How run blocking is likely to impact the fantasy values of James Conner, Le'Veon Bell, and Matt Breida
August 02, 2020
This is part two of a two-part series that takes a look at how run blocking trends may impact fantasy football performance.
The first part looked at the backs and/or teams that benefited the most from good run blocking in 2019 and how likely it is that those trends can continue in the 2020 campaign. This part will review the backs and/or teams that were hindered the most by poor run blocking last year and aim to determine if those trends are apt to change in the upcoming fantasy season.
James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers had a 45.1 GBR in 2018, but that number plummeted to 39.7 last season since defenses knew they didn’t have to pay any respect to the passing talents of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. Conner didn’t fare any better than the team, as he received a 39.7 GBR that was equal to the team’s GBR pace.
Having Ben Roethlisberger back under center and returning much of the run blocking talent that was on the team two seasons ago should at least vault the Black and Gold’s GBR into the low to mid 40s and could move it even higher if Roethlisberger’s arm is as healthy as it looked in the Twitter videos he posted over the summer showing him throwing passes all over the field.
This highly likely blocking upgrade doesn’t seem to be reflected in Conner’s draft day values and it is a major factor as to why he earns one of the rare sleeper designations in this year’s Draft Guide.
Le’Veon Bell/Frank Gore, RBs, NY Jets
I’ve written multiple articles over the years that detailed how Bell’s patience in before committing to a gap used to be a strength because defenses didn’t know how to adjust to it, but it has now turned into a weakness since defenders have learned to be just as patient as Bell and stay in their gaps until he makes his mind up. This effectively closes big play rushing lanes and it is why Bell has posted atrocious GBYPA marks many times in his career and finished last in that category in 2019 with an abysmal 6.0 mark.
Bell’s lack of big play ability was often offset by strong GBR totals when he was in Pittsburgh, but last year Bell played behind a Jets blocking wall that ranked 28th in GBR (38.7). That pace was only half a percentage point higher than the 38.2 GBR Bell received last season, so he got the caliber of blocking that New York was capable of giving him last year.
The Jets are replacing three starters from last year’s offensive line and adding first-round selection Mekhi Becton at left tackle, but expecting this hodgepodge group to take a significant leap forward seems like a low percentage move, especially considering that New York has only 39 rush defense matchup points and isn’t projected to have a green-rated matchup in that category until Week 8.
There is a chance, probably better than most anticipate, that Adam Gase is going to utilize Frank Gore to the point that this could actually turn into a lead/alternate setup rather than a bell cow situation. That might help Gore’s fantasy value, but be aware that the blocking woes for Gang Green indicate the change of scenery isn’t apt to turn this into a positive for Gore’s 2020 fantasy performance, either.
Matt Breida, RB, Miami Dolphins
The 49ers run blocking prowess wasn’t anywhere near as good as generally thought last season, as San Francisco’s 42.6 GBR was literally a middle of the league showing (ranked 16th). Breida fared slightly worse than the team as a whole, as his 40.5 GBR received placed 33rd among qualifying backs, but he made up for it by being the only back to post a double-digit GBYPA in 2019 (10.0).
That breakaway skill is a rare talent and offers significant fantasy upside potential, but Breida has a huge problem in that he is moving to a Miami offense that had the worst run blocking in the NFL last season. The Dolphins 30.9 GBR was by far the worst showing in that category, as the next lowest mark was 36.0 by Tampa Bay.
When a team is that far out of next to last place, even a significant improvement might result in a GBR that is still below league average, so the free agent additions Miami made to its O line probably won’t be enough to get Breida even back to the mid-tier run blocking level he received in 2019. It’s why Breida has strong orange-rated downside to go along with low-end green-rated upside and only rates as a RB4 in the latest version of the Draft Guide.