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Comparing the Cowboys strategy of picking first-round linemen vs. the rest of the NFL

The Cowboys have had some success with their model, but is it the only way?

Carolina Panthers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Earlier this week, our own Aidan Davis took a look at the Cowboys’ history of drafting offensive linemen and found that most of their success has come in the first round. Davis came away with the conclusion that Dallas needs to take an offensive lineman with their first-round pick if they hope to find a player who can start for them right away. His summary of the Cowboys’ success in this regard was eye-opening:

Since 2000, there has been a clear divide between the Cowboys’ first-round linemen and the linemen selected on day two, meaning rounds two and three. The parenthesis indicates the sample size:

First-round linemen (3): 120 average career games, 75 average approximate value, 8 All-Pros, 20 Pro Bowls

Day 2 linemen (9): 50 average career games, 18 average approximate value, 0 All-Pros, 5 Pro Bowls

Day 2 linemen excluding Andre Gurode (8): 36 average career games, 12 average approximate value, 0 All-Pros, 0 Pro Bowls

Davis also highlighted a point that DallasCowboys.com’s Kyle Youmans recently made on our own 1st and 10 podcast, which Davis co-hosts with Dave Sturchio and Tony Catalina:

Usually, that second, third-round class of guys is not going to be as strong offensive line-wise; just because one, they are so rare coming out of college football, and two, it’s usually pretty easy to see who is going to make an impact.

There’s just these different positions that could be available [at pick 24]. I think it’s most likely to be offensive line, but if you don’t take one in the first round, you’re going to have trouble finding somebody to plug in as a starter immediately.

The Cowboys may have had most of their success drafting offensive linemen exclusively in the first round, but is that really true across the league? A quick glance at the pass block win rate leaderboard for 2021 suggests it’s not the case.

Five of the top ten tackles were not first-round picks, as was the case for six of the top ten guards. More than that, all ten of the top-ranked centers in pass block win rate were drafted outside of the first round.

Check out this tweet from Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst for NFL.com and former scout for the Ravens, Browns, and Eagles. Jeremiah is also one of the most respected voices in the draft community, and has even garnered interest for a general manager role in the past.

This is obviously true on some level considering the Rams just won the Super Bowl without having a single offensive lineman who was drafted in the first round. The Rams also, infamously, haven’t had a first-round pick to even spend since the Dark Ages, or something like that.

However, the Rams are a bit of an anomaly already; few teams trade away prime draft capital the way they do, and even fewer teams manage to acquire players like Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr. after already fielding successful teams. Proposing that your favorite team simply follow the Rams model is like saying that you don’t need to draft a quarterback in the first round and instead need to just “find the next Tom Brady.”

So how much of an exception are these 2021 Rams with regards to their offensive line? Of the 22 Super Bowl winning teams this century, only eight teams (just over a third) have won the big one without a first-round pick starting on the offensive line. Eli Manning’s Giants (2007 and 2011) did it twice, and the Patriots (2003, 2004, 2018) did it three times. The Steelers in 2008 and the Saints in 2009 also did it, with this year’s Rams marking the eighth time.

Of note: only three of these eight teams have accomplished this feat in the last decade. This is important to note considering that the NFL as a whole has become much more pass-happy over the last ten years or so, thus ratcheting up the importance of pass protection with regards to offensive line play.

Of course, it’s rather reductive to solely look at Super Bowl teams as our metric for success. For example, the Bengals very nearly won the Super Bowl this year despite having one of the worst offensive lines in the entire league. So let’s pull together data of all of the league’s top ten offensive lines of every season from 2011 all the way through to the 2021 season. We’ll focus on adjusted sack rate to gauge pass protection and adjusted line yards to gauge run blocking.

Below, you can see a graph of how many teams placed in the top ten in adjusted sack rate and also had at least one first-round offensive lineman on their squad that year:

Data courtesy of Football Outsiders

And here is the same graph, but instead featuring teams that were in the top ten in adjusted line yards and also had at least one first round offensive lineman on their squad that year:

As you can see from both graphs, there isn’t a ton of movement one way or the other. There appears to be a strong correlation between first-round offensive linemen and good run blocking, while the correlation for pass blocking isn’t as strong but is still present. It’s worth noting that the past five years have seen more teams post a top ten adjusted sack rate without having any first-round linemen on the roster.

There are, of course, tons of caveats to this quick study. The most prominent caveat is that there still isn’t a flawless method of separating the offensive line’s performance from other variables, such as quarterback and running back performances and quality of opposing defense. There’s also a long list of linemen drafted in the first round who simply don’t work out, which highlights the important understanding that drafting a lineman in the first round doesn’t automatically translate to success.

It does appear, however, that NFL teams have recently gotten more adept at crafting strong pass protection units regardless of draft pedigree, which makes sense given the trend towards a higher frequency of pass plays. This is even evident in Dallas, where players like Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Connor McGovern, and Terence Steele have performed at least adequately at times despite not being first-round selections.

The debate over this certainly isn’t settled, and likely never will be. The Cowboys, perhaps more than any other team, have served as a great case study that loading up on first-round talent on the offensive line can work. The caveat there is that the team still has to hit on their draft evaluations and make sure they’re drafting a Tyron Smith and not an Ereck Flowers. But a similar logic applies to finding linemen later on in the draft, something the Rams seem to have become very adept at doing.

So, in conclusion, taking an offensive lineman in the first round is certainly a good strategy. It’s not guaranteed to work out, but some of the best talent along the line gets taken on the first day of the draft. However, it’s not impossible to build good offensive lines without spending premium draft capital on the position. In fact, teams may be getting better and better at doing just that.