By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
In the NFL, much is decided in the trenches in the mud and grass (or, less romantically, on the artificial turf). An offense’s ability to run the ball and protect the passer greatly depends on the large men going toe to toe with their (often larger) opposite numbers. This weekly struggle greatly impacts the numbers that appear in your fantasy team’s box score, so understanding it can make your decisions easier and more successful.
During the preseason I ranked the NFL’s offensive lines and how they’ll help or hinder the running backs and passers they block for. I’ve also looked at quarterbacks individually and RBs chosen in both the early rounds and middle sections of fantasy drafts. Now that the regular season is finally here, it’s time to voice concern about skill players whose blockers may get manhandled by their opponents, and highlight those with lines that can dominate up front.
Luck’s first regular-season action since October 2016 could be a rough go. The Colts’ revamped line has struggled thus far and their Week 1 opponent, Cincinnati, looks ferocious from a pass-rush perspective. The Bengals have a bevy of defenders who can put heat on the quarterback, and they ran roughshod over the Bills’ ramshackle line in the dress rehearsal.
Indy’s right tackle spot may be a weakness to exploit. Joe Haeg, a walk-on at North Dakota State and fifth-round draft pick in 2016, lines up opposite Carlos Dunlap, who is 19 sacks away from the franchise record. On the left side, Anthony Castonzo missed the preseason with a hamstring injury and is a little iffy for Week 1. He’ll need to be sharp to fend off emerging sack artist Carl Lawson. The interior of the line is Indy’s strength, but defensive tackle Geno Atkins is a six-time Pro Bowler who can bring pressure with the best of them.
Put it all together and a potentially rusty Luck could be forced into turnovers while attempting to dink and dunk his way down the field. It makes T.Y. Hilton a risky start, too. However, with Luck relying on short, quick passes, Jack Doyle is a good play. The tight end torched the Bengals last year and is a sneaky bet to lead his team in targets this week.
RB Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens
I expect Collins, a player I’ve already touted this preseason, to be a fine play at home against Buffalo. Baltimore’s offensive line should get some push against a front that lacks standout run defenders beyond Jerry Hughes and, they hope, rookie MLB Tremaine Edmunds.
The Ravens’ starting lineup isn’t entirely settled, which is worrisome, but returning left guard Alex Lewis looks sharp after missing 2017 with a torn labrum. He was a bigger question mark than right guard Marshal Yanda, also returning from injury. While preseason results must be taken with a cinderblock-size grain of salt, Baltimore did lead the league in rushing yards and looked good doing it. I put their o-line at No. 11 in my late July run-blocking rankings and several teams higher on the list have more injury woes now than they did then.
I don’t see this as a contest where Baltimore uses its pass-catching backs more than Collins.
With Buffalo’s Nathan Peterman getting the start against the Ravens’ forbidding D, the Bills will probably struggle to move the ball. Turnovers seem likely. Fumbles and picks produce short fields and red-zone opportunities, so I’m definitely projecting a touchdown for Baltimore’s primary ball-carrier. Collins has proven his nose for the end zone, hitting paydirt in five of the Ravens’ last seven games in 2017. Treat him as a high-end RB2 this week.
RB Carlos Hyde, Cleveland Browns
It’s tempting to start Hyde against the Steelers, as he’s coming off a strong preseason in which he fended off the challenge of rookie Nick Chubb. What’s more, Pittsburgh’s reputation as a stout run defense was tarnished after linebacker Ryan Shazier’s tragic injury Week 13 of last season. The Steelers were the NFL’s second stingiest front in the exhibition season, however.
The Browns’ o-line is in flux, with their best player (Joel Bitonio) saying he hoped to know by Wednesday whether he’ll be playing tackle or guard. While I don’t doubt Bitonio’s ability to play either position at a high level – he’s that good – the unit’s readiness is in question. Right guard Kevin Zeitler is coming off a calf injury and Hue Jackson may start undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison at left tackle. The youngster doesn’t lack for size or athleticism but facing off with the likes of Cameron Heyward, a premier run stuffer, will be a trial by fire. Whoever gets the start, the lineup won’t have had many preseason reps together. Hyde could find little running room in this one.
RB Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos
Denver’s offensive line was not a point of pride in 2017, but it performed well this preseason. Center Matt Paradis is building on the impressive start to his career and tackle Jared Veldheer may be regaining prime form. Once upon a time we didn’t start running backs against Seattle, but that’s no longer the case. The Broncos face a defense lacking, among others, Kam Chancellor, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Bennett and an injured K.J. Wright.
Newly anointed starter Royce Freeman should benefit from a positive game script, too. We have little reason to expect the Seattle offense to find much success in the Mile High City, as Denver still fields one of the NFL’s most disruptive defenses. That means playing with a lead and potentially salting away the game on the ground. Everything is lining up for Freeman to deliver RB2 production in the opener.