What to Expect: Ben Ijalana

What to Expect is a series that will run all week. It compares the Colts’ picks in the recent draft to players selected at similar spots in the draft in recent years.

When the Colts traded up to get Ben Ijalana out of Villanova, they got a player that some experts think could become the most talented tackle in the draft.  Though the Colts have talked to him about playing guard in 2011, most fans eventually expect him to form a solid bookend with Anthony Castonzo that will last the Colts at least through the end of Peyton Manning’s career.

Since 2004, there have been many players taken in the second round to play either guard or tackle.  The heavy majority of them became heavy starters in their first season, with many starting out at the tackle position. In contrast to first round tackles, there have been second round picks that have ascended to Pro Bowl level. Marcus McNeil and Michale Roos both went to Pro Bowls (Roos was an All Pro) after being drafted in the second round.  Others, like Rams rookie Roger Saffold proved to be instant upgrades for their teams.

Second round tackles have a higher rate of becoming complete busts (there were several far worse than than Tony Ugoh), but more than half of them become starters immediately and hold the job for several years.

One of the difficulties we have in evaluating offensive linemen is a lack of quality metrics.  Ultimately, we are forced to say simply, “This guy played. This guy didn’t.”  In looking at the Colts’ highly drafted linemen yesterday, we ran into that problem. Mike Pollak started 13 games his rookie year and was awful.  He appeared to improve in 2010, but there’s no good way to quantify that.  As noted yesterday, the Colts have only drafted 5 linemen in the first four rounds since 1997.  Two of those (Ugoh and Pollak) were second round picks, however, and both started right away.

Colts fans are fair to expect that Ijalana start in 2011.  In fact, had the team not already mentioned him at guard, it would be reasonable to think he could step in and play right tackle right away.  Given his status as a work in project and knowing the team is hoping to groom him, it’s equally fair to allow for him to play a season at guard before moving to the tackle position where he projects for the long term. An inability to win the tackle job in his rookie year isn’t necessarily a point against him, though it is certainly possible.

Few second round linemen ever make a Pro Bowl, but it does happen. In fact, since 2001, four second round tackles have become Pro Bowl players.  Compared with the back half of the first round, that’s incredible.  The difference between a second round tackle and a late first round tackle seems to be the difference between Castonzo and Ijalana.  Castonzo is the better player right now. He’s ready to be an instant starter and barring injury should have a long productive career. Ijalana, on the other hand, is more raw and perhaps not ready to become a day one starting tackle. However, his ceiling for what he could become may be even higher than Castonzo’s. 

Ijalana, like most second round tackles, is more of a risk, but could become the better player in time.  A fair expectation for his rookie year is 16 games started at guard.  A fair hope is that he winds up at one of the tackle spots before the year is up.

In the long run, if he puts together a nice five or six years at tackle, he will have justified the Colts’ selection of him. And maybe, just maybe, he could become one of the elite linemen in the NFL.

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