What to Make of the 2020 OT Class: Past Performance Predicts Future Performance
There is a lot to think about when evaluating an offensive tackle: technique, athleticism, ceiling, floor, size, arm length, demeanor—the list goes on. How do you cut through the noise and identify the factors that matter most?
Part A of this article provides a short guide to approaching offensive tackle evaluation and highlights five key principles to keep in mind when considering a prospect. Part B applies those principles to the 2020 offensive tackle class, sorting the top prospects into four tiers.
Five Key Offensive Tackle Evaluation Principles
1. Average is good enough. A player's value can be measured in terms of wins above replacement (WAR). The WAR metric captures how many wins a player adds over the course of a season when they are on the field as opposed to a replacement "off the street" free agent level player. Players can have fractional WARs, meaning they add less than a full win by themselves—indeed, most non-QBs do—or even negative WAR if they're bad.
WAR is a key concept when evaluating offensive tackles because the difference in WAR between a below replacement level tackle and an average tackle is massive, but the difference between an average tackle and an elite tackle is only marginal. This suggests that the critical thing is for a tackle not to be a turnstile, as poor tackle performance can absolutely tank an offense. But once a tackle has achieved average NFL-level play, the offense can function. And allowing the offense to function is really what matters—increases in play above that bar just don't make a whole lot of difference to the outcome of a game.
The implication of this insight is huge: when evaluating tackles the goal is to find a guy that won't suck. You don't need to pick the next hall of famer—just find someone reliable.
2. Prior on-field performance is the best predictor. There are a whole host of metrics one could use to project performance: PFF grades, "win" rates, pressure rates, sack rates, combine measurables, height, weight, draft position—again, the list goes on. It turns out that of all these factors, PFF grades are the single most predictive. Context for these grades does matter, and grades on true pass sets, reps that don't include play-action, and 5 and 7 step drops are more stable than grades in other contexts (play action, 3 step drops, 3 man rushes). But context can be accounted for. The bottom line is that PFF grades do a pretty good job of estimating how a college tackle will fare in the pros.
3. Pass blocking is more important than run blocking. We know this because passing generates more expected points added (EPA) and win probability added (WPA) than rushing. Basically, throwing the ball gives you a better chance of scoring than running the ball. So, naturally, an offensive tackle's performance in pass protection is more important than their performance in the run game (and should be weighted more heavily in prospect evaluation). Conveniently, pass blocking grades are also more reliable than run blocking grades when projecting pro performance from college performance.
4. Don't overvalue the combine. There are vague trends to spot in a few different combine drills, but proceed with caution when using athleticism to project NFL performance. Specifically, offensive tackles' speed score (weight adjusted forty time), forty, broad jump, and shuttle all exhibit identifiable correlations with WAR. You can check them out for yourself. (The Rotoworld article doesn't fully explain this, but if you follow the link the slope of the red line on the graphs indicate correlation. Steady increases or decreases show connections between drill performance and on-field play, while flat lines show no correlation. You're looking for strong trends or thresholds—areas on the chart where players reliably succeed or bust.) Personally, I would not rely on these trends. With the possible exception of speed scores above roughly 95 for offensive tackles, players with impressive combine performances still bust frequently enough to scare me away from relying on this data.
5. Demeanor doesn't matter. A player's mental makeup is undeniably important. He must be emotionally and psychologically stable enough to withstand the rigors of being a professional athlete. He must be intelligent enough to understand schemes, and coachable enough to continue growing as a player. He must be committed to the game, and he must work hard. These things are all true. But you will not be able to figure them out from watching how a player carries himself on the field.
Putting It All Together
These five principles should all ring true for Broncos fans. When we last selected an offensive tackle (in the 2017 draft) John Elway faced a choice between Ryan Ramczyk and Garett Bolles.
Bolles graded well on run plays in college and poorly on pass plays. He played with a mean streak that Elway loved, and crushed the combine with one of the best leaping performances in years. BUT—run grades are less stable and matter less than pass grades, on-field demeanor is far less important than actual performance, and the combine is an unreliable predictor of NFL success. Lo and behold, Bolles has continued to play as a Bronco just like he played as a Ute, with inconsistent technique and a penchant for holding.
Ramczyk, on the other hand, graded off the charts in college and excelled as a pass protector. On the negative side, he skipped most of the drills at the combine, does not play with nastiness, and looks like a mediocre athlete on tape. Of course, those are exactly the types of "shortcomings" that can safely be ignored. Ramczyk has been excellent as a pro, playing at more or less the exact same level he played at in college.
The 2020 Offensive Tackle Class
The five principles outlined above allow us to break the tackles into several distinct tiers. The players within each tier have very similar career outlooks—so, the tiers are important but the order within each category is not.
