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What do the Offensive Lines of Elite Offenses ACTUALLY Look Like? Part 1

Part 1: A look at the draft pedigrees of the offensive lines of the best offenses in football.

To become the best, you should try to emulate the best.

With that in mind, and the NFL draft coming up in a month, I thought it'd be a good idea to just look at the draft pedigrees of the offensive lines of the top-10 scoring offenses in 2013. To account for teams who suffered injuries, I chose the offensive lineman who was their week 1 regular season starter and played significant snaps.

For example, Ryan Clady is the Denver Broncos franchise left tackle, but he didn't play a single snap in the regular season after suffering an injury in week 2, so I instead used his backup as the Broncos' starter at LT. Meanwhile, Russell Okung is the Seattle Seahawks' franchise left tackle and like Clady was seriously injured, but unlike Clady, he managed to play a significant number of snaps, so I gave the Seahawks "credit" for having a round 1 LT even though their LG (a former 3rd rounder) ended up playing significant snaps at LT due to Okung's injuries. Therefore, if anything, these draft pedigrees were "inflated" higher because I preferred to use the draft pedigree of a starter (who was generally drafted earlier) even if his backup saw playing time.

Most of the chart is self explanatory, but I defined an "Early" draft pick on OL as being rounds 1-3, and a "Late" draft pick on OL being rounds 4-7 + UDFAs.

Team Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Early vs. Late
Denver Broncos UDFA 2nd 4th 3rd 2nd 3 vs. 2
Chicago Bears 4th 6th 4th 1st^ ** 5th^ 1 vs. 4
New England Patriots 1st 1st ** UDFA UDFA 2nd 3 vs. 2
Philadelphia Eagles UDFA ** 3rd ** 6th 4th 1st^ 2 vs. 3
Dallas Cowboys 1st ** UDFA 1st ^ 7th 4th 2 vs. 3
Cincinnati Bengals 2nd 4th UDFA 1st 1st 3 vs. 2
Kansas City Chiefs 1st ** 2nd 2nd 3rd 1st^ 5 vs. 0
Green Bay Packers 4th^ 4th UDFA 4th UDFA 0 vs. 5
Seattle Seahawks 1st 3rd 2nd 7th 5th 2 vs. 3
New Orleans Saints 2nd 1st ** UDFA 4th ** 7th 2 vs. 3
Miami Dolphins in 2014 1st ** 3rd- Thomas 1st ** 6th - Smith 7th - Garner 3 vs. 2

Key: ^ = Rookie, ** = made the Pro Bowl last season (used as a proxy for playing well last season rather than Pro Football Focus grades, which some readers tend to dislike). I only counted Pro Bowl selections from "last season" instead of "career selections" because some players, like the Broncos' Zane Beadles, made the Pro Bowl 2 seasons ago but had a "down" season last year and therefore failed to earn a Pro Bowl selection.

In the last row, I did an offensive line projection assuming the Dolphins did not draft a single offensive lineman in the 2014 draft and didn't sign any free agents. It is a virtual certainty that the Dolphins will be drafting at least 1 offensive lineman in rounds 1-4, but I wanted to show where the Dolphins are right now before the draft.

I'm very open to potentially adding another first round offensive lineman in the 2014, but some of the comments in recent draft articles seem to imply that if the Dolphins don't add another first round offensive lineman, 2014 will be a lost season because the Dolphins' offensive line talent is "so far below average," and even if the Dolphins do choose to add a first rounder, the Dolphins would still be playing catchup on offensive line to the offensive lines of good teams.

Objectively speaking, there is no evidence that relying on "only" 2 first round picks on OL prevents an offense from becoming top-10 in the NFL, and the Dolphins already have 2 former first round picks on OL who have played well enough in the NFL to merit Pro Bowl selections (Albert and Pouncey).

