The Impact of 1st-Round Offensive Linemen: I. A History Lesson

AUTHOR'S NOTE: It's been about 3 months since I posted last (work = grind), so far any newbies out there, here's a brief introduction. I'm Niners Nation's resident statistics geek. Why? Because Fooch found me lurking over @ Maiocco's blog a couple of years ago. Background-wise, I've got a Masters in Sport Psychology, have published several studies using advanced statistics in peer-reviewed journals, and had the good fortune of presenting a study on NFL home-field advantage @ the 2007 New England Symposium on Statistics in Sports, held at -- wait for it -- Harvard University. Definitely my crowning statistical achievement to date. In terms of my 49er credentials, I've been a fan since January 20, 1985, when the dynasty destroyed my hometown Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX...on my birthday. That'll definitely get a kid to start rethinking his fan affiliations. Anyway, hope you enjoy my posts.

This offseason has, in my mind, easily been the quietest in recent memory for the 49ers. No "will Nolan be back next year" talk. No offensive coordinator being hired/fired. No WRs refusing to show up for work. Basically, the two main on-the-field storylines in Ninerland over the past 6 months have been (a) the potential positive impact of OC stability for one, Alexander Douglas Smith, and (b) the potential positive impact of drafting 2 offensive linemen in the 1st round of this year's draft. I'll save a statistical discussion of the former for another time. Today, and for the rest of the week, I'll be focusing on the latter in a 3-part series investigating just how much of a positive impact we can expect from the addition of Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati:

  • Part 1 will be the least stat-intensive of the 3 posts, and will simply consist of a brief description of 1st-round OL picks and the teams that have drafted them since 1994.
  • Part 2 will be the most stat-intensive of the 3 posts, and will test the theory that drafting an OL in the 1st round makes a team's offense better via improvements in run- and/or pass-blocking.
  • Part 3 will be a little less stat-intensive than Part 2, and will test the theory -- specifically addressed in the 49ers' chapter of this year's Football Outsiders Almanac -- that OL continuity is a good thing (presumably via improvements in run- and/or pass-blocking.

Before I get into the meat of the matter, let me just clear up one thing in advance. This series of posts is not an investigation into whether teams should take OLs in the 1st round. Being that this is Niners Nation, I know there's a sentiment out there that the team did much better when they were employing a McKittrick-based strategy of drafting undersized, athletic OL in the later rounds, rather than the gargantuan maulers they've selected early in recent drafts. While I might be sympathetic to this argument to a certain degree, the fact of the matter is that, in the context of the entire NFL, teams are going to continue drafting OLs in the 1st round in perpituity, whether the stats suggest they should or otherwise. As others like Brian Burke (Advanced NFL Stats) and Benjamin Alamar (University of California Berkeley) have repeatedly shown, whether or not a particular NFL strategy is successeful seems to have little to no bearing on whether or not NFL teams employ it. Unlike in baseball, there's little to no Moneyball being played in NFL team headquarters these days. So, rather than reading these posts with the thought, "Was drafting a 1st-round OL the right thing for the 49ers to do?" I suggest you instead read them with the thought, "Now that the Niners have drafted 2 first-round OLs, what can we expect in terms of their impact this year and beyond."

OK, on to the meat...

DESCRIBING THE OLs

Since 1994 -- which, for those of you who don't know, I frequently use as an NFL era marker -- there have been a total of 78 OLs taken in the 1st round of the draft. Of these 78, 63 were drafted as college Ts, 9 were drafted as college Gs, and 6 were drafted as college Cs. Obviously, once these OLs joined their NFL teams, many of them switched positions. But the above breakdown just gives you a general sense that college T is where teams focus their 1st round OL picks. In that context, whereas drafting Davis was in line with recent NFL trends, drafting Iupati clearly was not.

Using Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value (AV) statistic, which basically assigns a -- you guessed it -- approximate numerical value for each player in each NFL season, we can see what the average career looks like for an OL drafted in the 1st round. However, because many of the 1st-round OLs since 1994 are still playing, we need to adjust for number of years played. Let's call it AV per Yr, or AV/Yr. Below is a chart showing the average career performance (AV/Yr) by 1st-round OL's college position (Overall average = 6.14):

 

Avyr_by_college_ol_position_medium

As you can see, it turns out that the 9 college Gs drafted in the 1st round since 1994 have had better careers, on average, than the 63 college Ts, and substantially better careers than the 6 college Cs. If we were to extrapolate these average careers to Davis and Iupati, we could say that Davis can be expected to be about as good as John Tait (KC, 1999; AV/Yr = 6.10), and Iupati can be expected to be about as good as Ruben Brown (BUF, 1995; AV/Yr = 7.15). I like the sound of that.

