Washington needs a star offensive tackle. Can it find one this year? This appears to be a thin year for tackles at the top of the draft. In fact, this is probably the weakest year for top OTs in at least the last five. What are the odds that the Commanders can find a starting OT in the first round, either at 16 or later if they trade back? Is an elite OT possible to find at their position in the draft, or should they throw in the towel and take a top CB?
I dug up a lot of data to address these questions. (I can’t help myself, I’m a researcher by training and inclination.). I will share those data in two articles. Part 1 will look at patterns in drafts of OTs – how many go in various rounds, how the top OTs each year have performed, and how one entire class of OTs (2018) performed. Part 2 will look at 21 elite OTs of the past decade that might give us some clues to finding hidden gems.
Preview: I came away from this work feeling encouraged that the odds of finding a solid OT in this draft were much better than I had realized.
I will follow up these two articles with 2-3 profiles of OTs in the draft who the Commanders might want to consider at 16 or later. The profiles will use lessons drawn from the first two articles to help assess the chances for success of these young OTs.
What Is the Typical Pattern in Drafting OTs?
The first table summarizes the OTs that have been drafted over the past 12 years (2011-2022). There are more OTs drafted than I realized – a total of 252, or an average of 21 per year. The range is wide, from 16 to 25 taken in a year. The first round is usually a tad OT-heavy with an average of 4, with a range of 2 to 6. The second round typically sees the draft of about 3, with a range of 1 to 6. Offensive tackles are drafted in every round, so there are many opportunities to select them throughout the draft.
Clearly, some years are better than others, signaled by years in which more OTs are taken overall, and more are taken in the critical first two rounds, than in other years.
First and Second OT Drafted By Year
Washington may have the opportunity to choose the first or second OT of the draft at 16, given the matchup of needs and prospects prior to 16. The best OT in the draft could be Peter Skoronski (Northwestern), Paris Johnson, Jr. (OSU), or someone else. How much of a sure thing is the first or second OT taken? And what are the odds that one of the top two players would be available at 16? Let’s look at the past 12 years (24 players).
Weighted Average Value (WAV) has been used in many Hogs Haven articles as the best single indicator of the quality of play over the entire career. Note that WAV increases with the number of productive years in the player’s career. The general pattern here is exactly as one would expect; most of these picks had long and productive careers and their WAV increased accordingly over time. Most never received All-Pro first or second team or Pro Bowl honors, and only five received such honors in more than one year.
My summary ratings have several categories. Elite players have a high WAV for their time in the league and also are named All-Pro and/or to the Pro Bowl. I rate seven of 24 listed players as elite. We could quibble about borderline cases, but I believe that any informed reader will agree that those I have labeled as elite are just that. Interestingly, three of these were the second tackle drafted in their year; in two of those cases, the top pick is not elite.
I rated those who are long-term starters but with lesser AV and no all-league honors “solid but not elite”. Most are (or were) better than anyone now on the Washington roster and I would be delighted with their rookie selves. Note that there are approximately as many “solid but not elite” as “elite” players in the nine years for which we can make an assessment. I am willing to be accused of hometown bias on Flowers, who had two very good years in Washington as a guard after failing as a tackle with the Giants.
Only three of 24 players were busts. Seeing so few is remarkable and encouraging. Matt Kalil, taken in 2012, was a flash in the pan for Minnesota. He was an instant starter and Pro Bowler as a rookie, but his career somewhat mysteriously faded. Greg Robinson was the most serious bust of the group. After a second arrest for marijuana trafficking recently, his long and troubled career is probably over. The most recent bust is the Eagles’ Andre Dillard. He has time to turn his career around but shows no signs of doing so. Washington fans can note smugly that the very next pick in that draft was Tytus Howard, who has a career AV of 23 and four years of starting experience.
All six tackles picked in the past three years have had excellent starts to their careers, but it is too early to rate them definitively. All appear to have merited their draft position and, if they continue the level of play that they have shown so far, most or all will reach elite status eventually.
Scouts always ask whether an OL is better suited to tackle or an interior line position. While several players on this list played guard for at least part of their career, only two will be remembered primarily as guards – both former Washington players. The most unique case is Brandon Scherff, who never played so much as an exhibition game at OT. He was moved to guard early in training camp and quickly established himself as one of the elite Gs of his era. I will not repeat again the history of the choice to move him to G. Could he have been a good tackle? Yes, but I’m not getting into it.
Overall, the track record for the first or second OT chosen in the draft is excellent. The odds of getting at worst a very good player are quite high. The record shows that solid or even elite players are available at pick 16 or later. Indeed, five of the 24 players on this list were taken after 16, including the elite Ryan Ramczyk. They were more likely to be available late in years, like 2023, that have a reputation as being a bad year for offensive linemen. This indicates that Washington has a good chance of drafting the first or second OT this year if they do not trade down. The odds are very high that such an OT would be an excellent player.
The odds of getting a starter with the first or second OT chosen are very high, but the odds of getting a player who is elite immediately are very low. The players on this list started as rookies, but most did not become elite overnight. The most recent case in point is Andrew Thomas, the fourth player taken in 2020, who struggled mightily as a rookie but reached Second Team All-Pro last year. The most decorated star of this list, Tyron Smith, did not break through with all-league honors until his third season. Only Kalil and Sewell were voted to the Pro Bowl as rookies. Thomas and Smith needed three years to achieve all-league honors, Bolles and Stanley needed four years, and Eric Fisher did not make the Pro Bowl for six years. Success does not always come immediately even for elite players.
