In the 2021 NFL draft, Alaric Jackson was one of the most recognizable names among offensive linemen who didn't get selected. PFF ranked him as the 38th best available UDFA and the 2nd best OT. Lance Zierlein had a 6th round projection on Jackson. It was a huge draft tumble for a player who in the summer of 2020 had commonly been projected to be a possible 1st round pick. CBSSports ranked Jackson 23rd overall on their big board. Luke Easterling's mock had Jackson 55th overall, a 2nd round pick.
Known for being a good run blocker, but an unreliable pass protector, Jackson never truly performed up to expectations at Iowa and some draft experts felt that he would be better suited playing inside at guard in the NFL.
Did the NFL get it right? Should Jackson have gone undrafted? How does he stack up against the OTs who were actually drafted in 2021? It is a bit early to tell, because Jackson has only made 6 career NFL starts. He might be the starting left tackle for the Rams this season. Maybe he'll be used at guard. Or, he might end up being a swing backup. Still, even if we set aside any pro-Rams bias and try to look at the question from a neutral POV, I don't think it is such a crazy idea that in a redraft, Alaric Jackson potentially would be a 2nd round draft pick.
Building the argument to support that surprising conclusion is a lesson in draft misses by other NFL teams and an illustration in how finding quality NFL offensive linemen can be a challenging task in today's game.
I started out by trying to make a comprehensive list of all the OTs from that draft, excluding the ones who are slam dunk playing well and are no doubt hits (e.g. Penei Sewell, the 7th overall pick, an outstanding young OT for the Detroit Lions.) The surprising result is that if you compare Jackson to the names on the resulting list, it is possible that Jackson is better than all of the other players. Whether that will still be true by the end of the 2023 season remains to be seen, but on the whole it hasn't been a stellar draft class once you get past that very small top tier of players like Sewell.
Alex Leatherwood (17th overall pick) was a 1st round bust for the Raiders, he was waived prior to the start of the 2022 season and claimed by the Bears. He had a 45 PFF grade as a rookie. His status on the roster appeared to be shaky, but Teven Jenkins is out for an extended period due to injury, so now the Bears might need him.
Walker Little (2nd round, 45th overall) would be a swing backup OT, except that Cam Robinson is suspended to begin the 2023 season, so Little is set to see some starts. Little has a 56.1 PFF grade this preseason and graded at 61.1 last year and 68.5 as a rookie in a backup role. Being a backup isn't the worst outcome, but there haven't been any signs yet that Little is a future franchise LT in the making. He needs to take a step forward at some point.
Jackson Carman (2nd rd, 46th overall) has been mentioned as a possible cut candidate by the Bengals or just a depth piece. He had a lousy 56.3 PFF grade as a rookie and 63.2 grade this preseason. He has position versatility as a G and OT, but hasn't inspired confidence that he can be a legit starter at any particular spot.
Dillon Radunz (2nd rd, 53rd overall) could be another draft bust. I believe I had a Day 3 grade on him. He actually had a 70.9 PFF grade his rookie preseason (maybe a sign that we shouldn't read too much into such things) but has been a nightmare any other time he's been on the field (40.3 in 2022, 42.9 preseason 2022) and has been on the PUP list in camp this preseason. Radunz was selected 4 slots prior to Tutu Atwell. Unless Radunz pulls a magic act and emerges from seemingly out of nowhere, he could end up becoming a completely wasted 2nd round pick.
Jalen Mayfield (early 3rd rd) made 16 starts at LG as a rookie, with a poor 48.7 PFF grade. On IR entire 2022 season. The Falcons moved him to OT to be a swing backup, but his pass blocking has been atrocious and his name is mentioned as a cut candidate. He has a 48.6 PFF grade this preseason.
James Hudson (4th round) has been a swing backup OT for the Browns, but after the team drafted Dawand Jones, it isn't clear what Hudson's long term role is on the roster. He had a 57.8 PFF grade in 2022 and 57.3 grade as a rookie.