Not a single NFL team that finished the season in the top-10 in scoring in 2013 required more than 2 former first-round picks on offensive line to achieve that distinction. None of them. On average, the offensive line of a top-10 offense had 2.3 starters drafted in the first 3 rounds of the draft and 2.7 starters drafted in rounds 4-7 (or undrafted). In other words, the average offensive line of a very good or elite offensive team had a near 50-50 mix of players drafted in the first 3 rounds (not just round 1) and players who weren't picked until rounds 4 or later.

The Miami Dolphins' projected offensive line for 2014 already has more offensive linemen who made the Pro Bowl last season (Pouncey and Albert) than 8 of the top-10 offenses in the NFL. Only the Saints and Eagles had 2 Pro Bowl offensive linemen who earned a selection last year, tying the Dolphins' total for next year's projected offensive line.

The Miami Dolphins' projected offensive line for 2014 already has 3 "early round" offensive linemen (Albert, Pouncey, Dallas Thomas), compared to the average of just 2 for most elite offenses, and that's without including a potential 2014 draft pick on OL (likely to replace Garner at RT). Most pundits and fans predict the Dolphins will be drafting at least 1 offensive lineman in the first 3 rounds. If the Dolphins do so, the Dolphins will have at least 4 "early round" offensive linemen on their offensive line, putting them ahead of 9 of the top-10 offenses in the NFL because only the Kansas City Chiefs had at least 4 last year.

So if you want the Dolphins to be a top-10 offense in 2014, those are the potential prototypes. If the Dolphins choose to invest a first round pick on OL, they will have more former 1st rounders on their offensive line than any top-10 offense. Most have relied on 2 or fewer former first round picks and done well.

It's worth noting that the San Francisco 49'ers are a top-12 offense (but not top-10), and they rely on an offensive line of 3 former first rounders (Joe Staley and Anthony Davis at tackle and Mike Iupati at guard), but in 2013, they also had a former 5th rounder in Jonathan Goodwin and a former undrafted free agent in Alex Boone starting at center and right guard, respectively. So the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49'ers are two (rare) examples of teams that rely on at least 3 early round picks at offensive line to establish their offense. Meanwhile, the majority of teams in the top-10 manage to do extremely well with "only" 2 former early rounders.

The take home message is that the sacks aren't the only determinant of the health of an offense. The 2009 Green Bay Packers led the NFL in sacks allowed with 51 AND yet were the 3rd best scoring offense in the NFL. That doesn't mean offensive line is "unimportant," but it does mean that there's more to building a successful offense than stacking an offensive line full of former early round picks. The majority of the best offenses in the NFL have relied on offensive lines with at least 2 later round picks.

While it's true that most of the late round picks on these O-lines are veterans, that's not always the case. Jay Cutler and career backup Josh McCown played behind an offensive line with only one first round pick, rookie Kyle Long, and 4 late-round draft picks, including a fellow rookie in Jordan Mills who was drafted in round 5 (GASP), and yet those QBs led the Chicago Bears to the 2nd best scoring output in the NFL. Cutler is a former Pro Bowl QB, but McCown posted a QB rating of 109 with 13 TDs and just 1 INT despite being a career backup playing behind a "talent-poor" offensive line (as measured by draft pedigree). Rather than rely on many years' of early picks on O-line, the Bears' highly successful offensive system relied on former early round picks at WR (former 3rd rounder Brandon Marshall and former 2nd rounder Alshon Jeffrey), as well as tight end (former 2nd rounder Martellus Bennett) and running back (former 2nd rounder Matt Forte). Those 4 skill position players were all drafted in the first 3 rounds by either the Bears or other teams, and they allowed a backup QB to shine behind an offensive line that started 2 rookies and had only 1 player drafted before the 4th round.

So while there are examples of elite or very good offenses being built "from the inside out" (Chiefs and 49'ers), the majority of top-10 teams are more than comfortable focusing on skill positions with only a couple of "foundational" players on O-line.

In part 2, I'll be posting the Pro Football Focus grades of offensive linemen in 2013, rather than relying on draft pedigree and Pro Bowl selections as proxies for talent. This post was meant to illustrate that in terms of investments in the draft, a team does not need to have 3 or 4 first rounders on the offensive line to put their offense in position to succeed.