This is the second of two articles looking at whether it will be possible for Washington to find the star offensive tackle that the team needs this year. Part 1 looked at an array of data and concluded that:
- The average draft offers 21 OTs, and there are tackles available in every round.
- The odds are good that Washington will get one of the first two OTs available this year; those players are highly likely to be effective starting OL.
- Teams can find effective starting OTs in any round; they can find elite players as late as the third round; and that those taken after the first three rounds generally need time to develop.
Part 2 will look at the elite OTs of the past decade to suggest how likely it is that an elite player will be available at pick 16 in the first round (Washington’s pick). This exercise will also help uncover traits that lead teams to overlook these players.
Who Is Elite?
For this analysis, I looked at every OT who was selected first or second team All-Pro by one of the major services (AP, Sporting News, Pro Football Writers, etc.) in the past 10 years (2013-2022). In the old days, only Associated Press (AP) named All-Pros, but the number of lists has expanded over the years. Nevertheless, the number of players named is relatively small. Most lists name the same OTs as All-Pro in any given year, and many named All-Pro in one year receive that honor in another. There were only 21 players named first or second team All-Pro at tackle during the past decade. The first table lists them. Note: I count years appearing on a first or second team All-Pro list, not the total number of appearances on different lists.
These players represent different eras. A player named All-Pro in, say, 2013 may have begun his career in the early 2000’s. I have termed three different eras Old School (draft class pre-2011), Established Vets (2011-16), and New Blood (2017-2022). There are six, ten, and five players in these groups. That isn’t enough for statistical analysis of differences, but it can help suggest whether there are patterns in the characteristics of All-Pros that may have changed over time.
Certainly, some players on the list are Hall of Fame level and some are not, but that does not matter for our purposes here. All are elite. Any player on this list was one of the very best OTs in the league when named, and most had long and productive careers. Washington would love to have the rookie version of any of them this year.
If A Player Is Elite, You Know It Early
One sign of just how elite these players are is that 19 of 21 established themselves as starters during their rookie years. Most (16) started at least 12 games as a rookie. Another three started before the end of their rookie years. If you have an elite player, there is a 90% chance that he will be a first-year starter. There were only two exceptions.
The first exception was Jason Peters, a 320-pound pass receiving TE at Arkansas. He saw his future at OT and began learning to play it between the end of his last college season and the Combine. He was undrafted, signed with the Bills, and started ten games there into his second season. He has been a six-time All-Pro, and he is likely to be a Hall of Famer.
The other exception was Oklahoma’s Marcus Cannon, who NFL.com rated as a future perennial All-Pro. The Combine physical found medical issues that turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was drafted at the top of the fifth round of the draft by the Patriots. He recovered from cancer well enough to play a few games at the end of his rookie season. Injuries plagued his career, but he played at a high level when healthy. He sat out 2020 due to COVID (understandably), then has started four games each of the past two years. He was All-Pro in 2016, by far his best season.
Although elite players usually are instant starters, they are not necessarily elite immediately. Andrew Whitworth had the highest WAV in the group at 100 but did not become All-Pro until his 8th year. Smith and Thomas needed three years. And so on.
When Were They Chosen?
What are the chances that Washington can find an elite OT at pick 16? I think most people would be stunned to find out that more than half of the elite OTs in this sample were selected after pick 16. They are highlighted in salmon in column 4. We have discussed Peters and Cannon. The second-lowest draft pick was David Bakhtiari, taken in Round 4; he has the third highest number of All-Pro years at 5. Andrew Whitworth, Mitchell Schwartz, Terron Armstead, and Daryl Williams were selected in the second through fourth rounds. That’s quite a collection of talents taken after the first round. Even among first rounders, Joe Staley, Duane Brown, and Garret Bolles were taken after pick 16. Laremy Tunsil, Tristan Wirfs, and Rashawn Slater were close at pick 13.
