Monday, April 21, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Centers and Guards

Man the draft is approaching rapidly! Looks like some of the defensive player groups might not get done until after the draft, but we'll see how it goes. Part of the problem is that I got distracted by going back and looking at some of the quarterbacks again, with an eye to possibly producing a big board before the draft. Maybe, if I have time.

For now it's on to Centers and Guards, the heart of the offensive line. Often unappreciated, they form the backbone of the offensive attack. And I still can't figure out how quarterback Josh Freeman has managed to get a new gig in free agency but former Bengals Center Kyle Cook hasn't?

Cook is an interesting story actually, going undrafted back in 2007 and subsequently going on to win a starting center job and earn the respect of his colleagues. Proof, yet again, that good players can be found deep into most drafts.

Right, let's get started, and as always these players are ordered the way they are because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. One day - maybe next year - I'll actually order them based on my own preference.

Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA
Before we begin, I have to chuckle at the analysis of Su'a-Filo. "Lacks ideal length" - he has 33" arms for gods sake. Under strengths it says "Quick out of his stance.... can bend his knees, extend and mirror in short area [sic].... Can work his hips and maneuver to gain positioning. Good foot athlete. Can pull, trap, combo block and step to the second level". And yet under weaknesses it says, "Bends at the waist.... Heavy-legged -- slow to shift his weight and adjust to stunts and quick inside moves".

So you're telling me he's a knee bender, but he's also a waist bender? You're saying he's quick out of his stance, can mirror, has quick hips (which is a function of your footwork), is a good "foot athlete" (whatever the f**k that's supposed to mean) and he can pull, trap, combo and get to the second level, but yet he's "heavy legged"?

What. The actual. F**k?

Imagine handing that analysis to a coach. They'd slap your eyebrows right off your face with it. And too right. It's a ridiculous piece of contradictory garbage. It's full of some of the worst examples of scout speak you could possibly imagine and it's clearly written by someone who absolutely intends to cover their own butt either way.

I appreciate that scouting is not an exact science, it's very much opinion based and in the eye of the beholder. And very seldom can anyone be absolutely certain of their opinion. It's very common to offer strong points and weak points for coaches to weigh up as they see fit. I do it myself all the time.

But I do at least try and ultimately commit one way or the other to saying whether I think a player is good or not and I use round grades to try and give people a rough idea for comparison (you wouldn't use round grades with a proper team). But to slip in phrases about a players technique that are polar opposites, just so you can hedge your bets either way, is ridiculous.

And god I hate scout speak! It's the worst part of the draft season, taking a close lead over the NFL Networks third rate coverage of the scouting combine (how many years have they been doing it now? And they still manage to f**k it up).

But anyway, six paragraphs in and I haven't actually written anything myself about Su'a-Filo. Here's my opinion of him in a nutshell; he's great.

Played left guard in college but also had some snaps at left tackle. He's by no means a long term prospect at the left tackle position, but he does get bonus points for being able to cover it in an emergency. He was pretty quick off the snap and flattened a number of defenders in the running game, including some big bodied defensive tackles.

He can pull, can trap, can combo and does get up well to the second level just like the NFL analysis said. However he is absolutely not a waist bender. I didn't see him do it once, not once. In fact his complete technique seemed pretty good.

One of the knocks on him has been his ability to pick up stunts by the defensive linemen (where they cross over behind one another) and that's true, he did struggle with these. But in fairness the entire UCLA line seemed to struggle with them, which suggests that this is probably just a case of not enough time being spent working against stunts in practice as opposed to an individual inability to block them (he did catch a few, just not many). Either that or it could be something as simple as a case of poor communication along the line.

That issue aside, I came away really impressed from watching him. The consensus seems to be that he will be a first round pick and I think it's pretty hard to argue against that. Off to a good start.

Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
I'm sorry in advance to keep bitching about but you have to see this because it's actually pretty hilarious. So the above analysis that I quoted from was done by a guy called Nolan Nawrocki (who?), who also did the analysis for Gabe Jackson.

The first thing that stands out is this; "... with long arms..."

Now remember that he was critical of Su'a-Filo for lacking ideal length. Well Su'a-Filo's arm length was 33 and 3/8 inches. Jackson's arm length? 33 and 3/4 inches. So apparently the difference between lacking ideal length and having long arms is 3/8ths of an inch, or about 9 millimeters in new money. As Mike Mayock would say "are you kidding me?".

