How run blocking may impact the fantasy numbers of Lamar Jackson, Saquon Barkley, and other top notch fantasy prospects
July 26, 2020
One of the benefits of the Paydirt service is it provides a forum to write articles that don’t fit into the Draft Guide’s player card-centric format.
A leading element for a more comprehensive review is how run blocking trends can impact fantasy performance.
Run blocking is a huge factor in fantasy scoring, as studies I have done over the years show that run plays with good blocking generate roughly three to four times as many fantasy points per play than those with bad run blocking. This past year was no exception, as good blocking plays generated 335 percent more fantasy points per rush attempt than bad blocking plays.
(For those new to the TFS writing world, my run blocking metric system uses three primary metrics to gauge run blocking performance: GBR (good blocking rate, which measures how often an offense gives its ball carriers quality run blocking), GBYPA (good blocking yards per attempt, or how productive backs were on good blocking plays), and GBP (good blocking performance, a metric that combines GBR and GBYPA into a single number). Draft Guide readers can find a more detailed overview of this system on Page 15 in the Introduction section of that periodical.)
This first of a two-part series will take a look 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. The second part, which will be posted next week, will review the backs and/or teams that were hindered the most by poor run blocking last year and if those trends are apt to change in the upcoming fantasy season.
To kick this series off, let’s look at the player who dominated the GBR list the past two years.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Quarterbacks haven’t usually made this list over the years because it requires 100 planned rush attempts to qualify, but the run-centric Ravens utilize Jackson as a major part of their ground attack. They also provide Jackson with plenty of opportunities to utilize his skills, as Baltimore’s blockers gave Jackson a 75.0 percent GBR last year, a mark that led the league by more than 20 percentage points and set a new record in this category.
To get some insight into how Baltimore did this, I did a Paydirt interview with Coach Cody Alexander, a former Baylor assistant coach who is one of the sharpest film analysts I have encountered in 16 years in the football business.
During that conversation Coach Alexander talked about how single high safety coverage schemes, which are predominantly if not overwhelming man coverage, leave that single safety in a no-win situation when dealing with planned rushes by quarterbacks. The safety is responsible for helping with deep passes, yet when the quarterback keeps the football and thus adds another blocker to the offensive front wall, the safety then becomes responsible for stopping the quarterback as well.
This defensive predicament is a major reason Jackson had fantasy and real-world MVP numbers last year, but he should also get a ton of credit for doing a tremendous job of knowing when to keep the ball and when to hand it off on option-type plays. To get an idea of just how valuable this trait can be, note that Baltimore finished first in the league last season with a 53.1 team GBR. As great as that number is, it also means that Jackson’s rush attempts, many of which were of the option variety, had a GBR that was more than 20 percent higher than the club posted.
It might seem like this blocking level is not replicable but Jackson’s 71.4 GBR in 2018 had outlier performance written all over it and yet his GBR went up by nearly four points in 2019.
Having noted this, Coach Alexander did say during our interview that he thinks teams will have to start playing two deep coverage more often against Baltimore in order to keep the deep safety out of those no-win situations. This means it is possible Jackson’s GBR will decline, but he could lose 20 percentage points off of his 2019 mark and still have the best GBR in the league. This is one reason why even though Jackson earned a regression icon in the 2020 Draft Guide, he still rates at the top of the fantasy QB rankings.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
Mark Ingram and LeSean McCoy were the only running backs last year to receive a GBR of higher than 50 percent. Ingram remains in the Baltimore backfield and should receive similar run blocking for the aforementioned reasons. McCoy can’t be included on this list because he isn’t currently signed with an NFL squad.
Edwards-Helaire is first in line to take McCoy’s place in the Kansas City depth chart. This scenario affords him a tremendous opportunity to get a 50 or higher GBR, as the Chiefs front wall ranked sixth in GBR last year (46.7). Kansas City returns nearly everyone from that group, but they did just lose right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the 2020 season due to continue working as an orderly in Montreal.
That loss may have a negative impact on the Chiefs run blocking, but Andy Reid is very likely to lean on the ground game as much this year as he did during the Super Bowl stretch run last season. This extra rush attack emphasis should keep Kansas City’s GBR at or near its 2019 level and is one reason why Edwards-Helaire ends up with a No. 17 ranking at the RB position in the latest edition of the Draft Guide.
Jonathan Taylor/Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
Mack had the second highest GBR among running backs with 100+ good blocking carries last year, yet his 49.2 GBR was only 1.1 percent higher than the 48.3 GBR the Colts posted as a team in 2019. With Indianapolis having arguably the most physical offensive line in the league and making such a huge investment into spearheading a two-headed ground attack via the addition of Taylor, the odds are low that the Colts GBR will regress far, if at all.
Mack and Taylor will likely benefit from this blocking at a different pace as they are projected to be in a platoon setup this season with Taylor getting the goal line work. That workload division has dropped Mack’s value to yellow-rated territory and a borderline RB3/RB4 ranking. The prospect of Indianapolis giving a 45 percent or higher GBR to Taylor, who was the only player in FBS history to rush for 1,900+ yards in three straight seasons, vaults his upside grades to near blue-rated levels and provides him with a No. 27 overall ranking at RB.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Barkley was hindered by an ankle injury for much of last season and it led to his GBYPA plummeted from 10.5 in 2018 to 8.6 in 2019. That regression resulted in Barkley losing nearly 600 scrimmage yards from his 2018 total and dropped him well out of contention for the No. 1 RB ranking. With Barkley’s ankle now back at full strength, the question becomes can the Giants give him the type of blocking he needs to return to a 2,000+ scrimmage yard pace?
New York doesn’t have the reputation as a strong run blocking group, but they did give Barkley a 47.7 GBR last year that was par for the course for the team, as the Giants 47.0 GBR last season ranked fifth.
It is up in the air as to if this trend can be repeated, as Big Blue had to replace two offensive linemen this offseason, but one of the new linemen is first-round selection Andrew Thomas, a two-time All-American who won the Jacobs Blocking Award as the SEC’s best offensive lineman in 2019 in large part because of his dominant run blocking.
If Thomas gets out to a good start and this season sees a combination of healthy Barkley with 2018 breakaway skills and the 2019 GBR pace by New York’s blocking wall, Barkley should once again be a 2K-type of fantasy back. That’s why Barkley has 100 marks in overall and upside grades in both PPR and non-PPR leagues in the Draft Guide.
D’Andre Swift/Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
The Lions gave Kerryon Johnson a 49.6 GBR last season but he did next to nothing with it due to posting a 6.2 GBYPA that ranked next to last among qualifying backs. Detroit drafted Swift as a long-distance upgrade, as per cfbstats.com Swift ranked fourth in the SEC in rushes of 10+ yards last year despite missing most of the last two games due to a shoulder injury.
Detroit posted a solid 44.7 GBR as a team and added a ton of O line talent this offseason, so Swift may end up getting a similar caliber of blocking that Johnson could not take advantage of last season. It is why Swift has a near blue-rated upside grades in both non-PPR and PPR scoring environments and could be a steal as a sixth or seventh round selection.