Many articles will be written between now and the late-April NFL draft, but the one topic that everyone really wants to read about is this: Who is the best player in the 2013 NFL draft class?
The answer: Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel. And it's not even close.
What makes Joeckel stand out as the best left tackle I have ever scouted? Why is the A&M junior the best player in this year's class?
The film won't lie, and that's where we're going to check out the top overall player.
When evaluating left tackles, I'm looking at two things—quick feet and the ability to anchor. Being able to anchor means holding your ground and preventing the pass-rusher from moving the left tackle back toward the quarterback. To anchor, the left tackle must drop his weight and bend his knees to absorb the impact of the pass rush. Some left tackles arch their back, some drop their rear end. The end result is all that matters.
The first thing that jumps off the screen when watching Joeckel is his exceptional footwork. With quickness rarely seen from a man his size, Joeckel is able to get off the snap quicker than the defender and beat him to the corner.
With exceptional reach on his 6'6" frame, Joeckel can cut off the corner by kick-sliding (taking a big step back with his left foot, followed by sliding his right foot over) and then punching at the defender to knock him off balance.
Balance is key for defenders and pass-protectors, and Joeckel displays great balance when moving from his starting stance and into position off the edge. Being able to kick-slide and punch takes coordination, and Joeckel looks like a graceful athlete when asked to kick out to the corner and punch. He's never top-heavy and you don't see him bending at the waist to reach defenders. Instead, Joeckel is patient as he waits for defenders to get within range. Being so quick to the edge makes this easier.
Not only can Joeckel stand up and chicken-fight with edge-rushers, but he's shown that he doesn't mind mixing it up on the ground. Due to his quickness and flexibility, Joeckel is able to cut-block defenders when the play goes away from his side. This allows a passing window should the quarterback need to redirect, but it also wears down the defender. If playing in a zone-blocking scheme in the NFL, this skill will come in handy.
It is important to note that Joeckel has flaws. There were times when a defender would jam him at the line—where the pass-rusher punches at the tackle's chest to stun him. Joeckel acted like he had never seen this before, and his response was to take two quick steps back. The positive in this was that he recovered, but it was messy.
Joeckel will have to adapt to NFL defensive ends who bring both speed and power at the same time. His transition to the SEC definitely helped, and while he's the most NFL-ready left tackle I've seen, he's not a completely flawless prospect.
Read enough scouting reports on the Internet and you'll find negatives about any player, but actually watch them on film and many of those weaknesses start to disappear due to scheme, coaching or just lack of perception from the viewer.
There's been an assumption that Joeckel is weak in the run game, but after viewing every Big 12 and SEC game he played in over the last two seasons, that's not what I saw.
The 2012 season asked Joeckel to play in a scheme that relied heavily on a running quarterback. Head coach Kevin Sumlin loved to run draws with quarterback Johnny Manziel, and in these plays, Joeckel was asked to hold the edge, not push upfield.
Joeckel displayed a good initial punch when asked to simply hold the edge and allow Manziel to run inside. Doing this gave the defense a key of a passing down—since the left tackle didn't go upfield after the snap. That hesitation from the defense allowed the guards and center to push upfield and open lanes for Manziel to do what he does best.
Seeing this play without an understanding of the offense might lead you to believe that Joeckel is a poor run-blocker, or lazy, but when you see that the scheme called for the left tackle to knock the right defensive end off balance and then hold the edge, you notice Joeckel did his job very well.
Is Joeckel strong enough to power the run game in an NFL scheme? Well, that depends on the scheme. He is a left tackle, which means he won't be asked to power-block often—if at all—to spring the run. What the film shows is an athletic tackle with the quick feet needed to gain position early on the defender—and if you can do that, half the battle is over. Joeckel does a good job gaining leverage to either wall off the defender or to square up his shoulders and drive-block away from the hole.
Joeckel isn't an exceptionally strong left tackle, but it's not a pure power position. Having quick feet, some football IQ about the scheme and angles, and enough lower-body strength to drive defenders off the ball is all that's needed. Joeckel gets the job done against Big 12 and SEC competition.
The 2012 film on Joeckel's run-blocking can be attributed somewhat to the ability of Manziel to escape, which is why it's so important to go back to 2011 and watch Joeckel under Mike Sherman's West Coast offense.
In the video above, from Joeckel's sophomore season, you can see him playing in a more classic running scheme. Joeckel was in his first game as a sophomore here, so this doesn't do justice to the strides he made over the course of the season, but you can see the quickness needed to get the jump on defenders.
Left Tackle, Zone-Blocking Scheme
A player with Joeckel's quickness will fit in any NFL scheme, but the scenario where he's the best fit early on would be in a zone-blocking scheme. No matter the X's and O's, Joeckel will be fine as a pass-protector, but as a run-blocker, the zone scheme would play into his strengths.
The zone scheme asks the left tackle to often just cut-block or mirror the backside defensive end. Joeckel, as shown above, does this very well already. When running to his side in a zone scheme, the quickness and light feet referenced earlier are a massive strength.
NFL Player Comparison: Duane Brown, Houston Texans
When Duane Brown was drafted by the Houston Texans, we, as an NFL draft community, didn't fully appreciate the idea of athletic left tackles anchoring a zone-blocking scheme. That pick now looks brilliant, as Brown is the best left tackle in football.
Joeckel is an equal athlete, and with longer arms and better pass-protection sets, he's ready to make an impact much sooner than Brown did coming out of Virginia Tech.
Over the last two seasons, Joeckel played against top Big 12 and SEC competition. I went back and charted those games where he played against a legitimate NFL defensive end. In those games, he gave up three sacks—one against Florida and Missouri this year and one against Missouri last year. That's an unreal streak when you consider the scheme change he faced and the level of competition Texas A&M saw the last two years.
I'll open this the same way I started it—Luke Joeckel is the best left tackle I've seen in the last decade. Better than Joe Thomas, who had short arms and wasn't as athletic. Better than Jake Long, who lacked athleticism and had reached his ceiling at Michigan. Better than Matt Kalil, who was never the pass-protector at USC that Joeckel is currently.
If you're looking for the best player in the draft, that player is Luke Joeckel.
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