Why drafting an offensive lineman early in the draft is such a safe pick
The 2007 Miami Dolphins were -- by any measure -- one of the worst teams the NFL has seen. Ever. That's not an overstatement for effect. It's just a fact. Keep reading.
Saddled with the quarterbacking trio of Cleo Lemon, John Beck and a potentially over-concussed Trent Green, the team went 1-15 and only scraped out a win on a fluky 64-yard overtime touchdown pass from Lemon to Greg Camarillo. Worse, the Dolphins didn't appear to have a plan. They had a young Ted Ginn Jr., but nobody to throw to him; a young (and injured) Ronnie Brown, but nobody to block for him.
Bottom line: They were going nowhere.
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On April 22, 2008, just over four months before Miami would lace it up for another season, the Dolphins sucked all suspense out of the first pick in the draft by signing Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long to a $57.75 million deal that effectively made him the highest-paid player at his position five days before the draft. Oddly, the deal was for $4 million less than the deal for the previous year's No. 1 pick, JaMarcus Russell. There was fair speculation, of course, that Miami had reached on Long, taking the safe route over the smart one. After all, Matt Ryan and Chris Long were available, each widely considered more talented options.
But Miami liked the pick: "Jake was our guy from the beginning," general manager Jeff Ireland said.
In the history of professional football, perhaps no team has seen such a massive change in fortunes. Sort through every draft, and you won't find a team that picked No. 1 overall that won 10 more games than the previous season. Not even the 1991 Colts, who had the first two picks (Steve Emtman and Quentin Coryatt) saw such a surge. But the 2008 Dolphins did. The year after the disaster of 2007 they went 11-5, including a 9-1 stretch in their final ten regular-season games.
By drafting Long, they didn't just get one player; they got two. The team switched struggling LT Vernon Carey to the right side after Long's arrival. Since the draft, Carey has started all 32 games at right tackle, and Long has started all 32 on the left.
But the Dolphins clearly saw the bigger picture. According to numbers collected by ESPN Stats & Information, it's nearly impossible to draft a bust on the offensive line.
How are we defining a "bust"? Simply put, a bust is a top-15 pick who, for his career, meets these three criteria:
1. Was never a Pro Bowler
2. Started less than two-thirds of his games
3. Has extraordinarily low stat totals
Top-15 picks since 1995
Since 1995, the safest place to spend a high pick has been on the offensive line:
Since 1995, among top-15 picks, quarterbacks are busts at nearly eight times the rate of offensive linemen. Skill position players like running backs and wide receivers are busts five times as often. Even seemingly stable positions, like defensive linemen, are busts nearly nine times more often than their offensive counterparts.
That might sound harsh, but it's not. Consider that among that bust rate for QBs, even David Carr and Tim Couch -- massive busts in the opinions of most observers -- aren't considered busts. (And consider that 80 percent of teams that drafted a "bust" QB had .500 or worse seasons for the next four years after that draft.)
But teams continue to take QBs and skill positions high and overlook offensive linemen. Just look at recent years:
- In 2005, only one offensive lineman was taken in the top 15: Jammal Brown. He is now perhaps the second-most important member of the Saints, protecting the blind side for Drew Brees. He's a Pro Bowler.
- In 2006, D'Brickashaw Ferguson was the only OL taken in the top 15. He's a Pro Bowler.
- In 2007, Joe Thomas and Levi Brown were the only tackles taken inside the top 15. Thomas is already a Pro Bowler, and Brown has started 43 of 45 career games, including all 32 over the past two seasons.
- In 2008, Jake Long and Ryan Clady cracked the top 15. Both are Pro Bowlers. So did Chris Williams at No. 14. He was injured as a rookie, but started every game last year.
- The 2009 class is still too young to grade, but among the early picks, Jason Smith is now a starter, and Michael Oher (No. 23) started every game as a rookie, and could be a Pro Bowler at RT.
- Over the past 15 years, offensive linemen drafted in the top 15 have started 90 percent of their games. The next-closest position group is linebackers at 70.8 percent.
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Three years ago, Mike Iupati wasn't sure if his future was as an offensive or defensive lineman. "I was pretty much begging to get him on offense," says Dan Fine, offensive line coach at Idaho. Fine prevailed, and Iupati is considered by many the most potentially dominating offensive lineman entering the draft. Of course, Iupati won't go in the top 10, because he projects as a guard. Guards, in dominant form, can be the key to a good running game. When Steve Hutchinson left Seattle for Minnesota, it literally shifted the fortunes of the running games of both teams the day he signed his deal.
But while Hutchinson might not be cut out to play tackle, a struggling left tackle can often do well as a right tackle or a guard. A player such as Trent Williams of Oklahoma could land in the top 10 of Thursday's draft because he could conceivably play everywhere on the offensive line.
Bottom line: To "miss" on a tackle is hard to do, because he can usually play somewhere else and help. To "miss" on a QB is to merely waste a pick.
Why do offensive linemen do so much better on average? Fine and many others think they're easier to project.
If you're scouting them, "You can watch any play," Fine said. "They can never take a play off. A wideout, a running back, even a quarterback just handing off, they all don't have to be involved in every play. It's easier to track consistent dominance in offensive linemen."
You don't even have to fast-forward the tape.
Offensive linemen also "take pride in not being noticed," as Fine notes. In that sense, to notice them at all is to see either dominance or failure. Again, they can be easier to diagnose if you just watch.
The last debate on offensive linemen is the chicken-or-egg debate. For instance, in 2008, Miami also improved when it let Chad Pennington take the snaps behind that revamped offensive line. Sure, he was a big part of the success. But Pennington was also 32, had played a full season only once to that point, and had his best year, nearly winning the MVP award. He was sacked just 4.5 percent of the time (24 times), a huge decrease from the 42 sacks Miami had given up the year before. He was by no means great before that season. But behind a new offensive line, he was.
The point isn't whether Pennington was great. The point is, because the Dolphins drafted offensive linemen early, did he even have to be?
Chris Sprow is an editor with ESPN Insider. Research provided by Floyd Hanson of the ESPN Stats & Information Group.
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