What to Look at When Evaluating NFL Offensive Tackles
As I continue this series, which looks the at basic traits needed to succeed at each position, I now get into the trenches—where things often go off the rails a little for some people.
Scouts and personnel evaluators often get hung up on a certain shape or cookie-cutter form that an offensive lineman should fit before they're in the least bit interested in them, but frankly, I don't care what the guy looks like if he can get the job done.
Some of the league's best players have been anything but prototype in shape, and as long as they had certain skills and identifiable traits, they could succeed. Playing on the offensive line is the no different. It may be nice if the guy looks exactly how the "Scouting Football for Dummies" book says he should, but in the end that is secondary to whether or not he can play the game and block somebody.
That's all we should care about.
So let's take a look at the traits we need to see in an offensive tackle at the NFL level.
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You'll hear a dozen different traits get thrown at you as the single most important for an offensive tackle, but in my eyes it all starts with their footwork. Half of a tackle's job is just ensuring he is between the pass-rusher and the passer, and you need good footwork to be able to do that.
A lot of traditionally important traits can be negated with a player having exceptional footwork, and if you look across the best pass-protectors in the league today, all of them have great feet and the ability to adjust on the fly and maintain good position.
The most important things for a pass-protector are keeping balance and never lunging at a defender, because that's when they can avoid the contact, tear past you and bury the quarterback almost before you've hit the ground. If you can keep your feet under you, maintaining a good base, you can adjust to their moves and absorb the impact of the pass rush.
There might not be a better pass-protector in the league than Joe Thomas, and you'll struggle to find an offensive lineman with better feet than the Browns stud.
His feet are so good that it doesn't matter that his arms are short enough to have most scouts wincing at the notion. Scouts covet guys with the wingspan of a pterodactyl; the theory being that they can reach farther than the defensive lineman trying to get past them and get control of that player before he ever gets a chance to win the leverage battle.
While the theory is sound, if your footwork is good enough, you could have arms more like a T-rex and still get the job done because you'll be in the right position to contest the contact.
Joe Thomas is rarely out of position and has the foot speed to counter moves from defensive linemen. The fact that his arms aren't of prototype length is irrelevant.
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You hear people say all the time that "if he can lock on to the defender, it's over" when they extol the abilities of an offensive tackle. Usually they're talking purely about strength, but what they should really be focusing on is hand strength.
Scouts occasionally talk about the need for a solid hand punch from a lineman—the ability to jab with the palms and rock a defender back—but the true holy grail is the ability to latch on like a vice and keep control of the defender.
The only difference between a flagrant holding penalty and every other play in the NFL is the location of a blocker's hands. Inside the frame of the defender is fair game, but outside of their shoulders and you get flags thrown.
In essence an offensive tackle can take a defender out of the game if they can get their hands inside the frame of that pass-rusher and lock on.
If he has a strong grip he can control the defender and take him wherever he wants to go. The players that can usually do this on a regular basis are often the strongest guys at the position, but it really is a specific strength that doesn't get looked at nearly enough.
As fellow Bleacher Report columnist and ex-NFL player Ryan Riddle will tell you, it's an overlooked part of the game. A player that can lock on to your pads and secure that grip is a nightmare to detach from.
You're not going to see it in many scouting manuals, but when you're watching a tackle, look for how many times he seems to be able to lock on to his defender and maintain that block throughout the play. The more regularly a lineman can do that, the fewer opportunities the pass-rushers have for a successful run at the quarterback.
If you can combine this hand strength with the footwork from before, then you are onto something truly special.
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There's a reason the NFL puts everybody through the Wonderlic test every year at the scouting combine. The results themselves may be nigh-on meaningless, but football demands intelligence at several positions, and offensive tackle is one of them.
Intelligence isn't necessarily about academic smarts, but the ability to read and react to each individual pass-rusher they face and adjust to win that battle on the day.
Each time a tackle steps on the field, they engage in their own little chess battle with the pass-rusher they will be blocking for most of the day. The way that player will set up his rushes needs to be countered by the tackle, and that takes some mental agility that you can't necessarily measure with a pen and pencil, but nonetheless remains crucial.
Anyone that's ever spoken to Cincinnati Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth will tell you what a smart guy he is, especially when it comes to football and the fundamentals of his position.
He is able to go out there and outsmart the guy trying to rush against him, and it's enabled him to become one of the league's best left tackles. This is despite being termed a guard prospect when he was coming out of LSU because of the traits that scouts had determined he lacked.
Whether they just goofed entirely or whether they had a point, Whitworth has been able to overcome being less physically gifted than some tackles in the NFL by being smarter than most and by being able to win the chess battle each week with the guy he's assigned to block.
Raw Strength and Leverage
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As much as the NFL has become a passing league, there is still no substitute for a lineman big and strong enough to get a hold of his defender and drive him to Nebraska.
Strength is obviously most useful in the run game, where a tackle will usually get a good chance to take on his defender in a simple battle of strength. In the passing game, defenders are often doing everything in their power to avoid the block, get around it and influence the pass, but in the run game they have to maintain gap discipline.
This means taking on the block, holding ground and then slipping it to make the stop.
Some monster tackles are able to drive smaller defenders well away from the point of attack and become real factors in the run game, but that kind of strength has applications in pass protection as well.
Elite level strength can paper over a lot of other flaws and make up for mistakes that other tackles wouldn't be able to recover from. There is nothing more devastating than a tackle that can halt a defender's progress with nothing but his arms, and a certain level of strength can bail out a tackle who would have been beaten in other circumstances by knocking the pass-rusher off balance or deeper than he wanted to go on his way around the block.
Technique and fundamental skills will always be first and foremost when it comes to tackles. Some of the better players in the league are not the most physically imposing, but there is no doubt that players like Jared Gaither and Jason Peters help themselves out in a significant way with monstrous strength that defenders can rarely match.
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Often at the NFL level, it isn't how good you can be, but rather how often you're bad (and how bad it gets).
Many tackles have the ability to shut down pass-rushers, and some can do it for long stretches without any problems, but they will break down for times during games, or will regularly have mental lapses resulting in free rushers—a quarterback and coach's worst nightmare.
The NFL is about whether players can maintain a consistently high level.
The Minnesota Vikings stuck with Bryant McKinnie for so long despite constant headaches because they knew exactly what they were going to get from him. He was always going to underachieve given the physical skills he had, but he would be a consistently good pass-protector, and those aren't that easy to find.
In the end, coaches may look for a player's upside and ceiling, but I'm more interested in what he does consistently, and what his baseline is over a game and a season.
When it comes to blocking, there is far less space for a player who has ups and downs in his play, but guys can ply their trade over a decade if they can demonstrate they can play to a competent level consistently over the long haul.