How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Offensive Line Prospects?
The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers or prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?"
It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.
Here, I'll go deeper.
Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?
With the skill positions complete (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends), here is a look at what it takes to scout offensive linemen for the NFL.
When scouting offensive tackles, guards and centers, the evaluator is looking for the same skill sets and technique, but with minor changes in how they are used depending on where the player lines up before the snap.
What's most important?
In preparing for this article, I spoke to NFL offensive tackle Eric Winston about what it takes to play in the NFL and what trait he would find most important in young prospects. His judgment matched my own: "Feet. You can't teach quickness or athleticism. You need to be smooth."
That's the gist of what you'll get from every NFL coach, scout and player when looking at the offensive line positions. You need a player who can get to his area cleanly and quickly.
If a left tackle has picture-perfect hand usage, but he can't get into position to cut off the corner, he's no good to you. Same for a pulling offensive guard. Athletic ability is much more vital to the position than some film lovers will admit.
Case in point: In the 2013 NFL draft, the Kansas City Chiefs took the better athlete (Eric Fisher) over the more polished technician (Luke Joeckel). Time will tell whether they made the right decision based on potential and scheme fit, but with the chance to draft any player in the class, the Chiefs went with the athlete over the technician.
This applies to every position along the offensive line and, in most cases, every position in football. The smoother, faster player can be taught technique and coached up. A great technician—Barrett Jones from Alabama, for example—cannot be taught to play faster.
That's not to say that technique isn't important. It is very, very important. Athleticism can take a player so far, but to become elite at the position, you must marry athleticism with technique.
An NFL offensive lineman is asked to complete several different types of blocks—both in the passing and run game—that require different skill sets. Identifying technique for each type of block is key to understanding what to look for on tape.
A: Pass Blocking
When evaluating pass-blockers, I have a checklist that I run through on paper. These are the fundamentals that I am looking for in evaluating a pass-protector.
- Does the lineman know where the QB is?
- Does the lineman get set quickly after the snap?
- Is the lineman patient?
- Does the lineman use his hands first instead of his body?
- Does the lineman play loose and flexible?
- Does the lineman stay on his toes?
- Does the lineman keep his head up or drop it on impact? (Keeping it up is ideal.)
One of the things that made Luke Joeckel the highest-rated left tackle I have ever scouted was his ability to move from his stance pre-snap to his position on the corner to take away edge-rushers. Joeckel moved with insane quickness, showing the fluid feet needed to dominate in space against quick defenders.
Technique, though, is many things. It is the checklist above, and it's the totality of how a player moves and uses his body on the field. The ideal offensive lineman uses his feet to put himself into position to stop the defender and then uses his hands to keep the defender from driving him backward.
Evaluating a blocker in the run game can be as easy as seeing if the blocker moves his assigned defender out of the way of the running back. Simple, right?
While it is that easy, we also have to look at the way the offensive lineman moves the defender.
Are his hands consistently inside the shoulders of the defender? Does he drop his weight and drive through the defender once engaged? We want offensive linemen to bend at their knees, not their waist, when engaging defenders.
While a great college lineman may be able to get by with poor leverage and weight distribution in college, that can be the difference between being a starter and a backup in the NFL.
If there were a checklist for run-blocking, it would be as follows:
- Does the lineman come off the ball quickly and smoothly?
- Does the lineman initiate contact with the defender by using his hands?
- Are the player's arms and knees bent when attempting to move the defender?
- Does the player fuel his blocks with weight in his lower body?
- Does the lineman maintain good posture and leverage throughout the block?
- Does the lineman play with intensity and aggressiveness to finish blocks?
If you can find a player who does these things, you have a keeper.
You might think that being strong is the key to being a great NFL offensive lineman, and while good strength doesn't hurt, how the player uses his strength is more important.
Look at the highest NFL Scouting Combine bench press numbers for offensive linemen from 2006-2012, and you will see one All-Pro.
Being strong on the bench press in Indianapolis is impressive, but being able to lift 225 pounds isn't indicative of field strength. It's more muscle memory than the type of power needed to engage a 300-pound defender and drive him out of a hole.
Strength is important, and you need a strong enough foundation to be able to withstand the impact of a bull-rushing defender and the total body strength to drive-block in the run game. But don't get too caught up in bench press numbers.
4. Scheme Fit
Today's NFL features two schools of thought on blocking assignments: zone and man. While there is some crossover, front offices are asked to find players who fit each scheme.
What's the difference?
Each scheme can be generalized as having differences.
Players like Duane Brown and Eric Winston have become typecast as zone-blocking linemen. There are others, like Jake Long, who have the skill set to be best used in a man-blocking scheme and shouldn't be asked to play in a moving-zone scheme.
Knowing what type of player to look for is the key to a smart front office. When media members scout, we aren't able to whittle down player types for every team in our player rankings, but instead we're asked to know which players fit in each scheme and which players would fit only in a certain blocking system.
As the NFL has made its move to a passing league, we've seen the offensive line play become more and more important to the success of teams. Proof of that comes from the fact that six of the first 11 picks in the 2013 NFL draft were used on offensive linemen.
Coaches, general managers and owners are smartly investing to protect their franchise quarterbacks. That means the job of the scout is more important than ever, as finding elite-level offensive linemen to protect the backfield is a top priority.
Football is the ultimate numbers game, and as long as five men are asked to protect the quarterback against varying numbers of pass-rushers, we'll continue to see an emphasis placed on finding the perfect offensive lineman.
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