That sounds like a problem.

Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 40)

Drake was a mini-revelation for the Dolphins in 2017, averaging 4.8 yards a carry in six starts and displaying more power between the tackles than many fans and pundits alike expected. From Week 13 on last year (i.e. the fantasy playoffs), Drake was seventh among all running backs in PPR fantasy points. Entering the 2018 season as the lead dog in Miami, fantasy owners are hopeful that the 24-year-old will pick up where he left off last year.

In fairness, the Dolphins offensive line contributed somewhat to Drake's success up the gut - the Dolphins were sixth in the NFL in power run success rate. In most other categories, however, the Dolphins weren't as fortunate. The team was 30th in offensive line ranking, adjusted line yards per carry (just 3.26 yards a pop) and stuff percentage -- an eyebrow-raising 27 percent of Miami's run plays resulted in no gain or a loss.

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans (ADP: 43)

There are two schools of thought where Miller is concerned in fantasy in 2018 - and both have merit. Supporters point to Miller's RB16 finish last year in PPR formats and relatively modest asking price as indicative of a sneaky value. Detractors look at Miller's 3.7 yards a carry in 2017 and less than 1,000 yards rushing, shake their heads and pass.

No matter which camp you're in, bear in mind that the Texans' offensive line was, well, offensive in 2017. In addition to finishing second in the NFL in sacks allowed, Houston was also 20th in the NFL in run blocking, 18th in power run success rate and 18th in stuff percentage - while amassing just 3.9 adjusted line yards per carry.

Miller's not a guy who is going to create long runs for himself. And in 2017 at least, a Houston line that's virtually unchanged this season wasn't of much assistance.

Gary Davenport is a Contributing Author and Associate Editor at Football Diehards and the 2017 Fantasy Sports Writers Association's Football Writer of the Year.