Are the first OTs chosen always left tackles? No. Sewell and Robinson played both LT and RT. Thomas and Williams played LT for two years before becoming RTs; Stanley was moved from left to right in his fifth year. McGlinchey played G his rookie year, then RT for three years, then both LT and RT last year. In any case, the LT/RT distinction means less and less as so many elite pass rushers move to the RT’s side of the line. Also, players drafted as guards very rarely become tackles, but any player drafted as a tackle (even a LT) may play anywhere on the line and settle into a career at any position on the line. Lesson learned: Teams should draft OL, not LTs or RTs.
Deep Dive: The 2018 Draft Class
Next, let’s go from vertical (looking at the first OT across years) to horizontal (looking at all OTs taken in one year). We will look at the class of 2018. I chose that year because everyone in the class has had enough time (5 years) to show their value, even those who missed a year due to injury. We have shown that even the most highly-drafted players need time to reach their potential. That is even more true when we look at all OTs drafted in any round, since those in later rounds typically need some developmental time.
The 2018 draft turned out to be a very good year to examine for our purposes. It appears to be a lot like 2023. The OTs at the top had many question marks and the class overall was not considered to be stellar. Indeed, no OTs from this draft have become All-Pros and only two have reached the Pro Bowl (Orlando Brown four times, O’Neill once). However, there were many solid players, and there were players worth drafting in every round.
The table shows that 21 OTs were selected in 2018, with at least two in every round. The table compares the number of years in which the OT played in any game, games started, weighted AV, and AV realized by the drafting team. The last column indicates whether the drafting team realized the benefit of the pick, or whether it was realized by another team because of a trade or free agency. In four cases (highlighted in salmon), the drafting team did not get the full AV benefit of the player for one of those reasons.
Not all the OTs drafted have remained OTs throughout their career. Williams has been a guard only. Top pick McGlinchey played guard as a rookie, then moved to tackle. Rankin, Noteboom, and Cappa played a mix of guard and tackle in different years.
There are several interesting patterns here. One is that players drafted in the first two rounds proved to be solid starters; half of those in Round 3 became solid starters; and one player out of two taken in each round from Rounds 4-7 became a starter. With the proper time frame, the hit rates are quite good even in later rounds.
The star of this draft class was the 9th OT taken, in the third round: Orlando Brown. He has been a Pro Bowl player in 4 out of 5 years and he earned a Super Bowl ring this year for Kansas City. Half of his weighted AV was realized by the Chiefs, who acquired him after he became disgruntled in Baltimore. He began his career as a massive RT who started from Day 1, then later moved to LT when Ronnie Stanley suffered a serious injury. He reached the Pro Bowl as the Ravens’ LT. He refused to move back to RT the next year, and the Ravens moved him to the Chiefs. As we will see in my next article, he fits the profile of players who are unfairly downgraded by drafting teams, even those as smart as the Ravens. He just did not look like a LT. He looked like a RT or RG – a huge road grader who was not very fast or nimble. Yet he became by far the best LT of his class.
Injuries always play a huge role in the career of OTs. Crosby and Cunningham are gone from the league after injuries (especially sad for Crosby, who looked like a 5th round success story). Wynn lost his rookie year to injury, and Parker lost a year as well. That is why it is important to evaluate tackles after enough time has passed to see their true value.
The steal of the 2018 draft was Jordan Mailata, the last OT taken, by the Eagles. He has started the same number of games and received the same weighted AV as first round pick Isaiah Wynn. (The comparison is highlighted in blue.). Mailata needed two years of development before starting, but this year he became a seventh round OT who started for a Super Bowl team. He has had the career that Andre Dillard was supposed to have.
One of the busts of the draft was Geron Christian, picked by Washington. He likely will never be more than a marginal backup player in the league. Three players picked after him in the same round became multi-year starters. In fairness, only Orlando Brown became a LT, the position for which Christian was drafted. One of the ironies of NFL life is that Christian picked up a Super Bowl ring as a backup for Kansas City this year.
What conclusions can we draw from the OT class of 2018?
- You can find OTs who can start at any point in the draft if you’re lucky.
- You are more likely to find solid starters at the top of the draft. Odds are best in the first two rounds, but you can find elite players in the third round.
- Those taken after the first three rounds generally need time to develop but can become very solid performers, eventually performing as well as first rounders.
I come away from this analysis hopeful for Washington’s chances of finding an OT prospect this year. I previously assumed that the team was not slotted high enough to take a premier OT. The data says something different. Every draft offers a lot of OT prospects and there are prospects worth drafting in every round. The top two OT in the draft usually are safe bets, and Washington may be drafting one of those this year. The odds of finding an immediate starter at OT go down with each round. However, it is possible to find an immediate starter in the first three rounds and a future starter anywhere in the draft.
It is important to remember that many OT prospects may be moved around the line to find their best position. Some will see their careers derailed by injury. A developmental perspective is important, because it may take two or three years for players to emerge, especially those taken after Round 3.
In the next article, I will look at the 21 most elite OTs of the past decade to find out where they were drafted and why. In retrospect, a surprising number were drafted far later than they should have been. I will look at patterns in their characteristics to find some clues about where to find our own hidden gems in the 2023 draft and in the future.