OL v/s DL – The Vikings Draft Conundrum

The 2020 NFL season has not been a kind one for the Minnesota Vikings. Despite a promising start to the offseason with a 15-player draft class, the offload of some large cap hits, and acquisition of a young and prolific edge rusher, things fell apart very quickly. While there are multiple weaknesses across the team, most will agree that our disappointing season boils down to three points: injuries, offensive line and defensive line.

Injuries are, unfortunately, not something anyone has any control over. The best we can do is hope that our crown jewel, Danielle Hunter, fully recovers from his gruesome season ending injury, and that Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr follow suit.

The trenches, however, were the most apparent weaknesses of our team, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Despite having the 7th highest graded offense in the league, the o-line ranked 29th in pass blocking – entirely driven by our interior line, seeing as Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill grade in the 70-75 range (per PFF). Things are, somehow, worse defensively: 29th in run defense and 32nd in pass rush. So with those two glaring holes, the questions remains, which one do we address with pick #14?

In order to answer that question, I set out to investigate the last decade of NFL draft and the draftees’ success in the NFL. I looked at the average PFF grade of players drafted between 2009 and 2018, over a period of 3 years after having been drafted. Note that we only looked at players who played at least 10% of snaps over a period of 3 years, which eliminates any extreme outliers that could skew our results.

League-wide Historical Preferences

In that ten year period between 2009 and 2018, there were 310 DL and 232 OL drafted (who have played at least 10% of total snaps in a 3 year period after having been drafted.) Of the d-linemen, roughly 25% were drafted in the first round, while the rest were evenly split between day 2 and day 3. The same pattern is observed across o-linemen. This tells us that, broadly speaking, NFL teams appear to value both groups equally.

However, within the groups, the story is different. While we found that on average 25% of DL are drafted in the 1st round, that number is highly driven by DE, with almost 30% of whom are drafted in the first, compared to only 21% of DI. The contrast is even starker for tackles (T) and guards (G) – 34% of tackles are drafted in the first, compared to only 15% of guards.

Ultimately, the NFL values tackles more than any other positions across o/d line, closely followed by defensive ends. Interior linemen, whether on offense or defense, are regarded as primarily day 2/3 picks.

This likely means that at #14, the Vikings are statistically likelier to go T than G, or DE than DI. However, context here matters. The Vikings do get some key pieces on the defense back – Danielle Hunter is an elite edge rusher, and Michael Pierce in his prime was one of the best DT in the league. DJ Wonnum has shown flashes, and if anything, Ifeadi Odenigbo is a decent DE2.

Ultimately, we still lack a pass rushing 3-Technique DT, which I believe will be prioritized over a DE. Offensively, our most glaring need is most definitely guard, with Ezra Cleveland and Dakota Dozier being the worst and 10th worst pass blocking guards in the entire league (with minimum 50% snaps played). So while the historical preferences point otherwise, I will assume that we will either go guard or DI in the first. So now, let’s analyze the ROI on both those positions.

Interior Defensive Linemen

On average, DI drafted in the first round have an average PFF grade of 69.6 over their next three years in the NFL. Day 2 DL players average 65.5, and day 3, 63.2. How do we contextualize this?

Well, put it this way. Linval Joseph had an average defensive grade of 70 over his last two years with the Vikings. So a first round DT averaging a grade of 70, is essentially a 2018-2019 Linval Joseph – averaging 18 total pressures, 2 sacks, 33 tackles and 29 stops a season. A 66 graded player would be 2020 Da’Shawn Hand – 10 games played, 0 sacks, 7 total pressures, 12 stops and 16 tackles. Average at best. A 63 graded player is essentially Shamar Stephen – 9 pressures, 1 sack, 21 tackles and 16 stops. A good DT3 but below average DT2.

While the difference between a day 1 DT and day 2/3 DT appear to be fairly substantial given the stats above, a 70-graded DT – like Joseph during the last two years – remains a very average DT. So already, I would be inclined to not address the DT position in the first round, given the historical return. But before we make any conclusions, let us take a look at guards.

Interior Offensive Linemen – Guards

On average, guards drafted in the first round have an average PFF grade of 75.6. Day 2 guards average 66.4 and day 3, 65.2. Purely from a numbers’ perspective, we can tell that there is a massive gap between a day 1 Guard and a day 2/3 guards. In addition, there does not seem to be a noticeable difference between a day 2 and a day 3 guard. Again, let’s contextualize these results.

Joe Thuney, one of the most sought after free agents over the last 2 years (tagged by the Pats last year and out of contract this year) has a grade of 74.6. This means that historically, first round guards have performed at a Joe Thuney level for their first three years. In contrast, our best Guard at the moment is Cleveland, with a grade of 66, which is heavily inflated by his run blocking grade (pass blocking grade of 55.)

It is important to note, however, that there have been very few guards drafted in the first over the last 10 years. 14, in fact, compared to 36 DI. This does mean that our results are more easily skewed by some over performers like Quenton Nelson. However, if we take a quick look at the last few guards drafted in the first, we see that the pattern is overwhelmingly similar:

2019 – Chris Lindstrom, 77.0
2018 – Quenton Nelson, 86.2 and Isaiah Wynn, 82.6
2017 – N/A
2016 – Joshua Garnett, 60.0 and German Ifedi, 66.5
2015 – Brandon Scherff, 84.1, Ereck Flowers 65.9 and Laken Tomlinson, 78.8

The main takeaway is that, while guards are not usually a priority for NFL teams in the first round, first round talent guards have historically performed extremely well.

Conclusion

This analysis has showed a few things. First, we are more likely to draft a tackle or a DE based on how NFL teams value the positions. But the team’s biggest needs still remain DI and iOL, and if we were to chose between a first round talent guard, or a first round talent DI, statistically we should go with the guard. First round talent DI have proved to be solid but fairly average, while first round guards have historically performed at a very high level. Not to mention that a solid guard could take some pressure off Bradbury and improve our line as a whole.

One last note here is that in the previous paragraph I am talking about “first round talent.” One main assumption in interpreting those results is that players drafted in the first round were first round talent. If there is no first round talent at guard, there is no point in reaching. So ultimately, it is up to the front office to determine whether there is a first round talent at guard, and if so, it should absolutely be the pick over any first round talent DI.

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