With the ninth pick in the 2015 NFL draft, the New York Giants select ... a lottery ticket. That just may be what we have in Ereck Flowers as the unproven, unknown entity that is a first-round rookie offensive lineman. While many people (including myself) have spent the past few weeks debating the pros and cons of how the Giants spent their top draft choice, maybe it would have been more fruitful to look at how other similar players fared in comparable situations.
After incumbent left tackle Will Beatty injured his pectoral muscle last week and put himself out of action for a minimum of five to six months, it's clear that the capability of the rookie will be an important element in developing game plans for next season. The entire structure of the offensive line hinges on where his talent level allows him to play.
For this article, we're going to look at offensive linemen taken in the first round of the last five drafts. Flowers will be presented with his own challenges, struggles and hurdles but for now, let's examine some of the previous players that have had lofty expectations thrust upon their shoulders.
Zack Martin (16th - Cowboys - 2014)
Lane Johnson (4th - Eagles - 2013)
Kyle Long (20th - Bears - 2013)
Travis Frederick (31st - Cowboys - 2013)
Kevin Zeitler (27th - Bengals - 2012)
Tyron Smith (9th - Cowboys - 2011)
Trent Williams (4th - Washington - 2010)
Mike Iupati (17th - 49ers - 2010)
When you're picking a first-round offensive linemen, you have visions of Pro Bowl appearances, a statuesque quarterback and a ground game to hang your hat on. Unfortunately, only eight of the 32 linemen taken in the last five first-rounds fall into this 'Top Talent' category.
The likelihood that you just drafted a future All-Pro is slim. While some may look at this and see that this section represents more than a quarter of the overall list, it's worth pointing out that a first round pick is a costly investment. Think of what you could get for a top pick in the veteran trade market, now think about how often teams fail to draft elite talent with that same draft capital.
Well, that appears to be true unless you're the Dallas Cowboys. Sixty percent of their starting offensive line fall into this category and to top it off, they just landed La'el Collins too. Somehow, the Cowboys went to the well three times in four years and hit lucky every time. Is there a possibility that these look good because those around them are good? Yes, of course, but I don't see anyone pointing to Doug Free or Ronald Leary as the reason this line is successful. Credit where credit is due; the Dallas scouts know how to evaluate the line.
Elsewhere in the NFC East, there is the embattled Eagle, Lane Johnson, who has been a great player outside of a four-game suspension for PEDs, and Trent Williams, the clear cut best player on a miserable Washington roster. Outside of the NFC East, the 49ers got a top guard in Mike Iupati and the Bengals landed Kevin Zeitler for their own star-studded line. That's it. Five years of elite first round offensive linemen and nearly half of them are Cowboys.
Taylor Lewan (11th - Titans - 2014)
Chance Warmack (10th - Titans - 2013)
Riley Reiff (23rd - Lions - 2012)
David DeCastro (24th - Steelers - 2012)
Anthony Castonzo (22nd - Colts - 2011)
Anthony Davis (11th - 49ers - 2010)
Maurkice Pouncey (18th - Steelers - 2010)
Bryan Bulaga (23rd - Packers - 2010)
You're not going to be mad that you got a starting lineman with your first pick. That's fair. It's the most reasonable thing you can hope for in this scenario. However, these top two tiers still only express half of the overall player pool. So, you have a 50-50 shot at landing a guaranteed starter in the first round. These guys are good to start on almost any team, but ideally aren't the best guy on your line.
Working backwards chronologically, Taylor Lewan did nicely in Tennessee in his first year. How he fares next season could bump him up or down depending on overall performance. Chance Warmack will pair with Lewan next year to provide some stability for a fledgling Marcus Mariota. The Titans have quietly been building a reasonable roster in recent years. Don't be surprised if this is one of the more interesting offenses in 2015 and that it may only be possible because they had so many boring draft picks in recent years. In some ways, even the Mariota pick lacked excitement because of all the chatter regarding a possible trade.
There is a reasonable argument for some of these players to be in different categories. Some may get inflated attention or excessive criticism from their draft pedigree. Guys don't have to be "elite" or a "bust". As I've outlined here, this is not absolute and instead these players should be viewed on a flexible spectrum where values shift depending on experience, surrounding talent and injury history. Some guys will get better with experience, others will crumble with age.
