Imagine the exhilaration when your fantasy football running back breaks loose for a spectacular 40-yard touchdown run. The joyous fist pumps as you tally up those precious fantasy points. But amid our celebrations, let's not overlook the unsung heroes along the offensive line.
Yes, a running back can create his own space to break away for big-point plays, but more often, those explosive plays are generated from the lanes created by the men up front doing the dirty work.
So, as you gear up for your 2023 fantasy football drafts, don't ignore adjustments teams have made over the offseason to their offensive line -- or scheme or coaching changes.
Here are the teams that improved the most up front heading into 2023, whether it be from free agency, the draft or health, and what it could mean for the fantasy prospects of the backs running behind them.
The Steelers ended 2022 ranked 14th in run block win rate, but the offensive line did show improvement as the season went along. That improvement coincided with Najee Harris finding his stride after overcoming a Lisfranc injury that hindered him early on. For Weeks 10-17, Harris was fantasy's eighth-ranked running back, averaging 15.3 PPG.
Fast-forward to this offseason, where the Steelers underwent significant change along the O-line, adding former Eagles guard Isaac Seumalo and ex-Jet Nate Herbig through free agency and moving up to take Jones in the first round of April's draft. With QB Kenny Pickett expected to make a significant jump in Year 2 and an upgraded unit up front, Harris becomes an appealing option at his current average draft position as a mid-range RB2. In 2023, he could easily climb back into the upper echelon of fantasy running backs and is a great pick in Round 2 or Round 3.
Over the past two seasons, Harris ranks fifth with 1,087 rushing yards after first contact and seventh with 1,147 rushing yards before first contact.
It wasn't exactly smooth sailing in Denver last season. The Broncos faced numerous issues, with offensive line play among them. It was the first time that no Denver offensive lineman started every game since 1987. However, the Broncos made targeted improvements to the unit in the offseason, acquiring two high-quality starters in Powers and McGlinchey.
Of course, they also brought in former Saints head coach Sean Payton. During Payton's tenure in New Orleans from 2006 to 2021, the Saints had the ninth-highest run block win rate in the league. With his emphasis on O-line play and the running game, the Broncos are poised for a turnaround after ranking 21st in rushing yards per game in 2022.
That is great news for the prospects of Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine. While Williams' Week 1 status is uncertain with him coming off a season-ending knee injury, Perine is expected to have a significant role this season, regardless. Both stand to benefit from the renewed focus on the run game and should outperform fantasy projections.
When fantasy managers think of the Chiefs, the passing attack under Patrick Mahomes is probably the first thing that comes to mind. So maybe it comes as a surprise that Kansas City's offensive line finished fifth in run block win rate last season. With the addition of two new starting tackles -- former Jaguars RT Jawaan Taylor signed a four-year deal worth $80 million, and ex-Bucs LT Donovan Smith was brought in on a one-year deal -- this unit could be even better in 2023.
That's good news for the run game and Isiah Pacheco, who led the Chiefs with 830 rushing yards as a rookie last season and showcased his skills with an additional 197 yards in the postseason (and a TD in the Super Bowl). Pacheco ranked 14th in the NFL with 2.91 rushing yards per carry before contact and had the third-highest success rate among running backs with at least 150 rushing attempts last season. From Week 10-17 last season, he ranked sixth with 569 rushing yards. Tied to a high-powered offense and an improved offensive line, his talents will shine brighter. Projected as a low-end RB2, he's likely to surpass expectations. Available in Rounds 5 and 6, consider selecting him a round earlier.
Jerick McKinnon also had a solid season in 2022, playing in all 17 regular-season games and accumulating 803 yards from scrimmage while setting career highs in targets (71), receptions (56) and total touchdowns (10). Both backs promise to make a significant impact in 2023 behind an even stronger line, making them solid additions to fantasy teams.
Key additions: OT Dawand Jones
2022 run block win rate: 12 (72%)
The Browns dealt with injuries along the offensive line last season and had a somewhat lackluster performance, ranking 13th in run block win rate. However, when healthy, and with Pro Bowl guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller anchoring the unit, Cleveland boasts one of the league's top O-lines and should experience a rebound in 2023. The Browns also re-signed center Ethan Pocic and added Jones in the fourth round of the draft.