One aspect of the discussion thus far this offseason with regards to the Niners' OL picks has been along the lines of, "How long before they become full-time starters?" Well, if history is any guide, signs point to sooner rather than later. That's because, of the 78 1st-round OLs drafted since 1994, 57 became full-time starters in their rookie years, 70 were full-time starters by Year 2, and 73 were full-time starters by Year 3 (Note: full-time starter means 8 or more starts). So, to say this another way, the chances of Davis or Iupati being abject NFL failures are pretty slim. They appear even slimmer -- the chances, not Davis and Iupati themselves -- when you consider the following list, which are the five 1st-round OLs who did not start by Year 3 of their careers:

  1. Trezelle Jenkins (KC, 1995, Pick 31, AV/Yr = 0.33)
  2. Andre T. Johnson (WAS, 1996, Pick 30, AV/Yr = 0.00)
  3. Marc Colombo (CHI, 2002, Pick 29, AV/Yr = 4.57)
  4. Jason Smith (STL, 2009, Pick 2, Av/Yr = 1.00)
  5. Andre Smith (CIN, 2009, Pick 6, Av/Yr = 1.00)

From this list, we see that 2 of the 5 non-full-time starters haven't even been in the league 3 years, and another carved out a decent, albeit below average, career for himself after going to a different team. So, ignoring these 3 picks in our outright-bust probability, we arrive at the reality that 73 of 75, or 97.3%, of 1st-round OL picks start by Year 3.

The specific draft history of the 49ers tells a similar tale. Despite perhaps a conventional wisdom to the contrary, SF has selected only 2 OLs in the 1st round since 1994: Kwame Harris (ugh!) with Pick 26 in 2003 and Joey Staley with Pick 28 in 2007. Harris had a well-below average career (AV/Yr = 3.50), whereas Staley has played just slightly below average for Ts thus far in his career (AV/Yr = 5.33). And yet, despite the disparity in performance, they both were full-time starters by Year 3 (Harris = Year 3, Staley = Year 1).

Finally, one other way to approach the question, "What can we expect from Davis and Iupati?" is to look at the average performance of 1st-round OLs by pick number. Here's said info:

 

Avyr_by_ol_draft_pick_medium

The sample sizes for each individual pick number here are pretty small (e.g., no OLs taken #9), so there's quite a bit of statistical noise in the chart. However, the white line is the trendline, and it shows what you'd expect: The higher the pick, the better the career. In fact, the correlation of pick and AVyr = -.410, which indicates a clear, albeit weak, trend. So, extrapolating the stats in the chart to Davis's and Iupati's potential, we might expect a career for Davis like that of, say, Tra Thomas (PHI, 1998; AV/Yr = 7.08); for Iupati, let's say a career like -- bingo -- Ruben Brown.

DESCRIBING THE TEAMS WHO DRAFTED THE OLs

For all of the analysis about the potential impact of Davis and Iupati, one thing I've noticed has been curiously absent from mention is the fact that we're talking about the impact of 2 OLs, not 1. Why this omission is important for the discussion is because it's unbelievably rare for the same team to draft 2 OLs in the same 1st round. Indeed, from 1994-2009, it happened only 1 time. Can you name that team? .................................Answer: The 2006 New York Jets took T D'Brickashaw Ferguson with the 4th pick of the draft and C Nick Mangold with Pick 29. In a later section of this post, I'll talk about what specifically happened to the Jets, but suffice it to say that, as difficult as it is to project how adding one 1st-round OL might impact a team, we're basically entering uncharted waters trying to project the impact of two.

