Lance Zierlein

Evaluations

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Categorizing Offensive Linemen

Thursday, March 07, 2013


I've been lucky enough to live in a football family with a father who has spent over 32 years coaching offensive lines in college and pro football. I remember watching tape with him as early as 9 years of age and being bored out of my skull as he kept pounding on the clicker. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth went the tape as he pored over each offensive lineman's hands and feet on each play in an attempt to isolate good and bad technique.

Fast-forward to 2013 and I feel very fortunate that I have been able to really tap into his wealth of knowledge surrounding offensive line play over the last 15 years. I learn something new every time I quiz him, and he's one of the best technicians in the game. I have friends in scouting positions and front office positions and they often confide in me that evaluating offensive line play is one of the hardest things for them to do. I know it sounds strange, but I'm at the point where I feel very comfortable with offensive line evaluations because I know what to look for and I understand that it doesn't take an offensive line full of Pro Bowlers to win at the highest level.

The smart teams are always looking to build on both their offensive and defensive fronts, but making your offensive line a priority doesn't have to mean spending multiple first- and second-round picks. There are several ways to build a successful offensive line, but the key is finding a group of players who can play at an intelligent, confident and competent level. Giving those players an opportunity to play together consistently simply increases your chances for success. In order to understand how to evaluate and build a solid offensive line, we must first understand how to categorize linemen. Here are five categories for offensive linemen and a look at how some of this year's draft prospects fit into those categories.

Offensive Line Stats via STATS ICE.

The Blue-Chippers

Every football fan wants an offensive line full of studs and blue-chip talent, but roster building doesn't work like that. In most cases, a general manager and/or the head coach will look for a blue-chip tackle who they can build around. In some cases, like in San Francisco, the team will make the offensive line a major priority and they will use as many as three first-round picks in order to try and build a dominant offensive line. Identifying the blue-chip talent usually isn't that difficult, but being in position to draft them isn't always easy since they tend to go quickly.

Luke Joeckel, LT, Texas A&M -- I'm already seeing some draftniks and NFL types nit-picking at Joeckel's game. My guess is that is a function of having been considered one of the top prospects in this year's draft since before the Senior Bowl. Joeckel has been the starting left tackle at A&M since he was a true freshman and his game has improved each season. He didn't run well at the Combine, but on tape, he moves just fine in pass protection, in the running game and in the screen game that Texas A&M used so effectively. Joeckel is a good, not great athlete and his hand placement is inconsistent at times, but there is no doubting his blue-chip status and the fact that he'll be able to step right into a starting lineup and make a difference immediately.

Joeckel's 2012 Sacks Allowed: 2
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 10
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 3
2012 Penalties Accepted: 4

Eric Fisher, LT, Central Michigan -- There isn't much of a gap between Joeckel and Fisher as the top tackle in this year's draft, and Fisher is the superior athlete. Fisher has the feet needed to stymie edge rushers as well as to get out on linebackers on the second level in the running game. Fisher shows fluid movement skills with good arm length and more than adequate functional strength. He doesn't always shoot his punch as quickly as he should in pass protection and he tends to lean on pass rushers at times, but that is coachable. I have seen mock drafts plugging Fisher in with the top pick and it is certainly possible.

Grimy Grinders

There is a group of offensive linemen in the NFL who have shorter arms than you might like, average movement skills or who struggle to handle the stronger players lined up across from them. They are like a collection of players from the The Island of Misfit Toys. They do have one quality, however, that won't show up in Combine drills -- toughness.

Want to see how nasty an offensive lineman is? Watch how he "finishes blocks". Check to see if the lineman sprawls on top of a downed defender and continues to put weight on him despite the play being over. You'll notice these guys will also tend to give an extra shove when the play is over; nothing that usually draws a penalty, but just enough to let the defender know that the offensive lineman will not be backing down at any point during the game. This attitude has helped many a player with average measurables stick around for long NFL careers.

Justin Pugh, OT/OG, Syracuse -- Let's get this straight right now: Pugh will have to move inside on the next level due to his 32" arms and he may find himself being compartmentalized as a "zone scheme" player as well. You know what? I'm okay with that. Pugh's lack of arm length and average core strength will cause him to look bad on some snaps as we saw at the Senior Bowl, but I really like watching him compete. He plays with toughness and he keeps working snap in and snap out. Pugh has good feet and excels in space, but what offensive line coaches like the most about him is that he's willing to grind.

