Just a few weeks remain until the 2012 season kicks off, with practices beginning the first full week of August. In preparation, I will share preseason positional breakdowns of the top seniors I have evaluated at each position, along with short rankings of non-senior prospects and a small list of other players at the position I will be evaluating next. I guess this can be called a series, since a new position will (hopefully) go up a few times per week leading up to kickoff.
I have withheld my evaluations on non-seniors for multiple reasons. I understand these draft-eligible prospects usually generate the most attention, but I feel prospects in their final season deserve our attention right now. We have no clue which juniors will forego their final year of eligibility in January and enter the Draft. And although juniors may make up the top layer of the prospects at certain positions, the senior class generates the depth and even diamonds in the rough.
In our second installment of the series, I will offer my thoughts on perhaps the least heralded positions on an NFL roster, interior offensive linemen. The senior prospects below have been separated into three categories, the first two by position and the final is made up by prospects that would excel in an offense that relies heavily on zone running concepts. Nearly every team implements some kind of zone concept in their rushing attack, but teams like the Texans, Redskins, and Raiders (projection) rely on offensive linemen with excellent movement skills more than most. The 2011 class was loaded with guards, with quality at the top and through the Draft’s second day. How does this group fair? Let’s take a look....
1. Alabama’s Chance Warmack (6’2/320) - Not many will agree, but I consider Warmack Alabama’s top offensive lineman prospect. Built like a fire hydrant, the senior is wide throughout and uses that girth to really move his opposition in the running game. I love his posture, balance, initial pop and hand placement that allows him to sustain blocks from snap to whistle. Warmack is tenacious and always attempts to improve his body positioning in order to seal the running lane more effectively. Although he lacks quickness to stay in front of ball carriers when pulling for long distances or setting up screen blocks, Warmack has enough short area quickness and lateral mirroring skills to consistently win versus pass rushers. In fact, despite not possessing an excellent one step anchor, Warmack recovers quite well due to his low center of gravity. It is very difficult to get him moving backwards. Warmack is an instant starter at the next level and a first-round selection could certainly be a realistic expectation.
2. UNC’s Jonathan Cooper (6’3/310) - Cooper is a savvy blocker and consistently uses his opposition’s momentum against them. The Tarheel is best on the move, showing athletic footwork in space and gets to his target in plenty of time, specifically when cut blocking at the second level. However, Cooper struggles more often in one on one situations, specifically when getting jolted by slanting defensive linemen or missing his assignment and allowing free rushers. The tools are there for Cooper; fast hands, athletic footwork, and a willingness to latch on and attempt to control the opposition, but he would improve drastically if he was the one winning on first contact rather than hesitating in face-up matchups.
3. Alabama’s Barrett Jones (6’4/312) - The returning Outland Trophy winner has yet to find a true home along the offensive line, spending time at both guard spots before moving to left tackle last season. Now, Jones will make the switch to center, where we have never seen him before. For that reason, this breakdown is more of an evaluation based on projecting qualities he has previously exhibited at other positions. On an island, Jones struggled due to a lack of lateral athleticism when asked to mirror top-level edge rushers. Too often I saw him bend at the waist or be forced back multiple steps without absorbing in space to redirect momentum. Jones is a smart blocker, and that will help as an interior lineman. He understands angles and the importance of hand use, so against slower pass rushers that he can contact more quickly, his lack of movement skills are less of an issue. Still, I think his trophy case may ultimately outshine is actual ability.
4. Kentucky’s Larry Warford (6’3/336) - Warford sports a massive chest and core, displaying obvious strength when engaged with the opposition. However, he flashes solid footwork for such a big man, especially in his first few steps. What I like most about Warford is his consistency and power on first contact. He frequently out muscles interior defensive linemen. That strength can get him into trouble, specifically by overextending and losing balanced posture. At the same time, Warford’s reaction to quick inside pass rushers can be questionable, allowing easy lanes and free releases. It may be difficult to shine on a struggling Wildcats team, but Warford should continue to display skills that may project him at a starter at the next level.