Another interesting overlooked aspect of teams who drafted OLs from 1994-2009 is the fact that about half of the league drafted 2 or fewer OLs in that 16-year span! So, as much as the media seems to focus on OL in the 1st round, half of the league has basically ignored it for almost a generation. In fact, 3 teams -- the Cowboys, Chargers, and Oilers/Titans -- actually have ignored it. Overall, here's the list of NFL teams by how many OLs they took in the 1st round from 1994-2009:

  • 5 OLs (2 teams) -- Lions, Seahawks
  • 4 OLs (3 teams) -- Chiefs, Eagles, Rams
  • 3 OLs (12 teams) -- Cardinals, Ravens (CLE/BAL), Bills, Panthers, Bengals, Browns, Packers, Dolphins, Vikings, Saints, Raiders, Steelers
  • 2 OLs (8 teams) -- Bears, Broncos, Jaguars, Patriots, Jets, 49ers, Buccaneers, Redskins
  • 1 OL (4 teams) -- Falcons, Texans, Colts, Giants
  • 0 OLs (3 teams) -- Cowboys, Chargers, Titans (HOU/TEN)

If you must know, 5 of the 6 groups above all averaged about 8 wins per season from 1994-2009, so the stats do back up the point that 1st-round OLs aren't a panacea (See Detroit Lions). But, as I said before, I'm not presenting this info to discuss strategy. Rather, I'm simply making the point that, when half the league hasn't drafted more than two 1st-round OL in 16 years, trying to project the impact of drafting 2 OL in the same year is like trying to play cricket with 1 dart and only knowing where half of the numbers are.

Although it's usually discussed in the context of QBs, another important thing to know about the teams who drafted 1st-round OLs is how good they were. In other words, what kind of team environments were these OLs walking into when they signed their contracts? Conventional wisdom might say that a 1st-round OL would be better off going to a good team than a bad team, but, as we saw earlier, OLs picked towards the end of the 1st round (aka went to good teams) have tended to have worse careers than those picked towards the top of the draft. Of course, on the other hand, conventional wisdom might say that good teams already have a good OL, so they don't need to draft linemen in the 1st round. Ah, the beauty of conventional wisdom. Well, here are the stats (Remember: we're talking about 77 teams who drafted 1st-rd OLs since 1994):

Prev Yr Success

Total

% of OL-Pick Tms

% of Same-Success Tms

Made Playoffs

28

37.3%

14.6%

Made Conference Rd

8

10.6%

12.5%

Made Super Bowl

3

4.0%

9.4%

Won Super Bowl

2

2.7%

12.5%

As the table shows, about 40% of the OLs taken in the 1st round went to teams that made the playoffs the previous year. However, of all playoff teams from 1993-2008 (See "% of same-success tms" column), only about 15% drafted an OL in the 1st round of the next draft. This compares quite nicely with the 16.3% of all non-playoff teams having drafted a 1st-round OL in the next draft. Notice also how these "same-success" percentages stay pretty consistent the deeper a team goes in the playoffs. So, bottom line is that there's no recent history of 1st-round OLs going mostly to bad teams or mostly to good teams. The quality of the team hasn't had any bearing on whether or not they draft an OL in the 1st round of the next draft.

To be a bit more quantitatively precise about this, here's a table showing the average previous-year stats for teams that drafted OL in the 1st round (Aside: If you're not familar with the stats in this table, and you plan on reading any of my posts in the future please get acquainted with them here. They're advanced stats put out by Football Outsiders, and I use them because they're the best in the business.):

Previous Yr Stats

OL-Pick Tms

Harris

Staley

Wins

7.64

10

7

OFF DVOA

-4.76%

21.3%

-7.5%

Pass OFF DVOA

2.02%

28.5%

-5.3%

Run OFF DVOA

-2.17%

24.4%

1.5%

ALY

3.98

4.41

4.42

ASR

7.43%

4.3%

6.8%

This table again shows how the average team that takes a 1st-round OL is, well, pretty average. They average about 8 wins, their pass OFF is a tad bit above average, but that's offset by a run OFF that's a tad bit below average. Furthermore, their run- and pass-blocking stats are just about average as well. Again, this is more of the same information telling us that 1st-round OLs are drafted by good and bad teams alike. And my point here is that the quality of the team a 1st-round OL is drafted by is one more piece of information that we can't rely on when projecting how Davis and Iupati are going to impact the 2010 49ers.

Incidentally, the 49ers specific drafting history also says the same thing. As the final 2 columns in the above table show, Harris was drafted onto a pretty damn good team and sucked, whereas Staley was drafted into a below average team and, as mentioned previously, has carved out an average career thus far.

And finally, as it relates to Davis and Iupati, they're joining a team that had an average number of wins (8), a below-average OFF DVOA (-10.2%), a below-average Pass OFF DVOA (-8.2%), an average Run OFF DVOA (1.5%), and an OL that was terrible at run blocking (ALY = 3.50) and close-to-terrible at pass blocking (ALY = 8.1%). Of course, this is just to say that the type of team they're joining suggests they could end up being average (ala Staley) or really, really bad (ala Harris). How's that for hard-hitting statistical analysis?