Dan Moore (4th round) has a good argument for being the best player on this list. An injury to another player elevated Moore into the starting LT job for the Steelers as a rookie and Moore has made 33 starts over the last 2 years. He had a 57.8 PFF grade as a rookie and 62.4 grade last season. A sign that the team wants to upgrade from Moore is they drafted Broderick Jones out of Georgia, 14th overall. Jones has a 59.9 PFF grade this preseason. While Jones is expected to become the LT at some point, for now Moore is still 1st string.
Josh Ball (compensatory 4th rd) did not look good early on for the Dallas Cowboys, but he could be turning a corner. He had a 47.5 PFF grade in 2022 preseason, but in limited action was at 73.4 in the regular season and is coming off perhaps his best game as a pro, with a 77.8 grade this preseason. He was moved inside to G after being an OT to begin his career. That versatility could become important, because Dallas has some injury issues on their OL and might need Ball to fill it a number of different positions. Ball's move inside instead of competing for the swing OT job is perhaps a sign of Dallas not being confident that he could hold up outside at tackle.
D'Ante Smith (compensatory 4th rd) is a rarely used backup for the Bengals. The "failure" of draft picks like Smith to fix the OL woes for the team resulted in the Bengals turning to free agency to add veterans to the roster. This is an expensive way to try to shore up the OL. In 2023, per spotrac, the Bengals rank 4th in the NFL in the percentage of the salary cap spent on the offensive line, nearly $58 million in cap dollars. In contrast, the Rams rank 29th in cap spending towards the OL, at $30.6 million. Smith had a good PFF grade his rookie preseason, but has had terrible PFF grades the more recent 2 preseasons.
Larry Borom (5th round) made 8 starts as a rookie and 9 starts last season. He's played RT, LG and LT. He graded 61.4 as a rookie and 64.7 in 2022. Borom has a 97.0 PFF grade this preseason. He's expected to be a swing backup OT for the Bears (they have Braxton Jones, who was surprisingly good at LT as a rookie in 2022 and 1st round pick Darnell Wright at RT.) Like Dan Moore, Borom has a solid argument for being better than Alaric Jackson. It says something about the state of the OL for the Rams that if you put Jackson on the Bears roster, he might only be the 4th OT or slid inside to be a backup G, but instead for the Rams Jackson might end up being the starting LT.
Stone Forsythe (6th round) is a backup LT for Seattle. The Hawks added Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas last year, pushing Forsythe to the bench. Forsythe made 1 start in 2022 and had a 37.0 regular season grade.
Jake Curhan (UDFA) was ranked by Gil Brandt as the best available undrafted OT in 2021. He played RT as a rookie and made 5 starts, with a 54.0 PFF grade. He had a good 71.6 preseason grade in 2022, but in very limited action in the regular season he had a lousy 31.2 grade. This preseason he's at 57.7.
There are 12 players listed above. From that group, Moore is the only player I'd list as a starter right now and he might only be keeping that seat warm until the 1st round rookie Jones is deemed to be ready to play. So, it is possible that by the end of this year there will be zero NFL starters from this group.
Consequently, should Alaric Jackson win the LT job for the Rams and perform at even just an "okay" level (say about 65 PFF), I'd contend that he'd cement his spot ahead of all of these other players. Almost by default, I think this would push him all the way up to at least a 2nd round pick if we redrafted 2021. The actual Day 3 picks by the Rams in 2021 were Tutu Atwell, Ernest Jones and Bobby Brown. Today, if you ranked Alaric Jackson in terms of importance to the Rams in relation to those other 3, where would Jackson rank? Where would you expect him to rank by the end of 2023 if he did a decent job at LT? I think this further illustrates Jackson's potential position in a hypothetical redraft.
Of course, this entire house of cards assumes something that hasn't happened yet. We don't know whether Jackson will be the starting LT for the Rams this year. We don't know if he'll play well. If players such as Walker Little, Borom or Ball all play well and Jackson has a disappointing 2023, Jackson very quickly could slide down this list and in a redraft only be a Day 3 pick.
Jackson has a huge opportunity in front of him, and whether he can grab that Ram by the horns could have enormous implications for how the Rams use their 1st round pick in 2023, how much money Jackson could make on a 2nd contract and long term direction of the team's offensive line.