Football handicappers have a strange attitude toward offensive lines. That is to say that they often ignore them entirely. The quarterbacks and running backs get lots of attention, but those big guys who make it all happen up front don’t draw nearly as many headlines. There are a couple of big reasons for that – offensive lines don’t have stats for people to grab on to, and most casual fans don’t really understand what the offensive line really does and how important it is. If you want to be a very good football handicapper then you absolutely need to be able to judge how effective an offensive line is and how the two offensive lines in a game compare. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but there are some quick ways to get a head start over what most sports bettors will have done. Here are five ways for NFL handicappers to effectively evaluate the strength of an offensive line:
Returning starts – A lot of people will focus on returning starters, but that only tells a part of the story. Returning starts are particularly important in college football, but are significant in the NFL as well. The more time a football player has spent playing the line the better off he is typically going to be (as long as he is healthy), and the more time players have played together the more comfortable they will be with each other. If one NFL team has a very significant advantage in the number of starts by their starting offensive line – especially starts with that same team – then they are well positioned to have a comparatively good game. You need to be particularly aware of situations in which the gap in experience between the two teams is particularly significant. That’s not something the sports betting public will pick up on, but it really can matter.
Pass attempts per sack allowed – One of the biggest jobs the offensive line has is to protect the quarterback, so when a lot of people evaluate an offensive line they look at the number of sacks allowed. Again, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Sacks are only a concern on passing plays, so it only makes sense that you need to consider the number of passing plays a team runs when you are looking at sacks. A quick way to do this is by dividing the number of pass attempts by the number of sacks allowed. That gives you an easy number to compare from team to team. It’s not a comprehensive number, but it is a good starting point. As in so many of these comparisons the raw numbers aren’t nearly as meaningful as when you find big gaps between two NFL teams.
Yards per attempt – YPA is a stat used to compare quarterbacks, but I think of it as a powerful indicator of offensive line quality as well. In order for a quarterback to put up a good YPA the offensive line has to shine in many different ways. They have to give the QB time to make decisions and find receivers. They need to block for the running game well so that the defense can’t focus on the pass. They need to keep the quarterback healthy. If a quarterback doesn’t have a strong YPA then it is a reasonable bet that he doesn’t have a great offensive line, and the opposite is certainly true. The quick line I draw with the YPA is 7 – a QB with a YPA above that level is competent or better, while one who falls below that level has some issues.
Yards per rush – This one is a bit of a no-brainer. If an offensive line can not open up holes for the running backs then that running back isn’t going to be able to pile up the yards, and the team is going to be ineffective on the ground. That means that they’ll either have to rely heavily on the pass, or they will just be a lousy offense. Yards per rush, therefore, is a pretty solid indicator of the quality of the offensive line.
Third down conversions – The ability of a NFL team to consistently convert third downs depends very heavily on the quality of the offensive line. When a football team has a third down the defense is going to be particularly aggressive, so the offensive line will have to be able to stand up against the added pressure they will be under. They will often be fighting hard for short yardage, and the defense will often have a much easier time predicted what the offense is likely to do than they would in most cases. If one football team is significantly better than the other in third down conversions then there is a pretty good chance that the have a significantly better offensive line as well.