A study of the last 40 drafts lead me to the following observations:
Drafting Cooper at 12 would be a marked departure from not only the team’s draft history but from the overall draft philosophy of the NFL as a whole. Simply put, teams just don’t take guards in the top half of the draft anymore.
Taking Cooper at 12 would make him the highest drafted guard since the Jets took Dave Cadigan with the 8th pick in the 1988 Draft – 25 years ago. Looking at it another way: No current NFL general manager has ever drafted a guard in the top 12 picks of the first round. Another way to look at it: No guard has been taken in the top 12 in Cooper’s lifetime.
Perception isn’t the Reality.Media draft experts keep throwing guards up on their projected boards but GMs refuse to bite. Take David DeCastro for example: Many experts called him not just the best guard in the 2012 draft, several said he was technically the best O-lineman. Everyone agreed that Matt Kalil would go in the top 5 but people like SB Nation (what do they know?) had DeCastro going to - guess who? - at number eight. WalterFootball.com had him going 11 to the Chiefs and SI’s Peter King 13 to the Cards. He went 24th to Pittsburgh.
This year we see that every draft expert at NFL.com – including some who have actually been in an NFL draft war room (Gil Brandt, Charlie Casserly, Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaum and Brian Billick) have either Chance Warmack or Cooper going in the top 12, several of them have both. Cooper’s NFL.com pre-draft grade is 86.9. DeCastro’s was 92.5. On paper and presumably on tape DeCastro was a better prospect than Cooper. In reality he went 24th. It should be noted that none of the former GMs listed ever drafted a guard in the first half of the draft. Two of them – Pioli (11) and Tannebaum (16) were GMs last year and passed on DeCastro.
Sidenote: Warmack has the highest pre-draft grade (95.9) of any player eligible. The chances of going first over-all are essentially zero. Even the people who gave him the grade wouldn’t take him first.
Different animals.When it comes to the draft we tend to throw all O-Linemen into one category. But, the current reality is there is a huge divide between tackles and interior linemen. A total of 51 tackles have been drafted in the first round since 1993 and 28 of them were in the first 12. Fewer centers, nine, have been drafted than guards, but you only need half as many centers as you need guards.
The cerebral nature of the center position tends to weed out the bad ones in college. NFL GMs know that all centers who make it to the draft are smart enough to play in the NFL. The question becomes a) are they big enough and b) are they quick enough?
Tackles are less risky than guards. Tackles are easier to evaluate than guards, easier to "groom" and easier to help. You can’t help a guard with a back or a tight end. Tackles are almost always bigger than the guys they face. The least we expect from a tackle is being able to move his guy out of the way. Guards often have the opposite problem. You can be patient with a tackle, letting guards learn on the job limits your offence and puts your QB at risk. It’s cheaper and safer to grow your own.
Of the 12 guards taken in the first round in the last 20 years, seven of them became Pro Bowl players. So, it would appear if you pick a guard in the first round you have an almost 60% chance of drafting a pro bowler. That’s better than Centers (4/9 – 44%) and Tackles (28/51 – 55%)
That just hasn’t happened. Of the current 64 starting guards in the NFL nine of them were taken in the first round. Only four of those (Iupati, Grubbs, Joseph and Mankins) have made the Pro Bowl. GMs who will gamble huge on quarterbacks and pass rushers refuse to do the same with guards.
The "foot-soldier" nature of the position has NFL GMs refusing to spend a first round pick on a guard unless they are convinced they’ve got at least a solid starter. What most teams do is use their second round pick on guards they like. 22 guards have been taken in round two in the last 20 years, 21 in all the remaining rounds. Out of those 43 picks 12 became Pro Bowlers (27.9%). Nine undrafted free agent guards have become solid starters in the last 20 years, three of them Kris Dielman, Brandon Moore and Brian Waters have made the Pro Bowl.
Changing of the guard.When people say it’s a reach to draft a guard at 12, part of the reason is nobody ever does. In the last 40 years of the draft only 9 guards have been taken in the top 12 selections and all of those were between 1973 and 1988.
In 1973 the Green Bay Packers and the power sweep were still the standard model for an NFL offence. Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston became the first "star" offensive linemen. Gene Upshaw was carving out a name for himself in Oakland and the Dolphins were coming off two Super Bowl wins, led in no small part by guards Larry Little and Bob Kuechenberg. The sweep was replaced by the counter and trap blocking, but guards were still the key. John Hannah was selected 4th overall in 1973 and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. The following year the Giants made John Hicks, the Outland Trophy winning guard from Ohio State (there was no "The" then) the 3rd pick over-all. The following year the Baltimore Colts did the same thing with Ken Huff.
In 1982 the Houston Oilers made Mike Munchak the 8th pick over-all and he rewarded them with a Hall of Fame Career. In that same draft the Dolphins took Roy Foster with the 24th pick; the only time in the history of the franchise they have selected a guard in the first round.
A lot has changed in 30 years.
Perhaps no draft illustrates the difference between now and then more than 1983. This was the year of Elway, Marino, Kelly and three other guys who played QB. What gets lost is the key role a pair of guards played in that draft. The Denver Broncos actually drafted guard Chris Hinton with the 4th pick. Hinton, of course never played for Denver. He was traded to Indy along with QB Mark Herrman and a first round pick in the 1984 draft for John Elway. That first round pick became Ron Solt, a guard. Can you imagine trading two guards for Andrew Luck? Can you imagine passing on Dan Marino for a guard?
In 1985 the Falcons set the high-water mark when they drafted guard Bill Fralic 2nd over-all. The Steelers took John Rienstra with the ninth pick in 1986, then the Jets took Cadigan in 1988. Since then, Ruben Brown, who was taken with the 14th pick by the Bills in 1995, has been the highest guard selected in that time.
So, what's changed?
Clearly there has been a paradigm shift in the perceived value of the position. Given that we have to ask; what would compel Jeff Ireland to draft Cooper? He is not rated as an exceptional prospect. Gil Brandt, who BTW projects Miami taking Cooper, ranks him as the 22 nd best player in the draft.
Jonathan Cooper, OL, North Carolina Cooper is athletic, but the four-year starter needs to get stronger. He doesn't look as big as some NFL guards.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement there Gil.
The words athletic and skilled are often used to describe Cooper as are the words "small" and "needs to get stronger." Can we see Ireland using the 12th pick overall on a guard who's a project? It doesn't look like he falls into Ireland's "elite" category. For that matter, do we have a screaming need at guard? Does he make us better? Hell, is Cooper even better than Josh Samuda? Do we not have other needs which the 12th pick can more directly address?
Despite the rumours and forecasts I don’t see any compelling reason to expect Cooper is going to be wearing aqua.