We hear a lot about this being a weak draft. Or, when people are trying to be nice, a draft lacking in premier talent at the top. Ask current NFL quarterbacks, running backs, and coaches and you might get this response...
This is a draft lacking in talent at the two most glamorous positions: QB and RB. One of which (RB) is the most overrated, dependent on scheme, reliant on surrounding talent, hard to scout and evaluate position in the game. The other, I grant you, is the most important position in sports.
But how many great quarterbacks come from any given draft? And how many of those are considered elite, top end draft picks pre-Draft? Is a dearth of quarterbacks at the top of the first round enough cause to condemn a draft?
If quarterback is the most important position (it is) and runningback is the next sexiest position (it is) then let's look at the guys who protect them. The offensive line is second only to the quarterback in it's value to the success of a team. From a strong line stems the time that makes quarterbacks look good, which makes receivers look good, which opens up the run game which then looks good... behind whom? Oh, yeah... the offensive line. It is the foundation on top of which every offensive scheme in the NFL is run. There's a reason quarterbacks buy those guys gifts when things go well.
With that, I will make this claim... This draft has more top-end talent on the offensive line than any draft in recent memory.
Think about the way the top five linemen in this class have been scouted/analyzed/evaluated. Luke Joeckel was the 'best player in the draft' since before the season ended. He was called a 'prototypical left tackle' and a 'Pro-Bowler for a decade to come.' His stock hasn't fallen. And yet, in the minds of some, he's been eclipsed by Eric Fisher. Another 'prototypical' tackle. Another perennial Pro-Bowler in the making. Perhaps, they say, a better athlete than Joeckel. And already better against the run. Keep in mind that his rise has not been the result of Joeckel falling at all. Scouts that rank Fisher #1 overall are quick to point out that Fisher's being the top pick is not an indictment of Joeckel. Mike Mayock referred to them as 1 and 1a. Two tackles... each of whom has been linked to the #1 overall pick in the draft. And who's that behind them? Lane Johnson. The best athlete of the three. His stock has risen meteorically to the degree that he seems to be a top 10 lock and he's been linked to picks as high as #4 to the Eagles. "I think Lane Johnson had the freakiest Combine in the history of our coverage of the Combine." Mayock didn't mean freakiest for an OT. He meant freakiest... OVERALL. This, again, is the consensus 3rd best tackle in the draft we're discussing. If we move to guard it just keeps getting better. Many people still feel that, if position wasn't being considered, Chance Warmack is the best player in this draft. He consistently earns the highest overall grade when scouting services rate players based on readiness to perform from day one. Rob Rang of CBS, when looking for an NFL comparison... settled on Will Shields. Not bad. Carl Nicks has also been a frequent mention in descriptions of Warmack. And here's the truly staggering thing: a lot of folks think Jonathan Cooper might be better. That's how good this class is. The guy who is considered a guaranteed starter from day one and a guy who possesses the skill set of Will Shields might be the second best guard in the draft.
Joeckel, Fisher, Johnson, Warmack, and Cooper are, without question... the best group of five OL in terms of pre-Draft speculation that I can recall.
And I've done some serious recalling...
2012 NFL DRAFT: The 4th and 5th linemen off the board were Kevin Zeitler and Mitchell Schwartz. Pre-Draft, walterfootball.com spoke of Zeitler as "a good fit for a lot of teams in the 2nd round of the draft." They evaluated him as a strong run blocker who would struggle against the pass and require help from the Center early in his career. "Big, experienced, dependable, bump-and-steer college left tackle who lacks ideal athletic ability and quickness to man the blind side in the pros, but could develop into a serviceable right tackle or kick inside." That's what Pro-Football Weekly had to say about Schwartz heading into the Draft. You won't find concerns nearly as serious about any of the top 5 in this draft. This draft's top linemen (Kalil, Reiff, DeCastro) also pale in pre-Draft analysis to this year's top group.
