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How long does it take for offensive tackles to adjust to the NFL?

For some, it takes a while

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NFL: New York Giants Training Camp
Evan Neal taking on Elerson Smith at Giants training camp
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Giants Twitter has been abuzz this week with clips of New York Giants first-round draft pick Evan Neal’s difficulties handling the rushes of various Giants edge defenders. BBV’s Nick Falato has analyzed some of these clips to explain where Neal needs to improve. These early struggles have planted seeds of doubt about Neal in the minds of some Giants fans, however.

What can we expect of a high first-round pick at the tackle position in his rookie year? Neal played at Alabama, a veritable factory that churns out NFL starting players and a school that routinely plays other factories for the pros like Georgia. Neal has certainly faced and succeeded against NFL-caliber competition, so his early problems may be a surprise to some. Are they unusual, though? Are they a harbinger of the future?

Early performance of offensive tackles as a group

In a BBV post earlier this year about offensive lineman, I showed this tweet from Ben Baldwin of The Athletic plotting the rookie year pass blocking grades of offensive linemen vs. draft position over the past 16 seasons:

Even for top 10 draft picks, tackle pass protection grades (right panel) are all over the place, so a team is just as likely to draft an offensive tackle who pass blocks poorly as a rookie as it is to draft one who pass blocks well.

The points on that chart include OTs only in their rookie years. Perhaps the spread in pass block scores simply reflects wise and unwise draft picks. As such, it does nothing to alleviate the agita of Giants fans about the future of Evan Neal.

Top NFL offensive tackles

Pro Football Focus recently released its rankings of the top offensive tackles in the NFL going into the 2022 season. It’s a subjective exercise, but readers are unlikely to disagree strongly with their top-ranked OTs. Let’s look at a few of them:

Trent Williams, SF

Williams is the No. 1 ranked OT in the NFL according to PFF. He had an almost unfathomable season average 97.8 PFF grade in 2021 and is now the highest paid OT in the league. Here are his weekly PFF grades from his rookie season:

Courtesy Pro Football Focus

Williams graded 63.4 for the 2010 season. He had six penalties and surrendered 46 pressures, including 11 sacks, in 589 pass blocking snaps. He did not have a single game in which he graded as elite (PFF grade 80 or higher) and only had four games in which he was even above average (70 or higher). He did though have six games in which his grade was considered “replacement level” (below 60). Williams was the No. 4 pick in Round 1.

David Bakhtiari, SF

Bakhtiari is PFF’s No. 2 graded OT and the second highest paid tackle in the NFL. Bakhtiari graded 70.5 in his rookie season of 2013, only barely above average but considered good performance for a fourth-round pick. His play that season was very inconsistent, though:

Courtesy Pro Football Focus

Bakhtiari had one week of elite-level play in the next-to-last game of the season and four games of replacement-level play. He gave up 39 pressures including eight sacks in 685 pass blocking snaps and had 10 penalties. You might not have predicted at the time that he would have three seasons with grades in the upper 80s and one in the 90s later in his career.

Other top tackles

Lane Johnson (PHI), the No. 5 rated OT, has a similar history. He began his career as the Round 1, No. 4 pick in 2013 with a very good 77.7 grade in his first game, but then proceeded to score 44, 42.1, and 53.2 in his next three games. He rebounded, though, with only one bad game the rest of the season (45.4 against the Giants), although for the season as a whole he gave up 10 sacks and 39 total pressures. Terron Armstead (MIA), the No. 6 OT and a third-round pick, rode the bench for New Orleans for most of his rookie season, playing only in the two final games.

Ryan Ramczyk (NO), the No. 5 ranked tackle and a late first-round pick, has been one of the more successful from the start of his career. He scored 70.3, 62.2, 72, and 50.4 in his first four games, and then did not score below 60 again in his rookie year, with three games in the 80s and an 80.5 season grade. He only allowed three sacks for the season, and has never allowed more than four in any of his five seasons. Tyron Smith (DAL) has been similarly consistently good over his career, having only one bad game (40.1 grade) his rookie year and never grading lower than 70 in any season.

