I’m just going to go ahead and say it, assigning round grades to draft prospects has become primitive to me.
The “big draft” media outlets that represent the majority of discourse that reaches the casual followers of the draft spews a lot of common phrases and verbiage year in and year out. A lot of it is cliches and umbrella terms that lead to false equivalencies regarding player-to-player comparisons. It’s the easiest way for us to digest what a player’s overall upside is without looking at the proof ourselves.
This whole process eventually leads to a single question: where in the draft would you take this player? This isn’t science, it is mere conjecture. It leads to more failure than success, which is why many think the draft is just a crap shoot. The term upside is generally misinterpreted. I feel comfortable saying this, because I’ve been guilty of it many times in the past.
As it happens, upside may be the reason Pittsburgh offensive tackle Brian O’Neill hears his name called fairly early on in this year’s NFL Draft.
Coming out of high school in Delaware, O’Neill excelled at two positions, neither one was on the offensive line. In his senior year, he recorded 33 receptions for 614 yards and eight touchdowns as a tight end, and 45 tackles, five sacks, and three forced fumbles as defensive end. At 6’6” 235 pounds, he was rated as the fifth best prospect coming out of Delaware as a tight end and committed to the Pittsburgh Panthers.
After redshirting his freshman year, Pittsburgh experienced injury issues at offensive tackle as the season began and needed an emergency starter. O’Neill was given a shot, and he never looked back. Now at 6’8” and nearly 300 pounds with 34” arms, O’Neill has started 37 games with a balance of time spent at both right and left tackle. His case was intriguing enough to warrant a Senior Bowl invite, where he was placed at right tackle and struggled all week long.However, he played the 2017 season exclusively at left tackle, which is where NFL teams may ultimately see his long-term future at. So let’s dive in.
Pittsburgh’s passing game heavily featured bootlegs and rolling pockets, mirroring the Chicago Bears offense under rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, so examples of simple dropback passes to showcase O’Neill in pass protection weren’t that common. This is a good example of O’Neill going through the process of getting out of his stance clean, creating space between the edge-rusher, and striking with upper and lower body synchronization. As you can see, he ducks his head a little upon contact, and the edge is able to press him inside a bit, which opens the outside to a potential counter move. But O’Neill simply escorts him straight up field.
O’Neill’s toughest matchup he faced last year was NC State’s soon-to-be top 10 pick Bradley Chubb. Chubb began the game by beating O’Neill off the snap with a swim move to record a tackle for loss on the opening play from scrimmage. He and O’Neill went back and forth all game long trading blows, and this was O’Neill’s biggest win. NC State slants their front towards the direction that the Pittsburgh offensive line is sliding their protection to open up avenues for their delayed blitzers. O’Neill’s raw strength and quickness are put on display as he gets a hold of Chubb and drives him into the ground.
O’Neill got a break from Chubb here, but Chubb might’ve finished this rush if it were him. O’Neill breaks two rules here: he stops his feet and bends at the waist. These two infractions leaves him completely vulnerable to exactly what the edge tries to do in eliminating his length and work outside. He attempts to dip under his outstretched punch and rip upwards. The rusher loses his balance, and O’Neill is able to just fall on him. Against reserve ACC pass rushers, he can get away with this. Against NFL starters, he can’t.
These issues are what plagued O’Neill’s tape more than anything. His hands and feet were very sporadic, which while you could noticeably sense the natural athleticism, the lack of technique was also plain as day. Like he just started playing the position three years ago or something.
These two plays happened back-to-back in the closing seconds of a loss at Syracuse. On the first play, you can clearly see O’Neill give up his chest to the edge coming out of the wide-9 alignment, which is a prime recipe for an ensuing bull rush, which of course is exactly what occurs. O’Neill gives up three yards of ground, and his quarterback is forced to make a third and long throw on the run. The quarterback miraculously does make the throw, but that’s besides the point because of what happens the following play.
A common theme in O’Neill’s tape is that he has a hard time absorbing and redirecting incoming force. It’s not a matter of his hands being late or his lean being out of whack, it’s just a player who has put on a lot of weight in a relatively short amount of time not maximizing that extra strength all the time. On the second play, he has the edge dead to rights, but he can’t continue to mirror and keep him in front of him. His recovery attempt leaves his chest exposed and is worked all the way to the top of the arc. This leaves an opening inside for the sack.
These are the negatives that an offensive line coach will be counted on to work around and amend, but right out of the gate, O’Neill can give an offense this:
The one trait all of the very high quality ones (all-pros) have is elite speed relative to their size. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Being a former route runner and pass rusher, O’Neill grew into his body seamlessly and has maintained that relative speed, which was on display yesterday at the NFL combine.
O’Neill blazed a 4.82 forty-yard dash, which is pretty damn fast. His three cone time of 7.14 is also equally incredulous and rare. With that elite relative speed movement ability, getting out in space in the running game projects to be a clear asset. Whether that’s him pulling or sealing off backside linebackers in the second level, he has a rare trait. But that’s just part of the puzzle. O’Neill still has a ways to go getting consistency in his process as a pass protector. If he can make his hands serviceable, a solid career is very much possible due to his athleticism. However, believing he can get there is going to be the deciding factor of how high he goes.
This leads back to my original point, how can you just assign a designated round for a player like O’Neill to go in? His upside (there’s that word again) is high because he comes with that athleticism which is a big plus, but on film, it’s hard to see him being effective on day one for a team. Instead of deciding on when a player should be picked, it’d be more productive to declare where a player should go.
O’Neill would be best situated to learn behind a veteran left tackle for a year or two, while still getting meaningful reps in that time period to even out his technical issues. Unfortunately, this is not a situation the Bengals can currently provide. Right now O’Neill is projected as a day two selection, but his work in Indianapolis may’ve changed that. Ultimately, coming into Cincinnati and being expected to start Week 1 probably isn’t the best fit for both parties no matter when he is drafted.