Sunday, March 22, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Offensive Tackles

Quarterbacks are normally the most expensive asset on any football team. At least the good ones. Understandably then offensive tackles - the men that keep the quarterback safe - are often in the next pay bracket on most teams. To be an offensive tackle is to be exposed on an island, one on one, on almost every play. When they get it right they rarely get any public acknowledgement for their efforts. Yet when they get it wrong they are scrutinised intensely all across the media. It's a tough life, but the pay is good.

I'm a big believer that football games are won and lost in the trenches around the line of scrimmage. Behind every touchdown run and touchdown pass is normally the hard work of the five offensive line. If you look at the offensive stats for the 2014 regular season, 8 of the top 10 offenses in terms of least sacks allowed made the playoffs. And the tackles represent a massive part of that. They are the ones routinely tasked with matching up against the very best pass rushers that the NFL has to offer. With the dominance of the passing game growing every season, the requirement to find solid young offensive linemen in the draft, and in particular top tackles, grows too.

So what am I looking for when I look at the offensive tackles?

1) Pass Protection,
2) Run Blocking,
3) Versatility,
4) Awareness,

One should be fairly obvious. Against the pass I'm mainly looking for the ability of the tackle to handle outside rushers one on one as this is the most difficult challenge they will face in the NFL. One thing I keep a cautious eye out for is tackles on offenses with running quarterbacks. This is because sometimes the defenders are asked to take on the linemen head to head and not speed around them in order for them to contain the quarterback. This is not representative of how NFL pass rushers will operate most of the time and was one of the problems with Jake Matthews who was taken in the top 10 last year by the Falcons, due to the influence of having to block for Johnny Manziel. I'm looking for great balance, timing of the punch, and the athletic ability to kick slide out and cut off even the fastest pass rushers.

Two should also be fairly self explanatory. Tackles are often asked to make some quite difficult blocks, including coming off the line and having to track and engage a linebacker in open space on the second level. A tackle whose run blocking is very good but whose pass blocking is less impressive can in some cases make a career as a right tackle as long as the pass blocking reaches a basic standard. Conversely an exceptional pass blocker whose run blocking needs some work is normally fine as a left tackle because of the higher premium placed on pass blocking and a lesser imperative on run blocking.

Point three is a little foggy so let me clear that up. An offense is often constrained by what its offensive line is capable of. Athletic tackles who can pass block, run block man to man, pull, and get out and block defenders in space on screens give the offensive coordinator more options. Versatility at the tackle position can add a lot of versatility to offensive game planning. And finally awareness is a catch all term I use to refer to the ability of the offensive lineman to recognise various blitzes, stunts and twists by the defense and to pick up the correct defender.

So lets get to it and as always this list is ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. Starting with;

Andrus Peat, Stanford
Had to have a little chuckle to myself when I read a review of Peat that included "Has good knee bend" under strengths, then "Waist-bender" under weaknesses. So which is it then? You're either one or the other.

The answer is emphatically that he's a waist bender. I would go so far as to use the word "chronic". He does it on almost every play. And I really wonder why Peat is this high on anyones list? I can think of a couple of reasons. One of them is that he's 6'7", with long old arms. Scouts and personnel people love them a genetic monster, someone that they can envision the coaches taking and turning into a hall of famer. The problem is that while you can take a genetic monster who is already 75-80% there and then apply the finishing touches, it has historically proven almost impossible to take a genetic monster who is a long way from being ready and somehow make that guy into a pro bowl caliber player.

Another would be the initial impression you get from watching Peat. With those long arms and the reach generated by having a guy that tall bend at the waist he does have the ability to engage defenders early and hold them up. Peat didn't give up many sacks either, so on the surface he looks great. The problem is that I didn't see Peat face many truly decent, NFL representative pass rushers. When he did, he was beaten fairly comfortably and always looked like he was on the back foot (figuratively and sometimes literally). While he has a tremendous kick step due to those long legs, the second he gets in range of an outside rusher he immediately bends at the waist to try and engage, which is when it all starts going wrong. I saw some rushers in particular exploiting that bend by setting him up and then swimming him beautifully.

As such in the NFL I think Peat will struggle mightily. At most he's going to face perhaps two or three quarterbacks who are running threats per season, and even that would be most unusual. The rest of the year he's going to be facing premier pass rushers and I think they're going to make his life in the NFL a misery. If I had to hand someone the keys to the left tackle spot, knowing my quarterback's health and my offense's productivity depended a great deal on it, I wouldn't want that guy to be Peat. The fact that at times he had trouble reading the pass rush and picking up odd stunts and blitzes only makes it worse. Conceivably I think he could kick inside to left guard which would suit his skill set and play style a little better, and I think ultimately that is what will happen when someone drafts him, puts him in the firing line at left tackle, then has to perform emergency surgery on their line when he doesn't get the job done. Me personally? I'd pass.

