Since 1936, the first year in which an official pro football draft took place, 481 Ohio State Buckeyes have been selected in the NFL Draft. Two players – Russ Thomas and Bob Meyers – were actually drafted into the NFL twice, in back-to-back (but separate) years. And 14 of those 481 former Buckeyes were also taken in the AFL Draft, including the legendary Hall of Fame wideout Paul Warfield. That makes 497 total draft picks for OSU since Gomer Jones was selected by the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals nearly a century ago.
Of the nearly 500 Buckeyes taken, hundreds have enjoyed successful pro careers, while others flamed out and/or never playing a snap after their time in Columbus. The Ohio State football program has produced NFL Hall of Famers, Pro Bowlers, Players and Rookies of the Year, ten-year tackling dummies, one-and-doners, monumental busts, and everything in between.
All of these former OSU football players share one thing in common, which is their affiliation with THE greatest university on the planet. Conversely, one thing that sets them all apart is their varying degrees of success (or lack thereof) in the NFL.
Another way to look at it is in terms of value. Each of these players produced value – positive or negative – for the team which drafted them. And that is what I am going to look at in the weeks leading up to the 2023 NFL Draft. I am going to attempt to identify the seven best Scarlet and Gray values, picking only one player from each round (length of the modern draft, and going in reverse order).
Before we get started, “best” and “most” must be sorted out. Best value is not the same as most valuable. And most valuable is not same as best value. Warfield, Eddie George, Orlando Pace, Jack Tatum, or Jim Parker would inarguably be among the most valuable (former) Buckeyes at the professional level. All became team captains, Pro Bowlers, eventual Hall of Famers, you name it. But they were also taken within the first 20 picks of their respective drafts, whereas Dick LeBeau made the NFL Half of Fame as a fifth-rounder.
I might argue that LeBeau was the better overall value because of where/when he was drafted. But going round by round means I do not have to choose between Pace or LeBeau, which is a good thing because there are already plenty of difficult decisions ahead... Without further ado, let’s go bargain shopping.
Round 1: Orlando Pace, Offensive line
A wise man once said “Always know if the juice is worth the squeeze.” Timothy Olyphant’s heater of a line from The Girl Next Door has stuck with me for many years, and to be honest, what Mr. Olyphant said really pertains to something (such as dating a former adult film star) being worth the required effort, rather than the monetary price paid. But if I get a chance to use the phrase in a semi-coherent manner, damnit I’m going to use it. And I can make a connection here.
When most of us make a purchase or investment, we ask ourselves “Is this a reasonable price to pay?” Or “Will I get my money’s worth?” And this is essentially asking “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”
So effort is the same as money, really. We traditionally exert one and spend the other. But either way, we are giving away our time, labor, cash, whatever, in hopes of getting or gaining something in return — whether that be a happy feeling, a sense of pride, a prize, a dollar, etc. And we always want to know if the juice is worth the squeeze... However, we are rarely given those assurances.
The same could definitely be said for NFL Draft picks. Teams want to know if their effort or investment will pay off. If we scout this guy and/or spend this draft capital, will we get good “juice” in return? Unfortunately, when it comes to first overall picks, said juice turns out sour more often than it does sweet. But not in the case of Orlando Pace and the St. Louis Rams. The latter got everything they could have possibly wished for – and then some – while Pace became Ohio State’s most valuable first-round NFL Draft pick, if not the school’s most valuable pick ever.
Pace was a Sandusky (OH) kid who stayed home to attend Ohio State, despite offers from TTUN, USC, and Miami, among others. Basically every school in the Lower 48 was interested, provided they had a football team. But the two-way lineman and basketball player chose his home-state Buckeyes, and the rest is history... Like serious, memorable, unforgettable history.
The Pancake Man would go on to start every game of his three-year OSU career at left tackle, where he earned All-American status (2x), two Lombardi Awards, and a host of Big Ten awards. He was so dominant in 1996 that he was voted B1G MVP and Offensive Player of the Year! And oh yeah, he also finished fourth in the ‘96 Heisman voting, which will likely never happen again. But this is not about Pace’s value to Ohio State...
The big Buckeye lineman was selected first overall in the 1997 NFL Draft, by what was then a pretty dismal St. Louis Rams team. He was the first offensive lineman to go No. 1 in nearly 30 years, meaning the franchise took a real gamble on his talent and ability to influence the team’s overall success. Fortunately for them, Pace yielded a massive ROI, not unlike his 6-foot-7, 330 pound frame.
Pace became a rookie starter for the Rams, taking over their LT position after a brief contract-related holdout. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate after his second season, and by Year 3 (1999) he was a fixture in the NFL’s version of an all-star game (seven straight PB appearances). Pace also helped the team reach Super Bowl XXXIV – which they won – and earned the first of his five All-Pro nods that year.
Accolades aside, Pace provided incredible value which was impossible to measure. After all, OL don’t really accumulate stats. But for 12 seasons, he was the guy protecting the guy(s) who opponents wanted to slow down — and rarely did. From 1997-2008, Pace paved the way for seven 3,000-yard passing seasons, seven 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and three consecutive MVP-winning seasons, won by Kurt Warner (1999 and 2001) and Marshall Faulk (2000). Sure, he never ran, caught, or threw the ball, but he made life much, much easier for those who did.
Pace, along with Warner and Faulk, reinvigorated the Rams’ franchise. And big No. 76 was there first, setting the groundwork for The Greatest Show on Turf. A Buckeye homer might even say the team’s run of excellence would not have been possible without him. But ever humble, “Big O” likely would have disagreed and instead heaped praise upon his teammates.
Pace began to struggle with injuries later in his career, ultimately leading to a one-year stint in Chicago, where he started 11 games for the Bears in 2009. He hung it up after that, but not before establishing a legacy as perhaps the most dominant LT of the early 2000’s. He has since been voted to both the College Football and NFL Hall of Fame, where he was enshrined (obviously) as a member of the Rams — a team and a franchise just crazy enough to draft OL with the first overall pick.
Generally speaking, offensive linemen do not come to mind quickly when NFL greats are mentioned and/or debated. But Orlando Pace was truly extraordinary. His greatness will forever be remembered in St. Louis, as will his importance to the Rams’ franchise. It is hard to argue with that kind of value, so I think my job is done here.