2012 NFL Draft: What Level Of Performance Can Be Expected From Rookie Linemen?

"He’s going to be an outstanding player in this league."

Back in early January last year, signs were beginning to point towards Tyron Smith as the favorite for the Cowboys' first round draft pick.

This prompted us at BTB to take a look at how hard it is for first- and second round rookie linemen to hit the ground running in the NFL (see Can A High Draft Pick Be An Immediate Upgrade For Cowboys O-line?). Today, we're revisiting that post for two reasons. First, we want to see how Tyron Smith did in his first year in the NFL compared to other rookie linemen over the last four years, and second, the early favorite for the Cowboys first round pick this year is another lineman, offensive guard David DeCastro.

Over the last four years, 45 offensive linemen have been picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. After the break, we look at how Tyron Smith compares against these other linemen and what level of performance you can reasonably expect from rookie lineman.

We're going to dive right into the thick of things by looking at the full overview of all 45 linemen, the number of games they started each year, and how they were graded by Profootballfocus.com (PFF) in the tables below. Some observations and conclusions follow after the tables.

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started
PFF Grade
2011
2011
2011 1 9 Tyron Smith T DAL 16 13.7
2011 1 15 Mike Pouncey C MIA 16 -1.7
2011 1 17 Nate Solder T NE 14 -2.5
2011 1 22 Anthony Castonzo T IND 12 -7.0
2011 1 23 Danny Watkins G PHI 12 -8.4
2011 1 25 James Carpenter T SEA 8 -25.3
2011 1 29 Gabe Carimi* T
CHI 2
-0.3
2011 1 32 Derek Sherrod* T GB 5
-5.1
2011 2 46 Orlando Franklin T
DEN 16 -8.7
2011 2 48 Stefen Wisniewski C/G OAK 16 -7.3
2011 2 50 Ben Ijalana* T
IND 1 - -
2011 2 55 Rodney Hudson G KC 1 - -
2011 2 60 Marcus Gilbert T PIT 14 -4.2

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started

PFF Grade
2010 2011 2010 2011
2010 1 4 Trent Williams T WAS 13 10
-22.6 +3.8
2010 1 6 Russell Okung T SEA 10 12 -2.6 -8.7
2010 1 11 Anthony Davis T SFO 16 16
-26.6 -15.0
2010 1 17 Mike Iupati G SFO 16 11 9.6 9.6
2010 1 18 Maurkice Pouncey C PIT 16 13 -4.2 1.8
2010 1 23 Bryan Bulaga T GNB 12 12 -24.6 14.6
2010 2 33 Rodger Saffold T STL 16 9 -12.4 -14.7
2010 2 45 Zane Beadles G DEN 14 16 6.3 -23.5
2010 2 61 Vladimir Ducasse T NYJ 0 1 - - - -
2010 2 64 Charles Brown T NOR 0 6 - - -7.0

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started
PFF Grade
2009 2010 2011 2009 2010 2011
2009 1 2 Jason Smith* T STL 5 15 6 0.2 -16.7 -6.2
2009 1 6 Andre Smith* T CIN 1 4 14 - - -18.0 0.2
2009 1 8 Eugene Monroe T JAX 13 15 14 -4.5 -15.1 12.1
2009 1 21 Alex Mack C CLE 16 16 16 19.6 8.1 7.3
2009 1 23 Michael Oher T BAL 16 16 16 9.8 -10.8 -8.2
2009 1 28 Eric Wood C/G BUF 10 14 9 -4.8 -7.5 8.8
2009 2 39 Eben Britton T JAX 15 7 1 -5.9 -2.2 - -
2009 2 49 Max Unger C/G SEA 16 1 15 0.3 - - 3.3
2009 2 51 Andy Levitre G BUF 16 16 3
-10.6 -3.5 1.0
2009 2 54 Phil Loadholt T MIN 15 16 16 -1.2 -22.7 1.1
2009 2 58 Sebastian Vollmer T NWE 8 16 6 21.4 2.3 8.4
2009 2 60 Will Beatty* T NYG 4 2 10 - - - - -1.2

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started
PFF Grade
2008 2009 2010 2011
2008 2009 2010 2011
2008 1 1 Jake Long T MIA 16 16 16 14 20.1 28.7 24.3 4.4
2008 1 12 Ryan Clady T DEN 16 16 16 16 -0.3 10.7 13.8 -23.6
2008 1 14 Chris Williams* T(G)
CHI 0 16 13 9 - -
11.7 -12.5 -9.6
2008 1 15 Branden Albert T KAN 15 14 15 16 -0.6 -11.5 -8.4 4.4
2008 1 17 Gosder Cherilus T DET 13 15 12 16
-14.2 1.4 -1.5 -6.7
2008 1 19 Jeff Otah T CAR 12 13 0 4 7.3 0.3 - -
1.7
2008 1 21 Sam Baker* T ATL 5 14 16 7 -3.2 -6.5 -27.2 -14.4
2008 1 26 Duane Brown T HOU 16 16 12 6
-22.9 -8.6 3.7 -7.0
2008 2 39 Chilo Rachal G SFO 6 15 14 10 -0.1 5.7 13.6 -8.7
2008 2 59 Mike Pollak C/G IND 13 7 13 11 -15.1 -8.2 -4.4 0.7