Tier 1: Proven Ability
These players are worth selecting in the top half of the first round. They've shown they have what it takes to be competitive in the NFL.
Andrew Thomas, Georgia
Thomas showed significant improvement in each of the past three seasons as a starter at Georgia. He was dominant as both a pass and a run blocker in his final year, earning a 92.4 grade from PFF.
Tristan Wirfs, Iowa
Wirfs is a very similar prospect to Thomas in that he began his college career as a poorly graded freshman starter, but improved substantially each year. His progress culminated in an overall grade of 91.3 this past year, just a shade behind Thomas. Oh, and he's also an insane athlete.
Jedrick Wills Jr., Alabama
Wills Jr. is a dominant run blocker (90.1 grade) and a quality pass blocker (79.8). Earning those grades in the SEC is impressive, and the fact that he's an incredible athlete is just gravy. There's some question as to whether he could be moved to LT (he played on the right side in college). I'd leave him where he is and let him continue to do his thing—I'm not convinced LT is more valuable either.
Josh Jones, Houston
Jones played incredibly well in 2019, posting a monster overall grade of 93.2. His technique isn't perfect and he didn't play in a top conference, but he put together such a dominant season that he should still be considered a top prospect.
Tier 2: Question Marks
These players give you a lot to believe in, but have resumes with a significant unanswered questions. Their ceilings are almost as high as Tier 1 players, but they have low floors too—and we mainly want to avoid busts at tackle.
Ben Bartch, Saint John's (Minn.)
Bartch played a near perfect senior season, allowing only four pressures on 315 pass-blocking reps. But the fact that he played against D-III competition means we can't draw too strong a conclusion from his performance. His showing at the Senior Bowl was very encouraging though, and suggests he may be able to make the leap from St. John's to the pros.
Ezra Cleveland, Boise St.
Cleveland played high quality ball at Boise St., posting career grades in the mid-eighties in both pass and run blocking. I always hesitate to go all in on combine risers, but Cleveland's solid on-field performance combined with his elite athletic profile make him an intriguing prospect.
Mekhi Becton, Louisville
Some think Becton is the best tackle prospect in this class, but he is an up and down player at a position that is all about consistency. He has some truly jaw-dropping highlights, but too many low-lights to be a safe bet. (And there are no extra points awarded for pancaking a defender, but missing an assignment can cause some real damage.) As far as his overall performance goes, Becton graded as the 30th best tackle in the country last year—solid, but not great. Worryingly, however, Louisville ran lots of play actions and screens, which are the sorts of plays that make it hard to measure a tackle's pass-blocking talent. Becton's 2019 resume includes only 73 true pass sets (a very low number), on which he allowed pressure at rate of over 10%. Not confidence-inspiring. Becton's size, athleticism, and highlight reel have pushed him up boards, but his actual performance does not warrant a first round pick.
Jack Driscoll, Auburn
The case for Driscoll is simple: two straight years of pass blocking grades over 85 while playing in the SEC. Driscoll's 88.4 grade leads all SEC tackles with 500+ pass-blocking snaps over the past two years. The biggest question mark in his game is strength, as he occasionally gives up pressures when bull-rushed. Teammate Prince Tega Wanogho gets the hype, but Driscoll has been the better player. Smart money says that continues to be the case.
Tier 3: The Projects
Players in this tier lack the consistency of a top tackle prospect, but have put enough solid play on tape to make them worthwhile gambles in round three of the draft.
Matt Peart, UConn
Isaiah Wilson, Georgia
Austin Jackson, USC
Tier 4: The Longshots
These players have major question marks that stem from unrefined technique, inexperience, or poor competition. Despite the unknowns, I'd rather give them a chance in camp than the rest of the tackles in the class.
Calvin Throckmorton, Oregon
Lucas Niang, TCU
Prince Tega Wanogho, Auburn
Cameron Clark, Charlotte
Danny Pinter, Ball St.
In summary, the best way to tell how an offensive lineman will perform in the NFL is to look at how he performed in college. It's a simple idea, but players typically will continue to play in the future the same way that they played in the past. This is especially true in the pass game, where it matters most. Resist the urge to put too much weight on other factors like combine performance, demeanor, or highlight plays. And remember, you're not looking for future hall-of-famers. Just competent starters.
Pay attention to those key principles and you'll be on solid footing when it comes to selecting offensive tackles. Capisce, Mr. Elway?
nflWAR: A Reproducible Method for Offensive Player Evaluation in Football
Offensive linemen to target in free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft
PFF Critical Factors: The most important numbers for the 2020 NFL Draft class
The importance in PFF grades when projecting OL production from NCAA to NFL