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Two running backs going too high with o-line questions and two potential bargains

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Baltimore Ravens running back <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/29405/" data-ylk="slk:Alex Collins">Alex Collins</a> has the potential to outperform his ADP behind a revamped offensive line. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Baltimore Ravens running back Alex Collins has the potential to outperform his ADP behind a revamped offensive line. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports

Let’s say you’re choosing between two muscle cars for a Fast and Furious-style street race. Both options have oodles of horsepower, electrifying acceleration and blinding top-end speed. However, one car is equipped with Michelin’s finest high-performance tires and the other must make do with four cheap, off-brand tires of different makes. It’s a factor that won’t decide every race, but over say, 16 of them, it will influence the outcome several times.

That’s the kind of tiebreaker that offensive lines can be when you’re deciding between running backs in fantasy. Ball-carriers bust more often than wide receivers, so it’s important to take all factors into account when choosing between them. The quality of their run-blocking makes an excellent decider in close calls.

After looking at four studs last week, the four guys I’ll discuss today could all return value on fantasy gamers’ investments, but the risk/reward propositions represented by their offensive lines varies greatly.

LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

The domestic violence allegations surrounding LeSean McCoy seem to have receded, at least for now. What we know for sure is that the 10-year veteran has been a perennial RB1 averaging 107 total yards per game since his second year. Last year McCoy finished as RB7 and right now he’s generally the 14th back off the board. This ADP suggests that fantasy gamers are leery of the offense around him and/or expecting slippage in his skills, at age 30. McCoy’s yards per carry dipped to a career low in 2017 and there were signs that his trademark elusiveness was waning. Still, as the engine of an NFL offense one might think McCoy warrants a selection between picks 27-30 overall. I think that’s still too optimistic.

By some metrics (notably, not Football Outsiders’) the Buffalo offensive line was among the league’s best at creating space for their RBs in 2017, and the unit was even better the year before. However, during this offseason the Bills parted ways with center Eric Wood (retirement) left tackle Cordy Glenn (trade) and left guard Richie Incognito (as he put it, “off the reservation”). Not only are their replacements a clear step down in terms of experience and proven ability, the new lineup needs time to get in sync. Dion Dawkins, an ascendant talent, switches from right tackle to left and should provide solid if unexceptional run blocking. Center shouldn’t be a particular weak point, especially if Ryan Groy beats out Russell Bodine, but the rest of this line is undistinguished in the running game. While there’s always hope that a young unit will surprise – based on scheme, chemistry and/or young players coming along earlier than anticipated – the Bills’ run blocking projects as bottom-of-the-barrel.

Hmm, aging running back, rebuilding offensive line, unsettled quarterback situation… What could go wrong? I would rather take this next running back where McCoy is going, or even get him a round or more later.

Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens

Now here’s a guy I really like at his ADP. Collins doesn’t have the sterling pedigree of many top RBs, but the waiver-wire wonder was still highly successful last season. He was second in PlayerProfiler’s Breakaway Run Rate (meaning he broke off a lot of long runs) and he finished fifth in Juke Rate (meaning he was tough to tackle). By any grading system, the former Arkansas Razorback was terrific.

While Collins clearly helped to make the Ravens’ line look good last year, I’m heartened by their performance without Marshal Yanda, who is likely bound for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he hangs up his cleats. If the guard is all the way back from a broken ankle it’s a big boost to a unit that was already No. 6 in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, which attempts to isolate the role of blocking in a rushing attack. The Ravens were also seventh in short-yardage situations. With 2017 center Ryan Jensen a Buccaneer and tackle Austin Howard a Colt, the revamped Ravens’ offensive line will need time to coalesce. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that the unit can duplicate its success, barring injury. The additions should at least equal the subtractions. Notably, rookie Orlando Brown has looked good and is pushing to start. Brown bombed the NFL combine and preseason tape must be taken with a grain of salt, but the Ravens may have found a steal in the Oklahoma tackle.

There’s no reason to believe Collins’ opportunity won’t be similar to last year. The threat of Kenneth Dixon is fading, as the talented but unfortunate fourth-round pick in 2016 can’t seem to stay on the field. Versatile Buck Allen has proven himself a productive third-down back but is not a bell-cow by any means, so Collins has a clear path to carries. I expect the Ravens’ perennially tough defense to provide positive game-scripts, too. Going more than a full round after McCoy on Yahoo, Collins is a great value between picks 40 and 50 whom I’d happily take in the 30s.

Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions 

At this point, the Lions’ inability to run the ball is rightfully infamous. Perhaps Barry Sanders, one of the greatest running backs to ever tote the pigskin, cursed this franchise for never surrounding him with a championship roster, but since the 1990s the Lions have largely struggled to field a competent ground game. That may change in 2018, as Detroit has relentlessly devoted resources to its offensive line over the last couple of seasons. The Lions now have the potential to field a fivesome that provides above-average run-blocking. The cherry on the sundae is rookie Frank Ragnow, who solidifies the interior of Detroit’s line. The potential here is tantalizing. If only the unit had a good back to block for…

Is Johnson that back? We can’t be certain yet, but there’s definitely enough of a chance to take him at his current ADP (picks 77-80 overall across the roto landscape but on the rise). Johnson’s Burst Score is in the 93rd percentile on PlayerProfiler.com, meaning this is an explosive player who can take immediate advantage of any creases his o-line opens for him. Johnson’s long speed is above-average and his style has drawn comparisons to a range of backs from Green Bay’s Jamaal Williams to Arian Foster. The former Auburn Tiger is a slippery prospect who’s not that easy to project, but he has the three-down potential that is the Holy Grail of fantasy. Whether or not that comes to fruition in his rookie year – and yes, Johnson faces competition in this backfield – the upside is clear and no RB going at that point in drafts has an unblemished outlook for touches.

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Isaiah Crowell, New York Jets

Crowell is going off draft boards at about the same point as Johnson, but don’t choose this established veteran over the unknown quantity. Crowell is in a much worse situation when it comes to run blocking. The Jets don’t have a single offensive lineman who is above average in that department. Kelvin Beachum is a technician in pass protection, but he’s no mauler in the running game. The hope is that Brian Winters can regain form after playing through an abdominal injury last year that greatly hindered him. Newcomers Spencer Long, Travis Swanson and Antonio Garcia aren’t obvious difference-makers, but they give the unit needed depth. Last year the Jets were bottom five in adjusted line yards, so even mediocre would be a big improvement.

The ex-Brown certainly didn’t receive RB-friendly game-scripts or lots of red zone opportunities in Cleveland, but I don’t see New York providing him those things, either. At least not this year. And the Browns’ run-blocking back then was significantly better than the Jets’ should be. Putting aside the presence of Bilal Powell and the concussion Crowell sustained in his first preseason game, I still don’t anticipate the opportunity that have some considering Crowell a great value at his ADP. Take Kerryon Johnson instead.

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