Sunday, April 13, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Offensive Tackles

Behind the quarterback the left tackle is one of the most important positions in modern football. Mainly because they're responsible for protecting the blind side of the most important position in modern football. As such getting the right man at the spot, and indeed at right tackle, can be a huge boost to a franchise.

Will any of this years crop of tackles make the grade? Let's find out. And as always, the players are listed in the order that they are because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered.

Greg Robinson, Auburn
Robinson has got scouts salivating because he is an impressive physical specimen. And there's good cause to be excited by Robinson as a prospect.

At Auburn Robinson was mostly called upon to act as a run blocker, something which he did tremendously well. He's a massively powerful guy and it's actually pretty funny to watch him crush people into oblivion. That same offense though has also been the source of some criticism because it limited his opportunities to pass block.

Honestly I think he'll be fine. When Auburn did throw the ball Robinson proved to be more than capable as a pass blocker. There's one particular play that sticks out from a game against Alabama, where the entire Auburn offensive line was beaten and the Alabama defense was chasing down the quarterback, all except for the one guy who is back near the line of scrimmage getting man handled by Robinson (and no, it wasn't a screen play).

For me he's done enough to prove that he can pass block as well as run block. Now it might be an idea to start him at right tackle first, especially if the team that drafts him already has a half decent left tackle. It would give the team a safe period to work him in and clean up some of the minor technical issues with his pass blocking work, but he's definitely left tackle material in the long run, and potentially right off the bat.

To me he's a very safe pick. He's almost the complete package at the position already and with his size and strength he will only get better as a pass orientated NFL line coach introduces him to the more advanced tweaks of pass blocking. I'd be very, very surprised if he doesn't turn out to be a 10 year guy with whomever drafts him.

Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
Broadly speaking a good left tackle, who blocked well in the running game and was sturdy against the pass rush.

Now if you smelled a "but..." coming, then you'd be right on.

But... there is a problem. While Matthews was excellent face to face with pass rushers, showed good lateral movement, had quick feet and quick hands, he did occasionally seem to struggle against speed rushers and as such there's a question mark over his pass blocking.

The question mark is caused by his quarterback, Johnny Manziel. I'm not talking about Manziel's jittery movement in the pocket or the fact that he kept running into sacks, I'm talking about the way that teams played against the Aggies and the adjustments they made to cope specifically with Manziel.

See, a lot of teams played with their linebackers well off into coverage. This meant that the defensive linemen were left in what's called a two gap scheme. That means that they had to cover the potential running lanes on either side of the offensive linemen that they were up against and the only way to do that reliably is to attack the offensive linemen head on and try to drive him backwards.

That's not how most pass rushers in the NFL will operate. DeMarcus Ware doesn't care much about gap responsibility for the most part, because no defensive coordinator is stupid enough to try and burden Ware with anything that will interfere with his pure speed rushing skills.

Now you can pick practically any pure pass rusher in the NFL and the story will be exactly the same. These are speed and technique guys, people that will use a variety of moves and will try to take on the offensive tackle by attacking one shoulder and trying to go around him, not through him (for the most part).

My concern then is that I haven't seen Matthews face many pass rushers like this and the ones he did face typically beat him quite easily. If you go back and look at the various third and longs (clear passing downs) that the Aggies faced, when teams committed to the pass rush properly and weren't as concerned about the run, that's when you start to see the weakness in Matthews game begin to appear.

He did cope well with some, but a worrying number just breezed right by him. That for me has to raise a red flag. While he's a solid tackle in general and could probably be coached to sort his footwork out against those pure rushers, it still gives me cause for concern. If Robinson was on the board I'd rather have him than Matthews.

If Robinson was gone then perhaps you could use a first round pick and start Matthews at right tackle and develop him over time, I don't know. I could be completely wrong, but I just can't shake that image out of my head of him getting beaten on the obvious passing downs. If I'm a GM then I'm not sure I want to stake my career, or the health of my quarterback, on Matthews. Not with a first round pick. Maybe a second and develop him.

If I was betting man (which I'm not) and you asked me to bet on whether he will eventually become a pro-bowl caliber player then I would probably bet that yes, in time he will. Like I say, I could be wrong, but for a first round pick I'd want more assurances that he was going to be able to cope with high quality NFL pass rushers from an early stage. Might just be me being over cautious, but that's how long term successful franchises are built.

Taylor Lewan, Michigan
At 6'7" Lewan is among the tallest offensive tackles in this draft. Playing on what was often an appalling Michigan offensive line, Lewan was one of the bright spots and has drawn a lot of praise as a result.

He has some weak points in his game, for example his run blocking is nowhere near as dominant as Greg Robinson. He also had a similar problem to Matthews in that he didn't play against many pure pass rushers. Unlike Matthews, those he did face he handled mostly quite well, though he does have a tendency to grab at both the jersey and the face mask. As such he could find himself drawing a lot of penalties against quicker pass rushers at the next level.

