Saturday, May 4, 2013

Athleticism and the offensive line

People often say that offensive linemen are the safest picks in the first round.  This may be true.  I was looking at a list of linemen who had been taken in the first two rounds, from 1999 to 2012, and the average player selected in this range ended up starting in about 70% of the games during their career.  Player's taken in just the first round started 75% of their games.  Of course, this doesn't mean that they played well.  I really don't want to attempt to judge that, but they at least managed to get on the field quite a lot.

The thing that strikes me as odd about this, is that offensive linemen should be a somewhat trickier position to evaluate.  Like every player the team's have their combine data to consider.  Unlike other players, offensive linemen don't provide any statistical production.  If teams fail at a rather high rate when drafting quarterbacks and wide receivers with high draft picks, despite having more measurable information on them, how are they apparently doing much better at drafting offensive linemen, with less information?  Maybe they're not.

Isn't it possible that they are screwing up on offensive linemen, just as much as they do at other positions, but it is just harder to notice?  When a receiver repeatedly drops the ball, or a quarterback throws a harebrained interception, even the most casual fan will notice.  With an offensive linemen, however, it will probably take repeated and glorious failures to make the headlines.  Sure, you would think that teams would notice, even if we aren't paying close attention.  Unfortunately, I think we are all familiar with some of the human turnstiles certain teams continue to employ.  Maybe team's just develop blind-spots for certain guys, who they clearly believed in when they got drafted, and for whom they continued to have high hopes for later success.  All I'm suggesting is that maybe some of these "safe" draft picks, are safe because they are so hard to criticize.  After all, how successful is a newspaper article going to be if it spends its time analyzing a lineman's technique?

I'm not claiming to have any answers, but I enjoy examining combine data, and think there might be some trends worth noting.  Initially I would have thought that successful interior linemen would have shown exceptional Kangaroo Scores, as I often envision them as the more brutish and less nimble in-line blockers.  I expected offensive tackles to be heavily reliant on a good agility score (from the 3-cone drill and the short shuttle).  On both counts I appear to have been somewhat wrong, and the complete opposite appears to be the case.

While the Kangaroo Score probably does tell you quite a bit about a player's explosive power, it also seems to relate to their quickness.  Picture an offensive tackle dropping back at the snap of the ball.  Though he is moving backwards, the degree to which he does this explosively is probably going to give him an edge against high quality speed rushers.  Moving forward, this same explosiveness turns them into a run blocking force.  So, the Kangaroo Score comes into play.  Still, with high end left tackles you do see that their agility scores come to matter significantly more than for right tackles.  The average results for a tackle who makes it to a Pro Bowl or All Pro roster are a 0.721 Kangaroo Score, and a 0.233 Agility Score.  For just the left tackles, it was a 0.634 Kangaroo Score, and a 0.476 Agility Score

Interior linemen, it seems, probably wind up playing inside due their lack of explosion in comparison to tackles.  Not they can't be good in this department, but it tends to be less common.  The best interior linemen do seem to compensate though, with excellent agility.   Perhaps this agility gives them leverage, and that becomes the source of the power that they might otherwise lack.  I don't know if that is the case.  It's just an idea I am kicking around.  Then we come to the high end centers that tend to have shockingly good short shuttle times, somewhere in the area of one standard deviation above average. The average results for interior linemen that make it to a Pro Bowl or All Pro roster are a 0.075 Kangaroo Score, and a 0.288 Agility Score.  So, yes, the interior guys tend be somewhat less dynamically athletic, but a lot of that is because they are being graded in the same group as the tackles, who just throw off the curve for everyone else.

Since I am proposing that some highly drafted players might be sticking around as starters, when perhaps they shouldn't, let's take a look at some of the generally acknowledged busts from the first two rounds of the draft.

Player                     Position           Pick #             Kangaroo Score      Agility Score
Marcus Johnson       Tackle         49, in 2005            0.208                     0.074
Toniu Fonoti             Guard         39, in 2002            0.863                    -0.762
Adam Terry             Tackle          64, in 2005            0.009                    -0.324
Jason Smith             Tackle          2, in 2009           -1.351                     0.575
Eben Britton            Tackle         39, in 2009           -0.384                    -0.565
Chris Williams         Tackle         14, in 2008           -0.475                    -0.559
Chilo Rachal            Guard         39, in 2008            0.354                    -1.401
Levi Brown              Tackle          5, in 2007            -0.560                    -0.516
Vladimir Ducasse    Tackle         61, in 2010           -0.630                    -1.384 (too soon?)

For the most part, these players do seem to be showing scores that are average at best, and horrific in most cases.  When you compare them to the average results for Pro Bowl players at their listed positions, they all fall rather short of the mark.  There are more guys who I suspect should be considered busts, but teams keep starting them.  I will throw out this idea though.  If you had a quality left tackle, would you ever let him go, or trade him?  Yet two teams in 2013 either did this, or attempted to do this, with these players:

Player                    Position            Pick #              Kangaroo Score        Agility Score
Jake Long               Tackle             1, in 2008           -0.240                       0.636
Branden Albert        Tackle            15, in 2008            0.037                      -0.423

I'm not saying that they are bad, merely that their numbers are somewhat mediocre.  This might have something to do with their up and down careers. The fact that the Dolphins were supposedly in trade talks for Branden Albert, as a replacement for Jake Long, would appear to be a lateral move at best.

Once you get past the players who were taken in the first couple of rounds, where teams are heavily invested in proving they made the right pick, things become a bit more interesting.  If you look at late round or undrafted players, who went on to have success, you see that the majority of them do demonstrate high levels of athletic ability.  When compared to the average Pro Bowl player's results, they do quite well.  This shouldn't be surprising since many of these players are the Pro Bowlers who set the standard in the first place.  So, despite playing for a team that probably had relatively little faith in them, they made themselves impossible to ignore.

Player                    Position             Pick #           Kangaroo Score             Agility Score
Jason Peters            Tackle               Undrafted            2.278                          -0.005
Chris Myers            Guard/Center     200, in 2005        0.213                           1.727
Scott Wells             Guard/Center      251, in 2004       0.278                           1.233  
Chris Kuper            Guard                 161, in 2006       0.172                           0.640
John Sullivan           Center                187, in 2008      -0.251                           0.759
Carl Nicks              Guard                 164, in 2008       1.032                          -0.072
Kyle Kosier            Guard/Tackle      249, in 2002       -0.289                          1.402
Matt Slauson          Guard                 193, in 2009       1.337                          -0.425
Brian Waters          Guard             Undrafted 1999      -0.027                           0.740
Alex Boone            Tackle            Undrafted 2009        0.396                           0.044
Eric Heitmann          Center                239, in 2002      -0.393                           0.743

Yes, there are some highly drafted players with excellent numbers who have failed to live up to their potential.  Alex Barron (2.317 Kangaroo Score and 0.338 Agility Score) and Winston Justice (2.368 Kangaroo Score and 1.584 Agility Score) are perfect examples of this.  I'm not sure what you can do to avoid or explain that sort of situation.  Some guys just don't live up to their potential.  There are also undoubtedly numerous players with poor measurables who have done quite well.  Still, if we take a look at two different ends of the offensive line spectrum (based on 2012 depth charts), this is what we see:

Player                  Position              Pick #           Kangaroo Score            Agility Score
Nate Solder          Left Tackle          17, in 2011       1.281                          1.592
Logan Mankins     Left Guard          32, in 2005      -0.370                          1.146
Ryan Wendell        Center                Undrafted            N/A                             N/A
Dan Connolly        Right Guard        Undrafted          0.274                          0.695
Sebastian Vollmer  Right Tackle       58, in 2009       1.748                          1.076

Maybe this has a little something to do with how the Patriots get away with using mediocre receivers and running backs.  That is a shockingly athletic line, even if we don't know what Wendell's scores would be.

Gosder Cherilus      Left Tackle        17, in 2008      -0.738                          0.133
Stephen Peterman   Left Guard         83, in 2004      -1.245                        -0.079
Dominic Raiola       Center                50, in 2001       0.789                         1.373
Rob Sims                Right Guard     128, in 2006       0.197                         0.383
Jeff Backus             Right Tackle       18, in 2001     -0.646                         -0.914

So, which of these offensive lines would you expect to do better? 

As for the 2013 draft, I will leave the top three tackles alone for now, but I want to point out one player.  People kept claiming this guy was exceptionally athletic, and I just couldn't figure out why.  So it will be interesting to see how it turns out in the long run, since even if he fails it could be years before anyone admits it.

Player                  Position              Pick #           Kangaroo Score           Agility Score
Menelik Watson   Tackle              42, in 2013          -0.732                       -1.589

If you're still interested in all of this nonsense, you can jump over to Athleticism and the Offensive Line part 2.   In that post I compare a player's athletic measurements to their success/productivity base on their CarAV score  .

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