Now let's see if you can spot the inconsistencies in the following strengths and weaknesses listed for Gabe Jackson;

- "Strong, efficient punch (can pop and recoil)" vs "Lacks explosive power to shock defenders",
- "Quick out of his stance" and "Athletic enough to short pull effectively -- nice balance and body control for a big man" vs "Average overall athletic ability and lateral agility",
"Quick out of his stance" vs "Is unsudden",
"Smart and tough" vs "Could require some patience with complex playbooks",

See any problems or contradictions there? I can spot a few.

Anyway, onto Jackson. Let's deal with the complaints first. In the run game Jackson sometimes fails to get his pads down and really drive people off the ball. I've seen him do it, so it's absolutely within his skill set, he just seems to forget sometimes.

And that's it for the complaints.

No really, that's it. Aside from that one issue he is basically a flawless left guard. He's an excellent, excellent pass protector, especially as he not only has the skill to take on pretty much any defensive linemen one on one and stop them from getting to his QB (I didn't see him give up a single sack in all the games I watched, against some pretty good teams) but he also has the awareness and the savvy to turn and help his left tackle or center if he has nobody to block himself. There were times when he would even block two people on the same play, taking both out of the play in succession.

You really will struggle to find genuine faults with this guy, as opposed to some of that ridiculous scout speak. He is easily a plug and play at the left guard spot and a definitely worth a first round pick.

Marcus Martin, USC
Ok, no more complaining about Nolan thingy, I promise.

As for center Marcus Martin, some good, some bad. The good is his blocking in general. Most of the time he uses his hands well, gets good leverage under his man and is able to hold his own. Only saw him give up a couple of sacks and that was mostly his quarterbacks fault, not his.

The bad? Well, on running plays he often takes bad angles when going up to the second level to get a linebacker. He frequently goes too high up the field which allows linebackers to shoot in underneath him and break up the play. In pass protection he will occasionally lunge forward at the defensive tackle who in turn will use a swim technique and go right over him. On a couple of occasions he also got beat by quick double moves by the defensive linemen as they sold him one way then shifted back to the other.

The bad aspects probably suppresses his value down to being a second round acquisition, because there is that element of doubt there, but we musn't be too harsh. Like I said, generally he's a very good blocker. At worst he might struggle a little with some of the more high end defensive tackles in the NFL and perhaps might end up on a team where he has to sit and wait his turn, but I suspect that he will probably be a starting center within his first two seasons, a position which he'll hold for a long while, and with pro bowl potential within three years.

Trai Turner, LSU
One thing that's guaranteed when you play offensive line for LSU; you will learn to run block!

And Turner, playing a right guard, certainly did that. He's a pretty powerful blocker who has the ability drive defensive linemen back out of the hole. He's also very good at working combinations with an adjoining linemen and then slipping off to get a linebacker. Technically very proficient.

Didn't have a huge amount of pass blocking to do, not compared to some of the other players on this list, but enough I think to form an impression. And that impression is pretty good. He's solid and uses his hands well, keeping them inside and digging in with his feet to slow the rush.

Is he perfect? No, but very few players are. Though he did have opportunities to pull and trap on some plays, he's not the quickest guy in the world so sometimes he arrives a little late. Part of that is because - especially on traps - he has a tendency to shuffle sideways instead of running down the line properly. He also on occasion will come straight off the line and then turn back to find work, only to be too late to pick up a linebacker shooting inside.

Like with Marcus Martin those gripes would push him down the board for me, probably into second round status, but broadly speaking he's a pretty good right guard who it seems could be drafted below his true value. I'm actually surprised because we're four players into this list and so far I've liked all of them!

Travis Swanson, Arkansas
Strrrrrrrrrreak Breaker!!!!!

Swanson did ok at times. The trouble is "at times" is not really sufficient, especially not when the bad moments were often truly awful. He seems to lack the strength to really make a difference in the middle and as such routinely found himself out muscled. Against NFL quality (and sized) defensive tackles then I can see him getting man handled a lot.

Did a lot of pulling, which is unusual for a center, so maybe a transition to guard is in the offing because he was quite quick getting to the outside. His down blocking is also pretty good. I just can't see him being able to reliably hang in there and contribute. When he's good, he's good. But the mistakes occur too often for my liking. Perhaps a later round back up.

David Yankey, Stanford
Lot of people seem to think Yankey will go in the first round. If that's true then I think that's a mistake. He's good, don't get me wrong, but he's not first round good.