5. Louisiana Tech’s Oscar Johnson (6’6/342) - Despite being an absolute mountain at his right guard spot, Johnson does not generate a ton of movement in the running game but certainly occupies whatever defensive lineman lines up across from him. There are flashes of an excellent pop on first contact with arms extended, even finishing blocks with brute force, but other times Johnson attempts to block with his shoulder or bend at the waist. The strong grip is there but the body position to seal and box out is not. Despite his technical flaws, Johnson obviously possesses an excellent natural anchor, even when surprised on first contact. Louisiana Tech asks him to trap block frequently, and despite his first step being solid, I doubt he can stay in front of NFL caliber ball carriers, even in tight spaces. Johnson is a player to watch since the frame and flashes show up in every game.
1. USC’s Khaled Holmes (6’3/310) - More of a technical blocker than power finisher, Holmes could absolutely be listed in the zone blocking scheme category, but I think his skills are not limited to that designation. Despite leaving his stance with high posture and not offering much pop to double teams, Holmes understands his targets and how to occupy them, even leaving his feet at the second level to finish off his responsibility. He possesses an athletic, albeit thin, lower body but loses his footing too often when facing stout contact in the running game. Too often that initial engagement gives him trouble, either overextending himself or getting jolted. However, with improved strength Holmes could claim the top center spot among the senior class.
2. Illinois’ Graham Pocic (6’5/308) - The best way to describe Pocic is methodical. Due to lack of quickness in multiple areas of his game, Pocic allows defenders into his chest on the initial engagement but consistently extends using length to regain position. Even when facing blitzing linebackers, they deliver a stronger pop on first contact, which leaves Pocic catching. There are flashes of using an inside arm bar, followed by swirving hips to seal running lanes, but even then he is lifted off of his feet by physical play. Pocic is simply a large positional blocker.
3. Louisville’s Mario Benavides (6’4/302) - After overcoming knee and ankle injuries, forcing him to miss the first three games in 2011, Benavides anchored the middle of the Cardinals’ line the rest of the season. Well, perhaps “anchor” is not the appropriate word, since the senior does not really possess one. Specifically when a defensive lineman wins the leverage battle, Benavides really struggles. A balanced base is also missing, as Benavides ends plays on the ground too often and frequently loses on counter moves. When the Cardinal does get a nice push on first contact he keeps his feet pounding and attempts to gain proper positioning. For now, Benavides is more of a road block that delays rather than controlling and sustaining the opposition.
Zone Blocking Scheme:
1. Matt Summers-Gavin (6’4/295) - Summers-Gavin currently lines up at right tackle and handles his assignment fairly well, but a move inside at the next level appears to be the logical decision. In fact, if drafted by a team that heavily relies on foot speed along the offensive line, the senior could contribute quickly. Compared to his bookend at Cal, Mitchell Schwartz, Summers-Gavin looked very thin and lacked girth in every area. However, his ability to quickly get to reach blocks or cut off linebackers at the second level is very good. That agility coupled with Summers-Gavin’s upper body posture and understanding of positioning make him a complete ZBS package. I never saw him waist bend or lose his posture when pass blocking on an island, despite arm length concerns.
2. Iowa’s James Ferentz (6’2/292) - The coach’s son really surprised people last year, but his tough, reliable and rugged style should have been expected. Ferentz lacks a heavy anchor and can be jolted when blocking face-up, but the senior is very active and locates and hits oncoming targets with ease. He truly looks homegrown, with excellent posture, pad level, and understanding of the game, specifically with double teams. For such a small package, Ferentz offers quite a bite and looks to finish off defenders headed for the ground. He plays form snap to whistle. Sure, he has difficulties stopping backwards momentum, but I think with added strength Ferentz could translate the pop and extension he delivers to linebackers across the defense.
Preseason Junior Interior Offensive Linemen:
1. Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick (6’4/330)
2. Georgia’s Chris Burnette (6’2/313)
3. Arkansas’ Travis Swanson (6’5/305)
4. Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson (6’4/320)
5. Arkansas’ Alvin Bailey (6’5/315)
Seniors on Deck:
James Madison’s Earl Watford
Georgia Tech’s Omoregie Uzzi
UNC’s Travis Bond
Clemson’s Dalton Freeman
Notre Dame’s Braxton Cave
Northeastern State's Michael Bowie