August 27, 2001
Drawing the Line
The Houston Oilers had hit rock bottom. Gone were Bum, Luv Ya Blue and annual playoff appearances. The team was lacking talent at just about every position, including quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end
But newly minted GM Ladd Herzeg had a plan, a risky one that, depending on who you ask, was either a masterstroke or just his latest ploy to save “Bottom Line” Bud Adams some cash. Facing an uphill rebuilding project, Herzeg elected to start in the least likeliest of places: the offensive line.
From a football perspective, Herzegs thinking was sound. If a line can give your quarterback time to throw, if they can open up large enough holes for your running backs in theory, anyway, you dont have to have Johnny Unitas and Walter Paytons dotting your roster. Of course, you also dont have to pay Unitas or Payton, something Adams no doubt looked favorably upon. Thus, Herzeg went about building an offensive line to end all offensive lines.
It began in 1982 when Penn States Mike Munchak was the teams first round (eighth overall) pick. Bruce Matthews (1983), Harvey Salem (1983) and Dean Steinkuler (1984) followed; all top 10 picks, save for Salem (who held out and was eventually traded), who went at the top of the second round.
And sure enough, by 1987, Houston had one of the NFLs best offensive lines. They would later add more first rounders (David Williams and Brad Hopkins) and by 1991, the line anchored one of footballs most explosive offenses. QB Warren Moon set numerous passing records and seemingly random runners like Mike Rozier and Gary Brown racked up big yardage on the ground.
In some ways, Herzegs plan was ahead of its time. Linemen are, largely, not near as expensive as skill players. And while during Herzegs day, that was more or less a subtle ploy to save Adams money, in todays salary cap era, the idea is worth exploring.
Consider this most recent NFL draft. Top pick Michael Vick, a QB, signed a six-year deal worth, potentially, $62 million. Second pick Leonard Davis, an OT, signed a six-year deal worth upwards of $52 million. Thats a significant difference, some brought about by virtue of the place they were selected, but had the number 2 pick been, say, LaDanian Tomlinson, would there have been a $10 million drop-off between his and Vicks salary?
Along the same lines, offensive linemen arent, ordinarily, coveted at the top of the draft board. Herzeg traded down to get both Munchak (a Hall of Famer) and Matthews (a sure thing future Hall of Famer), and since 1990, only five offensive linemen have been selected top 5 (Jonathan Ogden, Tony Boselli, Orlando Pace, Chris Samuels and Davis).
Theres another benefit to targeting linemen, and it has to do with the crapshoot nature of drafting. Scouts will tell you the one thing they look for first in an offensive line prospect, before they ever run the player though a single drill, is size. And size is a known commodity. You can break out a ruler and know immediately if your guy has an NFL body. If so, then youre halfway home. Its one of the things that makes picking linemen much easier than say, a quarterback, who has to possess as many intangibles as he does skills, and is thus, much more of a risk.
Thats a big reason why, when teams do use top draft choices on offensive linemen, theyre almost exclusively offensive tackles. Guards and centers are easier to find later in the draft, plus tackles that don’t pan out can be converted into guards, upping the likelihood of finding a successful component to add to your team.
The Oilers endured years of losing before the line began to pay dividends, and some would point to the Cowboys line of the early 90s, and more recently, Denvers line as proof you dont need to use top picks on linemen, that size is size, and you can always teach a guy with size, no matter where you draft him.
But what Herzegs plan allowed him and the Oilers to do was trade for some additional picks, which then allowed them to trade for veterans to play the more important positions. Guys like Drew Hill, Webster Slaughter, Sean Jones and William Fuller were brought in and made immediate impacts on the team. With free agency now a reality, saving cap room and getting experience at crucial positions while you groom an offensive line, has considerable merit as a potential course to take when building a franchise.
Will the Texans follow the Oilers lead, yet again? Well find out in April.
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