Fantasy football may feature players at skill positions, but you can bet the offensive linemen have a major impact on fantasy production.
A great offensive line can make seemingly every skill player in an offense a viable fantasy option. Look no further than the Dallas Cowboys, who had the league’s best line in 2016. That allowed Dallas to have an onslaught of viable fantasy players, including Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Jason Witten, Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant.
Most offenses have two or three viable fantasy players on offense, but the Bengals have a group of skill players that could rival a team like Dallas. The difference is Cincinnati’s offensive line could limit the players’ to having only A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert (when healthy) as consistent fantasy producers.
Andy Dalton is good, but he struggled to be a good fantasy option in 2016 while being sacked 41 times, the second-most in his six-year career. Jeremy Hill was a fantasy stud in the second half of his rookie season, but he was a black hole more often than not in 2016. Giovani Bernard is a good PPR back, but even he failed to make a significant fantasy impact last year before tearing his ACL.
The struggles of Hill, Dalton and Bernard came in large part because they were playing behind arguably the worst offensive line they’ve had in their young NFL careers. Unfortunately, it may not be getting better in 2017.
That’s evident in ESPN’s ranking of all 32 offensive lines and how they impact each team’s fantasy prospects:
15. Cincinnati Bengals
Overall grade: C+
Pass blocking: D+
Run blocking: B-
Cincinnati's "D" or lower grades in sack rate, pass protection and time in pocket on vertical passes means it could be it difficult for the Bengals to get the most out of A.J. Green, John Ross or Andy Dalton. One potential positive trait is the No. 11 ranking in GBR (39.9 percent) could mitigate downside for drafting Jeremy Hill or Joe Mixon.
In a separate article, Pro Football Focus went more in-depth about how Cincinnati’s offensive line woes will impact the fantasy prospects of various Bengals. PFF called the Bengals’ losses of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler one of the least helpful moves of the offseason in terms of fantasy football:
4. Cincinnati loses two of its best offensive linemen
The Bengals lost two of their best offensive linemen via free agency this past offseason. LT Andrew Whitworth was an 11-year vet who graded out as our top pass-blocking tackle in 2016. The Rams paid Whitworth an exorbitant amount of money, where he will move on to protect Jared Goff’s blindside. Kevin Zeitler became the highest-paid guard in NFL history after signing a five-year, $60 million contract with the Browns. Zeitler graded as both a top-10 pass-blocker and run-blocker last year and his presence will be sorely missed after looking at this year’s current projected line:
The lack of talent up front could force Dalton to throw the ball much faster out of necessity in 2017. Last year Dalton ranked top-10 in average time to throw per attempt (2.37 seconds), so we’ve seen that a quick release from him isn’t outside his game. However, he may not get the luxury to utilize John Ross’ deep speed or work off play action if the line has difficulties keeping him upright. Dalton took the second-most sacks last year (41) and his line took a massive hit with the losses of Whitworth and Zeitler. Cincinnati would be wise to implement a short passing attack in 2017 to try to mitigate the loss of their two stalwart offensive linemen.
We all know by now that the offensive line is one of, if not the Bengals’ biggest question mark of 2017. But it’s also clear these issues could play a major part in how much of an impact various Bengals make in fantasy football, not to mention how the team does as a whole.
Dalton has received a lot of hype as a late-round sleeper at quarterback, but he’ll have a tough time living up to that if he’s consistently under fire. That would also lead to less production from guys like Eifert, Green, Brandon LaFell and John Ross.
The real impact would likely be on the ground, where Hill and Bernard haven’t shown they can succeed without a great offensive line. They were both viable fantasy options when playing behind Whitworth, Zeitler, Andre Smith and a healthy Clint Boling. Now, Zeitler and Whitworth are gone, while Smith is moving to guard for the first time in his career.
Second-round rookie Joe Mixon looks like the kind of running back who can thrive without a good offensive line, but he’s still a rookie and an unknown commodity at this point at the NFL level.
None of this should completely dissuade you from taking Bengals players in fantasy drafts this summer, but it serves as a good warning to be prepared for potential setbacks.