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On committing to the offensive line, Part One

A week and a half ago, the Titans had the opportunity to select both the best guard and the best center in the draft.  Not only did they pass on both players, they also passed on all the other guards and centers in the draft.  While I understand their reasoning for selecting the players they did with their first two picks, I believe they missed out on a great opportunity, especially considering they had the worst run blocking line in the league last year, down a notch from 31st in 2010.
If the Titans wanted to improve their o-line, and why shouldn’t they want to improve from last place, they could have used the Jets’ 2006 draft, among others, as a model.  The Jets used their first two picks to select D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold and their line soon became one of the very best in the league.  From 2008 to 2011 the Jets were ranked second, eighth, third and seventh best in run blocking in the league.  That’s consistently very good.  That’s what happens when you commit to the o-line and draft wisely.
Ten teams since 2001 have committed to their offensive line by using their first two draft picks on it in the same year.  The results, after the jump.

Note: I reference Adjusted Line Yards throughout this article.  For those few who may not be familiar with it, it’s a Football Outsiders metric which attempts to separate the performance of an offensive line from that of the running backs and the offense.  I believe FO has done very well to achieve as much separation as they have.  Perhaps the best example for Titans fans to relate to, Chris Johnson gained over 2,000 yards in 2009 but Tennessee’s line was ranked 22nd in run blocking, demonstrating that CJ became CJ2K in spite of the line, not because of it.  I have focused on run-blocking and not pass protection in this article, since the Titans have a huge problem with the former but not the latter.

2012 Steelers – selected G David DeCastro (1st round, 24th overall) and T Mike Adams (2nd round, 56th overall.)  DeCastro is the best guard prospect in over ten years and could become a perennial All-Pro.  Adams probably would have been a first-round pick if not for a failed drug test.  The 2011 Steelers were 3rd in run blocking and 20th in pass protection, so this draft was obviously about protecting Big Ben Rapistberger.  As an added bonus, the Stoolers will have an even better run-blocking line.  In the next several years, this line could become elite.

2011 Colts – selected T Anthony Castonzo (1st round, 22nd overall) and T Ben Ijalana (2nd round, 49th overall) to better protect Peyton Manning, who then proceeded to miss the entire season.  The Colts did improve their run-blocking marginally, from 3.82 to 3.91 Adjusted Line Yards (ALY), but not a lot of credit should go to their top two picks, who each had injuries.  Castonzo had only 12 games, all starts, and Ijalana had 4 appearances without a start.  The Colts will expect for these two to contribute more.
2011 Seahawks – selected T James Carpenter (1st round, 25th) and G John Moffitt (3rd round, 75th.) The 2010 line was not very good either at run blocking or pass protection (just ask Matt Hasselbeck) but showed improvement in 2011, from 3.67 ALY to 4.01, a 9.3% increase. The Seahawks’ run blocking improved from 28th ranked to 19th.  Seattle didn’t have a second-round pick last year, so their second pick came in the third round, at #75 overall.  All the other draft picks in this analysis are from the first and second rounds.
2010 49ers – selected T Anthony Davis (1st round, 11th) and G Mike Iupati (1st, 17th) to improve a line that was last in the league run-blocking in 2009.  In their first season, the 49ers run game improved dramatically, from 3.51 ALY to 4.14, an increase of 17.9%.  Their ranking improved from 32nd to 13th, which is a pretty impressive jump.

2009 Jaguars – selected T Eugene Monroe (1st rd, 8th) and T Eben Britton (2nd rd, 39th) to give them bookend tackles for years.  The Jags’ run blocking improved from 16th in the league to 11th, then to second in 2010.  The injury bug struck the o-line last year (Britton, who was one of many injured, had only 3 starts) and their ranking dropped to 13th in run blocking.  If healthy, they should become a top ten or top five line again.

2006 Jets – selected T D’Brickashaw Ferguson (1st, 4th) and C Nick Mangold (1st, 29th).  As discussed above, the Jets set the standard for building a top line by committing to it in a draft.  It takes more than commitment, however, it takes the right people.  Mangold is already a two-time first-team All-Pro and has four Pro Bowl selections.  Ferguson is not far behind him with three Pro Bowl selections. 

2006 Buccaneers – selected G Davin Joseph (1st, 23rd) and T Jeremy Trueblood (2nd, 59th).  Unlike other drafts we’ve looked at earlier here, this one really didn’t help the Bucs much at all.  They were very good in 2007, when they ranked sixth in ALY, but their next best season were ranked 22nd.

2004 Raiders – selected T Robert Gallery (1st, 2nd) and G/C Jake Grove (2nd, 45th).  Al Davis picked a couple of real doozies here.  The Raiders ALY was tenth best in the league the season prior to this draft and was never as good again in the next five years.  It was probably a huge disappointment to Raider fans that their second overall pick turned out not to be much of a tackle, much less the franchise left tackle they expected.  Grove had an unspectacular five seasons in Oakland and finished his career with one year in Miami.

2003 Panthers – selected T Jordan Gross (1st, 8th) and G Bruce Nelson (2nd, 50th).  The Panthers improved upon their 2002 ALY of 3.80, 29th in the league, never falling that low again in the next five seasons.  Credit Gross, who went on to become a one-time All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler, for his contributions but not Nelson, who played only one year and started one game.

2001 Lions – selected T Jeff Backus (1st, 18th) and C Dominic Raiola (2nd, 50th).  The Lions had a relatively healthy 4.18 ALY, 12th-best in the league in 2000, then invested their two top draft picks in the line.  The results: the ALY declined and Detroit couldn’t get back to where they were in the next six seasons.  Backus became a dependable starter (176 consecutive games) at LT and Raiola started 156, but neither was ever a standout at their position.  This was Matt Millen’s first draft as President/CEO of the Lions.
Several of the above teams did not get what they expected and had to try to make chicken salad out of chicken****, as per the old adage.  However, those teams above that drafted well proved that when a team recognizes problems on the line, and drafts to improve those positions, the draft is an excellent way to improve the run-blocking and hopefully the running game and the entire offense as well.

Sadly, three general managers for the Titans have either not recognized that or have but failed to act upon it.  More on that will follow in Part Two of this series.