In his meeting with Jadeveon Clowney he did ok. The now infamous hit on the running back from that game came on a play where Lewan was blocking down away from Clowney so you can't really blame him for that. Nobody is perfect and he made some mistakes, but broadly speaking he kept Clowney quiet.

At the next level I think Lewan is probably worthy as a first round pick. He does need some work to clean up some of his reads and his run blocking, but not much, and he does have all the basic tools plus the size to succeed. Solid, capable pick. Worth a top ten? Yeah, I reckon.

Zack Martin, Notre Dame
Hold the press! I've changed my mind. I have a new number one tackle; Zack Martin.

Wow this kid is good. He's one of the shorter tackles in this draft and for that reason alone it seems everyone is saying he should move inside to guard. I think that's ridiculous. Martin is a clear cut tackle and easily the best I've seen yet.

Against the pass he's very stout, he stands defenders up with his first shot, he can work with the guard to pick up stunts and exchange blocks, and very rarely does he get out muscled. So his footwork isn't the best in the world. I. Do. Not. Care. He's a quality pass blocker, end of story.

I know I harp on about Bill Walsh a lot but the simple fact is that Walsh is recognised as one of the best talent spotters, certainly of his era, and possibly of all time. And Walsh was pretty adamant that if a guy can produce the end results on the field then it doesn't matter whether his technique has flaws in it.

That's an opinion I've shared for a long time now. Brett Favre had a throwing motion that would give quarterback coaches fits, but he turned out ok. Dan Marino used to commit the cardinal sin among quarterbacks by letting the tip of the ball drop down below his waist on every single play, yet he was fairly handy as a passer if I recall.

Martin is the same. In many regards his technique is average and in some places it's actually pretty awful. But it doesn't matter a jot, not a thing, because he produces the goods on the field and that is what matters over everything. So he doesn't look pretty dropping back in his kick slide. I don't care. The fact is he keeps his quarterback upright and the defense at bay, play after play after play, against some of the very best defenses that college football has had to offer over the last few years.

And things only get better in the run game. If you think Greg Robinson is a tough run blocker then you'll love this guy. I watched him on one play reach block a defensive end to get outside and then he collapsed the entire defensive line down on itself. It was hilarious to watch.

He's very strong and difficult to shift. Funny thing that, when you get a guy who's a little shorter than most tackles yet weighs just as much you end up with a lower center of gravity. He flattens most defensive linemen with relative ease, but what's really impressive is watching him punch or chuck one defender to help his guard before having the athletic ability to then climb to the next level and get a linebacker, flipping his hips and erasing the linebacker from the play.

He's a phenomenal athlete, and by all accounts a great worker and team leader outside of game time as well. He is the definition of a can't miss pick. Trying to find things wrong with his game is exceptionally difficult, other than petty quibbles about technique used to cover scouts butts so they don't have to commit to a decision.

Hands down I would be happy to use the first overall pick on Martin and then plug him in at left tackle for the next ten years. There are no guarantees in drafting, but this is about as close as you're ever going to get. 

Cyrus Kouandijo, Alabama
Got beaten like a drum a couple of times in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. And that's really Kouandijos main problem.

He's strong, he's tall and he's heavy. I saw one play from a regular season game where he clubbed an outside rusher on the shoulder and the guy flew about 5 yards before he finally came to a rest. But he's not quick, and against those speed rushers he gets left for dead on a fairly consistent basis. He also struggles with technically sound rushers who use their hands well because he gets caught leaning forward trying to deliver big hits.

My guess is that Kouandijo made it this high up the list and is projected as a 1st or 2nd rounder purely on the basis of his size and what scouts dream he could become with a heavy dose of coaching. Well I'm sorry but that much coaching work makes you no better than a fourth or fifth rounder, and that's being generous because of the physical attributes he possesses.

As a pass blocker he's a liability right now and this is after years of coaching in high school and college. The reality is that he's not going to develop that much more than where he's at already. He might be more useful as a guard, because the speed rush issue will be less of a problem, but now you're encountering problems with him being athletic enough to pull on power plays.

He's a massive project to get the most out of him. It's probably not worth the effort in the long run.

Ja'Wuan James, Tennessee
James is getting a lot of criticism for his run blocking while drawing plaudits for his pass blocking. That makes me think to myself "are we all watching the same games? Are we watching the same players?".

We can't be, because James (and I'm absolutely sure it was him) is probably the reverse of the above description. Playing at right tackle, he was actually pretty good in the rung game. He was strong on his blocks, finished most of them well, was able to combo with his guard and get up onto a linebacker when needed. I wouldn't say he's a dominant run blocker, but he's pretty handy.

In the pass game meanwhile he has two critical flaws. One is the inability to cope with speed rushers from the outside. Keep in mind that this is a player who will be entering the NFL soon, where most pure pass rushers are fast guys. His second critical flaw is that he has a tendency to lean forward on blocks (a dreaded waist bender) which makes him very vulnerable to being pulled over.

In short, his weaknesses were masked in college because he never really had to play any outstanding pass rushers. He scraped by, looking fairly decent at 6'6" and over 300 pound against some opponents, but against a higher caliber of opponent I get the impression his flaws will be exposed much more frequently, causing a major headache for his quarterback. Potentially quite literally.

