Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Safe Pick and the Right Pick

If former Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long really wants to show some gratitude for the Miami Dolphins making him the number one pick in this year’s NFL draft, he could start by sending a few hundred thousand of the 30 some million dollars he’s getting in guaranteed money to Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns. If Thomas hadn’t made such a lasting impact at left tackle in his rookie season, the Dolphins would still be negotiating with either Darren McFadden or Matt Ryan.

It’s likely that many will read into Dolphins general manager Bill Parcell’s decision to make Long the first pick as a way of avoiding the lengthy holdout that is common these days when skill players are selected number one. Sort of like when the Houston Texans took defensive lineman Mario Williams with the first pick over Vince Young and Reggie Bush, two far more glamorous players.

There’s probably some of that, just as there’s probably something to the notion that linemen, even those selected first, cost a little less. But the breakout season that Thomas had in Cleveland cannot be overlooked either. When Parcells looks at the roster he inherited, he sees several holes that need to get filled. He could have gone in several directions, including quarterback. Most experts believe, for example, that the upside on Boston College’s Matt Ryan far exceeds that of current Dolphins quarterback John Beck.

If that’s true, it’s true in the same way that Brady Quinn’s upside seems higher than Derek Anderson’s. But when Parcells sees how Thomas (with a huge assist from Eric Steinbach) solidified a Cleveland line that had been a joke for 10 years, he starts to realize that the presence of Long is going to make Beck look a whole lot better, too. In fact, even newly acquired Josh McCown is going to look less like the journeyman he is playing behind Long.

One of the absolute truisms of football from the day it was invented until the last day it’s ever played is that games are won at the point of attack. Control the line, you control the outcome. I’d take a team with a good offensive line and Spergon Wynn as the quarterback every time over a team with a bad offensive line and Tom Brady behind center. You can’t run if there aren’t any holes and you can’t pass with a defensive lineman tugging at your underwear every play. The offensive scheme hasn’t been invented that can overcome an incompetent set of offensive linemen.

The strange thing though is that as surely as virtually every general manager knows this, it’s just as sure that most general managers wouldn’t take an offensive lineman with one of the first 10 picks in the draft, even with a loaded gun shoved into their eye socket. The last time an offensive lineman was taken with the first pick was nearly 40 years ago, in 1970 when the St. Louis Rams took Orlando Pace. The Packers came close when they took Tony Mandarich with the second overall pick in 1989. But exam the USA Today database on players drafted since 1988 and you’ll find far more offensive linemen drafted in the middle to late rounds than in the first three rounds.

Bernie Kosar had his career cut short well before he should have in large part due to general manager Ernie Accorsi’s dogged insistence that offensive linemen are made, not drafted. In Accorsi’s world, indeed in the world in which he operated, drafting an offensive lineman before the fifth or sixth round was, if not folly, then certainly an outrageous luxury. Accorsi continued to try and build a line with late round picks and undrafted free agents because it probably worked for him once or twice. All the while, Kosar took a pounding that beat him out of three or four extra seasons.

While Parcells was probably looking at recent Browns history in deciding that Long was a far less risky pick, he could also have looked a little deeper to see how the Tim Couch pick worked out if he needed further convincing that Ryan, not Long, would actually have been the luxury pick.

Couch may not have ever become a top tier NFL quarterback under the best of conditions, but he never really had much of a chance either. By selecting Couch to play behind a line that was about as skilled as a collection of beer truck drivers pulled from the local union hiring hall, the Browns set themselves up for failure. By then ignoring the line literally until last season, the Browns continued to compound this massive mistake. (To be fair, Browns general manager Phil Savage did try to address the line before last season. The freak injury that still keeps LeCharles Bentley sidelined was a huge blow that was compounded when he then traded Jeff Faine.)

It’s hard to believe that Anderson is a Pro Bowl quarterback but the fact that he is speaks volumes about how quickly the fortunes can turn with a competent offensive line in place. If the Browns would have had any semblance of a defensive line (the other point of attack), they could have gone deep in the playoffs.

There’s a chance, of course, that Long will be much more Tony Mandarich than Joe Thomas, but that chance seems small. For one thing, this isn’t 1989. Steroids use is much easier to detect these days. Long may be viewed as the safe pick, just as Thomas was, but if he plays like Thomas, he’ll prove to be the right pick. With Long, there’s no reason to think that Beck can’t have something approaching the year like Anderson. Without Long and with Ryan instead, there’s no reason to think the Dolphins wouldn’t be back on the clock the minute the next season ends.

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