AFC North Draft History Study: Offensive Line

On the heels of the conclusion of the 2015 NFL Draft, I began to realize the need to enhance my understanding of each team’s draft history; what they’ve built or attempted to build over the past ten years and how they’ve went about that process.

This may seem tedious to you, the reader, but I think as analysts of a great game, it can be hard to criticize or praise a team without understanding the full context of how their roster and positional depth has been constructed. For example, the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills are often ridiculed heavily for their drafting incompetence at the quarterback position, but while often grouped together, a review of their past 16 classes suggest two vastly different front office mindsets. The Jets have spent an incredible 12 picks on quarterbacks (by far the most in the AFC), while the Bills have used just four selections on signal callers over the same time period. So two teams that have had similar results at the quarterback position since 2000, but have attempted to address those issues in vastly different ways.

Similar comparisons can be made in the AFC North, a process which we began to endeavor upon with an examination of each team’s offensive and defensive draft classes over the past ten years. Today we will look at all four team’s selections from 2006-2015 at the offensive line, the conclusion of our AFC North Draft History series.

Tight Ends

Cincinnati Bengals: 15
Baltimore Ravens: 14
Pittsburgh Steelers: 14
Cleveland Browns: 10

Cincinnati has feverishly sought after offensive linemen in the draft throughout the last ten years, bringing in three first rounders and two second rounders amongst their 15 acquisitions. Of the three first rounders, Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith have become reliable starters on one of the best offensive lines in football, while Cedric Ogbuehi (2015) will enter what will likely be a redshirt rookie season this fall. Perhaps the Bengals best move was locking up Andrew Whitworth in the second round in 2006, as the LSU product has become one of the best left tackles in the game during his time in Cincinnati. The team undoubtedly hopes Ogbuehi or this year’s second rounder Jake Fisher can eventually fill Whitworth’s shoes, but for now the Bengals will have to settle for one of the deepest offensive lines in football. The plethora of selections have worked in their favor so far, and there is no reason to think this year’s rookies won’t find a similarly successful fate in Cincinnati.

The Ravens boast perhaps the biggest bust amongst AFC North first round offensive linemen selected in the past ten years in Michael Oher, but have made up for that failure with several other successful picks. While their two first round pick-ups in the past decade (Oher and Ben Grubbs) have either struggled or moved on to greener pastures, the team has scored big in the mid-late rounds by reeling in Marshal Yanda (3rd), Kelechi Osemele (2nd), Ricky Wagner (5th), and Chris Chester (2nd) in their past ten classes. The first three have gone on to become three of the best players in the NFL at their positions in Baltimore, while Chester has enjoyed a solid career, starting 111 games over the past nine seasons. When you can get value like that in the mid-late rounds, it makes misses like Oher, Jah Reid (3rd), and Oniel Cousins (3rd) hurt a whole lot less.

Pittsburgh’s two first rounders over the past decade were both largely considered “can’t-miss” prospects, and while David DeCastro’s development has been a bit slower than hoped for, he and Maurkice Pouncey have become reliable studs at their respective positions. Marcus Gilbert earned himself a long-term deal as a second rounder at right tackle, but the team’s other recent second rounder, Mike Adams, has been an abject disaster since coming to Pittsburgh in 2012. The 7th-round selection of out-of-nowhere stud left tackle Kelvin Beachum in that same draft class certainly helped soften the blow of Adams’ failure, as the Southern Methodist lineman improved by leaps and bounds last season. Pittsburgh may not have acquired the stars that the other teams in the North can boast (outside of perhaps Pouncey), but the team has quietly built a solid offensive line where one of the worst units in the NFL once stood.

Few teams’ drafting strategies and acquisitions over the past ten years have been as widely criticized as Cleveland’s, but when it comes to the offensive line, a hush undoubtedly falls over the crowd. The Browns have simply nailed selections along the offensive front, and have done so without using an abundant amount of resources on the position. Of the team’s three first round selections since 2006, left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack may be the best players in the NFL at their positions, and this year’s pick Cameron Erving heads into his rookie season as the consensus top center in the 2015 draft class. The team’s two second round choices have been almost as good, as guard Joel Bitonio was a legitimate offensive rookie of the year candidate in his first NFL season, while Mitchell Schwartz has started every game at right tackle for the team since being drafted in 2012.

Because they have capitalized on so many high-end offensive line selections, the team has used just four 4th-7th round picks on the unit since 2006, extremely low when compared to the rest of the AFC North (Steelers 9, Ravens 7, Bengals 10). Unfortunately for Browns fans, building a talented cast of skill players to reap the benefits of such a skilled offensive front has been much more arduous for the team.

If you wonder why the AFC North perennially features some of the best football in the NFL, look no further than each team’s drafting along the offensive line. Thomas (1st), Whitworth (2nd), and Beachum (7th) may have been a few of the best left tackles in the game last year, while guards Yanda (3rd), Osemele (2nd), Bitonio (2nd), Zeitler (1st) and DeCastro (1st) have starred at their respective spots. Add to that mix two of the best centers in the game in Mack (1st) and Pouncey (1st), along with right tackles Wagner (5th), Smith (1st), and Schwartz (2nd), and you get perhaps the most talented position group in the entire division.

Then how is it that the only first round offensive line miss of the last decade by any team in the AFC North is the only player amongst this group who has had a movie made about him (Oher)? Sometimes life just ain’t fair.

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