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Where have all the good OL prospects gone? Part II

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, I posted Part I of this series, taking a look at offensive line prospects drafted in the top 10 compared to the ones drafted over the entire remaining picks; specifically from 2002-2007 and from the time that Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle in 2010. What we found was that there were more three-time Pro Bowl tackles drafted in the top 10 (3, 2002-2007) than over the entire rest of the draft (2 out of 254 linemen).

We also saw that good offensive line prospects are harder than ever to find, and that the last premium prospect (top-10) at the position to truly work out was Tyron Smith to the Dallas Cowboys in 2011. That’s scary. Scary for the Seahawks, scary for bad teams needing to make a turnaround, scary for quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, and therefore scary for football itself.

So does that mean that there are more above-average prospects on the line available outside of the top 20 - where consistent playoff teams like Seattle has been picking over most of the last six years - than ever? Surely with the SaintsRyan Ramczyk drawing praise for his rookie season in which he played every snap at right tackle for an elite rushing team, the Seahawks must be blowing golden opportunities on a regular basis. Right?

Not exactly.

Besides the case of Ramczyk (which was specifically addressed by John Gilbert on Wednesday), there’s not been many opportunities to pick a lineman worthy of praise in the last seven or eight years. Despite constant hand-wringing by some fans that Seattle is:

  • Bad at evaluating offensive line prospects
  • Bad at developing offensive line prospects
  • Worse than other teams at evaluating and developing offensive line prospects

There is not any good evidence that that is true. And I know how ironic it is to say that a day after the Seattle Seahawks fired offensive line coach Tom Cable. As I said in the intro to my first post, Cable might be the Brock Osweiler of offensive line coaches in the NFL and while I would not defend him as a coach, I also would not throw stones because I’m not so presumptuous as to believe that I am fully aware of what’s going on behind closed doors and inside the Renton facilities.

Even now, I would still place most of the blame on the offensive line on:

  • Philosophy
  • Reality

The Seahawks’ philosophy, as far as I can gather from seven years of evidence up until 2017, when they changed course to sign Luke Joeckel and trade for Duane Brown, is to cut costs at offensive line, add skill players capable of overcoming deficiencies at offensive line (Wilson, Marshawn Lynch), and spend that money on defense and said skill players. And it worked ... for awhile.

But the reality is that while you can draft Russell Okung in 2010 because you have the number six pick in the draft, opportunities to add immediate-starting quality tackles and guards evaporate when you don’t; as said on Tuesday, recently they’ve evaporated even when you do. There are always going to be exceptions like Ramczyk (who is still “only” a right tackle, as are Lane Johnson and Jack Conklin, the other success stories of recent note), but more often you’ll see Garett Bolles and Germain Ifedi —

Tackles who might be able to start right away, but not without a lot of errors. (Bolles and Ifedi were the most penalized players in the NFL in 2017, and Ifedi was a guard as a rookie.)

The truth — or at least my truth — is that it gets a lot easier and less stressful to follow a team once you stop believing that there is a magic potion or secret to successful drafting that your team either has or doesn’t have. It gets easier once you accept that the best teams and talent evaluators in the NFL are only making their best guess at any given point.

So instead, your better bet as a fan, as far as expectations go, is to place the expectations on the team’s pick based on history of that type of pick rather than on a belief system that: “The Seahawks should be able to draft premium, great, good, and starting-level players at all points in the draft.”

“The Seahawks found Richard Sherman in round five, so they should be able to at least find a starting guard in round four.”

No, they shouldn’t. It’s hard to find a starting guard in round four. It’s hard to find a good starting tackle in round two. It’s hard. I think it’s been easier for me since I accepted that, but data and proof probably helps too.

And no, “Well, then, trading up is what they should do!” doesn’t make logical sense either. A: Trading up has proven over and over again to not be a sustainably good strategy and B: The Seahawks are not the only team that exists. We all must live with this single point of view that we have in life, this belief that “my story is the main story,” but more likely than not — in a world without solipsism — the Chargers’ story matters too. The Eagles story matters. The Raiders have a story. And all of their stories also involve finding and drafting a starting tackle because most teams are desperate on the offensive line and not exactly willing to move down 10-15 spots without a huge cost coming at the expense of the team moving up. It does not make any sense. So those teams don’t exist just to appease the needs of the Seattle Seahawks.

So for the most part, Seattle is doing the right thing by staying where they are, which is usually pick 26 or later. In fact, by trading down every year to add more picks, the Seahawks are admitting that they also view the draft as somewhat of a crapshoot — and they’re just adding more rolls of the dice. They’d rather draft three mid-round linemen than one first round lineman, and the data supports that this is no worse than a 1:1 strategy where either one could work out long-term.

