Carrying the title of a former first overall pick in the NFL draft is a tremendous honor. The fact that a team is choosing you over hundreds of draftees to build its franchise around creates a feeling only a lucky few get to experience.
However, having such a tremendous accolade to your name comes with an immense amount of responsibility and pressure—after all, if a No. 1 pick fails, he will be forever defined as a “could have been.”
For Eric Fisher, anything less than a spectacular season at offensive tackle—on the right side, no less—would be considered a tremendous failure.
Fisher is just over six months removed from playing his last game in the MAC conference. This fall, he will be asked to face the likes of Von Miller and Dwight Freeney twice per season—and shut them down. Immediately.
After all, one does not spend the most valuable resource in the draft for a mediocre player at the so-called “inferior” position at right tackle.
So, what exactly must Fisher do to live up to his billing as the top pick in the draft?
First, let’s take a look other No. 1 offensive tackles to find immediate success in the NFL.
The Burden of Being First
Since the 1970 merger, only three offensive tackles have been selected as the top pick in their respective drafts: Orlando Pace (1997, Rams), Jake Long (2008, Dolphins) and Fisher (2013, Chiefs). You have to go all the way back to 1968 when USC product Ron Yary was chosen by the Vikings to find the next-most-recent tackle to be picked first.
With such a small percentage of offensive tackles selected first, it is easy to derive that teams have been hesitant to use the pick on an offensive lineman—unless they believed the player was truly that special (as in Orlando Pace’s case), the safest pick available to a desperate franchise (which is how the Dolphins viewed Jake Long) or simply the best player in a bottom-heavy draft (as in Fisher’s case).
There is sound logic in selecting an offensive lineman first overall, as an offense can collapse without sound edge protection.
Still, using the pick on a “bland” position is often viewed as a cop-out because the position has such a high success rate at the top of the draft. Drafting offensive lineman in the first round is like fishing with a shotgun in a kiddie pool.
If a general manager picks a ton of great offensive linemen at the top of the draft, he looks great because of all the talent he is bringing in.
The problem is, as important as offensive tackles are, they don’t change the game in the same way some other positions do, such as quarterback.
In 2008, the Dolphins, headed by Bill Parcells, chose the “safe” pick in Long over rolling the dice on polarizing Boston College prospect Matt Ryan. Outside of an injury-plagued 2012 season, Long was very successful in his first four seasons, earning a spot in the Pro Bowl in every season from 2008 to 2011.
But was Long the right pick? Probably not—especially considering that Long is no longer with the Dolphins after going to St. Louis in free agency.
Eric Fisher won’t have to deal with the burden of being compared to a quarterback, but his career will always be tied to that of No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel (who many assumed would be the top pick early in the draft process) and Lane Johnson, whom the Eagles took fourth overall.
In order for Fisher to have the kind of season he wants, he will have to outplay his counterparts, particularly Joeckel—simply because so many assumed Joeckel would be in Kansas City by this time.
Fighting the Right Tackle Stigma
Fisher, Joeckel and Johnson were all terrific tackle prospects that were worthy of their draft position (unless they prove otherwise on the field). All three have the size, strength and most importantly, the athleticism to play on the left side—which, according to football gospel, is the more important side of the line that emphasizes protecting the franchise’s multi-million dollar quarterback.
However, what makes these three tackles so unique is that all three of them were drafted with the intention of them playing on the right side, which has typically been viewed as a position for slower, mauling tackles who excel in the run game.
Until recently, it was viewed as a “reach” to use a first-round pick on any lineman that did not play left tackle. The idea of using the first pick on a right tackle goes against the accepted way to build an NFL offensive line.
As it turns out, NFL teams are a bit more modern in their approach than you may think. According to a study by ProFootballFocus.com’s Steve Palazzolo, the right tackle position in today’s NFL is just as important as the left.
Why? Nowadays, defenses move their top pass-rushers around in an effort to confuse protection schemes. This requires stud pass-blockers on both side of the line to account for the endless variety of exotic defensive fronts—after all, you can’t shift your line around before the snap like you can on defense.
Essentially, the only difference between right and left tackles is the amount of money they make—which is why the Chiefs’ current left tackle, Branden Albert, was so intent on staying at left tackle.
More specifically, the Chiefs drafted Fisher to deal with Von Miller in their own division—who spends plenty of his time rushing from the right side.
All of this makes perfect sense to sound football minds deep within organizations, but to the fans and media, Fisher is still a right tackle and will be treated as such.