Based on these numbers, here are a couple of thoughts:

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

Of the 45 linemen in this analysis, 33 (73%) started the majority of games for their teams in their rookie season. Eight other players (denoted with a *) suffered either serious or season ending injuries in their first year. That leaves only four players who did not start the majority of games in their rookie season. In other words, barring injury, 90% of offensive linemen taken in the first two rounds are starters in their first year. That's pretty encouraging for any team contemplating drafting an offensive lineman.

Rookie linemen have a steep learning curve.

Despite their high draft pick status, only eight of 45 (18%) linemen delivered an above average performance (marked in green in the table above) in their rookie season as graded by PFF. Keep in mind that a positive PFF grade means that a given player played better than the NFL average player at his specific position. A below average grade doesn't mean that a rookie necessarily played badly. In fact, an argument could be made that some of these guys actually played quite well, for a rookie.

Most rookie linemen arrive in the NFL still needing to improve their technique, work on their strength & conditioning, learn new playbooks and much more while facing wily veterans who will prey on their inexperience. This takes time.

Popular opinion holds that you can expect monumental improvement from rookies in their second year in the NFL. That may be true for many positions, but does not seem to be true for linemen. The sum of the second-year PFF grades for players picked between 2008 and 2010 is identical to their first year grades. Sure, some improved, and some regressed. A look at the tables above shows no significant improvement in the grades for all players between year one and year two. And a look at this year's Pro Bowl lineman presents a similar picture. The average Pro Bowl lineman is 28 years old and is in his sixth NFL season.

NFC Pro Bowlers 2012
AFC Pro Bowlers 2012
POS Player Team Age NFL Seasons Player Team Age NFL Seasons
Tackle Jason Peters PHI 29 8 Joe Thomas CLE 27 5
Joe Staley SF 27 5 Jake Long MIA 26 4
Jermon Bushrod NO 27 5 D'Brickashaw Ferguson NYJ 28 6
Guard Jahri Evans NO 28 6 Logan Mankins NE 29 7
Carl Nicks NO 26 4 Brian Waters NE 34 12
Davin Joseph TB 28 6 Marshal Yanda BAL 27 5
Center Ryan Kalil CAR 26 5 Maurkice Pouncey PIT 22 2
Scott Wells GB 30 8 Nick Mangold NYJ 27 6

Offensive linemen are not plug-and-play solutions to your O-line troubles. And for most of them, their learning curve needs to be measured in years, not months.

Tyron Smith Rocks.

Tyron Smith graded out with a +13.7, the fourth best value of any tackle in the NFL in 2011. It is also the fourth best rookie season value of the last four years, exceeded only by Jake Long, Alex Mack and Sebastian Vollmer. All three players have not had a single negatively graded season in their NFL careers so far and Mack and Long have both already made the Pro Bowl. Hopefully, that is a good sign for Tyron Smith's future, which, according to the recently retired Hudson Houck, looks very bright:

"He can certainly be a very, very good left tackle," Houck said during a Saturday appearance on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM’s The Football Show. "This is an extremely talented guy. When you take a look at him being 20 years old to start with and not being able to have a minicamp, not being able to have OTAs and come in cold turkey and just be able to start on a team in the National Football League against very, very good players, this guy has done incredible things up to this point. …

"He is a tremendous worker and a very good person. He’s going to be an outstanding player in this league."

Guards & Centers

Here are the guards and centers picked in the first round over the last four years:

Year Round Pick Player POS Team Games Started
PFF Grade






2009 2010 2011
2009 2010 2011
2011 1 15 Mike Pouncey C MIA - - - - 16 - - - - -1.7
2011 1 23 Danny Watkins G PHI - - - - 12 - - - - -8.4
2010 1 17 Mike Iupati G SFO - - 16 11 - - 9.6 9.6
2010 1 18 Maurkice Pouncey C PIT - - 16 13 - - -4.2 1.8
2009 1 21 Alex Mack C CLE 16 16 16
19.6 8.1 7.3
2009 1 28 Eric Wood C/G BUF 10 14 9
-4.8 -7.5 8.8

Overall, that is not a bad haul of interior offensive linemen. Mack has already been to a Pro Bowl and Iupati should have been. Maurkice Pouncey got his first All Pro nod this year, and his brother looked promising in Miami. Danny Watkins and Eric Wood had trouble adjusting to the NFL in their first seasons.

However, none of these players were picked as high as the 14th pick. If the Cowboys do end up picking David DeCastro with their 14th pick, they had better be sure he'll have a Tyron Smith-type impact on the game.

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