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The odds of drafting a premium offensive lineman are getting even worse, Part I

Seattle Seahawks v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

The bane of the Seattle Seahawks right now has been the inadequate performances by the offensive line over the last few years, while the bane of my existence has been the constant blame-chucking for literally any issue going to an assistant coach above all others.

I don’t think Tom Cable is a bad coach because I don’t think anyone could be bad at something they’ve been doing for 30 years. I’m sorry, but if you’ve ever worked hard at something then you know how insane it would be to do for three decades, reach the highest levels, and then to somehow not know how your dream job operates. Cable probably knows more about offensive line play than 99% of people who work in or follow football. That being said, he might not be good relative to every other current offensive line coach in the NFLCable might be the Eli Manning or even the Brock Osweiler of offensive line coaches. I just wanted to re-iterate a few things about Cable:

  • He knows a lot about football and I’m sure his 30 years of experience would be valuable to any team, even if it weren’t specifically to coach offensive linemen.
  • He is not the head coach, so he doesn’t get to make the final decisions on starters and depth and all that. I’m sure he has massive influence in that area for offensive line, but he still has a boss on the field.
  • He is not the general manager. Cable couldn’t possibly get to tell Pete Carroll and John Schneider what to do with their first, or second, or third, or seventh round picks. He again might have influence (but less), and they might target players based on Cable’s requested needs in an offensive lineman, but he doesn’t make the picks. Nobody makes this accusation — “the draft pick busted, so the assistant coach of that unit is at fault” — for literally any other position coach on the team. I doubt most people could name another position coach on the team. And Seattle’s had a lot of notable failures — consistently — at other positions. Not a lot of calls for Chad Morton (running backs coach) to take heat this season or for Clint Hurtt (defensive line) for lacking pressure with the d-line. And they also don’t get blamed (by the fans at least) for draft busts at those positions and others, for which there are many.
  • Same goes with free agents. Cable doesn’t get final say on allocation of cap space to his players. That wouldn’t make any sense and would give more control than Schneider and Carroll.

With all that said, I’m not defending Tom Cable. Maybe he’s terrible at it relative to other NFL options. Maybe he’s Blair Walshing it. I don’t know. But I am saying: “I don’t know” and that he doesn’t have a notable fraction of the power that fans would claim he has based on the constant negging for every draft bust, free agent mistake, sack, and run that loses three yards.

The part I want to focus on today though is the draft.

When taking over the Seahawks roster in 2010, Carroll and Schneider (Cable was still the head coach of the Oakland Raiders at the time, a team that excelled in run blocking and admittedly struggled in pass protection) took over an offensive line that in 2009 had:

LT Sean Locklear

LG Rob Sims

C Chris Spencer

RG Max Unger

RT Ray Willis

They had to start nearly from scratch, with the exception of Unger, who was still due a position change in the near future.

The first answer was drafting Russell Okung with the first pick of the Carroll era to replace Locklear. This is an advantage that they have not seen once in the eight years since: A pick in the top 10. This is especially worth noting for offensive linemen for a few reasons:

  • Quality offensive linemen are a dying breed. From the high school level to Alabama, prospects are choosing to be defensive tackles, defensive ends, and huge tight ends rather than being someone who protects the quarterback and opens lanes for the running backs with little notable credit for the glory. I think eventually this will swing back because linemen are also being overpaid due to them being nearly as hard to find as a franchise quarterback, but for now, college just isn’t producing many good line prospects.
  • The college game and professional game are too different, especially for blocking purposes. As Cable put it in 2015: “I’m not wanting to offend anybody, but college football, offensively, has gotten to be really, really bad fundamentally,” Cable said Tuesday on 710 ESPN in Seattle. “Unfortunately, I think we’re doing a huge disservice to offensive football players, other than a receiver, that come out of these spread systems.” and going on to list problems for most every position, including: “The blockers aren’t as good ...” A spread offensive lineman doesn’t have to finish blocks or line up in a three-point stance.
  • Almost every team has “OL” listed in it’s top three needs, mostly at the tackle spots. Why do you think the rare teams who have premium left tackles are still drafting right tackles in the first round? The Eagles had Jason Peters and drafted Lane Johnson. The Titans had Taylor Lewan and drafted Jack Conklin. And to build a full unit, the Cowboys spent three of their four first round picks from 2011-2014 on offensive linemen. Which teams in the NFL right now do you think don’t need to draft a tackle in the first round if one became available to them? Not only do you have to list the teams without a good tackle (of which there are many) but you’d also have to count many of the ones that do, like the Rams, who know the value of Andrew Whitworth, as well as the age of Andrew Whitworth. If 2018 ends up with three good tackle prospects (which is a fair estimate of any year based on point number one, and may be on the high side), you can expect they’ll all be gone in the top 15, if not the top 10.

If you’re not picking that high, you’re a little screwed.

From 2002-2007, eight offensive linemen were drafted in the top 10. Half of those linemen went to at least one Pro Bowl, including future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas and three-time Pro Bowlers D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Jordan Gross. All eight had at least three full seasons as a starter, the worst of those being former Bills right tackle Mike Williams, who at least started 48 games in Buffalo.