Stanford were, and have been for a while, a very run heavy team. Yankey really hasn't had that many chances to shine as a pass blocker. And unlike someone like say Greg Robinson, Yankey hasn't a) got the same outstanding physical attributes or b) shown a degree of domination in the pass blocking that he has done.

There's a lot of good things that Yankey does. He's tough and he has good technique. He's probably a starting caliber left guard in the NFL. But I'd be a little uncomfortable using a first round pick on him. There are better guards and there are other, better overall players. For me, a second rounder.

Cyril Richardson, Baylor
Solid left guard. That's Richardson in a nut shell.

He's a big dude at 6'5" and 329 pounds, yet he moves really well despite that weight. Shave a few pounds off and he'll move even better. He's pretty strong, though not the type of guard that blows people off the ball, more the kind that digs in and refuses to give ground.

He can run block, pass block, pull, and scrape off a combo block to get to the linebacker, though that last one is one of his weaker areas. On balance I think I'd rather have this guy over Yankey. Another starting caliber left guard who will probably have a long career.

Man, this draft is loaded at the guard position.

Chris Watt, Notre Dame
And here's another one.

Watt is strong and aggressive, keeps his pads down and his head up. He's just as comfortable picking up blitzing linebackers and delivering a shot to them as he is handling strong defensive tackles. He's an excellent run blocker with the ability to pancake tackles at times.

Looking at his weak points then there are two things that are of some concern, which is his ability to pick up defensive stunts and that sometimes he struggles with very quick rushes between the gaps. These are not major concerns, just things he needs to work on going forward.

Again I can see Watt as a starting quality left guard who has perhaps pro bowl potential. Possibly a second round pick and not a first just because of those two issues.

Weston Richburg, Colorado State
Richburg didn't do too bad a job as a center, but I have to think there is a cap on how far he can go in the NFL. His technique isn't bad at all and he used his hands well to fight for his position. But athletically he is limited.

When pulling or trapping he's just too slow getting to where he needs to go. Some tackles were able to stand him up a little too easily and he had problems coping when he had to move laterally to either mirror a defender or move to support another linemen.

For that reason he probably gets pushed to the later rounds and comes onto a team as a backup center. Maybe with some extra time in the weight room he could develop his power, but I think by now he's probably close to his max potential. Not a bad player, one who could carve out a well paid and limited work load career for himself.

Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
Big, tough left guard. Once he gets his hands on someone he can usually stand them up and take them out of the play. Providing they don't move too far that is.

Groy's big problem is that he's quite slow off the snap and when moving around. That means he'll sometimes miss blocks purely because he's not quick enough out of his stance. If the defender can create enough space to disengage and move then Groy is often to slow to recover. Now imagine moving up a level of play where everybody is faster. Starting to see the problem?

Because of his strength and size someone might take a later round chance on Groy, perhaps envisioning him as a cheap back up for rotation purposes, but for me his flaws make it tough to see how he's going to consistently deliver in the NFL. Not matter where he gets picked, I suspect there will be better players with more to contribute still available.

Russell Bodine, North Carolina
Center who played a bit hot and cold for my liking. There were games where he held his own against good opposition, such as against South Carolina. And then there were games where he got partly man handled.

He's a better run blocker than pass blocker I think. Couldn't help but notice that a lot of times he needed help against the pass from one of his guards to keep the middle of the pocket clean. Against defenders who can use their hands well he struggled and a couple of times found himself being completely out classed.

Probably a late round back up center if it were me. He has some good talents, but I think he's too inconsistent to rely on in the heart of your offense.

Tyler Larsen, Utah State
Center. Not bad, not great.

Was pretty alert picking up linebacker blitzes, but his big problem is that he joins the ranks of the dreaded "waist benders", that is to say that he leans over at the waist to push people instead of bending his knees and driving with his legs. As a result he routinely over reaches and gets chucked aside by defensive tackles who are smart enough to recognise what he's doing.

That's an indicator that he probably wont survive long in the NFL. If he's having to lean on defenders and ride them in order to get any movement then he's going to struggle at the next level. Me personally? I don't think I'd be happy using a pick on him.

Brandon Linder, Miami
Right guard who also played a bit of right tackle. That's a plus point, because it offers flexibility in a pinch to fill in at right tackle.

It's just everything else about his game that's the problem.

He's a woefully inadequate blocker, especially against the pass, who got beaten and man handled repeatedly. At times it was almost cringe worthy. I'm not sure what value anyone sees in him. If you put him in your line up then you're basically just counting the snaps until he makes a mistake and gives up a sack. It's going to happen, it's just a matter of 'when' and not 'if'.

