Do offensive tackles improve over time?

Trent Williams - Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Based on the Comments section under Ed's article on Andrew Thomas the other day, it seems that a majority of Giants fans feel that the answer is "no." Thomas was terrible in 2020, he'll be terrible again in 2021. And while we're at it, our other drafted OT, Matt Peart, was terrible after he came back from COVID-19, and he's a 3rd round pick anyway, so no way can he be a good starting OT for us.

But is this really true?

I started with PFF's list of the top 32 OTs entering the 2021 season, so basically the top half of starting OTs in the NFL. Regardless of what you think of PFF, if you look at their list you'll probably find your favorite OTs on it, so they can't be too far off the mark. In what follows I leave Penei Sewell (#31) out because he hasn't played in the NFL yet.

I asked a few simple questions about the other 31 players:

1.) Were any of the best OTs as poor in their rookie season as Andrew Thomas and Matt Peart?

Andrew Thomas' 2020 PFF grade was 62.4. Matt Peart's was 69.7. PFF grades are somewhat subjective, so I take a grade in the 60s or less as being comparable to (or worse, if much less than) Thomas's and Peart's rookie seasons. It turns out that Thomas and Peart have plenty of company among the best OTs in the league in having had mediocre or poor rookie seasons (#s in parentheses are their rank among the 32):

Trent Williams (#2), 63.4
Terron Armstead (#4), 65.7
Laremy Tunsil (#8), 64.3
Duane Brown (#11): 66.8
Jake Matthews (#16): 59.7
Orlando Brown Jr. (#17): 67.8
Isaiah Wynn (#20): 69.9
Kolton Miller (#23): 49.6
La'el Collins (#25): 68.4
Brian O'Neill (#30): 63.0
Alejandro Villanueva (#32): 61.1

But the real "star" of this show is D.J. Humphries (#26), who graded... 0. Yes, zero. Humphries was drafted in round 1, pick 24 by Arizona. Here is the explanation from his Wikipedia entry:

"Throughout his rookie training camp and in the preseason, Humphries displayed revolting play in practice and preseason. Head coach Bruce Arians nicknamed him "knee-deep", explaining that you need to keep "A knee in his ass everyday" to keep him motivated. He started his rookie season as the Cardinals' third right tackle on their depth chart.... During his rookie season, he was inactive for all 16 regular season games and both postseason contests. He was the only first round draft pick in 2015 to be inactive the entire season."

2.) But none of these guys were drafted as high as Thomas. A #4 pick should be an instant star.

Trent Williams, the 2nd highest ranked OT on the list, was Washington's round 1 #4 pick in 2010. He graded 63.4 as a rookie, with 6 penalties and 11 sacks allowed in 870 snaps. (Thomas: 3 penalties and 10 sacks allowed in 978 snaps.) He's been in the 70s, 80s, or 90s (yikes!) ever since.

Jake Matthews was drafted with the 6th pick in round 1. He scored 59.7 as a rookie. He's been in the 70s or 80s ever since.

3.) A 3rd round pick will never make it as a top-flight OT in the NFL. That pick was wasted.

It's true that most of the better OTs in the league were round 1 picks. But not all (number after name is draft position):

Round 2: Taylor Moton (#9), 64; Braden Smith (#13), 37; Andrew Whitworth (#15), 55; Dion Dawkins (#21), 63; Rob Havenstein (#27), 57; Brian O'Neill (#30), 62.

Round 3: Terron Armstead (#4), 75; Orlando Brown Jr. (#17), 83.

Round 4: David Bakhtiari (#1), 109; Daryl Williams (#28), 102.

(There are also 2 UDFAs on the list, La'el Collins and Alejandro Villanueva, but they were UDFAs due to extenuating circumstances rather than their talent.)

4.) Yeah, but what are the odds of an OT getting significantly better after his rookie year?

Well, the fact that 12 of the 31 best OTs with NFL experience started out as poor as Thomas and Peart or worse gives us a hint that improvement is not a rare thing. It's actually very common, among the originally mediocre ones as well as the better ones. Leaving out Sewell, as well as Tristan Wirfs (#6) and Mekhi Becton (#29), who only have one season under their belts, among the other 29 best OTs:

7 have had at least one season 10-14 points better than their rookie season in their first 5 years
5 have had at least one season 15-19 points better than their rookie season in their first 5 years
8 have had at least one season 20 or more points better than their rookie season in their first 5 years

So do offensive tackles improve over time? 7+5+8 = 20 of the 29 top OTs in the league with more than one season of experience say that the answer is yes. Of course this doesn't mean that Thomas and Peart will have a similar upward arc. It just means that they should be given the chance to become top-flight players, and we shouldn't be surprised if they do. D.J. Humphries eventually got the knee out of his ass and went on to have seasons graded 81.7 and 88.3.

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