So it is possible for an offensive tackle to excel soon after entering the NFL. But it is not as common as one might imagine, and being drafted in the top 10 does not immunize an offensive tackle from early career difficulties.

Benchmarks for Evan Neal

Rightly or wrongly, Neal will probably be compared to these offensive tackles as his career progresses, so it is worthwhile to examine how they began their own careers:

Tristan Wirfs, TB

Wirfs plays right tackle, as Neal is being asked to do for the Giants. He is generally considered the best of the four big OTs who were selected in the top half of the first round of the 2020 draft and is ranked No. 3 overall by PFF. Neal would probably be slated to play left tackle if the Giants had drafted Wirfs instead of Andrew Thomas. Here are Wirfs’ weekly grades for his rookie season:

Courtesy Pro Football Focus

Although Wirfs is thought of as having been an instant success, he actually had a fairly slow start to his career: One great game (Week 2), one very good game (Week 6) and five very ordinary ones in his first seven weeks. After that he found his footing and was above average, and occasionally elite, the rest of the season.

Wirfs gets attention for having only allowed one sack and 22 total pressures as a rookie. But the chart above shows that it took him almost half a season before his overall game caught up with his reputation.

Rashawn Slater, LAC

Slater is the player many Giants fans wanted in the 2021 draft rather than the trade-down that eventually brought the Giants Neal. He wasn’t quite as clean as Wirfs was in his rookie year, with four sacks and 26 total pressures, but he still played very well over the season. Here are Slater’s weekly grades:

Courtesy Pro Football Focus

Slater’s performance was somewhat more variable from week to week than was Wirfs’, and he missed several games due to injury. But other than a bad game against the Giants (53.5), Slater played average or above average the rest of the time and elite several times after Week 7.

Penei Sewell, DET

Sewell was the consensus top offensive tackle in the 2021 draft, but he received less attention than Slater in his rookie year because he played on a bad team. In some ways his situation has the most in common with Neal’s. Like Neal, he was drafted No. 7 in Round 1. Like Neal, he has played both left and right tackle, although in Sewell’s case the circumstances were unanticipated.

Sewell was a left tackle at Oregon but played both left and right tackle in his rookie year with the Lions due to an injury to veteran Taylor Decker at the end of the 2021 season. Here are his weekly rookie PFF grades:

Courtesy Pro Football Focus

He began the season at his familiar left tackle position due to the injury but had a very rough start, with three consecutive bad weeks before he stabilized. During the second half of the season, after moving to right tackle when Decker returned, he actually played better overall, with a series of four consecutive elite or near-elite performances, before closing the season with a few mediocre games.

Andrew Thomas

Giants fans know the Andrew Thomas story very well. A poor start to his career during the Mark Colombo half-season, with three consecutive games graded in the 50s by PFF. A second-half resurgence under Dave DeGuglielmo though with a couple of rough spots (e.g., a 38 grade, seven total pressures and two sacks allowed against Arizona). A third offensive line coach, Rob Sale, in 2021. The ankle injury, with multiple surgeries. Now, yet another offensive line coach in Bobby Johnson.

How much the start to his career has been undermined by the quality and continual changes in coaches, how much by the ankle problem, how much by the subpar play next to him at left guard, will never be known. Perhaps somewhere, hidden by the external problems, were the normal growing pains of an NFL rookie offensive tackle we see to a greater or lesser extent in most of the premier offensive tackles discussed above. Whatever the answer, Thomas rebounded from a barely passable 62.4 season PFF grade in 2020 to a nearly-elite 78.9 in 2021. He has looked good in training camp this summer. There is every reason to believe he will continue to improve this year if he can stay healthy.

Clearly Neal has some work to do. That’s what training camp is for. Maybe the learning process will carry over to the regular season, maybe it won’t. In 2021 Ja’Marr Chase looked terrible in training camp and then caught five passes for 101 yards in his first regular season game and never looked back. If the examples presented above are any indication, Neal may not enter NFL play as a great professional offensive tackle. But there’s a good chance that he will get there eventually.