Zach Fulton, Tennessee
Big ol' right guard is Zach Fulton. Some good, some bad.

The good is his strength. He's a handful to get around and he has the power to fold down and smother defensive tackles at times. The bad is his speed and footwork. If your offense is one that does a lot of pulling and trapping then Fulton won't be much use to you. He's just too slow getting to the point of attack. His lateral footwork - exemplified by the mirror drill you see linemen put through at the combine - is poor and he takes too long to change direction.

As a late round prospect I think you can look at Fulton and say "what happens if we take 15 pounds off that fat ass?". He might improve his speed. He might just end up just looking a little thinner and playing exactly the same.

John Urschel, Penn State
Smart right guard who excelled educationally at Penn State. Has the opposite problem to Fulton.

I mean that in the sense that Urschel is quick and has really good footwork, but lacks a little in strength. In a lot of cases he was beaten for power by the defender and only managed to hang in there due to his technique and quick feet.

You have to give him some credit for that because he showed a great level of determination to keep on his defenders and gradually work them away from danger, but at the same time you have to question how well that's going to work against more powerful NFL linemen, and how his quarterback will respond to having people being ridden around the pocket on every play.

That quickness could be seen as a benefit by some teams that run a zone blocking scheme and can foresee Urschel beating his man for speed on those outside zone rushes and then pinning him inside. Maybe. I'd be inclined to pass on Urschel but I think he's more of a scheme specific decision for each team. In the right spot he could be just the kind of guy they're looking for.

Jonotthan Harrison, Florida
Ok, one last bitch about Nolan Nawrocki and then I really promise I am done with him for this post. Remember earlier he accused the 33 3/8" armed Xavier Su'a-Filo of lacking ideal length? Well Harrison measured out with exactly the same arm length at the combine and yet Nawrocki describes him as having "Outstanding size and arm length..."


How can one guy lack ideal length and the other have outstanding length when they both have exactly the same length arms?

Whatever. Harrison is the latest contender to be a Florida center drafted into the NFL, perhaps hoping to emulate the success of Maurkice Pouncey. And he may well do it.

He's not going to get paid like Pouncey, not to start with, as he's projected by most as a later round pick. But Harrison will - in my opinion - end up as a starting center in the NFL. That is how well he bends from the knee and uses his technique to stand people up. He consistently gets right down below the defenders shoulder pads and drives them up from underneath.

While he's not an outstanding athlete, he is a great football player, if that makes any sense. Not sure I'd want to part with a first round pick for him, but a second rounder? Yeah, I would.

Anthony Steen, Alabama
A similar height and build to to John Urschel. Also played right guard like Urschel. In fact he's a lot like Urschel in his playing style as well. It's almost uncanny.

I'd say Steen has a slight edge because he's appears to be a bit stronger than Urschel, but he still found himself in a lot of situations where he kind of had to hold on and enjoy the ride, trying to use his quick feet and leverage to prevent a sack by redirecting the rusher.

And like Urschel I'm not sure how safe your quarterback can truly feel in the pocket with people whizzing by, being just about pushed out of reach. Steen also had difficulty generating movement in the running game, which will be a concern.

Late round pick? Possibly, maybe. Again, he's not really the type of guard that I would want on my offense, but there are teams out there that will probably feel like they can take him and make him work for their system. At the very least both he and Urschel could be workable back ups at the right guard position. They're not bad, just not great either.

Corey Linsley, Ohio State
Like Harrison from Florida, Linsley is another center who is being graded below his capabilities I think. He had his hiccups now and again. Sometimes Linsley has trouble getting off quickly at the snap, which considering he's the person snapping the ball is quite the achievement. He's also sometimes not as alert as he could be to stunts and twists by the defensive line.

Other than that he's a solid if not exceptional center. He can run block, he can pass block. He can do both to a good level. His run blocking isn't the most athletic in the world and he didn't do much trapping or pulling, but he does have a knack for clamping on to defenders and then swinging his hips into the hole, using technique to turn the defender away.

And like Harrison I'd be happy to use anything other than a first rounder on Linsley. I'm not sure he's the sort of player people get excited about picking, or will go out of their way to pick, but I think he can be a solid first day starter in the NFL.

Andrew Norwell, Ohio State
You know what I hate? Taking a DVD out of a drive and putting it back in its sleeve, only to realise you need that same DVD next.

And you know what else? It was worth it.

