As fans and evaluators, we often get caught up in cookie-cutter labels and positional stereotypes for NFL prospects. Sometimes a player has the skillset to do limited things on the field, but others can be as versatile as coaches and schemes allow them to be.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive tackle Terron Armstead may not be a renaissance man on the football field, but there’s some reason to believe he can be more than just an in-line blocker and full-time tackle.
Armstead ran an official 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the combine last weekend—a new record for offensive linemen at the event. He also put up 31 reps on the bench press, recorded a 34.5” vertical and impressed everyone with a 122" broad jump.
Most of those aren’t numbers typical of offensive linemen, especially those who measure in at 6’5” and 306 pounds.
Before the hype machine gets rolling, it should be noted that 40-yard dash times (or any statistical data from workouts) don’t measure a prospect’s on-field abilities. What those numbers do mean, however, is the potential for versatility in Armstead’s future.
According to Gil Brandt of NFL.com, some NFL teams may consider using the tackle in a much broader role:
Teams will want to see OT Terron Armstead, who blew up at the combine, try out at tight end at Ark.-Pine Bluff pro day. Might end up there.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) February 28, 2013
With the pass-centric bias of the modern NFL, the tight end position has made a huge transition. Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski (to name a small percentage) have served to redefine the position in the NFL, and their success has created a trickle-down effect to every level of football.
It’s a bit of a cliché to call the NFL a “copycat league,” but a fraction of the adage is accurate. With ulta-athletic pass-catching tight ends now playing a huge role in NFL offenses, there’s little chance of their role lessening in the future.
That said, football isn’t about adhering to norms and copying successful blueprint—at least good football isn’t.
The evolving role of tight ends, hybrid pass-rushers, dual-threat quarterbacks and any number of additional “revolutionary” aspects of the game exist because they present teams with a schematic edge over opponents. When the whole league finally adapts to these trends, new philosophies replace them in the ongoing attempt to find that edge.
Simply put, there is an opportunity for players like Armstead to have an impact beyond that of a traditional blocker in the NFL.
With measurables typical of an offensive tackle but the athleticism not usually present in those players, we can start to theorize how Armstrong may fit in an atypical role in the NFL.
The H-Back Role
‘H-back” isn’t a term that has been around very long.
Joe Gibbs utilized it with the Washington Redskins, but the hybrid position didn’t gain a lot of steam until recently. It only exists because the typical definitions of an in-line blocker, tight end, fullback and half back have been blurred with the evolution of the offensive game.
To whittle it down, an H-back is a player who can line up on the line as a blocker and pass-catcher (tight end role) or in the backfield as a lead blocker and ball carrier—think Chris Cooley more recently with the Redskins. Cooley didn’t run the ball, but he posed a dangerous threat as both a blocker and a receiver out of the backfield.
There’s nothing to suggest Armstead can be much of a pass-catching threat in the NFL, but his athleticism, power and quickness could make him a deadly blocker out of the backfield.
The reason the traditional fullback role is dying off is because of the inherently pass-happy offense we’re seeing in the modern game. Utilizing an H-back is a way to maximize roster versatility: A player who can both run routes and block for a running back means one extra roster spot for another defensive back or wide receiver.
If Armstead can prove he is athletic as his combine performance suggests, there may be a future for him as an offensive tackle and situational backfield blocker in the NFL.
Traditional Tight End
Before the likes of Graham and Gronkowski were catching double-digit touchdowns in a season, Gonzalez and Gates were in the minority at the tight end position.
Players like Heath Miller, Dallas Clark and Jason Witten are good pass-catching tight ends, but they earn their keep as all-around players with the ability to help in both the passing game and in run blocking.
With some notable exceptions, the position hasn’t always been about catching touchdowns and moving the chains.
The traditional tight end is also valuable as a blocker.
Again, it’s hard to predict Armstead’s pass-catching ability, but his athleticism suggests the potential to use him as a redzone target or short-yardage route-runner.
Having a player with tremendous size who can effectively block (but still be a threat to release downfield) creates a matchup advantage for offenses. There’s a reason Mike Vrabel caught 10 touchdowns in his career with the Patriots and Chiefs. Even as a linebacker, Vrabel had both the blocking ability and athleticism to present defenses with matchup problems.
At its core, offensive football is all about being able to do things defenses can’t prepare for or execute against. When a player has the physical attributes to present those kinds of matchup problems, there is an opportunity for a team to take advantage.
Goal Line Sets
We often hear commentators mention the extra tight ends or offensive tackles teams use in goal line sets. With just a yard or two to gain for a touchdown, having big bodies who can create a surge at the line of scrimmage creates an advantage for offenses.
In some cases, a team may even add a lineman in the backfield as a lead blocker (as the Cincinnati Bengals sometimes do with Domata Peko).
In that latter instance, having a huge body to lead block has its advantages, but only if that player is athletic and quick enough to stay ahead of the tailback and open a hole at the line of scrimmage. Peko does that for the Bengals, and there may be some potential for Armstead to do the same for an NFL team.
Saying that Armstead may be a fit at tight end is narrow-minded. More accurately, he has the athleticism to fill a role other than that of an in-line blocker—or at least that’s what his combine performance suggests.
Armstead’s NFL Future
Between completely confounding evaluators with exceptional athletic ability and the already ambiguous value of NFL hopefuls in the pre-draft process, there’s little indication of where Armstead could end up beyond the draft in April.
Armstead isn’t an elite blocker at his position, but proving to be an ultra-athletic big man should drastically improve his draft stock.
His pro day will tell a larger story about Armstead’s future role in the NFL. For the time being, teams should be cautious about how much stock they put in his 40-yard dash, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle performances.
If Armstead can prove he can catch a football and duplicate his athletic combine performance, there are certainly a number of teams that will look for ways to utilize his skills in a non-traditional role.