Ikem Ekwonu is a phenomenal prospect.
The 6-4, 310-pound junior from NC State is a popular candidate to go to Houston at third overall in the 2022 NFL draft. The former three-star high school recruit turned into a force at left tackle during the 2021 campaign for the Wolfpack and is now largely regarded as the best offensive lineman in the draft.
Bolstering his candidacy, and his potential fit with Houston, is Ekwonu’s versatility. Ekwonu projects as a great tackle prospect but a potentially elite guard prospect. His fit on the line while allowing fourth-year tackle Tytus Howard and franchise cornerstone Laremy Tunsil is seen as a huge plus.
The general consensus seems to be that Ekwonu’s presence would help in a two-fold fashion. Davis Mills would have more time to throw and operate the offense while Rex Burkhead and Marlon Mack would also have superior running lanes. In short, the investment in the offensive line would create cohesion and allow for other pieces to excel.
“I’m trying to go No. 1 overall!”
— NFL (@NFL) April 11, 2022
Unfortunately, for advocates of Ekwonu, this conclusion is flawed. Ekwonu’s presence, although certainly a huge boost for a talent deficient Texans team, may not have the impact some project. The argument against Ekwonu can be broken down into two primary segments.
The first thought is that singular elite offensive lineman do not make elite offensive lines. Like the phrase “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” great offensive line play is largely dependent on five solid contributors across the line.
The insertion of Ekwonu into Houston’s lineup does not transform the Texans into an elite offensive line. In fact, his presence may not even be sufficient to make them a top-16 blocking team in the league. Their decision at whether to play him at guard or tackle in addition to the impending performances of Justin Britt and A.J. Cann will play a massive factor beyond Ekwonu’s talent.
The second point is that elite offensive line play is not necessary to win in today’s NFL. You need a good offensive line but they don’t need to be the best players on your team.
Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers combined to have three offensive lineman that were previously drafted in the first round. Of those three, zero were drafted in the top-10. The highest was Tristan Wirfs, the 2020 draft’s 13th overall selection.
For those firmly in the Ikem Ekwonu camp, let’s look at the NFL’s Top 5 teams from last year (LAR, CIN, KC, TAMPA, BUF)
3 offensive linemen combined drafted in the 1st round. Zero drafted in the Top 10.
Houston should look to go defense at Third Overall #WeAreTexans
— John Crumpler (@JohnHCrumpler) April 11, 2022
An elite offensive line is not necessary to win in today’s NFL. Rather, elite quarterback play, perimeter playmakers, edge rushers and difference makers in the secondary are what’s become vital to today’s game with rule changes that massively favor the offense.
None of this is to say Houston shouldn’t upgrade their offensive line in the draft. One of their first five selections should go towards boosting the interior and even the 13th overall selection on Zion Johnson from Boston College might be reasonable.
However, at third overall, in a shifting NFL, the value seems to point away from Ekwonu. Houston might be better off taking the draft’s best corner in Ahmad Gardner from Cincinnati or a potential star edge rusher in the making like Kayvon Thibodeaux with their premium draft capital.
The Rams flourished with Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Cooper Kupp. The Bengals fed off D.J. Reader, Ja’Marr Chase and Jessie Bates. The Buccaneers ferocious pass rush almost singlehandedly won them a Super Bowl in 2021. Kansas City’s offensive weapons overpowered San Francisco’s ground-centric scheme in 2020.
The Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys have both failed to make any noise in the playoffs despite the consensus best offensive lines in their respective conferences the past three years.
Maybe the larger take away is that nothing matters without elite quarterback play. However, it’s difficult to deny the impact that these skill position players on offense and defense have with the current rules.
Everyone loves a great offensive lineman. In days past they were considered a cornerstone of building and a necessity to win football games and run the ball. It’s now 2022. With Houston likely leaving Howard and Tunsil at the tackle spots, it’s just difficult to justify Ekwonu at third overall.
Ekwonu is a great prospect and the Texans should do their homework. If they’re building to win football games, however, Houston may want to wait to help the offensive line.