2011 NFL DRAFT: There's not much to say about this draft except that Tyron Smith was the first lineman take with the 9th overall pick and a guy named Danny Watkins was the 5th OL drafted (he was, however, the first Canadian fireman off the board). Not a comparable draft.
2010 NFL DRAFT: This is the Draft with which to compare 2013. It is the closest thing to the kind of talent this Draft has along the offensive line. Top tackles Trent Williams, Russell Okung, and Anthony Davis were all highly touted. Although it's worth noting that although Davis has been a reliable RT for a terrific 49ers team, his work ethic and dedication were widely questioned pre-Draft. For a little on-field (well... on practice field) comparison... Davis ran a 5.38 40 at his combine and benched 21 reps. Luke Joeckel (considered the least athletic of this year's top 3 tackles) ran a 5.30 and benched 27 reps. And those numbers were considered shockingly low compared to how good Joeckel looked on the field. Lane Johnson and Eric Fisher also blew away the numbers of the top tackles from the 2010 Draft. That draft also featured 4th and 5th lineman Mike Iupati and Maurkice Pouncey. Again, phenomenal prospects who've worked out well in the NFL. But we're basing this on pre-Draft analysis... and Warmack and Cooper are considered stronger, more athletic, and overall... slightly better prospects at the next level. 2010 gives 2013 a run for it's money. And if we take hindsight into account, 2013 would be lucky to be as successful as 2013 along the front line... but heading into the Draft in two weeks... 2010 is still no 2013.
2009 NFL DRAFT: Michael Oher was the 5th guy taken. He's more famous than he is good. But, then, few people considered the emotional availability of Sandra Bullock when evaluating Oher for the Draft. Even the top tackle in 2009 (Jason Smith) was considered a guy with questions to answer at the next level. By the 9th pick in the Draft, Eugene Monroe was coming off the board. FFToolbox, at the time, credited his rise to that spot not to his ability, but to the lousy pre-Draft performances of Oher, Andre Smith, and Jason Smith (all taken amongst the top 5 linemen). Remember, again, that in this draft the rise of Cooper and Fisher have never been linked to any fall by Joeckel or Warmack... simply the result of scouts coming to realize just how good this group is.
2008 NFL DRAFT: You know how quarterbacks are being evaluated in this draft? Well, offensive tackles were similar back in 2008. We were pretty much positive Jake Long was the best. And he went really high. But then there were seven more OTs taken in the first round alone. WOW! That must have been a terrific class? Not really... Ryan Clady, Chris Williams, Branden Albert, Gosder Cherilus, Jeff Otah, Same Baker, and Duane Brown came tumbling off the board in the first round of 2008 because, well, no one could decide where to rank them. I think we could see a similar phenomenon this year with quarterbacks (not in the first round, probably). By Round two we could begin to see this logic kick in: "Well, if Matt Barkley was good enough to be #26, then EJ Manuel could be #29... and if EJ Manuel could be #29, why couldn't Ryan Nassib be #30?" Glennon, Wilson, Bray... they could all fall in line. Now that's not to say that Clady hasn't been great or that Albert hasn't been good. My point is that, going into the Draft, only Jake Long was considered a game changer from day 1 in the 2008 crop.
If you've stuck with me this long... good for you! I could keep going back into history, but I won't because I know it isn't exciting to read a two-thousand word post about the least glamourous position on the field.
But, what the O-line lacks in glamour it more than makes up for in value. And what this draft lacks in sex appeal... it more than makes up for in value at one of the most important positions on the field. We haven't even talked about DJ Fluker, Justin Pugh, Manelik Watson, Barrett Jones... (these guys all could've been top 5 linemen taken in previous drafts)...
What I am not doing, here, is saying that Joeckel, Fisher, Johnson, Warmack and Cooper (and the rest) will all be superstars. What I am doing, here, is saying that there hasn't been a group of linemen with this complete a set of NFL skills and the readiness to employ them from day one of their careers that I can remember at the top of any NFL Draft. And it's a shame that people are spending more time talking about the lack of quarterbacks than they are about this...