DESCRIBING WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TEAMS WHO DRAFTED THE PLAYERS

As I'm going to delve into this a lot more deeply in Part 2, I'll limit the commentary in this section. But one thing to keep in mind in terms of my methods here (and in Parts 2 and 3), I'm only including 1st-round OL who were full-time starters in the given year that I'm talking about. It makes little sense to me to include in an analysis of "potential impact" those players who weren't full-time starters. In other words, it's hard to have an impact while riding the pine, so those 1st-round OL were also relegated to the bench in my analyses.

Below is a table showing the statistical impact of a 1st-round OL draft pick who was a full-time starter in their rookie year. It compares Year 1 team stats to Year 0 team stats, i.e. the team's stats the year before the OL was drafted:

Yr 1 vs. Yr 0

OL-Pick Tms

Harris

Staley

Playoff Graduate

7

NA

No

Playoff Dropout

12

NA

No

Conf Rd Graduate

1

NA

No

SB Rd Graduate

2

NA

No

SB Win Graduate

1

NA

No

Wins

-0.49

NA

-2

OFF DVOA

+1.89%

NA

-23.8%

Pass OFF DVOA

+2.87%

NA

-35.5%

Run OFF DVOA

+1.77%

NA

-4.1%

ALY

+0.02

NA

-0.23

ASR

-0.15%

NA

+3.5%

Directional ALY

-0.15

NA

+0.31

First, only 7 non-playoff teams who drafted 1st-round OL that became full-time starters in their rookie season went on to make the playoffs that season; only 2 teams improved to Conference Round playoff teams (1996 Packers & 2003 Panthers); and only the 1996 Packers, after having drafted T Jon Michels in the 1st round of the 1996 NFL Draft, went on to win the Super Bowl in their OL pick's rookie season.

On average, most of the teams' offensive stats improved, but (a) they won fewer games, and (b) none of the "improvements" were statistically significant at the 90% confidence level. However, what was statistically significant was the gigantic turdburger cooked up by the 2007 49ers after they drafted Staley. Of course, at least he was a full-time starter, which can't be said for Harris.

Let's move on to a comparison between team stats for 1st-round OL full-time starters in Year 2 vs. teams stats for the year prior to that OL being drafted (i.e., Yr 2 vs. Yr 0):

Yr 2 vs. Yr 0

OL-Pick Tms

Harris

Staley

Playoff Graduate

7

NA

No

Playoff Dropout

11

NA

No

Conf Rd Graduate

7

NA

No

SB Rd Graduate

3

NA

No

SB Win Graduate

1

NA

No

Wins

-0.26

NA

0

OFF DVOA

+2.60%

NA

-3.8%

Pass OFF DVOA

+5.30%

NA

-2.9%

Run OFF DVOA

-0.64%

NA

-4.3%

ALY

+0.02

NA

-0.14

ASR

-0.66%

NA

+2.6%

Directional ALY

-0.27

NA

-0.23

In Year 2, the playoff graduate rate stays exactly the same at 7, but, all of a sudden, an equal number of teams made it to the Conference Championship game after not having made it there the season before drafting their OL in the 1st round. In addition, 3 teams became Super Bowl participants (2000 New York Giants, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, & 2008 Arizona Cardinals); but, again, only 1 team, the 2002 Buccaneers won the Super Bowl 2 years after drafting a 1st-round OL, T Kenyatta Walker.

On average, we still see most everything statistical getting better except for wins. However, in Year 2, two of these improvements (the ones in bold) are statistically different from zero, meaning that they're larger than what you'd expect from random chance. So, we can say that when a team drafts an OL in the 1st round, their Pass OFF improves signficantly if that OL is a full-time starter in Year 2; and that improvement appears to be due to a concomitant improvement in pass protection. Of course, there's also the curious finding that these teams get significantly worse blocking in the specific direction of where their 1st-round OL is starting along the line (i.e., Directional ALY goes down).

For the 49ers, Year 2 was much better than Year 1 vis-a-vis the addition of Staley, but still no win improvement and no playoffs. And, of course, Harris was still manning the water table in 2004.