You might think that scouting has gotten better over the years, and therefore top talents are less likely to fall through the cracks than they were 20 years ago. There is not much evidence to support that idea in our table. Half of the prospects plus or minus one fell through the cracks in the Old School, Established Veteran, and New Blood cohorts.
Why Were Some OTs Chosen Way Too Late?
This ultimately is the most important question. I have looked at every characteristic I can think of – college, size, and Combine test results. With a small sample of 21, we cannot test hypotheses very well, but I have several hypotheses.
Wrong School. Scouts and GMs often distrust those who go to smaller schools and face weaker competition as a result. You can see similar comments from posters on Hogs Haven. An egregious example was Joe Staley, who went to Central Michigan University. He was an athletic freak with a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 10.0 out of 10.0. He dominated the competition at his level. Yet he went 28th. Terron Armstead was from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which had put several players into the NFL (L. C. Greenwood of the Steelers and Manny Sistrunk of the Redskins among them) but had never produced an NFL offensive lineman before. So far, he has had a ten-year career with a WAV of 59 for the Saints. Two Pac 12 schools that have not produced many star NFL OL produced Mitchell Schwartz (Cal) and David Bakhtiari (Colorado). Armstead, Schwartz, and Bakhtiari went in Rounds 2 – 4.
In short, scouts and GMs may be biased against players attending the “wrong” school, and they draft these players lower than they should. It is probably only human to look at powerhouse schools first for top picks. Oklahoma produced four of the 22 players on our All-Pro list and that makes an Okie OL feel like a safe pick.
Wrong Athletic Profile. At the time that Staley was selected, the NFL preferred strong, enormous OTs who could “wall off” defenders. Staley broke the mold at a mere 306 pounds (and he had short arms to boot). He lasted until near the end of Round 1. Bakhtiari’s NFL.com profile indicates that he “did not have an ideal build” and that he had “thin arms” even though he had adequate Combine Scores. Thus, one of the dominant OTs of his time went in Round 4.
One of the best examples in the other direction is not on our list, but I discussed him in Part 1. Orlando Brown was pegged by the Ravens as a RT and a LT only in an emergency, even though he reached the Pro Bowl in his year as a LT for Baltimore. He just did not look like a modern, highly athletic LT; he seemed like a mammoth RT only. This issue became so contentious that the Ravens traded Brown to Kansas City, where he started at LT for two Pro Bowl years, including the 2022 championship year.
Is He A Guard? Nobody wants to overdraft a Guard. There is probably some KS4GM commandment or other on the topic. Many draft profiles of elite players question whether they can play tackle or take the stance that they have no choice but to move to guard. Bakhtiari’s profile said, “A move to guard is likely in his future.” Whitworth, with a WAV rating of 100, played tackle in his rookie year and then guard for two more years until Marvin Lewis moved him permanently to OT in his fourth year. Cannon, Armstead, Williams, and Slater are among the players who some profiles suggested might be more successful at guard. Yet they became All-Pro OTs.
I said in Part 1 that it’s a waste of time to devote so much effort trying to pigeonhole prospects before they play in the NFL. Some will move from guard to tackle or from tackle to guard, while others always will remain guards or tackles. Many of the players in this list indeed did play some of their careers at guard. If the player is elite, who cares? Washington, which could benefit from elite tackles and guards, should be happy with either.
Is He A LT or RT? I don’t think it’s very worthwhile any longer to make heavy distinctions between LT and RT. With similar DEs playing on both sides of the line, any tackle without traditional LT traits is going to get humiliated in the pass rush. As teams use movement and two-TE sets that allow them to run effectively to either the left or right, LTs cannot be pass rush specialists; they need good RT run blocking traits too. Indeed, many of the top LTs in our sample have played mostly RT in some years of the careers, including Bakhtiari, Stanley, and Thomas.
Thus, it should be no surprise that RTs have much greater value than in the past. All the Old School OTs primarily were LTs in their careers. By the time we get to the Established Veteran Group, half (Cannon, Schwartz, Johnson, Williams, and Conklin) were mostly RTs. It is interesting that the freakish Lane Johnson always played RT except for a brief time last year – something unimaginable at one point in the NFL. Similarly, Ramczyk and Wirfs are New Blood RTs, and Thomas reached All-Pro only after moving to RT.
Combine Test Scores. Very few prospects not named Lane Johnson are so freakish that they looked good on almost every Combine test. Despite an enormous amount of commentary devoted to whether single traits (above all, arm size) determine success at OT, there is very little evidence that any one trait really matters. However, some bad athletes make very good OTs.
The poster child for this is Mitchell Schwartz. He was a combine disaster who did not run, jump, move, or bench press well. And his arms weren’t very long, the horror! He had the worst NFL.com draft prospect score of anyone on our list. Yet Schwartz enjoyed a long career with a WAV of 75. He lasted until Round 2 and you wonder who was smart enough to take him even then. (Some may recall that our own KS4GM once advocated signing him in Washington as a Free Agent.) Other relatively mediocre to bad athletes who became elite were Bakhtiari and Daryl Williams, both of whom were taken in the 4th Round.
With a sample of 21, we cannot do a lot of sophisticated statistical analysis to determine whether specific physical traits predict career success. Multiple regression to look for the joint effects of multiple predictors is out. We also have a problem called “range restriction” here; everyone is a star in this group, and we would really need to analyze a much broader sample that included people with more varied levels of career success and more varied physical traits. With those major caveats, I can report that there is essentially no significant relationship between any physical trait or test score and either career success as represented by WAV or years on a first or second team All Pro list, when we look at these relationships one at a time.
I’ll use everyone’s favorite trait, arm length. Within this sample, the correlation between arm length and WAV is a negative -0.09, which effectively means no relationship. But perhaps the result comes because two of the New Blood group have short arms and they inevitably will have lower WAV scores because they haven’t been around long. If you then throw out the New Blood group and only look at the other groups combined, the correlation between arm length and WAV is -.25, which is modest but completely in the opposite direction expected by so many commentators. That correlation indicates that the shorter the arms, the greater career success. Stunning. The list of those who had arm lengths of less than 34”, said to be the OT minimum by many commentators, includes Jason Peters (future Hall of Famer), Joe Thomas (Hall of Famer), Mitchell Schwartz, Ryan Ramczyk, and Rashawn Slater. Hmmm.
But let’s look at the correlation between arm length and number of years on an All-Pro list. The results are even worse for the “arm length is destiny” crowd. The correlation for the entire group is -.25, and if you throw out the New Blood subgroup, the correlation becomes -.36. Now that’s getting serious; we’re explaining 13% of the variance in years on an All-Pro list by arm length, and again, the shorter the arms the better. Obviously, this pattern suggests that Washington should immediately snap up this year’s short arm king, Peter Skoronski, if he is available at pick 16.
I take the following away from the analysis of this article:
- You may be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by your OL pick, but if the player is going to become elite, he is probably going to be a starter in his first year. However, it may take a few years for him to become elite.
- Washington has an excellent chance of finding an elite OT at pick 16 or even in later rounds. Half the elite tackles in our sample were taken after pick 16.
- Scouts and GMs should work hard at overcoming biases against prospects from less prestigious schools and conferences and by those who lack a beautiful body. The hidden gems are those that don’t fit preconceived ideals. Look at how they can succeed more than why they might be doomed to failure.
- Stop worrying about whether a prospect is a LT, RT, or G. Worry about whether he is a good OL. Accept it: you can’t determine where he will play until he’s been on your roster a while.
- Enjoy the combine, but let the other GMs and scouts obsess about pounds, fractions of an inch in arm length, and fractions of a second or inch in Combine test scores. Trust your eyes most of all: look for football players on tape. If they have great scores also, that’s a fabulous combination. But you’re going to find the hidden gems by caring more about how prospects play than how they perform in the Underwear Olympics.