How we should now evaluate the NFL offensive linemen who were drafted in 2016

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Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz looks back at a draft that was loaded with OL … in the first round.

This week, we’re looking back at the 2016 NFL Draft. You can also check out our list of the top 10 players, how we ranked the 15 quarterbacks, the six guys under the most pressure to perform this season, and five breakout candidates from that draft class.

Since I’m the resident offensive line expert at SB Nation, I’m going to explore the 2016 NFL Draft from that angle. We love immediate draft grades after the first, second, and third days, but those are knee-jerk reactions based on potential, team fit, and personal feeling about a player. Doing this exercise after three full seasons in the NFL is the appropriate time to revisit a draft.

So let’s take a look back at the offensive linemen who were drafted that year and evaluate what went right, what went wrong, and what trend we need to watch going forward.

Most — but not all — teams nailed it with OL in the first round

The 2016 draft started with a bang. Right before the first round began, Ole Miss offensive tackle, and presumed top-five pick, Laremy Tunsil was sabotaged. Video leaked of him smoking weed while wearing a giant gas mask. I don’t think the act of smoking was what caused the uproar but rather the device he was using. Either way, it scared away teams. Tunsil dropped down the board and Ronnie Stanley took advantage.

Stanley was drafted sixth overall by the Ravens. He’s improved each season and he’s on his way to being a stud. For reference, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 17th-best OT in football last season.

Next off the board was Michigan State’s Jack Conklin at No. 8 to the Titans. Conklin came out of the gate fast, earning first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie. Since then, he’s not been the same player, with injuries being a big reason why. At the end of the 2017 season, in the Titans’ playoff game against the Patriots, he tore his ACL. He missed the start of the 2018 season rehabbing his injury, then missed more time with a concussion and knee injury. The Titans declined his fifth-year option, so with an injury-free season in 2019, Conklin could be up for a huge payday.

After the slide out of top 10, Tunsil was taken by the Dolphins at No. 13. Tunsil has been the best lineman in the draft so far and he’s lived up to his billing as the potential top-five pick. The Dolphins got a steal and they of course picked up his fifth-year option.

Three picks later, the Lions drafted Taylor Decker. He started all 16 games his rookie season and continually improved throughout that season. Decker missed half of 2017 while recovering from a shoulder operation and then played well last season. Like Stanley, he’s on his way to being an elite offensive tackle. The Lions picked up his fifth-year option, which was a no-brainer for them.

Next up, the Colts selected center Ryan Kelly out of Alabama. He’s been the backbone of their young, physical, and improving offensive line. He’s exactly what they expected him to be and will be their center for a decade.

To round out the first round, the 49ers drafted Joshua Garnett, who’s mostly been a disappointment and doesn’t start for the Niners. In the same division, the Seahawks drafted Germain Ifedi. He got better last season but even then, he hasn’t put it all together.

Ifedi is an example of a high-potential offensive lineman who just doesn’t have enough practice time to improve. He was rushed into playing and it’s been a struggle. His fifth-year option wasn’t picked up and if he plays decently this season, someone will pay him lots of money heading into 2020. In the end, Ifedi could get the last laugh.

The Ravens, Dolphins, Lions, and Colts get passing grades from me. The first three found their franchise left tackles and the Colts have their franchise center. All these teams filled a need without drafting these players too high.

The 49ers failed on Garnett and the Seahawks reached for Ifedi. But, when looking at the other options for the Seahawks at tackle, there weren’t many in the draft. I can understand them taking a chance on the Ifedi. So while I’d grade this a C for the Seahawks, I don’t think it’s as bad as some would like to make it.

There hasn’t been as much OL depth in the later rounds lately

Hitting on first-round draft picks can be “easy” compared to finding steals later in the draft.

After the first round, the 2016 draft produced some starters — including a few stars — in the second and third rounds. We have the Texans’ Nick Martin (second round, pick No. 50), the Bears’ versatile Cody Whitehair (second round, pick No. 56), the Patriots’ Joe Thuney (third round, pick No. 78), the Eagles’ Isaac Seumalo (third round, pick No. 79), and the Lions’ Graham Glasgow (third round, pick, No. 95).

While none of these guys have been home runs, there were quality linemen selected later in this draft. Austin Blythe, a seventh-round pick for the Colts, is now a starter for the Rams at right guard. Connor McGovern is sliding over to center for the Broncos this season, and he’s not the only fifth-rounder who has had to step up. Brandon Shell is the starter at right tackle for the Jets, Joe Haeg has started double-digit games for the Colts and will provide depth, and Caleb Benenoch started all 16 games at right guard for the Bucs last season.

It’s been harder to land those OL gems after the third round, which is an unfortunate trend in recent years. The last drafts that produced outstanding linemen after the third round were in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, there was David Bakhtiari (fourth round, Packers), J.C. Tretter (fourth round, Packers), Ricky Wagner (fifth round, Ravens), and Ryan Jensen (sixth round, Ravens).

2014 also gave us four stars after the third round (Corey Linsley, Matt Paradis, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Charles Leno), but there were only two in 2015 (Daryl Williams, Shaq Mason).

In review, the 2016 NFL Draft produced about what expected at the top of the draft. We have a few elite linemen as usual — Stanley, Tunsil, Decker, and Kelly — and then a dud or two. The upper to middle part of the draft yielded the diamonds in the rough.

At the bottom of the draft, I don’t see any above-average linemen in the later rounds, unlike previous years. Could this be a product of the lack of development at the position group in college and in the NFL? That’s a trend we need to keep an eye on when we start evaluating the 2017, 2018, and 2019 drafts in the future.

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