Stop Overdrafting High Ceiling Offensive Tackles

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 2019, the top offensive tackles were Andre Dillard (selected No. 22 by Philadelphia),  Tytus Howard (No. 23 to Houston) and Kaleb McGary (No. 31, Atlanta). All went before Jawaan Taylor (No. 35 to Jacksonville) and Cody Ford (No. 38 to Buffalo). 

Dillard only took meaningful snaps as a backup, struggled to transition to the right side and was at best up-and-down when on the left side. Howard didn't win a starting tackle job coming out of camp and instead began his career at guard but was quality in right tackle play before going down with an injury. McGary started every game at right tackle for the Falcons and struggled across the board.

Neither got near the play of Taylor, who was as dominant of a rookie tackle as I can remember, though he has to clean up the penalties, or Ford, who slugged in the Bills' running game while still offering plus pass protection on an island.

We can play this game for every position in every draft though. Players are drafted for their ceiling, they don't reach it and players with higher floors and more consistent college film outplay them. This is a tale as old as time.

The exercise is also unfair to the ceiling players. The entire idea behind ceiling draft picks is that they'll be better in Year 2 than they were in Year 1 and better in Year 3 than they were in Year 2 — so just focusing on the 2019 class limits our scope.

With those caveats offered, however, the point isn't whether or not Ford was better than McGary or Taylor over Howard. The point is Chuma Edoga was drafted at No. 92.

The former USC tackle had up-and-down college film, but some really nice flashes, a solid Senior Bowl, good on-field athleticism and positive enough testing — he didn't do most drills — to confirm he was an NFL-caliber athlete. Across the board, Edoga was a player who projected nicely for positive development. 

From my report on Edoga the last draft cycle:

"Explosive mover who is well-equipped to play in space. Particularly covers impressive ground on wide zone concepts and pulls, though pulls are rare … is long and understands how to maximize length to steer rushers around the EDGE track. Punch can arrive with fire and he has the strength to bench press with leverage from either one or two hands, but often resorts to using hands to screen, not to displace. Stays active late into pass rush reps; has great recovery athleticism … takes decent angles on zone climbs and generates rolling power from hips to displace linebackers, making contact with impressive frequency. Very active blocker who takes on all responsibilities, even secondary backside blocks, with gusto."

Edoga went to New York and ended up starting eight games as the Jets punted on the season and chased development. He was far from perfect but showed the necessary athleticism to hang and a high floor, accordingly. Edoga only got better as the season went on.

Who was best: Edoga, Howard, Dillard or McGary? That's a matter of opinion, but if you ask me after Year 1 Edoga has at least the second-best resume behind Howard.

Edoga's early success and potential growth is not a one-off. In 2018, UCLA's Kolton Miller was 15th off the board to the Raiders. While he's developed nicely over the last two years, he's been outpaced by the Vikings' developmental pick Brian O'Neill, drafted at No. 62 that year, and certainly hasn't done anything like what Orlando Brown has for the Ravens — Brown was selected No. 83. 

In 2017, Utah's Garett Bolles was the first tackle off the board at No. 20, and he's been just about as up-and-down as a starter as 190th overall selection Sam Tevi, who went from Utah to the Chargers.

The fallacy of high-ceiling offensive tackles in Round 1 is multi-layered. First, the athleticism of offensive tackles is a lot different than the athleticism of wide receivers, running backs or cornerbacks. Consider the physical action of the offensive tackle: throwing their body back into a pass-set and retaining their balance while working at extreme angles. None of the drills executed at the NFL Scouting Combine even look like a pass-set. They look like straight-line sprints and vertical jumps, which tackles just don't do in a game. If you're trying to prove that combine testing is correlated to NFL success, in the realm of offensive tackles, you're likely dealing with the confounding variable of overall elite athleticism.

Ex-NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz touched on this issue in preparation for last year's combine — and the next issue in high-ceiling offensive linemen in Round 1. The short-shuttle seems to correlate well with NFL success on the offensive line, but the players still have to have good film in tandem with a good short-shuttle because there isn't enough time on the practice field to turn a quality short-shuttle into quality play. 

In Schwartz's words:

"As I’ve said — or maybe screamed — for years now, offensive line is the position hit toughest by the lack of practice time. Developing a player with high upside just doesn’t happen often because there’s no time to practice. You shouldn’t be in the business of using strong combine numbers to validate your opinion that you can draft a high-upside player over a player who’s ready now with just average combine numbers."

Offensive linemen aren't developed in college where coaches need to win now, so schools throw out their top recruits with the best athleticism, and those players accrue starts, learn to survive and get on NFL radars. Those players don't get the necessary patience and attention from top-flight NFL coaches, so they come out raw but experienced. When they get to the NFL, they get the coaching they need to improve their technique and their gameplay.

But NFL practice hours are going down, leaving less time to develop offensive tackles who already are ingrained with bad habits from their days of starting without proper technique. All of this assumes that NFL offensive line coaches are more effective than college O-line coaches, which may seem anecdotally true but is difficult to prove across the board.

All developmental picks at all positions are not nearly as likely to grow as teams like to believe. There's an inherent self-confidence bias in drafting high-ceiling players: a certainty in your own coaches and trainers to get a prospect to a level that somebody else's coaches and trainers couldn't. There's an assumption that development is linear, positive and predictable; that players will get measurably better as they grow older and get more experience. And there's a stability assumption that the coaching staff will remain the same, and the scheme won't change; the offensive lineman will have plenty of playing time to grow. But none of these things are certainties.

No prospect is a certainty either and neither is drafting a high-floor, average-athlete tackle. But a pro-ready player is much more likely to contribute to a team than a high-ceiling player is, regardless of that upper-echelon projection for the high-ceiling prospect that 99% of players will never hit.

We arrive, now, at the 2020 NFL Draft class. The top of the tackle group is tremendous. All of the Big 4 are both pro-ready and high-ceiling; all could very well be hanging out again in Hawai'i as they make Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl.

In the next tier, according to the NFL, are the high-ceiling players and apparently, all of them have Round 1 potential. 

Here is Boise State's Ezra Cleveland:

Houston's Josh Jones:

USC's Austin Jackson:

Georgia's Isaiah Wilson:

All four are nowhere near the first round on my final board. Jackson is the only in the top 100 while TCU's Lucas Niang, Auburn's Jack Driscoll and St. John's Ben Bartch are ranked higher than the bottom three.

In all four of these presumed first-round selections, we have developmental upside. But that does not warrant a Round 1 pick. It hits too inconsistently and is too difficult to appropriately value even if it does hit. For every high-ceiling offensive tackle drafted in Round 1, there was another drafted in Day 2 or later that also developed and delivered but at a much lower risk. 

What do UConn's Matthew Peart, LSU's Saahdiq Charles or Auburn's Prince Tega Wanogho lack that these high-upside darlings have? All three of them have positive outlooks to the NFL and the excuse of inexperience to justify their poor technique and solidify their expected growth. Jones is a four-year starter and he tested average athletically. Where is the developmental upside on which we're hanging our hat?

However you see this offensive tackle class — and I see it radically different than the league does — the moral of the story is unchanged: sit and wait. 

Chasing upside in Round 1 is a dangerous game at any position, but for a position that is historically difficult to draft and peppered with reaches, don't hunt pies in the sky at offensive tackle. Sit and wait, and take your developmental darlings later to assume less risk.