If their team is going to use a selection of historic magnitude on a right tackle, going to a few Pro Bowls before his career is over will not justify the pick. Almost immediately, Fisher will be expected to be among the best right tackles in the NFL.
Most tackles, especially those coming from the MAC conference, may need some time to adjust to the speed of the pro game. However, because he plays right tackle, he won’t get any benefit of the doubt early in his career.
When a team is willing to use its first-round pick, much less the first overall pick, on an offensive lineman, it is looking for immediate production that ranks among the highest in the NFL right off the bat.
Expectations are high for any player taken so high in the draft, but certain positions, such as quarterback, are sometimes given the “rookie excuse” and have some leeway to grow into the league.
More to the point, the Chiefs, despite owning the No. 1 pick after a dismal 2-14 season, are in a position where they can win immediately in Andy Reid’s first season as head coach. Now with Alex Smith leading a roster that was loaded with five Pro Bowlers, the Chiefs are one of the best rosters to ever hold the first overall selection.
After releasing Eric Winston earlier in the offseason, the Chiefs are looking for an immediate upgrade to their right tackle position—not wait for a rookie to take his time getting comfortable.
So, what exactly constitutes a quality rookie season for a player picked as high as Fisher?
When comparing the results of other first-round picks of the last five years, most of the tackles have played like one of the better (or even best) tackles in the league right off the bat.
This table shows the rookie season results from the first-round picks from 2008 to 2012:
|Year||Player||Snaps Played||QB Sack||QB Hit||QB Hurry|
The best rookie seasons came from Jake Long, Tyron Smith, Matt Kalil and Michael Oher, who played 97 percent of their snaps without giving up a sack, hurry or hit on the quarterback. Two of those players, Tyron Smith and Michael Oher, played right tackle.
Meanwhile, Duane Brown, Anthony Davis and James Carpenter were the only ones to have breached the five percent mark. However, Brown and Davis have turned out to be terrific Pro Bowl-caliber players—Carpenter is still fighting for playing time.
What does this mean for Fisher?
Statistically, if Fisher is going to be the dominant player the Chiefs hope he can be right off the bat, he would have to keep his percentage of hurries, hits and sacks to under three percent, which would likely place him at or around the top of the NFL.
Meanwhile, it also suggests that Fisher’s rookie season is not as indicative as one would think of how the rest of his career will play out. Some of the best tackles in the league today, including Duane Brown and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, had miserable rookie seasons.
On the other hand, rookie studs such as Michael Oher and Tyron Smith have only gone backward since their stellar first seasons.
Playing to His Strengths
Like the vast majority of first-round offensive tackles in today’s pass-happy NFL, Fisher was drafted based on his ability to protect the quarterback.
What made Fisher the Chiefs’ pick over Joeckel was Fisher’s athleticism. With terrific quickness and flexibility to match his length, Fisher can block out in space with the best of them.
Fisher will need all of his athleticism when he goes against a division that features plenty of speed rushers, highlighted by Von Miller. Fisher would have been a great answer for the speedy Melvin Ingram in San Diego, but because of a torn ACL in minicamp (after Fisher was drafted), Fisher will have to wait to test his wits against him.
If Fisher gets away from his game and tries to be over-aggressive against Miller, Fisher is going to make a fool out of himself. Because he struggles a bit in his hand placement, Fisher needs to give himself plenty of room against Miller, letting his athleticism make up for his technical deficiencies.
With time and some proper coaching, Fisher will eventually develop into a complete tackle that can attack a pass-rusher any way he wants.
Eric Fisher’s legacy will not be defined by his rookie season. However, Fisher’s success in the NFL will be a case study that could change the way teams draft offensive linemen moving forward.
Fisher is the first player in NFL history to be drafted first overall as a right tackle. If the Chiefs find success with this new philosophy, the stereotype of playing right tackle will begin to erode away.
Not only did the Chiefs go against the grain when they decided to use their top pick on a right tackle, but they choose Fisher, a MAC product, over the established SEC player in Luke Joeckel because of his tremendous athleticism and mean streak. If Fisher proves the Chiefs right, small-school labels will begin to fade.
Conversely, if Fisher fails, it could shut the door on the hopes of other smaller conference players who want to be picked first.
Either way, how Eric Fisher plays this fall will change the way decisions are made in the NFL, whether he realizes it or not.
Advanced stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).
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