Why Lions Guard Larry Warford is the Most Unsung Rookie in the NFL

Jeff Risdon@@JeffRisdonContributor IDecember 4, 2013

Sep 15, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Detroit Lions offensive guard Larry Warford (75) defends  during the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford is not going to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Let's get that out of the way right off the bat. 

Guards simply don't garner enough attention or have enough quantifiable statistics to win honors like that over wide receivers, quarterbacks or running backs. Much of what guards do for a team goes unsung to the general populous. 

That's a shame, because no offensive rookie is having a stronger debut campaign than Larry Warford.

In order to illustrate Warford's value to the Lions, it's critical to take a look back to last season. Detroit started veteran Stephen Peterman at right guard, a spot he had manned for several years.

Peterman had always been inconsistent in his Lions career, but in 2012 he leaned a lot more towards the negative than positive. His footwork in pass protection was poor, and he gave up too many quick pressures on quarterback Matthew Stafford

While his run blocking was acceptable, that too was streaky. There was little doubt the Lions were looking to move on from Peterman. He was released in February, and as this story from Fox Sports Detroit mentions:

His dismissal, however, seemed to become almost inevitable ever since general manager Martin Mayhew stressed that the offensive line allowed too much pressure up the middle on quarterback Matthew Stafford this past season.

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The game graders at Pro Football Focus reinforced Peterman's issues in pass protection. According to their scoring metrics (subscription required for premium content), Peterman rated at minus-8.5 in pass protection while allowing five sacks and 37 QB hurries. All those were the worst on the team. 

Meanwhile, Warford played out his senior year at Kentucky with some fanfare. A dominant performance against Florida, as noted in this scouting report by NFL's Future's Brad Clark, had some pundits talking first-round potential. 

But Warford gained some sloppy weight as his final year in Lexington bore on, and concerns grew about his ability to handle quickness in pass protection. When I asked Bleacher Report's Lead NFL Draft Analyst Matt Miller about Warford's falling draft stock, he responded, "At UK (Kentucky) he looked like a road grader, but never stood out in pass pro. With Warmack and Cooper ahead of him, he paled in comparison then."

Indeed, it was an unprecedented draft class for guards. Alabama's Chance Warmack and North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper were both selected in the top 10 overall, which is astonishingly early for what is often the least-regarded position on the team. 

Kyle Long, son of Hall of Famer Howie and brother of Pro Bowler Chris, also went in the first round. Even though he had a modest football resume, his bloodline and impressive athleticism elevated him above Warford.

When it came time for the Lions to make the the 65th overall pick, the third pick of the third round, Detroit pounced on Warford. The universal reaction of Twitter and on-air coverage of the draft was, "what a great pick". Here is my own positive reaction from draft night, courtesy of Detroit Lions Draft.

Just to be safe, the Lions did import some veteran insurance. The team signed both Jake Scott and Leroy Harris, both ex-Titans from coach Jim Schwartz's time in Tennessee. Warford was going to have to earn his starting role.

Jul 26, 2013; Allen Park, MI, USA; Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford (75) during training camp at the Detroit Lions training facility. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

After some early struggles in preseason, Warford won the starting gig. The preseason competition served its purpose, however: The rookie had to play well to earn his role, and he also learned quickly from the veterans around him. 

He has not looked back. 

In the season opener against Minnesota, Warford came out firing. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him with a 2.9, the highest of any Detroit lineman. He was just getting started.

The impressive rookie has not missed one snap all season. He has yet to allow a sack of Matthew Stafford. Not bad for a lineman who faced questions about his pass protection. 

Yet it's his devastatingly effective run blocking which separates Larry Warford. After a couple of marginal games against Arizona and Washington, he has been nothing short of outstanding.

Detroit has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of the last nine games. The War Daddy has racked up a Pro Football Focus run blocking score of 8.5 in those games. 

Where he really stands out is his ability to blow up targets while on the move. When Warford gets a chance to range outside the tackle box, or shoot up the field and go after defenders at the second level, complete destruction often happens. 

Check out this clip from the Pittsburgh game, courtesy of guyism.com, of Warford annihilating Pittsburgh All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu. If it helps, put on Metallica's Seek and Destroy in the background. 

Here are some tweets about Warford's standout play so far this year:

Larry Warford a big part of that drive. He and Raiola had big blocks on screen. Bell ran behind a pulling Warford on TD.

— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) November 17, 2013

That was from the Pittsburgh game. Here's one from the first Chicago game:

From PFF: Reggie Bush picked up 98 of his 139 rushing yards running either side of the RG spot. Larry Warford doing work

— Chris McCosky (@cmccosky) October 1, 2013

Those came courtesy of Lions beat writers. Here are a couple with a more national perspective:

He has been phenomenal. One of the most underrated picks of the whole draft. RT @kmeinke: Larry Warford has allowed 0 sacks this season.

— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) December 2, 2013

Larry Warford is the epitome of the “dancing bear” term that scouts use. Ridiculously quick feet and then just mauls people.

— Michael Schottey (@Schottey) November 17, 2013

There is growing buzz for Warford to earn Offensive Rookie of the Year. Bleacher Report's Dan Hope had him as the top offensive rookie heading into Week 13, and that was before he devoured the Packers on Thanksgiving. 

Pro Football Focus also has Warford as the highest-rated offensive rookie. His rating of 19.0 blows away the next-closest candidate, Chargers wideout Keenan Allen and his score of 12.0. 

Some other candidates for the honor include Cincinnati running back Gio Bernard, Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy and St. Louis running back Zac Stacy. 

Interestingly, none of the guards taken above Warford are anywhere to be found.

Cooper, taken by the Cardinals with the seventh overall pick, has missed the season after breaking his leg in a preseason game. 

Warmack went to the Titans with the 10th pick. He's played better recently but has largely been an early disappointment. His Pro Football Focus score is minus-5.2, which ranks 43rd amongst all guards. 

The Chicago Bears took Long with the 20th pick. After starting strong, he has run smack into the proverbial rookie wall. He hasn't earned a positive grade since Week 5 and has fallen to 47th in the PFF guard rankings. 

Meanwhile, Warford ranks fourth on the guard rankings for the entire season. He's the second-highest right guard, trailing only Louis Vasquez of Denver

Here are the draft position and current scores for the first five guards selected last April:

PlayerDraft SlotPFF Score
Jonathan Cooper7on IR
Chance Warmack10-5.2
Kyle Long20-6.2
Larry Warford6519.0
Brian Winters72-20.8

It's safe to say Warford has been a major steal. Per Team Rankings, the Lions rank first in the league in sack percentage (number of attempts divided by sacks), and the big rookie has played a major role in that great protection. 

In a season where there is no clear-cut front-runner among the skill position players, maybe this is the year where an unsung interior lineman can win the prestigious Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Right now, Larry Warford of the Detroit Lions deserves it.