Everybody expects their star rookie to step into the NFL and dominate the way they did throughout their college career without so much as a hiccup, but it doesn’t always work that way, in fact it rarely does.
We have looked at every draft pick of the PFF era and analyzed their expected progression based on both snaps and grade and the bottom line is you are doing well if your rookie plays at an above average level in his first season in the league.
There isn’t a single position that projects first-year players to perform better than the league average and some positions project them to play far below it. Though the NFL has become all about immediate results, despite notable exceptions, the draft still remains about acquiring talent for the future, not necessarily the present.
Offensive tackle is often seen as a position where you can plug a rookie in and expect him to perform to a high level for the next 10 years. The data suggests, however, that isn’t the case at all, but it does begin to look closer to the truth when you focus on the first round only.
First-round offensive tackles actually play a little above average their first year but lower down the draft the position struggles far more. Even second-round tackles average a significantly lower -2.4 grade in their first year.
Both first and second-round tackles improve on average in their sophomore seasons and again into their third years. By the time a first round tackle reaches his third season his average grade is a +7.0 compared with just +0.2 in his rookie season. In the third year you can expect third- and fourth-round tackles to be performing above average too, perhaps rewarding the development time they received compared to their early-round brethren who were thrown to the lions early.
This, of course, is also subject to some selection bias in as far as the players actually earning playing time in Year 3 onward are going to be the ones that have shown promise to coaches and personnel guys. The low round guys who have shown they can’t cut it at this level have already been cast aside this far into their careers.
Best Case Scenario
Joe Thomas is the poster boy for first round offensive tackle success. He is what every coach and personnel man dreams of when it comes to spending a high draft pick on a tackle – a guy you can plug in immediately and then forget about that spot for the next decade.
Thomas started from the outset and has never graded below a +16.9, with his first four seasons in the league all topping a +20.0 grade. He has established himself as the best pass-protecting offensive tackle in football in an era where pass protection has become ever more important and he has done it regardless of the changing scheme, coaches, quarterbacks or guards beside him in Cleveland.
But for injuries Jake Long was traveling along a very similar progression curve to Joe Thomas and would have been an equally fitting jackpot selection for the position.
Worst Case Scenario
For a supposed plug-and-play position, offensive tackle has the tendency to bust in spectacular fashion at times and when it goes wrong it can cause no end of problems to an organization. Jason Smith was the No.2 selection overall by the St. Louis Rams in 2009 and after an ugly sophomore season in his first year as a full-time starter, the Rams had seen enough to bench him and consign him to career journeyman, but in limited time before and since that season he has actually performed ok, enough that his career grade actually hovers around the average mark.
For a true worst-case you need to look at former Indianapolis Colt Tony Ugoh. Ugoh wasn’t a first round pick, but the Colts gave up a future first rounder to get him in the second round and he was supposed to take over from Tarik Glenn as the blindside protection for Peyton Manning for the next decade. Despite a pass-protector’s best friend in Manning helping him out he managed to amass a -52.9 career grade from just 1,681 snaps in the NFL.
He managed a spectacularly poor -40.2 grade in just 731 snaps during his first season of play, surrendering 69 total pressures on just 422 pass protecting snaps.
The Colts gave up on him before the 2010 season began and despite being signed by three other NFL teams, his career featured just another 35 snaps before he retired in 2012.
The Path Most Trodden
Everybody is looking for Joe Thomas when they take an offensive tackle in the first round, but the player most teams get is some way shy of that standard. In reality the average first round offensive tackle over the past several years looks a lot like Branden Albert – a player who certainly qualifies as a good offensive tackle, and from that standpoint must be regarded as a successful pick – but not quite the home run everybody is looking for.
Albert has averaged a +4.4 grade over his career but has shown a marked improvement in his last couple of seasons, more than doubling that average with grades of +11.2 and +11.1. He is also a fit for the present-day NFL, being a better pass-protector than he is a run blocker.
Offensive tackle may not be quite the plug and play slam dunk pick it is seen to be in some quarters, but if the average selection shakes out to be a Branden Albert caliber player then things are still looking pretty good.
See the progression at other positions:
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