Norwell is an absolute mauling beast of a left guard. 6'6", 315 pounds, 33 5/8" arms, so he's on the border between lacking ideal length and having ideal length I guess ;). He's a quality guard who routinely drives people off the ball and deposits them several yards away. In pass protection he's very strong, holds his ground even against bigger tackles, and has the quickness and intelligence to adjust and pick up stunts and blitzes.

All around I see very little weakness in his game. Every now and again, perhaps once every twenty snaps, he might bend at the waist to finish off a drive block but it's really not a routine problem, and usually comes only after he has already beaten the man. When he can't overpower someone he flicks his hips into the hole and turns the defender away, providing huge running lanes.

Looking around it seems like Norwell is projected as a 5th to 7th round pick by most. I think that's an utterly ridiculous valuation. If you can get him with a 5th then you should count yourself lucky because that's a huge bargain. Norwell is probably worth a first, assuming he has no off field concerns that I don't know about. The only reason you wouldn't take him there is because he's practically guaranteed to still be there on day two.

Whoever gets him gets a first day starter and probably a ten year left guard. Really, really good pick waiting for someone.

James Stone, Tennessee
Damn Tennessee is taking a battering this year, losing their starting left and right tackles to the draft and now center James Stone as well.

Stone is a weird one to analyse. He's a big dude and certainly tough to move at times. The trouble is that right off the snap he stands up, exposing his chest to the defender. Predictably the defenders then get their hands and pads in underneath him and win the leverage battle almost immediately. It's what happens next that's interesting.

Because most of the time the dude just will not budge. He still manages to hold his point of the line and prevent any penetration, despite being jacked up by most defensive tackles. Sometimes he'll even drive people back while they have their pads under him. It's really bizarre to watch.

There are limits to this though. The really good tackles, the sort he'll face on a weekly basis in the NFL, do manage to not only get under him but also get him moving. The fact that he manages to hang in there most of the time is incidental. A guy like Suh for the Lions is going to ride him up and walk him right back into the quarterbacks lap play after play.

For that reason I think Stone falls down the order and is probably destined to be a back up. He's strong, but that poor leverage is a real problem. The question is whether somebody feels like they can take that raw product and work it into something useful? If he could learn to play with his pads down he could probably be a great center.

But we're back to "if" again. After four years of coaching in college you'd have thought he would have picked up such an essential part of the technique of being an offensive linemen. For that reason I wouldn't draft him. As an undrafted project he might have potential because he's a lot lower risk, but there's a lot of work to do to get the best out of him. Otherwise probably a career backup.

Ryan Jones, San Jose State
Back when I did the quarterbacks, do you remember I said that David Fales was let down by his offensive line? Well I present to you Ryan Jones, left guard for San Jose State.

Beaten badly on a number of plays. Those times he did manage to avoid being beaten to the side he was instead driven right back into the pocket, causing Fales no end of problems. Waste of a pick.

Bryan Stork, Florida State
Not bad, but not great. Middle of the road, average college center. Lacks any real power or athletic ability, but has enough technique to hang in there on most plays. On others he gets stood up and rocked back into the backfield. Had a lot of help from his guards. Late round/undrafted back up.

Jon Halapio, Florida
Repeatedly beaten like a drum. It was like watching a performance by Phil Collins. You'd have to be mad to draft him.

Chris Burnette, Georgia

Against decent defensive tackles he gets stood up and driven back. He's a little better than Halapio, but not by much. As an undrafted desperation move to try and add depth to your offensive line on a budget, ok. But really not much point.

Khalil Wilkes, Stanford
Last but not least, Khalil Wilkes. Projected as a late rounder/undrafted around the web, Wilkes isn't actually that bad. Alright, he's not great either, but he has a raw kernel of talent. He fights hard and holds his own in the trenches.

In the kind of late spot that he's projected for I can see Wilkes earning a spot on someones roster as a backup center/guard. I'm not certain I'd use a precious draft pick on him, but I'd be tempted to give him a call after the draft and try to tempt him into training camp.


Well, that's it for the centers and guards. 25 made it onto the list. Having done all that so soon after the offensive tackles I can confidently say that I never, ever want to watch another video of an offensive line prospect in my life. Or at least for another 12 months.

Please share this post on Facebook and or Twitter using the buttons below (or just copy and paste the page link) if you enjoyed it, you'd be doing me a big favour. Thank you. 

What's next? 

Oh mother f**ker its the defensive line. I'm probably going to split that into defensive ends first and then do defensive tackles later.

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