The San Diego Chargers needed offensive line help, so with the 11th pick of the 2013 NFL draft, they selected right tackle D.J. Fluker out of Alabama. The team addressed a need with the pick, and since Fluker was expected to go in the middle of the first round, they didn’t even have to reach.
He seems like the perfect pick for the Chargers because Jeromey Clary has been hurting the offense for the last few years—and without much competition. The left tackles were off the board, so the Chargers did the next best thing and drafted Fluker.
Unfortunately, Fluker will not be a great pick for the Chargers unless he plays guard. While there is a lot to like about Fluker, he’s not the player the Chargers needed at offensive tackle. Fluker has more potential to hurt the Chargers than he does to significantly help them on the outside.
One of the main reasons the Chargers needed to address the offensive line was to protect Philip Rivers, but pass protection is one area where Fluker could struggle at the next level. Fluker is especially vulnerable to the outside speed rush, and he’ll face Von Miller and Justin Houston twice per year.
Fluker is going to have to use his length to keep pass-rushers from harassing Rivers, and he’s almost always going to need the help of a tight end or running back. In this way, Fluker will not be unlike the vast majority of right tackles in the NFL.
The biggest reason why Fluker will struggle in pass protection is because he doesn’t have the quick feet required to play on the edge in the NFL, and too often, he bends at the waist instead of the knees.
What Fluker lacks in pass protection, he will be able to make up for, to some extent, in the running game. Fluker’s size, long arms, natural strength and low center of gravity allow him to mash opponents into the ground.
Without a lot of lateral quickness and foot speed, Fluker’s probably not going to be great pulling or in the screen game, but he’s more than capable of opening up huge holes in the run game.
The only way that Fluker is going to significantly help Rivers is by helping the Chargers run the ball. If the Chargers can run effectively, then Rivers can use play-action, and pass-rushers can’t just line up wide and pin their ears back.
What better game to use to evaluate Fluker than when Alabama faced Georgia. At the time, Alabama was No. 2 in the country, and Georgia was ranked No. 3. Georgia also sent several defenders to the NFL, so you know the quality of the competition is close to what he’s going to see at the next level.
From the very start of the game, Fluker struggles with Georgia’s speed off the edge. Fluker isn’t really quick out of his stance, which makes it even harder for him. Fluker may be even slower out of a three-point stance, but he mostly used a two-point stance on passing downs at Alabama.
Cornelius Washington easily gets the upper hand against Fluker, running right through his long arms and on a direct path to A.J. McCarron. Washington won this battle, and there’s not much Fluker can do to stop him.
Thankfully for Fluker, Alabama had called a screen pass, and his pass protection really wasn’t that important to the play's success.
Even though Fluker’s pass protection wasn’t vital, McCarron would have probably taken a hit if Washington didn’t slip and fall. If Fluker can’t stay in front of a guy like Washington, what makes the Chargers believe he’ll hold up against Miller and Houston at the NFL level?
Just a few plays into the game, Jarvis Jones forced a McCarron turnover. Fluker drew the assignment on Jones on the play.
Jones is lined up wide, and Fluker doesn’t have the foot speed to stay in his stance and get his body in a good position to pass block. In the NFL, when a good pass-rusher has the tackle turned like this, an inside move should enable him to get right to the quarterback.
In this case, Jones continues to threaten the edge, but Eddie Lacy stays in to help Fluker. Alabama has six-man protection versus four rushers, and when that happens, there are seven defenders in coverage against four potential receivers.
Fluker dives at Jones feet in an attempt to cut him down as a last resort. The six-man protection scheme has left McCarron without a single open receiver on either side of the field.
Jones maintains his balance on the cut block by Fluker, runs through Lacy and forces the turnover because McCarron held the ball too long.
Fluker is going to need help in pass protection, and the more he needs help, the less productive the Chargers’ passing game will be. If the Chargers try to leave Fluker one-on-one against speed rushers, the result will be the same for Rivers as it has been over the past few years.
Here’s another example of Fluker’s slow feet causing problems in pass protection.