Of the other 254 linemen drafted in that period of time, 28 made a Pro Bowl, which is 11% of the pool. Of those:

  • 7 went in the first round outside of the top 10
  • 8 went in the second round
  • 5 went in the third round
  • 2 went in the fourth round
  • 4 went in the fifth round
  • 1 went in the sixth round
  • 1 went in the seventh round

Let’s break it down again, but let’s pare it down to the OL who made multiple Pro Bowls, since anyone could get the off-hand single Pro Bowl nod (Derek Anderson is a “Pro Bowl QB”): 20 of the 254 made multiple Pro Bowls, signaling at least a semi-sustained record of above-average play. Of those 20:

  • 7 went in the first round outside of the top 10 (same figure as earlier)
  • 6 went in the second round
  • 3 went in the third round
  • 2 went in the fourth round
  • 1 went in the fifth round
  • 1 went in the sixth round
  • 0 went in the seventh round

Let’s break down those 20 players:

  • 5 were centers
  • 9 were guards
  • 5 were tackles
  • 1 was a longsnapper

Of the 20, four guys made more than five Pro Bowls and they all played on the interior of the line: Nick Mangold, Logan Mankins, Marshal Yanda, and Jahri Evans. The most-honored tackle was Joe Staley of the 49ers, who has made the Pro Bowl five times. Next is Whitworth with three. Then you’ve got the two-time Pro Bowl guys who are a little more questionable, like Marcus McNeill, a second rounder who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons, then trailed off, then retired at 28 due to injuries. Or Jammal Brown, who barely missed the top 10, going 13th overall in 2005.

Now just to reiterate: Eight offensive linemen went in the top 10 during this period of time. They were all tackles. Every one of them. Now, Robert Gallery moved to guard when he failed at tackle (and yeah, Cable was his coach for four of those years, but he was the one who made his transition to guard when he arrived in 2007, where he was considered pretty good) but there was no question even back then that you had to draft a tackle early. The top-10 produced three three-time Pro Bowl tackles, whereas the other pool of 254 players produced only two three-time Pro Bowl tackles.

(UDFAs not being counted here, but no you aren’t forgotten Jason Peters. I just don’t have the data for all UDFAs and finding a premier tackle in UDFA is a known outlier.)

Plus, the best left tackle of his generation, if not ever, was the aforementioned Joe Thomas, and he went third overall — the second-highest in this group behind only Gallery, who went second. Thomas only went third because of a QB prospect who was considered one of the most unique and gifted of the decade (JaMarcus Russell, oops) and a receiver prospect who absolutely was the most unique (Calvin Johnson).

Seahawks fans have been begging for Thomas for years but the fact remains that if you want someone like Thomas, you almost certainly have to suck bad enough to pick in the top-three, then you have to pray that it’s a class that has a premium tackle. And these days, they rarely do.

The last time a draft had premium tackle prospects who ended up living up to their billing was probably that 2010 draft with Okung and Trent Williams. And Okung is not Thomas, or close to it. Williams fits the bill, mostly. The 2011 draft produced Tyron Smith at number nine, but that’s not quite the “can’t-pass-by” pick that a top-5 choice is, though 2011 was an exceptional year in general. The last six drafts have not been as kind though.

There have been 12 offensive linemen drafted in the top 10 dating back to 2012, and we’ve seen a lot more disappointments than we have building blocks:

  • The good is Conklin, Lane Johnson — the tackles mentioned earlier who have been tasked with manning the right side instead of the left — and Brandon Scherff, a guard. The only prospect of these 12 to make the Pro Bowl as a left tackle is Matt Kalil, who did so as a rookie and has been considered mostly a flop ever since, despite the ridiculous overpay by the Carolina Panthers in 2017. Conklin’s also only two seasons into his career and Johnson’s yet to take over the left side despite Peters’ injury last year.
  • The “fine” or “we’ll see” category is manned by Eric Fisher, Ronnie Stanley, Kalil, and Jake Matthews.
  • The “moved because he was bad” category falls to Luke Joeckel.
  • The “always were guards, but not even good guards” are Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper.
  • And then you’ve got Greg Robinson and Ereck Flowers.

Now here’s the scary part: Someone like Fisher or Kalil is still much, much better than what you’re liable to find outside of the top 10 or even in free agency. That’s why the Chiefs extended Fisher for $63 million despite unexciting play and why the Panthers gave Kalil $55 million even though the Vikings deemed him necessary to be replaced. And Minnesota themselves were desperate for a left tackle.

All of which is to say that if you need to draft help on the offensive line, the top of the draft is your necessary bet to do so. And even then, due to the fact that colleges simply aren’t producing NFL-ready offensive linemen, you’re likely hedging your bets on someone who is adequate rather than someone who is elite. The 2017 draft didn’t see a lineman taken until Garett Bolles at 20, and only Germain Ifedi was penalized more often this season. Mile High Report sees him as a future right tackle now. To blame Tom Cable for the macro problem at the position is more than a little short-sighted, though I will defend your right to blame Tom Cable anyway.

Now, what of the linemen that Seattle has drafted since Carroll and Schneider took over in 2010, and after Cable was hired in 2011? And what is the success rate of a lineman drafted outside of the top 20, where the Seahawks are regularly picking? And how about rounds two through four?

That’s next. But here’s a hint: You’ve likely got less than a 1% chance of drafting a premium tackle outside of the top 20. The odds of even finding a good tackle at that point are also extremely low.