Can A High Draft Pick Be An Immediate Upgrade For Cowboys O-line?

My name is Doug Free, I exercise using live weights.

Many mock drafters and many fans have the Cowboys taking at least one offensive lineman in the first two rounds of the 2011 draft. The assumption there being that a first or second round talent will provide an immediate upgrade over what the Cowboys currently have, especially on the right side of the line.

Conventional wisdom holds that when you draft a lineman in the first two rounds, you've drafted a guy who should be an immediate starter. But just how hard is it for a rookie lineman to start in the NFL?

Especially for the later round picks, you expect them to get beat up in practice and on the field in their first year or two as they adjust to the challenges of the NFL game. Hopefully, in about year three, they should be ready to go. Not so for first and second rounders. The expectation is that they'll perform immediately.

After the break, we look at whether expecting first and second round linemen to start immediately is a realistic expectation, and what level of performance you can reasonably expect.

Let's look at rookie linemen from a veteran perspective. In this case, I'd like to present expert testimony by one Dwight Freeney. Mr. Freeney is currently in the employ of the Indianapolis Colts, is a 6-time Pro Bowler & 3-time First-Team All-Pro, has recorded 94 regular season and 9 postseason sacks over a 9-year career, and is one of the nation's foremost experts on offensive linemen. This is his testimony:

"I'm licking my chops. When you have a rookie offensive tackle, I can't wait. Because for an offensive tackle, you're not good until you're in like your eighth year. You've got to get beat up for a while to learn what to do and what not to. It's when you're about in your fifth through 10th years as an offensive tackle that you're in your prime."

"All these rookies coming out?  They don’t know anything," Freeney said.  "I can’t wait."

No further questions Mr. Freeney. So there you have it. Rookie offensive lineman are going to get schooled - and the guy who's going to pay the bill is usually your star quarterback.

Rookie linemen (and fullbacks) whiff on blocks, miss assignments and get penalized. Veterans are no different of course, but they usually commit fewer errors over the years. Veteran pass rushers like Dwight Freeney love rookies because they haven't seen all the stuff an NFL defense can throw at them, and don't have all the techniques that could help in avoiding getting called for penalties and losing the battle at the point of attack.

Traditionally, teams preferred to introduce rookie offensive linemen into the NFL at a slower pace. But according to former Cowboys scout and NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, the timetable is accelerating:

 "It starts at the high school and college level," says Brandt. "Everybody is throwing the ball more, so offensive linemen are spending more time in games and practices pass blocking. Offensive linemen are more prepared to handle passing situations and they have improved their pass protection techniques before they enter the NFL."

The Cowboys need help on the line. Obviously, not every lineman is going to turn out to be Jake Long, but if the Cowboys draft a lineman or two in the first two rounds, what are the chances they'll be a starter? And what are the chances they'll have an immediate (positive) impact?

To answer that question, I've looked at 32 offensive lineman drafted in the first two rounds of the draft in the last three years. A little further down the post you'll find a full overview of these linemen, the number of games started by year, and how they were graded by Profootballfocus.com (PFF). Here's what the numbers say:

When you draft a lineman in the first two rounds, you are drafting an immediate starter.

Of the 32 linemen in this analysis, 24 (75%) started the majority of games for their teams in their rookie season. That is a pretty high number. Five other players (denoted with a *) suffered either serious or season ending injuries in their first year. That leaves only three players (11%) of 27 linemen who did not start the majority of games in their rookie season. Charles Brown played only nine offensive snaps in 2010, Vladimir Ducasse only saw meaningful action in the last game of the 2010 season. In all fairness though, both were widely viewed as 'project' players heading into the draft. Chilo Rachal worked his way into the 49ers starting lineup midway through his rookie season and ended up starting the last 6 games of his 2008 rookie season.

So barring injury, over the last three years teams had a 90% chance of getting a starter if they drafted offensive linemen in the first two rounds. Dear Cowboys, there's no reason to be scared of drafting linemen high.

For the most part, rookie linemen are going to struggle.