Fluker is able to use his long arms to push the pass-rusher past McCarron in this example, even though his lack of foot speed is apparent. This technique will be effective against bigger, slower and less-savvy pass-rushers who don’t know how to reduce their surface area, much like sophomore linebacker Josh Dickerson in this example.
Jones is a good pass-rusher, and he uses his speed to get outside of Fluker in this example. Fluker can’t even use his long arms to push Jones past McCarron because he’s not in position, and Jones has reduced his surface area. McCarron ends up picking up a big chunk of yardage on a scramble, but that’s not really Rivers’ forte.
Fluker can hold up in pass protection, as long as the pass-rushers are respecting the run and not coming off the edge with speed. Defenders who try to play containment against Fluker get swallowed up by his massive frame and long arms. Fluker’s best chance to help the Chargers on offense is by pushing the pile in the run game.
Fluker is a dominant run blocker, and his size and long arms helped him open huge holes for Lacy last season. Here is a play where Fluker is responsible for opening up a running lane when matched up against 346-pound run-stopper Jonathan Jenkins—who was a third-round pick in the draft.
Jenkins is going to attack Fluker’s outside shoulder. As a result, Fluker it going to be in great position to get his hands square on Jenkins. Fluker uses Jenkins natural momentum to seal him to the outside.
Fluker is able to anchor against the bigger Jenkins and keep him from having any ability to stop the run. An average lineman is doing to need help in the run game against a guy like Jenkins, but Fluker is able to handle him by himself, which is extremely impressive.
Fluker is also an aggressive and productive drive blocker. Here’s another example of Fluker matched up against Jenkins in a 1st-and-10 running situation. Georgia clearly made a decision to put the bigger Jenkins over Fluker on running downs.
Fluker is able to explode forward out of his stance and use his long arms to get inside Jenkins. Even though Jenkins weighs more and was one of the best run defenders in the county, Fluker pushed him a full yard backward just from his initial jolt off the line.
Once Fluker is engaged with a defender in the run game, it’s over. Fluker pumps his feet, maintains leverage and rides Jenkins five yards downfield. This is not some undersized defensive end that Fluker is dominating; it’s a guy who takes pride in being an immovable object. As you can see, there is no such thing as an immovable object to Fluker.
Fluker’s natural strength, long arms and forward explosion in the run game would make him one of the elite offensive guards in the league, but his slow feet will make him a liability in pass protection on the outside.
Many people think Fluker can overcome his slow feet and become a solid pass protector because of his length, but the tape suggests he’s going to have a very hard time in pass protection at the next level.
Much of Fluker’s ability to push big men around in the run game will also be wasted at right tackle as NFL teams will let smaller, quicker defenders try to penetrate gaps and force him to move laterally. Fluker should be able to continue to dominate in the run game, but the Chargers may otherwise struggle to run up the middle with their current personnel.
What position should D.J. Fluker play?
The good news for the Chargers is that the worst-case scenario is moving Fluker inside. The bad news is that Fluker may not be overly helpful to Rivers on the sides, especially if the run game isn’t productive enough regarding the use of play action. Since the run game is a product of the running back and entire offensive line working together, Fluker would only be part of the puzzle.
Chargers’ EVP of Football Operations John Spanos told the Mighty 1090 in San Diego that Fluker’s skill set fits right tackle, but he wouldn’t put it past Fluker to be able to play on the left. Chalk this up to post-draft hyperbole as the more interesting statement Spanos made was the suggestion that a young tackle can always move inside when things don’t work out at tackle.
Spanos said he wasn’t talking specifically about Fluker, but it has to be in the back of the Chargers' minds. The Chargers continued interest in Bryant McKinnie and signing of King Dunlap suggest that the team is hedging their bets and are open to the idea that Fluker will fit best on the inside.
The plan for Fluker could be to get a long look at him at tackle before determining if he has to move to guard, which makes sense because tackles are typically harder to find. The Chargers are likely crossing their fingers that Fluker can play on the outside effectively, but they likely know from film study that a move to guard is in his future, whether that’s this year or next.