Pugh's 2012 Sacks Allowed: 0.5
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 0
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 3
2012 Penalties Accepted: 5

Brian Winters, OG, Kent State -- Winters tried to lift at the Combine, but only made it through 9 reps due to a pectoral injury that he was nursing coming in. He didn't go through any of the other drills. Do I care? No. It's all on tape. Winters' athleticism isn't good enough to keep him at his college position of tackle so he will be forced to bump inside to guard. He doesn't bend well which leads to problems, which leads to him playing too high and he's just okay in space. What he does do well is fight on every snap. He finds ways to win battles. I've seen him have snaps where it was looking bad for him and then he suddenly got his player blocked. Winters always seems to be in a bad mood when he plays. I like that.


The Power Players


There are fewer true "power" linemen in this draft than you might think. With the proliferation of spread offenses that are becoming more frequently spearheaded by blasts of "up-tempo" nitrous, we are seeing fewer and fewer power players since they tend to be bigger and heavier. Who wants a power player when it is all about speed, tempo and movement? The SEC still wants them, that's who. Here are three power players -- all from the SEC -- who should have bright futures with NFL teams looking to attack downhill.

Chance Warmack, G, Alabama -- I'm not quite as over-the-moon with my assessment of Warmack as Mike Mayock and others are. I think he's very good, but I'm not sure he's a blue-chipper. Warmack has a thick base and plays with outstanding power in both the run game and with his punch in pass protection. Warmack has sound technique and decent feet which helps to make up for his lack of quickness in space. With so many talented interior defensive linemen out there, the need for good, strong guards continues to increase. Warmack is a plug and play starter for years to come, but he has some athletic limitations that prevent me from ranking him quite as highly as others are.

Warmack's 2012 Sacks Allowed: 2
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 1
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 2
2012 Penalties Accepted: 3

Larry Warford, G, Kentucky -- Think of Warford as a notch below Warmack, but certainly not a "poor man's" version of the big man from Bama. I first studied Warford a few days before the Senior Bowl and really liked the consistency of effort that I saw from him. I also liked the power that I saw in his hands and the way that he competed at a high level against SEC defensive linemen. When I stood on the field near one-one-one pass protection drills on Monday of Senior Bowl week, I was blown away by those same heavy hands. Warford was shooting his hands out like a boxer flicking a stiff jab. His hand placement was excellent as well. Warford has power, but he's also technically sound which helps him to make up for his average movement skills. I see Warford as a second-round pick who comes in and starts right away for a team.

Warford's 2012 Sacks Allowed: 0
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 6
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 1
2012 Penalties Accepted: 2

D.J. Fluker, OT/OG, Alabama -- While everyone else is evaluating and ranking Fluker as a tackle, I moved on to assessing him as a guard due to sluggishness out of his stance and sub-par feet. I understand that everyone will continue to try and jack-hammer Fluker into a right tackle draft spot and I'm sure he'll get taken as a tackle; however, I'm guessing that he will get moved down to guard in the same way that Leonard Davis did. As a tackle, Fluker's long arms can help save him at times, but as a guard, those long arms become offensive weapons, not defensive weapons. When Fluker gets those big hands and arms on his defender, they are finished. Done. It's over. One SEC coach told me that Fluker was "a mean, tough m-therf@cker" who is always looking to "bury guys with all that power". My only concern with Fluker at guard is whether or not he can bend well enough to keep his pad level low which will help him unleash his natural power.

Fluker's 2012 Sacks Allowed: 5.5
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 10
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 8
2012 Penalties Accepted: 1

Elite Feet

Big men who can move like smaller men have always dazzled the sports world whether it was Hakeem Olajuwon or Orlando Pace. In football, offensive linemen who have quick feet are able to beat defenders to spots. If a tackle has quick feet, he can get to the edge quicker than the defensive end and will have the advantage in pass protection. Guards use quick feet to help them get into position quickly to help create the angles necessary to defeat bigger, stronger defensive linemen. Offensive linemen who can run well also help offensive coordinators widen out the field with outside zone plays (stretch plays) which can also open up the bootleg play-action passing game.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that many offensive linemen with upper-echelon foot quickness are often lacking in the functional football strength department. As long as the lineman has enough functional strength, they can make it in the NFL even though they are often best suited to teams who run more zone scheme.

Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina -- Cooper is an offensive lineman who could rise way up my draft board as I add to my information on him. Cooper has absolutely intoxicating foot quickness and gets to the spot as quickly as any guard you'll see in the NFL. The only concern I had is that you don't see him jolt defenders very often, so I've had concerns about his power. However, I also found out that Cooper may have been playing under his natural weight by as much as 20 pounds at North Carolina and his 35 bench press reps at the Combine were certainly eye-opening. Regardless of the final verdict on Cooper's functional power, his elite feet make him a hot commodity in this draft and his bench press reps will convince many non-zone teams that he fits them as well.

Cooper's 2012 Sacks Allowed: 0
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 1
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 2
2012 Penalties Accepted: 4

Lane Johnson, LT, Oklahoma -- Johnson is one of the more freakish athletes you'll see at tackle, and that is because he only recently moved to the position. He was formerly a quarterback, tight end and defensive end and his body looks like a big, athletic man and not a burly tackle. Blessed with long arms and outstanding speed, Johnson is going to be drafted higher than his tape suggests based on measurables and his considerable potential. Johnson needs to get stronger, but he is already rock-solid in pass protection. Johnson's length helps him to get first contact on defenders and there won't be many defensive ends who can beat him around the corner with a pure speed rush. Johnson still has room for a good 10-12 pounds of muscle. Johnson needs to make sure and bring his feet with him in run-blocking so he latches on more effectively and plays with better leverage.

Johnson's 2012 Sacks Allowed: 2
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 6
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 7
2012 Penalties Accepted: 3

Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas-Pine Bluff - While the Combine may have put Armstead on the national stage, he started turning heads at East-West Shrine practices. We all know about Armstead's ridiculously fast 40 time, but forget all that. What is really impressive about Armstead is his ability to use short, quick, choppy steps in pass protection and still eat up the ground necessary to catch up with edge rushers. He doesn't have to use the kick-slide like others do which means he's less likely to get beaten by inside moves. Armstead is still a work in progress, but he's got the tools teams will want, including quick feet, at left tackle. Zone scheme teams will likely look to overdraft him as he has rare athleticism that those schemes covet.

Sure and Steady Worker Bees

This is the final category of offensive linemen and it also happens to be the most plentiful around the league. In some ways, you could argue that these offensive linemen are the glue that holds some offenses together. These linemen don't have elite physical traits, but that also means that teams are able to draft them outside of the first round, which is an instant savings. Most "sure and steady" players won't be looking for early pay raises on their rookie deals and they usually get modest deals on their second contracts, helping to free up money for other positions.

These worker bees are usually strong in the locker room and generally have good football intelligence to make up for other areas where they may lack. The "sure and steady" types are mostly coachable and play through pain. The dirty little secret of the football world is that teams can win at a high level with at least 3 and sometimes 4 "sure and steady" linemen in the starting lineup. The mock drafts don't love these guys, but general managers, head coaches and offensive line coaches appreciate them.

Brian Schwenke, C, Cal -- I finished my studies of Schwenke on the way over to the Senior Bowl and I couldn't wait to speak to some scout friends from the league about their thoughts on Schwenke. I was surprised at their general level of disinterest by Monday evening. Mind you, most of their issues had to do with Schwenke's appearance with his shirt off rather than what he does on the field and therein lies the problem with the scouting community at times. Schwenke probably doesn't hit the P90X workouts very often, but what he does hit is moving targets in space. Schwenke is that rare center with enough sand in his pants to anchor against bull-rushers while having the feet to get outside in Cal's outside zone runs. Offensive line coaches love guys like Schwenke who have enough strength and enough quickness to come in and start right away ... no matter how he looks with his shirt off.

Schwenke's 2012 Sacks Allowed: 1
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 2
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 4
2012 Penalties Accepted: 1

Dallas Thomas, OT, Tennessee -- When you watch prospects in this order -- 1. Luke Joeckel 2. Eric Fisher 3. Lane Johnson 4. Dallas Thomas -- you'll come away with a bad impression of Thomas initially. Then, when you go back on a lazy Monday afternoon and randomly watch Thomas again, you'll start to warm to him. There are times when Dallas Thomas won't always look pretty in handling his assignments, but he tends to get the job done. He doesn't bend well so he isn't able to play with natural leverage, but his feet and movement are better than you think. Thomas can play right tackle or he can play inside at guard which adds to his overall draft value.

Thomas' 2012 Sacks Allowed: 0
2012 QB Hurries Allowed: 4
2012 QB Knockdowns Allowed: 3
2012 Penalties Accepted: 6



Lance Zierlein is sports talk show host on KMBE 790 AM in Houston, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @lancezierlein.
Email :Lance Zierlein



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