Using the PFF grades (see detailed explanation here) as a way to measure the performance of linemen, it is clear that Dwight Freeney is right: most rookie lineman struggle mightily. Despite their high draft pick status, only seven of 32 (22%) linemen delivered an above average performance (marked in green in the table below) in their rookie season. If you include the five players who had an average first year (marked yellow) that number increases to 38%, which still leaves 62% of the linemen with a below average performance in their rookie season. 

Offensive linemen are not plug-and-play solutions to your O-line troubles. How much of an upgrade they turn out to be depends largely on how bad the player was that they are replacing. The challenge may not be quite as big with the Cowboys as it may be with some other teams.

Year Rnd Pick Player Pos Team Games Started   PFF Grade
            2008 2009 2010   2008 2009 2010
2010 1 4 Trent Williams T WAS     13       -22.6
2010 1 6 Russell Okung T SEA     10       -2.6
2010 1 11 Anthony Davis T SFO     16       -26.6
2010 1 17 Mike Iupati G SFO     16       9.6
2010 1 18 Maurkice Pouncey C PIT     16       -4.2
2010 1 23 Bryan Bulaga T GNB     12       -24.6
2010 2 33 Rodger Saffold T STL     16       -12.4
2010 2 45 Zane Beadles G DEN     14       6.3
2010 2 61 Vladimir Ducasse T NYJ     0        - -
2010 2 64 Charles Brown T NOR     0        - -
                         
2009 1 2 Jason Smith* T STL   5 15     0.2 -16.7
2009 1 6 Andre Smith* T CIN   1 4     - -
-18.0
2009 1 8 Eugene Monroe T JAX   13 15     -4.5 -15.1
2009 1 21 Alex Mack C CLE   16 16     19.6 8.1
2009 1 23 Michael Oher T BAL   16 16     9.8 -10.8
2009 1 28 Eric Wood C/G BUF   10 14     -4.8 -7.5
2009 2 39 Eben Britton T JAX   15 7     -5.9 -2.2
2009 2 49 Max Unger C/G SEA   16 1     0.3  - -
2009 2 51 Andy Levitre G BUF   16 16     -10.6 -3.5
2009 2 54 Phil Loadholt T MIN   15 16     -1.2 -22.7
2009 2 58 Sebastian Vollmer T NWE   8 16     21.4 2.3
2009 2 60 Will Beatty* T NYG   4 2        
                         
2008 1 1 Jake Long T MIA 16 16 16   20.1 28.7 24.3
2008 1 12 Ryan Clady T DEN 16 16 16   -0.3 10.7 13.8
2008 1 14 Chris Williams* T/G CHI 0 16 13     11.7 -12.5
2008 1 15 Branden Albert G/T KAN 15 14 15   -0.6 -11.5 -8.4
2008 1 17 Gosder Cherilus T DET 13 15 12   -14.2 1.4 -1.5
2008 1 19 Jeff Otah T CAR 12 13 0   7.3 0.3  - -
2008 1 21 Sam Baker* T ATL 5 14 16   -3.2 -6.5 -27.2
2008 1 26 Duane Brown T HOU 16 16 12   -22.9 -8.6 3.7
2008 2 39 Chilo Rachal G SFO 6 15 14   -0.1 5.7 13.6
2008 2 59 Mike Pollak T/G IND 13 7 13   -15.1 -8.2 -4.4

The alternative to drafting high of course is to draft lower and then give your player time to develop. Fourth round pick Doug Free is a perfect example of this. Free did not see significant playing time until midway through his third season in 2009. For Free's seven starts in 2009, PFF awarded him a +5.9 grade, making him the 15th best right tackle despite his limited playing time. In 2010 Free graded out as the best run-blocking tackle in the league, and his overall grade of +17.9 ranks him as the third best left tackle in the NFL behind only Andrew Whitworth and Jake Long. But for every Doug Free there are dozens of other rookies each year who don't make it.

In Phil Costa, Sam Young and Jermey Parnell the Cowboys have three rookie linemen on the roster, Travis Bright and Robert Brewster are second year players. Can any of them follow the Doug Free 2.5 year model? The chances of that happening are slim.

To get an impact player on the O-line, the Cowboys will have to go high in the draft - or go the free agent route.

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