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NFL linemen are getting rich, and they can thank college prospects for that

Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains why teams are putting so much value on veteran offensive linemen.

NFL: Super Bowl LII-Philadelphia Eagles vs New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

I always get fired up to write about my favorite topic — the offensive line. As usual, lots of offensive lineman got broke off in free agency. I LOVE when my fellow players, linemen or not, get some dough. It’s life changing money, and it’s often the only chance a player gets at making that kind of money. However, I think we have seen how the lack of pro-ready offensive lineman out of college affect the NFL offensive line free agency market.

I’ve written about, talked about, and tweeted about the college game and it’s effect on producing pro-ready offensive lineman. Here’s the long version, and it’s worth the read.

Here’s the short version of it — a college offense is almost nothing like a pro offense and the techniques being taught don’t translate to the NFL game. There are only a handful of schools that routinely use pro techniques, even in a “spread” offense, and those schools do produce pro-ready offensive lineman — Ohio State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, USC, Iowa, Alabama, and maybe a few more.

And look, I get it. The job of a college head coach is designing an offense that helps produce victories in college football. It’s not their job to get their players ready for the NFL. (Though it is a recruiting bonus if you can point to all the pro players who have come through your program.)

Also a big factor in the lack of development is the decreased practice time in the NFL. I love when two-a-days ended, but they were important to developing offensive lineman. We are a position that needs as many full-speed reps that closely resemble game action. Full pads is the way to make this happen. We also need reps, reps, and more reps.

So how does this factor into the current landscape of NFL free agency? Teams are now paying a premium for average to slightly above-average offensive lineman because they can play now.

Lets make this clear, I’m not knocking the lineman getting paid, but we are now at a point when teams will overpay for what they know, even if the lineman isn’t a top-five player at their position.

There are a few other factors as well in play. Every year the free agents will make more than the previous class. That’s how it works. If you’re an All-Pro at a position, your current team will always try to lock you up early, and it’s often not at the top of the class. And if it is, you will get passed in the next wave of free agency.

So to make this point, let’s check out two drafts from the end of the last decade and compare them to some current drafts.

The 2008 draft is right before spread offenses became a thing. In the 2008 draft, it produced seven Pro Bowl offensive linemen. That doesn’t count franchise-caliber offensive lineman like John Sullivan and Sam Baker (before injuries derailed his career). That list also doesn’t include reliable starters like Kory Lichtensteiger, John Greco, King Dunlap, and Breno Giacomini.

The 2009 NFL Draft produced three franchise centers — Alex Mack, Eric Wood, and Max Unger. The draft also produced two Pro Bowl offensive guards as well as serviceable and above-average lineman like Eugene Monroe, Phil Loadholdt, Matt Slauson, and a few more. There were also some misses at the top of this draft, like Jason Smith. It wasn’t a perfect draft. None are.

Fast forward to the 2014 draft. There have been four Pro Bowl offensive lineman and plenty of other not far below that level. It was a productive draft for linemen, but generally short on top-of-the-line talent.

Six current starting centers were drafted that year — Weston Richburg, Russell Bodine, Corey Lindsey, Matt Paradis, Brandon Linder, and Justin Britt. What’s odd about this group is two of those guys didn’t play center in college. None are among the top five at the moment.

This draft produced mauler Gabe Jackson (weirdly, no Pro Bowls) and tackles Jake Matthews and Morgan Moses, among the top five at their position.

Even though it’s only been three seasons since the 2015 draft, we can tell if a lineman will be a stud or not.

Out of all the centers drafted that year, none have succeed. Mitch Morse and Ali Marpet moved to center from being drafted as a guard (Marpet is back to guard since the Bucs signed Ryan Jensen). Otherwise, there are no offensive lineman drafted as a guard who are studs.

There are two lineman who moved from a college tackle to guard in the NFL and are elite — Brandon Scherff and Andres Peat, who just recently moved permanently to guard. The only tackle from this draft on his way to being elite is Daryl Williams.

Just a quick peek at the 2016 NFL Draft, there are some young lineman who have a chance, but not many. There are some young centers with solid futures, but zero guards drafted that year at the moment who look to have the potential to be elite. At tackle, there is Jack Conklin, Ronnie Stanley, and Taylor Decker.

Look at a real life example of this.

The Giants needed to upgrade their left tackle position. Normally, with the second pick and a quarterback they seem to intent to keep, they could draft a left tackle at No. 2 and move on. However, there’s only one tackle in the draft right now who’s a plug-and-play at the position, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. His draft grade will most likely be around the 15th spot or so. The Giants aren’t getting value for the second pick by drafting him.

Their best option for an upgrade was making Nate Solder the highest paid offensive tackle in the game. Solder is dependable, but he’s not elite. He’s the fourth best in his own division. The NFC East might not be a fair comparison because it’s loaded with tackle talent, but that’s just an example.

Over the last few drafts, we have routinely seen college tackles move to guard, and college guards move down to center. It’s so hard to find a capable offensive tackles in college anymore.

As a result, we are seeing teams pay a premium for a known commodities on the offensive line instead of investing in youth.

I’m glad some of my peers are at least the ones able to cash in.