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It’s becoming far too common to see potentially season ending injuries occur on a weekly basis to one of the game’s elite players. Week 6 saw one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Aaron Rodgers go down with a broken collarbone which will risk the remainder of his season. The Packers as a team will have to rally around their new starting quarterback Brett Hundley for the remainder of this season.

Running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and the offensive line will have to make the job of Hundley easier by producing at a higher level than previously. The offensive line especially will have to protect in the passing game and open running lanes for Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones in an effort to take some of the burden off Hundley. If Tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga can come back healthy it would go a long way into relieving some of that burden.

Offensive lineman coming back to a team off injury can be a big boost to a team that is having issues with run blocking in particular as the top end linemen in the game can anchor a unit. This week in Smashmouth we look at one offensive line that is finally getting healthy in the New Orleans Saints and another offensive line that picked up a team after losing a star player in the New York Giants.

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Offensive Line to Watch - New York Giants

After what can be considered one of the more shocking performances of 2017, the New York Giants offensive line appears to be rounding into form after their 23-10 victory over the Broncos in Denver. Even though they gave up three sacks as a group, tackles Ereck Flowers (LT) and Justin Pugh (RT) did an admirable job against Von Miller and the pass rush of the Broncos. Both Flowers and Pugh gave Eli Manning just enough time in most instances to complete enough passes to move the chains and be effective. During the Giants first drive on a crucial third down, both Flowers and Pugh give Manning enough time to find Evan Engram crossing for a first down.

Later on the same drive, Flowers and Pugh are each able to lock on their rushers and slide them by Eli. Eli is then allowed to step up in the pocket and find Evan Engram on another crossing route.

The change of moving Justin Pugh out to Right Tackle over the past few weeks has been quite a large upgrade over Bobby Hart. Pugh has not graded out as the strongest pass blocker this season at only a 47.2 according to Pro Football Focus, but anything was an upgrade over Hart who was the 69th ranked offensive tackle according to PFF.

Not only did the Giants protect the passer well, but their performance rushing the ball should be commended. They started to turn the corner in the rushing game last week against the Chargers rushing for over 100 yards as a team and continued this week against the Broncos. The addition of DJ Fluker (RG) to the lineup has added the necessary power and strength to the middle of the offensive line. Even though Fluker isn’t grading out as a strong player (he’s the 70th ranked guard) but he can make impact plays like these devastating blocks on traps throughout the night. The first comes on Darkwa’s longest run of the game in the 2nd quarter. Fluker pulls and annihilates the defensive lineman, creating a seam for Darkwa to hit and run untouched into the 2nd level.

Another example of Fluker making an impact is on this trap block as well. The defender has no clue Fluker is pulling and ends up flat on his back. This new attitude up front for the Giants will go a long way in the running game with their limited weapons on the outside after the loss of both Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall.


Fantasy Impact

Stock Up: Orleans Darkwa

Even though Darkwa only played 50% of snaps in Week 6, he was the more effective runner over impressive rookie Wayne Gallman. If the Giants decide to keep utilizing gap running schemes when Darkwa is handling the backfield touches, that should go a long way to producing fantasy points. Darkwa is a north-south runner without a lot of wiggle in his game so creating seams for Darkwa to run through will be the best course of action for him to succeed. Fantasy owners shouldn’t expect over 100 yards rushing per game, but the new physical nature of this offensive line with DJ Fluker and the soon to be returning Weston Richburg at center should allow Darkwa to be an every week Flex play going forward.

Stock Up: Evan Engram

It was clear early on that the Giants wanted to involve Engram on quick hitting routes over the middle of the field. Engram is a matchup nightmare for defenses due to his rare combination of size and speed. The lack of other receiving targets should mean plenty of work for Engram going forward as not only a chain mover, but a redzone threat as well. Engram is an every week starter at tight end in all leagues going forward and in every week flex consideration if fantasy owners already own Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce.


Offensive Line to Watch - New Orleans Saints

Coming off a bye, the Saints looked poised to regain their pre-2017 form on offense. This started with the return of LT Terron Armstead. Armstead was able to return to the lineup after sitting the first four games due to injury and was able to solidify an already formidable group.

Armstead graded out at an 81 his first game back and was a consistent force in the both run and pass game. Upon return, rookie Ryan Ramczyk moved right tackle after filling in for Armstead for the initial part of the season. Ramczyk better than held is own the first few weeks grading out at a 74.4, more than passable for a rookie or veteran tackle. These two bookends should be the outside protectors needed for Drew Brees to continue to work his magic until he decides to retire. Armstead and Left Guard Andrus Peat stonewall their defenders on the left side of the offensive line allowing nearly zero penetration into Brees’ face. Being a shorter quarterback, Brees will need lines of sight and throwing lanes in order to make his pinpoint passes.

Two of the ways to do that are to take deeper drops with the quarterback or keep defenders out of the quarterbacks’ line of sight. In this clip early in the Saints’ Week 6 victory over the Lions, Brees is able to have enough time to take a seven-step drop and get the ball out prior to any contact. Expect to see plenty of this going forward with the two offensive tackles playing a big role, however not the tackles have performed in the passing game. Right Guard Larry Warford has been a strong contributor in the passing after signing a four year, $34 million contract in the offseason.  He is currently the 12th ranked pass protector in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, grading out at an 81.1.

Not only is Armstead bringing an improvement in the passing game, but he is so athletic (ran a 4.71 in the 40 yard dash at his combine 2013) that it allows for the Saints to alter their running game as well. In this clip Left Guard Andrus Peat pulls around the left side of the line after downblocks by the tight end and Armstead and leads Mark Ingram to one of his beat gains of the day.

Ingram continued to flourish; rushing for a total of 114 yards on 25 carries as the Saints were nursing a lead. Ingram may not see a workload that high the rest of the season, but he was much more efficient running the ball than in previous weeks this season. The Saints should continue to exploit their strong run blocking duo of Armstead and Left Guard Andrus Peat going forward if they want to move the ball on the ground. Peat is currently the 11th ranked run blocking guard according to PFF and has translated his run blocking strength from his collegiate career at Stanford to the NFL.


Fantasy Impact

Stock Up: Mark Ingram / Alvin Kamara

In all likelihood the Saints will not rush the ball 35 times in a game again this season unless they find themselves far, far ahead of an opponent, but the Saints running game got a big boost from the return of Terron Armstead. His athleticism allows for a wider variety of outside zone, stretch and tosses to be called in the playbook so Armstead can become a lead blocker of sorts. Both Ingram and Kamara should also continue to benefit in the passing game as Brees will continue to have time to survey the field and check the ball down in the flats if need be. Both should be every-week starters going forward.

Stock Up: Drew Brees

It’s hard to think that Brees can get much better, but that will be the case going forward with Terron Armstead back in the fold. As stated before, Armstead is a consistent force on Brees’ blindside allowing him to survey the full field and finding the best option available. Brees was able to exploit matchups when he needed to this past week targeting his plethora of weapons. No player had more than six targets this past week and now with Willie Snead back in the fold manning the slot, Brees has more than enough options to again finish as a top five finisher at the position.


Top Five Offensive Lines

1) Philadelphia Eagles
2) Washington Redskins
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
4) Tennessee Titans
5) New Orleans Saints


Bottom Five Offensive Lines

32) Cincinnati Bengals
31) San Francisco 49ers
30) Jacksonville Jaguars
29) Arizona Cardinals
28) Houston Texans

For any questions about offensive line play in the NFL, feel free to contact me @TheRealHalupka on Twitter.


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