Does a team really need high draft picks to build a strong offensive line? We can all think of 1st round picks who were great (Orlando Pace) and others who weren't (Luke Joeckel, whose disappointing career in the NFL appears to be over), as well as many UDFAs who are terrible and the few who turn out to be great. To delve into the question of how a team should approach drafting offensive linemen, I put together a survey of the top 10 ranked lines from the 2018 NFL season.
I'm using PFF's rankings, not because I think their number should be taken literally, but due to a lack of any better criteria. Offensive lines are difficult to rank using regular statistics. Football Outsiders numbers are also provided in parenthesis for each team.
For each team, I list their starters (or key reserves who started due to injury or other reason) and the round where each player was drafted.
1. Steelers (15th in Adjusted line yards, 4th in Adjusted Sack Rate)
Villanueva (UDFA), DeCastro (1st round), Pouncey (1st), R. Foster (UDFA), M. Gilbert (2nd), M. Feiler (UDFA), BJ Finney (UDFA)
Initially, the Steelers had 3 starters drafted in the first 2 rounds, then Gilbert got injured and was replaced by an UDFA. Villanueva is a very unconventional starter at left tackle. He played WR his final season at Army. As an UDFA in 2010, failed to catch on initially in the NFL as a TE. He then served multiple combat tours of duty in Afghanistan. The Eagles cut him after trying to make him a defensive end and only then did the Steelers pick him up and move him to offensive tackle.
Prior to last season, the Steelers lost Chris Hubbard (UDFA) in free agency. Hubbard had played well at RT in place of an injured Gilbert in 2017. DeCastro missed a couple of games last year as well, so the Steelers have had a bunch of starts the last 2 seasons by players who were former UDFAs and gotten good performances from those players.
Consistency from all 5 spots is a reason they finished as the top line in PFF's rankings. Villanueva had the highest grade at 78.1, but every position had a top 16 type grade. A key reason James Conner filled in so well for Bell last year was because the Steelers have a good offensive line. Gilbert was traded to Arizona this year.
2. Browns (18th ALY, 16th ASR)
GRob (1st Rams), Bitonio (2nd), Tretter (4th Packers), Zeitler (1st Bengals), Harrison (UDFA), Hubbard (UDFA Steelers)
At one time, with players like Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz and Bitonio, the Browns had a very good line made up of their own high draft picks. Since that time, the Browns busted multiple picks, including Cameron Erving (1st 2015), Shon Coleman (3rd rounder 2016 who was traded to SF for a 7th round pick in 2019, then didn't play at all for the Niners last year), and Spencer Drango (5th in 2016, cut at end of camp in 2018). The Browns turned to free agency to try to patch the resulting holes in the roster.
Hubbard played poorly last year. Perhaps the Browns overpaid for a player who had just one good year of production. GRob also played poorly at the other tackle spot (though better than he was with the Rams). The real strength of the Browns line was in the middle, where Bitonio, Tretter and Zeitler were all graded by PFF as top 8 players at their respective positions.
I'm not surprised by the careers of any of those 3, they all looked like good prospects coming out of college. The Browns traded Zeitler to the Giants. Expected to start in his place this season is Austin Corbett, who was a high 2nd round pick in 2018. The Browns struggled with how to replace Thomas at LT and at one point intended to move Bitonio out to LT before changing their minds and putting him back at guard.
Whether the Browns line plays well in 2019 could be a key factor in determining whether the offense lives up to the offseason hype.
3. Colts (4th ALY, 2nd ASR)
Castonzo (1st), B. Smith (2nd), Q. Nelson (1st), R. Kelly (1st), M. Glowinski (4th Hawks), M. Slauson (6th Jets)
Four high draft picks helped craft one of the most impressive offensive lines to me from last season. Glowinski was released by the Seahawks, so the Colts got him off the trash heap. Indy built their line with the Cowboys model of drafting some early round studs and now have a good young core for the future. After years with Luck getting pummeled, the Colts gave up only 18 sacks last year.
4. Patriots (3rd ALY, 1st ASR)
T. Brown (7th SF, traded to NE in a swap of midround picks in 2018), M. Cannon (5th), J. Thuney (3rd), D. Andrews (UDFA), S. Mason (4th), I. Wynn (1st, injured)
The Patriots traded for Brown a day after drafting Wynn. Shaq Mason was the highest graded guard by PFF last season. Brown was the lowest graded Patriots starter as the 32nd ranked tackle. The Rams generally did a good job shutting down the Pats offense in the Super Bowl, but in crunch time the Patriots line did enough both pass blocking and run blocking to make the key plays needed to win. Most of the focus after the game was on passes that were caught or not caught, penalties not called, whether the QBs played well, etc., but you could also look at certain plays where the Rams line came up short and the Patriots line came up big and say that was the difference in the outcome.
5. Eagles (19th ALY, 17th ASR)
J. Peters (UDFA), L. Johnson (1st), I. Seumalo (3rd), J. Kelce (6th), B. Brooks (3rd Texans), S. Wisniewski (2nd Oak)
Like Villanueva, Peters is an unconventional franchise LT, because he was a TE in college. For the most part, the top LTs are early round picks, though 2 other exceptions (Bakhtiari and Armstead, both of whom were midround selections) will appear later on this top 10 review.