Seantrel Henderson, Miami
6'7", 331 pounds, almost 35" arms, 10 1/2" hands, ran a 5.04 sec 40-yard dash at the combine. And you know what? None of that matters in the slightest, because Henderson barely managed to hold his own in college against some not exactly NFL caliber pass rushers. Against players who might in the future be considered for the NFL he struggled a lot.

He's so unbalanced it's unreal. His footwork is clumsy and the athletic ability he showed on the 40-yard dash doesn't seem to have been present when he was on the field in pads. There were times when people blew right by him like he wasn't there. He can run block pretty well, but that's about it.

Not really worth a pick. I'm certain there will be better players still to come and any experienced free agent, no matter how average they may be, would be an upgrade over Henderson.

Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
Was very, very lucky to get away with the amount of holding that he did in college. And even then he kept letting people through to the quarterback. For a 6'6", 336 pound tackle he shows a remarkable lack of talent. Against NFL quality pass rushers I dread to think what will happen. Maybe he'll shed a bunch of weight and become an athletic star at the position. Much more likely is that he'll stink it up and become a tackle of last resort.

Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
Meh. Ohio State does a lot of running. A lot of running. And not much passing. And when they do pass teams treat QB Braxton Miller as just as much of a run threat as they do a pass threat. So once again you have a situation where a left tackle has managed to go an entire year without ever facing a true out and out pass rusher.

As such it's really impossible to say how Mewhort will get on. He seems like a decent run blocker but I'm not sure how he'll cope as a pass blocker in the NFL. There just isn't enough to look at to make a worthwhile judgement.

At least Greg Robinson at Auburn got the opportunity to face proper pass rushers from time to time and proved his worth. This is becoming a chronic problem with tackles in offenses with dual threat quarterbacks.

Brandon Thomas, Clemson
When you get this deep down the list of tackles you expect to run into the dregs of the talent pool, especially given how top tackles fly off the board and we're constantly told how there are no good tackles this late in the draft.

Thomas is a glaring example of why that theory is bullshit.

Despite having a dual threat quarterback he played against a lot of teams that used pure out and out pass rushers against him. And he stood every single one of them up. I didn't see him give up a single sack, at least not one that was his fault. He kept his quarterback clean and he did so against very good opposition.

He can run block, sort of, and he can pass block. The question about his run blocking is that he didn't do a lot of climbing up to the linebacker level, instead it was mostly down blocks onto interior tackles or kicking out defensive ends. Still, solid enough.

His projection is rounds 3-4, which is a bargain price I think. He's probably good enough to be a second rounder. The only reason he's not a first is because there's no point using a first rounder on someone who's never going to be taken in that round. Very good tackle.

Cameron Fleming, Stanford
Beaten like a drum by speed rushers. End of story.

Morgan Moses, Virginia
Has probably the worst kick slide technique I've seen so far. It's like a weird sort of doggy paddle. It's truly horrendous to watch.

That aside, he's actually a really good left tackle. He's strong, uses his hands well and bends at the knees not the waist. If he could sort out the kick slide he'd probably be a lot higher on this list. As it is, I think he's a later round prospect, potentially rounds 4-5, who needs time and coaching to fix that god awful kick slide technique. Fix that and he could develop into a starting tackle.

Billy Turner, North Dakota
FCS stand out at left tackle, did ok against BCS opposition. I'm in the middle of the road with Turner. He did ok, but he was nothing exceptional. His run blocking is a little sub-par, but his pass blocking is not too bad. Perhaps a later round prospect for someone that thinks they can develop him.

Michael Schofield, Michigan
Graded it would seem as a fifth or sixth rounder, I think if it were me I'd be happy to swoop in and use a third. The only reason it wouldn't be a second is because Schofield is projected much lower, so waiting till the third would make sense.

He's good. Pretty damn good. Played at right tackle, though his run blocking is sometimes a little suspect. He doesn't really dominate the line in the way that some tackles do. But he can definitely pass block and did so against some very good opposition. Quite a nice find for someone I suspect.

Justin Britt, Missouri
Got knocked backwards on the first three pass plays that I watched. On the first two he was knocked completely over. Maybe he got better after that but I don't know because I stopped watching. If that's what a college linebacker can do to him then it doesn't bare thinking about what someone like J.J. Watt would do.

James Hurst, North Carolina
Got beaten ragged by South Carolina and not just by Clowney. He was outclassed and just could not cope. In the NFL you would expect to see more of the same.

Kevin Pamphile, Purdue
Not too bad, but not brilliant either. Played some average opponents. Run blocking was quite shaky at times, though pass protection was better. It seems he's projected as a seventh rounder and by that point you could probably do a lot worse than Pamphile for a late project. 


And that wraps up the offensive tackles. Next up is the interior offensive linemen (Guards and Centers), so keep checking back for that. And as always, if you liked the post and you feel like I've earned it then feel free to share on Twitter or Facebook using the icons below. 


No comments: