Where Eyes Lie in Scouting Offensive Linemen

Quarterback is generally considered the most difficult position to evaluate in football, given the degree that intangibles and external factors like coaching and scheme play in a signal caller's development. While quarterback evaluations certainly involve qualities that can be tough to pin down, it's the offensive line that has proven to be the recruiting industry's bugaboo when it comes to projecting prospects to the NFL. 

For the purpose of this exercise, I analyzed the offensive linemen selected in the first 3 rounds of the last 4 NFL drafts- 68 in total (27 tackles, 28 guards, 13 centers). For starters, more of the group were unranked (9) by the 247Sports Composite than were registered as 5-stars (6). Three of the former 5-stars were ranked as top 5 overall prospects- Cam Robinson, Laremy Tunsil and D.J. Humphries.

Of the 28 guards drafted in this grouping, just 7 were ranked as such out of high school. 10 of the 68 linemen were initially ranked as guards, with just 4 being ranked as 4-stars or higher per the 247Sports Composite- Germain Ifedi (plays tackle and guard), Isaac Seumalo (5-star, 3rd rounder), Chris Watt (3rd rounder) and Trai Turner (3rd rounder). Prospects ranked as guards out of high school are very rarely getting selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.  

This type of inaccuracy becomes even more pronounced when you look at the NFL's very best at the position. 

The simple answer for why the offensive line proves to be such a hit-or-miss proposition is that it's a developmental position- one that is highly technical and requires mental acuity coupled with significant size, strength and functional athleticism. While that explanation seems easy on its face, it has proven to be much more difficult to put into practice in the evaluation process. 

The most crucial critical factors of a top offensive lineman may appear antithetical to how they look as high school prospects. For one, future top picks are on average much lighter as highschoolers. The 27 offensive tackles selected in the first 3 rounds of the past 4 NFL drafts averaged 6'5.6", 290 pounds in high school and 6'5.74", 313.4 pounds at the NFL combine. The 41 interior linemen drafted in that range averaged 6'4.2", 284 pounds in high school and 6'4.31", 310.7 pounds at the combine.

As a rule, desirable offensive tackles should be tall and lean. From this group, 19 of the 27 were under 300 pounds in high school and only two came in at under 6'5" at the combine (Dion Dawkins and Laremy Tunsil who measured at 6'4", despite being listed at 6'6" in high school). Height and weight have similar importance with interior linemen. 32 of the 41 interior OL's were under 300 pounds in high school and just 5 measured in at under 6'3" at the combine, with all 5 going in the 3rd round. Four of the 68 prospects were over 330 pounds in high school with zero over 350- Rob Havenstein (350, at 6'7.5"), Marcus Martin, (350), Trai Turner (335), Morgan Moses (335 at 6'6"). None of these heavier prospects went in the top 50 picks of their respective drafts.

It's my belief that this correlation with lighter/leaner offensive linemen is directly tied to functional athleticism and movement skills. As it relates to a high school prospect, functional athleticism is honed in the post-pubescent years (early-mid high school). Look at the starting left tackles in the NFL and you'll find former tight ends along with top basketball players. It's tough for a player to move, let alone be decent at basketball if they're over of 300 pounds, not to mention 330 or 350. 

Camps and recruiting events have further muddied the water when it comes to evaluating offensive linemen. Much is made of one-on-one drills at these events, but it should be noted that their design is flawed in nature. Watch these one-on-ones (with or without pads) and you'll see that it's a glorified Oklahoma drill with a heavy emphasis on a quick pass-pro radar and strength at the point of attack- the most easily attained (and thus least important) critical factor for an offensive lineman over time. While these drills are designed to simulate a pass-blocking situation, the OL's will usually lunge at the DL in the middle of their pass set, resulting in a hand-fighting scenario that you'd rarely see in a real football game. This virtual sumo wrestling setup works to the advantage of the heavier, wider prospects while offering little application to offensive line play. It's rare that you get to see linemen pull or get to second level (which is increasingly important with the popularity of run-pass option schemes), further hiding the weaknesses of the heavier prospects. This design flaw forces a scenario where both college staffs and recruiting analysts are thought to be trusting their eyes without recognizing what they're watching is in large part inapplicable.

Former USC offensive lineman Damien Mama may be the best recent example of this flawed process. Mama was ranked as the no. 38 overall prospect and top guard in the 2014 cycle, due almost solely to his seemingly impressive camp showings. He measured in at 6'4", 370 pounds and would easily win hand-fighting contests with opposing DL's due to his considerable width and bulk. Little emphasis was placed on Mama's weight, body composition and deficient movement skills (he recorded a 5.97 second 40-yard dash and a 22.8 inch vertical jump). After three years at USC, Mama declared early for the 2017 NFL draft and went undrafted. He cut well over 30 pounds in advance of the NFL combine but still turned in some of the slower times in recent years- a 5.84 second 40-yard dash (1.95 10-yard split), 5.38 second short shuttle and 8.51 second 3-cone.

When dealing with overweight prospects, it's common to hear something like, "he'll need to reshape his body." This is among the biggest fallacies in player development and should generally be taken as a negative, particularly if the prospect is shorter than 6'6". Just six of the 68 day 1-2 OL from the last 4 drafts were heavier in high school than they were at the combine: Cam Robinson (8 pound difference), Germain Ifedi (4 pound difference), Rob Havenstein (6'7.5", 2nd round), Morgan Moses (6'6", 3rd round), Trai Turner (3rd round) and Marcus Martin (3rd round).

These numbers and trends don't paint a pretty picture for the 2018 cycle's top-ranked offensive line prospects. We're either on the verge of a revolution of heavier offensive line prospects or more than likely about to see a group that fails to meet its lofty expectations.

Of the 247Sports Composite's top 5 offensive tackles, just one is listed at under 300 pounds, while none of the remaining top four check in at under 325. It's perhaps even worse among the guards, with the weights of the top 3 listed at 342, 346 and 349. It's worth noting that those weights are from the summer and nearly all of these overweight, highly-rated prospects actually added pounds between The Opening and their national all-star games, with several tipping the scales north of 360. Take a look at their testing numbers and you'll see that they're comparable to (and in some ways worse than) what Damien Mama posted at the same event four years prior. If any of them are drafted in the first round, they'll be the heaviest prospect not just along the offensive line, but at any position, to be taken that high in recent history.

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