Yesterday was a headlining day for a trio of young NFL stars. I’m not sure if it was the first time three playoff teams have been led by rookie quarterbacks on the same day, but it was surely the most written-about story of the week in the news that I read.
It’s the kind of feel-good story that fuels sports-writing: the first two picks from the NFL draft (taken by last year’s two worst teams) and a third-round player each leading their teams in unlikely rookie playoff debuts on the same day. The simultaneous success of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson has been a joy to watch all season and it’s definitely worth celebrating that these young players have played so well.
But that’s no what this post is about. I’m happy for the quarterbacks, but there’s another story here that someone needs to tell. Sure, the Colts, Redskins and Seahawks have done a nice job of drafting quarterbacks and developing them into playoff-caliber contenders early in their career, but how about some love for the trio of extraordinarily young left tackles that protect them?
Anthony Castonzo (Colts, 22d pick in 2011 draft), Trent Williams (Redskins, fourth pick in 2010 draft) and Russell Okung (Seahawks, sixth pick in 2010 draft) have been just as successful as the quarterbacks they protect, living up to the early-draft hype and turning into playoff starters. In fact, Williams and Okung will both be starting in the 2013 Pro Bowl.
They may not be on any Wheaties boxes, but plenty of people familiar with the game of pro football (or football at any level) will tell you that the most important offensive player is the blind-side tackle. Since Luck, Griffin and Wilson are all right-handed, that makes Castonzo, Williams and Okung the most important offensive players on those playoff teams.
The frustrating thing for me about evaluating offensive linemen is the lack of purely relevant individual stats. I’m a numbers junkie and outside of starts and Pro Bowls, there aren’t really any stats that don’t conflate with the rest of the offense. While I hate not being able to rattle of numbers about how good these three are, it’s just a necessary evil of praising linemen. Let me do my best to give each a little bit of special attention.
- Castonzo: Of the three, Castonzo is the youngest, playing in just his second NFL season. The Colts offense he played with in his rookie season was historically awful and he hasn’t had much in the way of a running back in either season. Castonzo’s development from 2011 to 2012 is undoubtedly a driving force behind the improvement of the offense and the team in general
- Williams: It’s too bad that the only headlines he’ll be in today will focus on the postgame punch he threw at Richard Sherman, because his dominance this season earned him a Pro Bowl start in just his third season. It’s no coincidence that Williams’s quarterback and running back (Alfred Morris was 2012’s second-best rusher) will both be in the conversation for offensive rookie of the year.
- Okung: The only one of the three to survive to next weekend. He’ll play at least one more game and follow it up opposing Williams as a starting tackle in the Pro Bowl. Marshawn Lynch finished third in the league in rushing this season, something Okung is owed credit for.
In other words, get excited about the young quarterbacks and what they’ll bring to the league in the future. But please don’t take your eyes off the real heroes.