The Seahawks are currently set to pick 18th this year, but since 2013, they’ve been outside the top 20. Since 2010, they’ve selected seven offensive lineman between picks 25 and the end of round four. This is a relatively high number and often cited as a reason why Cable is a bad coach, because for many people that seems like an investment that should birth a great starting offensive line.

But that’s just not true. Not even close to true. When you gain perspective that every team struggles with drafting & developing linemen and also accept the randomness of success and failure with all prospects, it’ll become a lot easier to separate the real problems of the organization from the distractions of unattainable expectations.

Let’s start with the end of the first round.

First Round, 21-32

From 2010-2016, 136 offensive lineman were drafted between picks 21-136. I chose these numbers because 21 is the first pick for playoff teams in the first round and 136 is roughly the end of the fourth round (Mark Glowinski was pick 134).

Of those 136 linemen, 37 have yet to record a “full season” (at least eight games) as a starter. I think most people would consider that a fairly low bar, because most Seattle fans I hear from believe that if you draft a lineman in the third or fourth round, he should be a full-time starter. That’s 27.2% of players drafted 21-136 over seven classes who have yet to do that. Some of them eventually will, many of them never will.

Let’s talk about some of the notable ones who won’t or barely did.

First round failures:

  • Danny Watkins was a 26-year-old guard taken 23rd overall by the Eagles who recorded only one season as a starter and famously had little passion for football. In this case, people take little issue with blaming the player, not the coaches.
  • D.J. Humphries (AZ, 24th, 2015) has 18 starts in three years, with injuries taking the brunt of the blame.
  • Josh Garnett (SF, 28th, 2016) missed all of 2017 so that he could “change his body composition.”
  • Gabe Carimi (CHI, 29th, 2011) was supposed to be the Bears left tackle of the future, but he missed most of his rookie year with a knee injury, moved to guard, was traded to the Bucs, and never worked out.
  • Derek Sherrod (GB, 32nd, 2011) had one career start. A broken leg during his rookie season set him back.

The Seahawks had two offensive linemen drafted in the 21-32 range over this period of time — James Carpenter and Ifedi. That’s two out of the 15 names listed in that criteria, and the Bengals, Lions, and Packers also had two linemen on that list; teams that made the playoffs most years and also needed offensive line help. Cincinnati picked Cedric Ogbuehi and Kevin Zeitler; Detroit picked Riley Reiff and Laken Tomlinson; Green Bay picked Bryan Bulaga and Sherrod.

The Bengals got Zeitler but also lost him to free agency last year, while Ogbuehi was recently the subject of a “Bengals should try Ogbuehi at WR or TE” article at Cincy Jungle. The Lions grew frustrated with the consistency and progress of Reiff, allowing him to leave in free agency in 2016, while Tomlinson was traded to the 49ers after two years. Bulaga’s been an excellent player for the Packers and we already discussed Sherrod. Each of these teams had about a 50/50 hit rate in this category, while Seattle’s situation with Carpenter and Ifedi is roughly average, in my opinion.

Carpenter gave the Seahawks 39 starts, including on their way to two Super Bowls, and he’s about to go into his eighth NFL season, a rarity for anyone. Ifedi has made 29 starts in two years, which is also difficult to find, so maybe there’s plenty of hope for his future. It’s not like Ifedi is great, but it’s been a better investment than Sherrod, Tomlinson, Ogbuehi, and Humphries, among others. And that’s all I’m trying to gain with this piece anyway: Perspective of the norm instead of blindly calling a return “bad” without the necessary factor of reasonable expectations.

The Pro Bowlers selected 21-32 from 2010-2016:

  • David DeCastro (PIT, 24th, 2012) is a three-time Pro Bowl guard who is also perhaps a model for Ifedi’s future; DeCastro had 11 penalties in 2016, including nine holds. He had six penalties in 2017.
  • Travis Frederick (DAL, 31st, 2013) is a four-time Pro Bowl center. The Seahawks had Max Unger at the time and traded their first rounder (which was 32, so after Frederick was drafted) for Percy Harvin.

And that’s it. 2/15 linemen have been to Pro Bowls, including 0 as a tackle. These players are also good:

  • Anthony Castonzo (IND, 22nd, 2011) went four picks ahead of Carpenter.
  • Bulaga (GB, 23rd, 2010).
  • Zeitler (CIN, 27th, 2012).
  • And with six seasons as a starter, I’d say that Carpenter is the sixth best linemen so far in this group. I think a reasonable expectation would be to find the average player in a group, and Carpenter comes out as above-average. Ifedi, especially as a tackle, is quickly closing in on average and then surpassing it.

What about after the first round?

That’s part III.