T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh
One of the advantages of playing on a team that doesn't throw the ball that much is that you don't give up that many sacks. Unfortunately it means that pass protection is probably de-emphasised in practice during the week because it's effectively a secondary skill in your offense. And for Clemmings it shows. 

This is a 6'5" dude with pretty long arms who can push people on quite a wide arc at times but Clemmings, like Peat, never really seemed to face that many good pure pass rushers. Again he had a quarterback who was a serious threat with his feet and only a limited threat as a passer, so defenses seemed more concerned with containing Pittsburgh's tremendous run game and not that bothered about their passing. In the running game Clemmings was like a battering ram. He especially excelled at pinching down on a defensive lineman to give the man next to him some help before charging off to find a linebacker. Unfortunately his blocking in space was not that great, as he often seemed to give up quickly and let linebackers get around him with relative ease.

On the few occasions that he actually did face an outside pass rush I'm afraid to say he didn't look good. Some players took advantage of his deep and uncontrolled kick step and simply cut in underneath him. Other times he was just straight up beaten for speed and technique round the edge. In one case a defender got his hands inside and simply pushed Clemmings open like a door (It was actually quite amusing to watch). So how will he stand up in the NFL against the best pass rushers in football, all of them legitimately very capable athletes with normally very good technique? Let's put it this way, I wouldn't want to spend a pick to find out. I'd pass.

D.J. Humphries, Florida
This is getting completely ridiculous. I don't see how you can possibly consider Humphries as an NFL left tackle, because he barely had to face any true pass rush. Ask yourself this simple question; would I trust the health of my multi-million dollar quarterback, the heartbeat of my offense, to a guy who played in a gimmicky college offense that hardly threw the ball and had a quarterback who was far more of a run threat than a pass threat? Because I wouldn't. Now you never know, he may come to the NFL and be an amazing left tackle. But how can you possibly tell when he hasn't had to do anything like what would be required of him in the NFL on a regular basis? You'd basically be rolling the dice and hoping they came up good.

That is not how you build a successful franchise, by gambling your first round pick on someone who is completely unproven. And, I should point out, someone who played very high (legs extended, very upright style) and as a result was often thrown off balance with basic pass rush moves and was beaten easily around the edge by speed. It just amazes me. People often say the draft is a crap shoot. I don't really buy that at all, I think it's just a convenient excuse, but it will be if you make it one and keep drafting players who have no proven track record of the type of thing you're going to ask them to do in the NFL. How can you possibly assess Humphries as being a top tier pass protector when he barely had to do any of it in college? He might be ok at left guard as he seems like a reasonably powerful guy, but me personally I'd pass and let someone else use the pick on what is absolutely a coin flip player.

La'el Collins, LSU
Halle-bloody-lujah! We finally have a tackle who actually played in something approximating an NFL offense, who actually had to pass protect against genuine pass rushers. That's the good news. The bad news is that Collins was at times comically bad. Slow, a massive waist bender, whiffed in spectacular fashion on some run blocks and ended up shadow blocking thin air. He was unbalanced most of the time, got pulled all over the shop by opposing defenses, and generally did nothing that would make you think "hmm, I really want this guy protecting my quarterback!"

I hope it gets better than this, for my sanity if nothing else. I'd pass on Collins. Unquestionably.

Ereck Flowers, Miami
This is definitely not the year for tackles. On top of that it might not be the year for pass rushers either from what I've seen, and that might last a few seasons. No wonder college football scores are going through the roof because nobody rushes the quarterback anymore. Where are all the good outside pass rushers? I hope this is not a long term trend in football because it's incredibly boring to watch. 

So Flowers. Same old, same old. Most of the snaps people just ran directly at him with no clue or hint of any kind of pass rush technique. They just ran straight into his arms. I mean I could be a tackle if that's all the defenders are going to do. The major problem with Flowers is that he's a penalty waiting to happen in the NFL. He opens his arms and gets his hands on the outside of the defenders shoulders, which is one of the keys that NFL officials are told to look for on determining holding penalties. Against the few outside rushes he faced he looked slow, unbalanced, has a really weird kick step, and wrapped his arm around the rushers neck. I just can't see how he's going to adjust. You think guys like Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Houston are just going to run directly at him and let him cuddle them every down? Not a chance. They're going to blaze past him on the outside and destroy him. And his quarterback. Let someone else try and convert him to the NFL. I'd pass.

Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
Finally we're starting to get somewhere! At least Ogbuehi had to deal with a consistent, outside pass rush. And he handled it pretty well. He had an odd technique where he would cut off the defender and deliver a solid punch, then when the defender reset and tried to have another go he would sort of leave a window open to the quarterback for them to attack, and when they did he would drop his head and simply drive them around the top of the pocket. It was quite weird and I've probably not done it great justice. It worked though, to an extent.

Would it work at the next level? Hmmmm. I wonder how he'd cope with greater speed. It's a risky strategy he uses and he does have some waist bending tendencies. And that really is the problem with Ogbuechi. I think he's ok, he's got a solid nugget of talent. He's quite athletic and he reads the game well, adjusting his technique and set based on the play call and working well with the left guard to combo people. But would I part with a pick for him? I just can't say that I would. Don't ask me why but it's just a gut feeling. Maybe if he was still there in the third or fourth round - which is highly unlikely - then I'd take a shot. I just honestly wouldn't feel comfortable with anything higher. While his technique against outside rushers seemed to work, he just always looked like he was one false step away from getting his quarterback killed. I'd pass.

Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
It's getting better. I can feel it. Soon we're gonna stumble across someone I actually like. Not that I don't like Havenstein. I'm just a little indifferent to him. He's a superb run blocker and from what I saw his pass protection at the right tackle spot was solid. The problem is that again he had very little pass protecting to do and that's simply not how the NFL operates. I could not imagine the kind of look you would get from a quarterback when you tell him that his safety is being placed in the hands of someone who has very little experience in pass protection. "Don't worry though kid, he looked decent on the few snaps that he did do it". Again, it's not that Havenstein was bad. He actually didn't put a foot wrong that I saw. But that still doesn't fill me with much confidence. To play right tackle I would be willing to part with perhaps a fifth rounder for him but not much more, purely because of that unknown factor in the passing game.

Jake Fisher, Oregon
Something a little different this time. You're just going to have to take my word for it but before watching Fisher I'm going to take a wild guess and say that this is going to be dull as dishwater and a complete waste of my time watching him, based on this being Oregon and the gimmicky nature of their offense. There will be no proper pass rush, just a bunch of hesitant defensive linemen 2-gapping in order to contain Mariota instead of 1-gap all out pass rush. So let's see if I'm right...

Well buy me a deck of cards and call me a psychic. Or just remember that I watched Mariota for the quarterbacks post so I knew this was coming anyway. Two gapping linemen, no real threat in the pass rush, run blocking was based on angles mostly off of zone read plays. On the few occasions that he had to face a one gap rusher they were all over him and ran circles around him. I'd pass.

Just kill me now. Put me out of this misery for the love of God.

Donovan Smith, Penn State
Really? I'm within an inch of just giving up on the tackles. This is pathetic. I can't tell you how many snaps I've watched just covering the tackles but among all of them I've probably only seen maybe 30-50 snaps total where the tackle was facing a one-gap pass rush that truly represents what they will face in the NFL. How can anyone possibly claim that any of these tackles are NFL ready? There is almost no evidence on film that any of them will be able to handle an NFL caliber pass rush. Some might because of their size and a bit of coaching, but nobody can honestly claim that they saw anything on game day to demonstrate that any of the players listed above would succeed. That includes Smith. Pass.

Ty Sambrailo, Colorado State
More misery. Pass.

Tyrus Thompson, Oklahoma
Couldn't handle one-gapping rushers. Pass.

Jamon Brown, Louisville
It's amazing how easily a 6'4", 323 pound tackle can be thrown around by some defenders. Pass.


And that's that. I have a handful of tackles left on this list but they're all smaller school guys, same offenses as above, and I honestly do not have the patience to sit and watch them. I'm not even sure I have the patience to go throw the guards and centers. I quite literally would not draft a single offensive tackle on this list, in this draft. Which is crazy. I don't think I've ever reviewed a group of players at any position that was so bad I wouldn't draft any of them. It was honestly just pathetic. None of them consistently faced a decent one gap rush and when any of them was exposed to a one gapper they all struggled. That is not something that would fill me with confidence. If you can't handle a one-gap college kid who isn't even that skillful or exceptionally athletic then how on Earth can you be expected to block the best that the NFL has to offer? I'm pretty stunned.

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read it. Sorry it was so negative in the end! My hope is to do the guards and centers next, providing I don't smash this keyboard in frustration before hand.

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