FanPost

When Has An Offensive Lineman Ever Turned Around An NFL Franchise?

I wrote a fanpost a few weeks ago saying we should draft Clowney with the #2 pick, or trade back and pick Manziel or Watkins. And in that fanpost I philosophized about how I felt there was something off about the idea of drafting an offensive lineman that high, saying that while offensive linemen are extremely important, they're just not the type of "impact players" that great defensive linemen, or linebackers, or even wide receivers, for example, are.

But not everyone saw it the same way as I did, and in all probability I didn't do a very good job of explaining what I meant, or of proving my point.

Fast forward to a few days ago, and I was watching some dumb NFL Network top 10 list show where they interviewed a bunch of people in-between listing the players (this one was maybe the best 10 players to not win a Superbowl or something), and I don't remember who they were talking about or what came up, but one of the people being interviewed randomly said this in the middle of the show:

"I mean when has an offensive lineman ever turned around an NFL franchise?"

The look on his face when he said it displayed the answer, as he believed it, very clearly: never (except for maybe the one guy he was talking about which is why he was the one offensive lineman on the list. That's IF I'm remembering the context correctly). Now technically "never" is probably incorrect, but that still pretty much summed up the entire discussion for me. Great offensive linemen simply are not impact players the way great players at many other positions are. Go ask any casual sports fan if they know who Warren Sapp is, and they'll tell you he was the best defensive tackle of his era (or if they're super casual sports fans, they'll at least still say "one of the best defensive players in football over 10 years ago). Then try asking them who the best offensive tackle of that era was, and see what happens. Just make sure you keep your guard up because they might try to punch you or kick you in the balls.

So what am I saying? I'm saying a #2 overall pick is a hugely valuable asset, and a huge opportunity to add a star player that takes over games for us on a regular basis, and I don't believe that type of player is going to be an offensive lineman. Does this team need offensive line help? Yes. Of course. But that #2 overall pick is an impact pick, it's a star pick, a turn around the franchise pick. It's the type of pick where if you're not picking your franchise, Pro-Bowl QB with it, you should at least be getting players like this, just off the top of my head:

J.J Watt, Richard Sherman, Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Derrelle Revis, Earl Thomas, Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson... the list goes on.

I mean you get it, players who are universally recognized as having among the very most impact on their team's ability to win games of anyone in the NFL besides quarterbacks. And my point is that, as important as the offensive line is, you won't find, say, Russell Okung on that list no matter who is writing it. No matter who is reading this, even if you're a huge supporter of offensive linemen and want the Rams to take an offensive lineman with the #2 overall pick, if someone had asked you five minutes ago to list the 50 players in the NFL besides quarterbacks who you believe have the biggest impact on their team's ability to win football games, you would not have put Russell Okung, or probably any offensive lineman, on that list.

Why am I using Okung as my example of a star offensive lineman in the NFL? Because Okung is the "star" left tackle on this year's Superbowl Winning team - left tackle being the "star" position on any offensive line, and because even though he got injured for a good portion of the season, it barely made any difference. I bet there are some Rams fans who don't even know he missed games earlier this year.

The fact is, many NFL fans out there could have watched a Seahawks game earlier this season on mute and not even realized Okung was out injured unless they had already memorized his number. But strictly based on the play of that team, many would not have even noticed. Sure, maybe some would have noticed that the Seahawks backup left tackle gave up one more QB pressure that game than normal, or maybe even a sack if they were watching the right game, but on the whole, the Seahawks weren't that much worse off without him. And that's left tackle, the most important position on the offensive line. The impact is even less on the interior.

Now, if you took Richard Sherman out of that lineup, or Earl Thomas, it's a completely different story. If you're watching the Seahawks play and that happens, it probably only takes a few plays for you to start noticing the impact it has. Why? Because a star cornerback, or a star safety, has a much bigger impact on the game than a star offensive lineman. And that's exactly the point I'm trying to make, and exactly the reason why we shouldn't be using that #2 pick on an offensive lineman.

Even Percy Harvin, wide receiver, when you take him out of the Seahawks lineup (or should I say put him into the lineup), the difference is plain for anyone to see. We need only look at the Superbowl for proof. That was Harvin's first game back healthy, and doubtless he still wasn't quite at 100%. Plus the game was a blowout, so they rested him pretty much the whole second half of the game. But still, even though Harvin was only playing at about 90% health, and even though he only playing maybe 1/3 of the game, he still returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and had well over 100 yards on the game. In total, Harvin had more impact on the game playing only one-third of it than Russell Okung had on the whole game.

And it's my opinion that this is the case when comparing offensive lineman to most of the other positions. The problem with offensive linemen is there is a ceiling on what they can do, and that ceiling is zero, or zero sacks, to go along with good run blocking. But that's it. The only "good" you can hope for from your offensive linemen is that they prevent the "bad." And you can say that's also true of all defensive players, that outside of turnovers all they're doing is preventing points rather than scoring them, but it's not the same. Defensive players keep the other team from scoring and also score some themselves, while offensive players at the skill positions also score often. But not offensive linemen. They do neither. This is an oversimplification as obviously offensive linemen play a part in every successful rushing or passing TD (unless it's a very, very quick hit), but hopefully everyone reading can at least see the point I'm trying to get at.

In fact another of our division rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, have drafted some offensive linemen high in the 1st round in recent years: Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. The 49ers are considered to have the best offensive line in the NFL, and both of these offensive-line picks in the 1st round have panned out about as well as the 49ers could have hoped they would, and about as well as we, St Louis Rams fans, could expect our pick to turn out if we draft an offensive lineman #2 overall in the draft.

And yet all of you know, even those of you who are big fans of offensive lineman, that if you had a choice between those two recent 1st round picks of the 49ers, or another pair of recent 49ers 1st round picks, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, you would take Willis and Smith.

Or, some of you might say that even though there's no question Willis and Smith are the better players, and have a bigger impact on their team's success, you would still take the two offensive linemen because that is the bigger need for our team right now. "We already have good pass-rushers and, to a lesser extent, linebackers."

That's a pair point. Really, it is. But it's a separate debate. All I'm trying to do is make the point that most the other positions have a bigger impact on winning, and turning a franchise around, than offensive linemen do. And that we can get capable offensive linemen in the second round, while a star defensive lineman, or wide receiver, or safety or corner, we will only have a good shot at early in the 1st. But beyond that, it's all up for debate. If you think drafting for need is more important right now, given the weaknesses on the offensive line, than drafting the most valuable player, that's a discussion worth having. It's just my opinion that there shouldn't be any debate about who the most valuable player who will be available at #2 is, or rather isn't: it won't be an offensive lineman. Because unlike quarterbacks, wide receivers, linebackers, defensive linemen, cornerbacks, safeties, even running backs if they truly stick out above the crowd, offensive linemen are typically not impact players in the same way that, at these other positions, the very best players make a huge impact on the game above replacement level players. When Russell Okung goes out injured, you can "patch work" the offensive line and make it work, even to the point where you see no difference at all in many games. Try "patch working" the defensive line when J.J. Watt goes out injured without seeing a drop off, or when Robert Quinn goes out injured. Try "patch working" the secondary when Richard Sherman goes out injured. It's just not the same. These other positions are more valuable, and when you have the #2 overall pick in the draft, a pick where the sky should be the limit in terms of getting value and impact out of it, well the ceiling is going to be a lot higher if we draft a WR or a defensive lineman than if we draft an offensive lineman.

And just as important, I'm saying the drop off between the pass-rushers or defensive linemen available at #2 overall, and the ones available in the 2nd or 3rd round, is much greater than the drop off between the offensive linemen available at #2 overall, and the ones available in the 2nd or 3rd round. It's like in fantasy football, the positions everyone chooses at the top of the draft are determined by the depth of what's available, and whether or not you can still get something almost as good later on. For example if you can choose a 10/10 player of any position in the first round, but you know there will still be a 9/10 linebacker available in the 5th round, as well as a 9/10 safety available in the 5th round, but you also know the highest running back that will be left after the 1st round is a 7/10, who do you take? It's simple, you take the 10/10 running back in the first round because you know you can still get 9/10's at those other positions later on, but you'll only have this one chance to get a 10/10 running back or even close.

Well it's similar here, in my opinion. The drop-off from Clowney at #2 to the best defensive linemen still available in round 2 or 3, or in free agency, is a lot greater than the drop off between Matthews and the other linemen available to the Rams either later in the draft or through free agency. And the same is true at receiver (unless the Rams can sign big $ receivers like Anquan Boldin, which I doubt. Quality under the radar linemen, on the other hand, could be signed. Although so could quality under the radar WRs. But I digress).

Put another way, let's say the Rams were somehow able to draft both Clowney and Matthews. Hypothetically. What Im saying is, if that happened, but then midway through the season, Clowney got injured, everyone would notice it. It would be impossible to patch over. The Rams pass rush, and defense as a whole, would be far less dangerous. But if Matthews got injured, many casual fans might not even notice. Bradford would get sacked a few more times over the long run, but if the team maybe finds a way to convert on those 3rd and long's after a sack, that can get erased anyway if things go right. Or when it doesn't get erased, you lose out on a couple drives over the span of three or four games. It's not a good thing, but it's not the end of the world. It's not an absolutely huge negative impact or anything, which means Matthews, when healthy, wasn't giving you a huge positive impact, otherwise his loss would be a huge negative impact. See what I'm saying? It's just the nature of the position.

One last analogy. All Rams fans agree, Robert Quinn had a huge impact on the team last year. Now, can you think of any offensive lineman in the NFL who you would trade Robert Quinn for? Exactly. They're just not as valuable. And if you wouldn't trade Robert Quinn for any of them, even when you can have your pick of any established NFL offensive linemen, why would you trade Clowney for Matthews when 1. Matthews isn't even the best offensive lineman in the NFL, and 2. Clowney may have the potential to be even better than Quinn?

And same goes for Watkins. Thinking back to The Greatest Show on Turf days, would you have traded Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt for an offensive lineman? Because those are the type of talents, and the type of impact on the team, we have a chance of getting with this #2 overall pick. And that's why it baffles me that anyone would want to draft an offensive lineman with it. I think the moment you realize this pick could be used on the next Isaac Bruce or even the next Robert Quinn, even though Quinn is a more recent addition to the team, I think that's the moment even the people currently suggesting we draft an offensive linemen would completely change their tune. If Watkins is as good as everyone says he is, and everyone seems to agree he's really good - exactly the type of receiver the Rams are missing, even better than Tavon, then do you really want to give that up for an offensive lineman? If Watkins can be the Rams' next Isaac Bruce, and the missing link in the WR corp, don't you think that's worth a lot more than an offensive lineman?

And the same goes for Clowney. If he's as good as everyone is saying he is, and most people seem to agree he's pretty damn good, how can you give that up? If you wouldn't trade Quinn for an offensive lineman, and Clowney has the potential to be better than Quinn, then I don't understand how anyone can suggest we pass on that. Offensive lineman just do not present that same level of value to a team, and they do not impact the team's chances of winning game in and game out, as players at these other positions do.

EDIT: Two last points I want to add that I just thought of when responding to someone's comment.

1. This discussion, whether we should draft an offensive lineman with the #2 overall pick rather than some of the more exciting players, reminds me of when the Portland Trail-Blazers passed over Kevin Durant in the NBA draft in order to draft Greg Oden. There seems to be that voice in all our heads, especially for executives of professional sports teams when their jobs are on the line, always telling us to be careful, to not go for the home run, to just be safe and responsible instead. That same voice told those Trail Blazers' executives that even though Kevin Durant was more exciting and had the higher upside, and even though the fans all wanted him, that it was their job to be the responsible adults and focus on needs, and the less sexy aspects of the game like size and defense.

I think we all have that voice telling us to be cautious, and some of us are good at ignoring it while some of us aren't. But that is what this discussion reminds me of. Players like Clowney (even though he's a defensive player, it's different in the NFL) and Watkins are the sexier talents with the higher upsides, while someone like Matthews feels more like the equivalent of a defensive player in the NBA, the cautious approach where he doesn't have the same upside or the same star-quality, but he fills a need.

But it is my belief that 90% of the time, contrary to what that what that voice telling everyone to be cautious and responsible says, it's those sexy talents with huge upside that turn out to be the better players anyway. You can't hit home runs unless you take a swing first, and while I think there will be plenty of opportunities for us to add solid offensive lineman to this team over the next few seasons, there will probably only be this once chance for us to add a talent with the upside of Clowney or Watkins.

2. And here's my second point, speaking of superstardom. It's much more concise. If after reading all this you are still not convinced that, one-for-one, players at most other positions are more valuable, and have more impact on the game, than an individual offensive-lineman does, then consider this:

Right now I can think of dozens of superstar wide receivers in the NFL, a handful of superstar linebackers, not to mention another handful of superstar defensive linemen and a few Superstar RBs.

However, I cannot think of a single superstar offensive lineman in the NFL. And that says it all in my opinion. If individual offensive lineman impacted football games on a regular basis as much as players at these other positions, we would notice them the same way we notice players at these other positions, and we would think about them the same way, talk about them the same way. We would say things like, "Okung really dominated the game today and carried the Seahawks on his back to a win." But we don't. The offensive-line is a much more group-oriented, group-dependent position than any other in the NFL, and that's why our top picks, which can only be used on one individual player each rather than a whole line unit, should be used on players who play positions where they can actually dominate games and have superstar-level impacts on the team's performance every sunday.

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