Finally, the Year 3 comparisons:

Yr 3 vs. Yr 0

OL-Pick Tms

Harris

Staley

Playoff Graduate

12

No

No

Playoff Dropout

14

Yes

No

Conf Rd Graduate

6

No

No

SB Rd Graduate

3

No

No

SB Win Graduate

3

No

No

Wins

-0.03

-6

1

OFF DVOA

+2.13%

-63.3%

-2.5%

Pass OFF DVOA

+3.05%

-86.4%

-2.9%

Run OFF DVOA

+1.57%

-37.8%

0.0%

ALY

+0.05

-0.83

-0.92

ASR

-0.93%

+5.8%

+1.3%

DirALY

-0.24

-1.41

-1.54

Year 3 seems to be where teams begin to see the team "impact" of their 1st-round OL picks. Specifically, although basically the same number of teams dropped out of the playoffs from Year 0 to Year 3 as in previous years, nearly twice as many teams made the playoff leap. Furthermore, whereas Conference and Super Bowl Round improvement was similar to the Year 2 comparison, 3 teams won the Super Bowl: 1996 Green Bay Packers after drafting T Aaron Taylor in 1994; 1999 St. Louis Rams after drafting T Orlando Pace in 1997; and 2001 New England Patriots after drafting C Damien Woody in 1999.

What's interesting, however, is that these success stories contradict what happens on average. Namely, teams don't win more games, and their overall offensive stats don't improve significantly. In addition, whereas their pass protection gets significantly better, run-blocking in the specific OL's direction gets significantly worse. So, although it might appear that drafting an OL in the 1st round is what's "causing" the improvement in Year 3, it's hard to see -- statistically speaking -- a chain of events leading from drafting the OL to improving the team's general OL performance to improving the teams' general OFF performance to winning more games to winning the Super Bowl. But that's the topic of Part 2, so I'll leave it there for now.

In terms of the 49ers, there were obviously no Super Bowl championships or playoff appearances in Year 3 of the Harris and Staley eras. But, hey, at least Harris finally became a full-time starter! And what a glorious thing it was, what with that 86.4% decline in pass OFF efficiency! And check out how much he helped the pass protection! In 2002, the year before he was drafted, the 49ers' ASR was 4.3%. When 2005 came around and the depleted roster forced Harris into a starting role, their ASR more than doubled to a this-is-how-you-destroy-a-rookie-QB's-confidence-and-oh-by-the-way-get-him-killed 10.1%! And, regardless of what I may have said in the previous paragraph about not seeing the causal chain from player to team stat, we all know Harris was entirely to blame on this one.

So, in summing this section up, what do all these fancy stat tables mean? Well, basically, when a team drafts an OL in the 1st round, don't expect much in the way of team improvement in Year 1, and expect a little bit more in Years 2-3, but don't assume the team improvement is due to the impact of drafting the player. As this relates to the 2010 49ers, what I'm saying here is, "Don't assume that drafting Davis and Iupati will make the 49ers that much better on offense this season." There's just nowhere near enough statistical evidence to support that assumption.

Oh, I almost forgot...what happened to the Jets after drafting 2 OLs in the 1st round of the 2006 draft, the only time a team drafted 2 OLs in the same first round between 1994-2009? Well, both started in their rookie season, and had an immediate "impact." Their pass protection improved considerably (-3.7%), which presumably led to a massive  improvement in pass OFF efficiency (+47.1%), which presumably led to a 6-win improvement and a playoff berth. Furthermore, these improvements basically carried over to Years 2 and 3. So, if there's a poster child for the theory adopted in Santa Clara this past Spring, it's those 2006 Jets. Being that they're the only precedent, the optimists (or believers) among us will hold a death grip on that sample size of 1. And, really, I don't blame you. We're fans first after all. Kwame Harris was our future!

BOTTOM LINE

So what have we learned today?

  • You can pretty much eliminate the possibility that either Davis or Iupati will be a flat-out bust in the form of Trezelle Jenkins and Andre T. Johnson. It's likely at least 1 will be starting this season, and it's almost certain that both will be starting by next season. It's also likely that both will end up having productive careers at the NFL level.
  • The success (or lack thereof) of the 2009 49ers has no influence whatsoever on the potential impact of Davis and Iupati in 2010 or beyond.
  • If you believe in sample sizes larger than 1, don't assume that adding Davis and Iupati will lead to an offensive renaissance for the 49ers this season. It's much more likely to happen in 2011 or 2012.
  • If you believe in sample sizes equal to 1, you are a closet Jets fan.
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