The Dallas Cowboys should pick an offensive lineman with their first pick in the 2013 draft. Or so the headlines keep telling us. Last year, many many people argued that the Cowboys should pick David DeCastro because, as Mel Kiper phrased it, "[DeCastro] is as elite as you’ll get from this position. He’s the best guard prospect since Steve Hutchinson." And Kiper is by no means the only draft analyst to voice such a sentiment, far from it. DeCastro was widely held to be a future Pro Bowler. Ultimately, he ended up slipping all the way to the 24th pick despite those accolades.
This year, offensive guards Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper are receiving similar praise and talk is once again about Warmack being "one of the better guard prospects in recent memory and has Pro Bowl potential," while Cooper is lauded as "one of 2013's safest prospects and a future Pro Bowl contender."
Think about the top guards taken in a draft. Specifically, think about guards picked in the first round who were either the first or second guard chosen (as Warmack and Cooper would be). What would you expect from such a high draft pick?
If the top guard taken in the first round of a draft does not eventually become a Pro Bowl player, is he a bust? What about the second guard taken in the first round: is a Pro Bowl berth mandatory for him as well?
If you're investing a first-round pick in one of the two top guards, I think a Pro Bowl berth or two would be a reasonable expectation. Granted, the Pro Bowl is more of a beauty contest than anything else, but you'd still like your guy to make the trip to Hawaii, or at least play at a Pro Bowl level for a while.
I think at the very least you'd expect a multi-year starter, and not just for a couple of seasons, but you'd like the guy to start for perhaps eight to ten seasons. Not everybody can be a Bruce Matthews in terms of longevity, but if your top pick doesn't at least play out his first contract as a starter, then you certainly have issues.
Having said all that, let's now take a look at the history of first round guards since 1980 who were picked either first or second at their position.
Top Guards drafted since 1980 (click column header to sort)
|Year||Round||Pick||Team||Player||All Pro||Pro Bowl||Starter Seasons||CarAV|
|1982||1||8||HOU||Mike Munchak HOF||2||9||11||82|
|1983||1||9||HOU||Bruce Matthews HOF||7||14||19||119|
Depending on what you consider the success criteria for a top guard, this table can be pretty sobering. Of the 35 first-round guards drafted either first or second at their position since 1980 ...
- ... only five are multiple All Pros, eight (23%) made All Pro at least once
- ... less than half (16) made the Pro Bowl.
- ... only 14 (40%) of these guards (so far) started for eight or more seasons. If you're investing your top pick in a guard, you'd expect that he should be your guy through at least two contracts, which would be about 8+ years. Granted, this number could be somewhat higher once the careers of all players on this list are over, but for the guards drafted before 2000, only a little over half (13/23) started for 8+ years.
Of course, those bullet points are just one way of reading the table. You could make an equally valid argument that six out of ten guards drafted since 2000 have made the Pro Bowl, and if we assume that DeCastro and Zeitler will also get the nod at some point, that total could climb to eight out of ten. Additionally, Branden Albert, who is now playing left tackle, is also a potential candidate for the Pro Bowl. So nine out of ten ain't so bad after all.
[On a side note, you probably noticed how there's not a single Cowboys draft pick in the table above. You may not have noticed that there are 13 other teams not represented in the table above either. Fact is, there is no one single answer for how to win in the NFL. Every year, the pundits tout a different model of ‘the right way', depending on which team won the Super Bowl. One year it's a dominant pass rush, another year it's a lights-out offense, yet another year it's a dominant offensive line, sometimes it's even a safety taking a wrong angle.]
Warmack and Cooper are clearly the consensus top guards in this draft. Yet the history of top guards suggests that there is a good chance one of them will not meet the lofty expectations linked to his draft slot. Right now, there is no way of predicting whether Warmack or Cooper will be the better guard, or whether one of them might even be a bust. The only thing we know for sure is that in the event that one of them should be a disappointment, Captain Hindsight and his devoted followers will have a field day pointing out why it should have been clear from day one that this wasn't going to work.
Teams may have gotten better at evaluating guard talent over recent years. But despite the countless hours teams spend on prodding, analyzing and evaluating their prospects, there are no guarantees in the draft. There's just too much randomness involved in a process where sure-fire prospects are released after two years and unheralded prospects become Hall Of Famers. Try as you might to reduce your risk via scouting, analysis, workouts and measurements, with a draft pick, you're effectively investing in an unproven commodity.
Like it or not, there is a lot of pure, dumb luck involved in each pick. At the end of the day, and at the end of a long and rigorous evaluation process, the Cowboys will pick a player in the first round of the 2012 draft. Hopefully, that player will turn out to be a stud. And if he does, I couldn't care less whether the pick was the result of skill or luck.