Seumalo has had an up and down career so far. He was taken 1 slot after Thuney (good guard for NE), 3 slots after draft bust Shon Coleman and 3 slots before Le'Raven Clark, who has been a disappointment for the Colts (a backup). In 2017, which was his 2nd season, Seumalo was initially a starter, but got benched for poor play. Last season, the tables were turned, as he initially was on the bench, but was inserted into the lineup when Wisniewski was benched. Seumalo was mediocre in pass protection (I wasn't impressed watching him) and had a 62.1 PFF grade as the 37th ranked guard.
Though he hasn't been stellar and still had one year left on his rookie contract (2019 season), the Eagles decided to sign him early to a new contract. They added 3 years to his deal, gave him a $3.8 million signing bonus and a total of $15.9 million in new money, which comes out to an average of $5.3 million per year. Prior to last season, I floated the idea of whether the Rams should try to sign Jamon Brown early, though I was thinking far less dollars than the Eagles shelled out for Seumalo.
If you compare the contract that Jamon Brown got from the Falcons, the contract for Seumalo is rather team friendly. Jamon got $6.25 million average salary, but the structure likely guarantees that he'll get $12.75 million in the first 2 seasons. Seumalo's deal is structured in a way that Philly is basically leaving his 2019 salary the same and just buying one more year beyond that at a cost of $6.9 million, but with the flexibility to cut him after 2020 with little pain. If Austin Blythe plays guard, but takes a step backwards in 2019, we might revisit the contracts for Brown and Seumalo to get comps.
The Eagles also have Halapoulivaati Vaitai (5th round), Matt Pryor (6th) as reserves, Jordan Mailata (7th, the Australian rugby player) and just drafted Andre Dillard (1st). Brandon Brooks, who is 29, tore his Achilles in the playoffs, so I'm not sure when he'll be available this next season.
Jason Kelce was PFF's top graded center last season. Both Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson were among the best linemen in the league.
Compared to the Rams, I like how the Eagles line is set up on paper. They aren't nearly as strong as that great 2013 line that had Peters, Kelce, Johnson, and experienced veterans in Herremans (4th round) and Evan Mathis (3rd round), but without a doubt I'd rather have their guys than our guys for 2019. Carson Wentz fell into a great situation in Philly, he just needs to stay healthy and take advantage of his supporting cast.
Cumulative tally for the top 5 teams
I went through each of the players listed above and put the better players into two groups, "Difference Makers" for the elite performers and "Solid Contributors" for players who weren't Pro Bowl type players but still had solid seasons. I know this is a very subjective exercise, but this entire study isn't scientific anyway.
I ended up with 10 Difference Makers. Five of those were 1st round draft picks, 2 were taken in the 2nd or 3rd rounds and 3 were drafted in the 4th round or later. None were UDFAs.
I counted 12 as Solid Contributors. The majority of these players (8 of them) were round 5 picks or later, including several UDFAs. Two players come with asterisks. Jason Peters is in this group even though for much of his career he has been a top LT, because with injuries and age he wasn't as strong in 2018 as normal. First round pick Pouncey for the Steelers also was graded slightly low, coming in above average as the 14th best center. I also put Castonzo in this group, though as the 14th best tackle, you could argue that he should be in the Difference Maker group.
The first takeaway I'd offer from these numbers is that to get a true difference maker on the offensive line, it is difficult to do that with a player drafted after the 2nd round. The majority of the best linemen are taken early in the draft. Yes, Brandon Brooks was a 3rd rounder and we will see other players such as Yanda and Bakhtiari later on who were drafted after the 2nd round, but there weren't enough of those exceptions on the rosters of the top 5 teams to change the overall statistics. Perhaps this statement is just common sense, but I think it does potentially refute the idea that a team can ignore the offensive line early in the draft, then rely on coaching and scheme to construct a line composed of late round or undrafted players.
Many people might point to the Patriots as being the top example of how a team can win the SB without a highly drafted lineman, but notice that they just drafted Wynn with a 1st round pick. It was only because he got injured that he wasn't on the field in 2018. So, the Patriots themselves aren't adhering to that philosophy. In the Brady era, they have drafted Klemm (2nd rd, a bust), Light (2nd, franchise LT), Mankins (1st), Vollmer (2nd), Solder (1st), so they have been willing to dedicate high picks to get key offensive linemen. Since only one of those picks busted, and they have developed later round or UDFA players well, they have only had to go to the early round well about once every 3 drafts and almost every time it is to get a tackle.
The second takeaway is that many solid, above average linemen in 2018 were late round or undrafted players. Like the first takeaway, perhaps this also is just common sense. There are 5 starting positions on the line. Unless a team goes with the Colts and Cowboys strategy and throws several high picks in successive drafts at the line, they have to figure out other ways to fill the other starting spots. It is different than finding a starting QB. How many UDFA QBs can be considered an "average" starting QB? Hardly any, this is Jake Delhomme territory. Every line position other than left tackle is different. What Austin Blythe did with the Rams in 2018 isn't so uncommon, many other NFL teams have similar stories.
Part 2 of this survey starts with a look at the Rams, who had the 6th ranked line last year.