Jake Matthews (6th - Falcons - 2014)
Ja'Wuan James (19th - Dolphins - 2014)
Justin Pugh (19th - Giants - 2013)
Mike Pouncey (15th - Dolphins - 2011)
Nate Solder (17th - Patriots - 2011)
Russell Okung (6th - Seahawks - 2010)
Considering this will be read predominantly by Giants fans, I'm expecting many to disagree in all possible ways in regards to how I ranked Justin Pugh. Some may think he is a top-tier tackle, others may think he's a below-average guard. Generally, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and that's where I've ranked him.
Pugh is now heading into his third year. As incoming rookie Flowers replaces the injured Beatty in the starting lineup, it becomes an absolute necessity that Pugh develops further as a player. Pugh will be an anchor point on this line, regardless of where he lines up, so he cannot afford a single game like 2014's Week 6 debacle against Philadelphia where he alone allowed four sacks. While Flowers is a rookie, Pugh has no such excuse and will be faced with a much higher level of criticism heading into his third year.
The other guys on this list are far more interesting. Ja'Wuan James was considered a massive reach by the Dolphins last year, yet performed admirably alongside 2011 first-rounder Mike Pouncey. As the Cowboys have flourished with their O-line investments, Miami's have yet to pay dividends. James could get a bump in his second season but we know what kind of player Pouncey is at this stage.
Greg Robinson (2nd - Rams - 2014)
Eric Fisher (1st - Chiefs - 2013)
Luke Joeckel (2nd - Jaguars - 2013)
Jonathan Cooper (7th - Cardinals - 2013)
D.J. Fluker (11th - Chargers - 2013)
Matt Kalil (4th - Vikings - 2012)
Danny Watkins (23rd - Eagles - 2011)
James Carpenter (25th - Seahawks - 2011)
Gabe Carimi (29th - Bears - 2011)
Derek Sherrod (32nd - Packers - 2011)
Uh oh, you went and sold the house for a song and a prayer and God didn't answer the call. That's unfortunate. As you can see here, it's very easy for top picks to fail to fulfill their investment. Missing on a player can sometimes set a franchise back a few years. Both Greg Robinsion and Eric Fisher show that "a sure thing" or "safe pick" can be anything but that. Robinson was merely a rookie last year, but Fisher has had an extra year of experience and still shows no signs of justifying his draft selection. Both players may get better with age, and I hope for the sake of sports entertainment that they do, but it's clear that "best in class" doesn't automatically translate to NFL success.
Another important element to take into consideration is that offensive linemen get injured just like everybody else. Two years ago, we saw two of the top three drafted linemen put on injured reserve before the middle of October. Jonathan Cooper broke his leg in preseason action and struggled to work his way into the line-up the following year, while Luke Joeckel's first stint ended early with an ankle injury.
Elsewhere on this list, Matt Kalil started off his career looking like a franchise left-tackle before allowing a league-leading 12 sacks last year. He recently underwent surgery on both of his hips. His poor play was either a result of debilitating injury, or he faced a premature natural decline. We don't know which. Neither provides a good outlook for his future.
Lastly, there are the utter flame-outs; Danny Watkins, Gabe Carimi and Derek Sherrod. All three emerged from the same draft-class. All three were drafted in the first-round of the 2011 draft, and none of them made it to the end of their rookie contract. Sherrod could never adapt to pass-blocking. He played just 263 snaps for the Packers over four injury-riddled seasons, though the Chiefs have signed him to a one-year veteran-minimum deal for next season. Carimi spent last year with a Falcons team so decimated by injury that they played a tight end at right tackle at times. And then there's firefighter-turned-NFL-player-turned-firefighter Watkins, who resumed his previous career after a brief unsuccessful stint in pro football.
Flowers is an unknown. Right now, he is neither a liability nor an asset. He is a blank space on the offensive line for which statistics, opinions and performances will be painted upon. Flowers was not expected to receive this much attention this early, but after the Beatty injury, defenses will be sure to immediately target wherever he lines up. Football is a "shoot first and ask questions later" kind of game. Test the rookie. Pressure the new guy. Scrutinize the unknown to see how much they can handle. For better or worse, we are about to witness an in-depth study of just how NFL-ready Flowers is as a player.