As a team, the Browns ranked fifth in the NFL last season with 146.5 rushing yards per game and 31.3 attempts. Lead back Nick Chubb (last year's RB6), ranked fourth in total rushing yards before first contact (798), showing a strong ability to read blocks and identify open running lanes (16th in success rate). In addition, Chubb was third in rushing yards after contact, so he's also breaking tackles and evading defenders (his 88 rushes of 10-plus yards over the past two seasons leads the league).
Over the past three seasons, Chubb has averaged 18.2 touches, 102.7 total yards and 16.3 fantasy points per game. Our projections for this season place him in the just inside the top 10 among running backs. With a healthy offensive line, Chubb has the potential to crack the top five. He was RB4 during Weeks 1-12, slipping to RB23 when Deshaun Watson returned. As Watson gets more acclimated, the Browns offense should be more efficient. Additionally, Chubb may see increased targets with Kareem Hunt and Duke Johnson gone. Do not hesitate to draft him near the end of Round 1 or at the top of Round 2.
Meanwhile, fantasy managers looking for a lottery ticket should keep an eye on second-year back Jerome Ford. If Chubb were to miss time, the former Cincinnati Bearcats running back, who ran for 1,319 yards and 19 TDs on 215 rushing attempts in 2021, has shown a versatile skill set that translates well to the NFL.
Key additions: None
Subtractions: QB Aaron Rodgers
2022 run block win rate rank: 8 (72%)
Sometimes not making moves is the biggest move. Green Bay has made significant investments to bolster its offensive line in recent years, and that has paid off with a line that remains intact. Last season, Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon combined for nearly 1,900 rushing yards behind a unit that ranked eighth in run block win rate. Jones ranked seventh in rushing yards before first contact (704) and had the fifth-highest success rate among running backs with at least 150 rushing attempts last season.
With first-year starter Jordan Love taking over at quarterback after sitting behind a future Hall of Famer in Rodgers, I expect the Packers to put more emphasis on the run game. (The Packers did invest in two tight ends and two side receivers in their first seven picks of April's draft.)
A fantasy-friendly schedule also benefits Jones and Dillon. Six of Green Bay's games are against NFC North opponents. Based on their offseason changes, the Vikings, Bears and Lions are not considered top-20 defenses. There are also four games against the NFC South, another division without threatening defenses. The Packers' offensive line should have a lot of success against these opponents.
Jones is projected to finish as a top-10 fantasy running back. If you prioritize wide receivers early in your draft, you shouldn't overlook him. Jones and Dillon project for a combined 430-plus touches, making them excellent value picks in fantasy football drafts at their current average draft positions.
Atlanta struggled mightily in the passing game last season, but that certainly didn't carry over to the running game. The Falcons ranked second in the league with 32.9 rushing attempts per game and third in rushing yards per contest with 159.9. Despite ranking 26th in run block win rate in 2022, this is a solid offensive line that returns four starters and adds promising rookie Matthew Bergeron (second round) at guard to bolster the unit in Arthur Smith's run-heavy scheme.
The biggest boost, however, will come from Bijan Robinson, whom the Falcons took with the eighth overall pick in April's draft. Coming off an impressive career at Texas, where he amassed 3,410 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns, the former Longhorn should have no trouble putting up big numbers behind this line. He is already being drafted as a fantasy star and will have a significant workload. Don't hesitate to use a first-round pick on Robinson, as he's one of the most talented dual-threat backs since LaDanian Tomlinson. Look to the rookie seasons of Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley for a glimpse of Robinson's potential. Elliott finished as RB2 in 2016 and Barkley as RB1 in 2018, with each averaging nearly 23 touches per game.
And don't overlook Tyler Allgeier in the later rounds of fantasy drafts. He could prove to be a hidden gem in the case of a Robinson injury, having rushed for a Falcons rookie record 1,035 yards in 2022.