Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Interior Linemen
1. The Lions’ roster contains only three true NFL tackles.
2. The competition between Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard at right tackle should be close and entertaining.
3. The Lions will add a veteran tackle, but only after extending QB Matt Stafford’s contract or trading TE Tony Scheffler.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the offensive guards and flesh out the analysis of the offensive centers. These are the linemen who define trench warfare, playing in a manner that depends more upon cooperative synergies than individual skills.
As always, I’ll refer you to the current depth chart as a template for discussion. It can be found here.
Fundamental Truths of Interior Line Play
I cringe when I hear an NFL draft pundit or TV analyst refer to an interior line prospect as “plug-and-play” or “NFL-ready.” These are two of the most abused and misleading statements in the game. Especially for interior linemen.
Folks, the truth is that finding a Logan Mankins, a Steve Hutchison, a Marshall Yanda or a Carl Nicks-like talent is extraordinarily rare.
Most NFL offenses are “right-handed.” This means that the franchise QB is right-handed. This statement impacts the interior linemen in two distinct ways:
First, passing lanes cannot be blocked by a center or left guard who block out the sun. Bigger is not better. Therefore, you want your center and left guard to be no taller than 6’3”.
It may seem counterintuitive, but a right guard should be over 6’4”. The reason for this is that a right-handed QB will have several natural deliveries to get around—instead of over—a hulking RT. Also, a right-handed QB has a natural preference to roll, bail or run to the right.
Second, a right-handed team will have a tendency to run right. Ergo, you want your right guard to be what my friend Dan Benes aptly describes as “a Yeti rasslin’ pile of meanness.”
Your left guards and centers will look like Quasimodo next to the Sasquatch-esque right tackles.
While we’re on the subject of road-grating, rush-stuffing right guards, let’s see what’s available on the Lions’ roster that fits the above criteria plus some important measurable criteria like frame, balance and strength.
A prototypical right guard will be north of 6’5” tall and weigh in at over 325 pounds. He’ll have the longest torso on the team and have shorter legs and arms than the tackles.
He’ll have huge, well developed glutes and thighs: “big through the britches.” He’ll set a wide base through sheer size but will have the ability to execute techniques in very confined spaces that is often referred to as “playing in a phone booth.”
He’ll possess natural “bend” in the waist. This allows a RG to achieve a low pad level in pass protection and run-blocking.
A right guard will master the techniques of pulling out of the line on sweeps, combination blocks, cross-blocks and trap blocks.
A right guard is the center’s best friend. He’ll lend aid against larger nose and defensive tackles and pick up blitzing inside linebackers.
Lastly, a RG will use short, choppy footwork to maintain a strong, athletic posture, which allows him to deliver quite a counterpunch to defenders.
Armed with our RG criteria, let’s start with the player most fans see as the default starter…..
Of the Lions’ 2013 draft picks, no player finds such an overwhelming amount of support as Warford. Here’s a player who shined at Kentucky on an offensive line of average talent, at best.
Compare Warford’s accomplishments to those of Alabama’s Chance Warmack, who benefited from playing beside a bevy of future NFL stars like the mammoth tackle D.J. Fluker and center Barrett Jones.
Warford is 6’3” and 333 pounds and has the long-torsoed frame that defines guards. His long (over 33 inches) arms have caused him to rely upon hand-fighting instead of getting inside a defender's numbers with power and strength.
Warford lacks the natural bend at the waist that you like to see, but he keeps his knees bent through the whistle to compensate. Opponents find success attacking Warford’s legs, a technique that doesn’t impact a “waist-bender.”
Although Warford is a powerful drive-blocker, the vulnerability of his legs and lack of a natural waist bend prevent him from sustaining contact. Expect the Lions to coach up Warford’s technique in this regard. This will take time, but until he masters NFL techniques, Warford will not be the dominant right guard that fans anticipate.
Warford’s future could ultimately be defined as a left guard, where he’d be a perennial All Pro.
The acquisition of Jake Scott (6’5”, 292 pounds) wasn’t greeted with much fanfare. However, Scott could quickly become one of the most important free agent signings of this offseason.
Scott was given his release from Philadelphia after being signed by the Eagles midway through the 2012 season. He was definitely a square peg in the Eagles’ left-handed offense after playing eight seasons for the Colts and Titans (two right-handed offenses) at right guard.
Scott was clearly out of position as his Pro Football Focus Premium Stats (subscription required) indicate. He played seven games and 474 snaps, giving up one QB sack and 13 hurries.
Scott’s four-year run with the Titans was another story all together. His performance was among the top-five for right guards in the NFL between 2008-2011 (again, according to Pro Football Focus).
Not bad for a walk-on at Idaho who became a fifth-round draft pick in 2004 (Colts). Scott has additional value as an experienced tackle in a pinch.
Scott signed a one-year contract with the Lions as an insurance policy primarily against the readiness of Warford. He’s a lightweight as far as right guards go, but in every other aspect of right guard play, Scott has to be viewed as a serious contender for the starting assignment pending Warford’s progress.
We determined that Waddle isn’t going to amount to much of a tackle prospect. He’s woefully inept at “mirroring” defenders in space. But right guard looks to be a far better fit. This will bear watching in training camp.
If Waddle can prove effective in small space RG techniques, the Lions will have answered any depth concerns there. However, the Lions coaching staff expects their offensive linemen to possess both guard and tackle skill sets on the right side. A player like….
If I had my druthers, Hilliard would get the starting assignment at right guard until Warford gets coached up. He’s got experience. He has the skills.
What he lacks is Jake Scott’s mean streak. Perhaps Hilliard should practice with pebbles in his shoes. That’ll make him cranky.
Hilliard will see some reps at right guard in training camp if only to keep those skills tuned up. The greater need at tackle will keep Hilliard out of the mix.
When Nagy was acquired in August 2012, I was intrigued. Dallas had released him (injured), and he would spend the year on injured reserve. This begged the question: Why would the Cowboys release a player who could be stashed on IR?
I got on the phone with a Dallas scout for his opinion. The quid pro quo for his services was that I’d break down six Texas high school game films for him. I tried to weasel him down to four games, but he wouldn’t budge.
Anyway, the scout offered that Nagy was a JAG, scout-speak for Just A Guard. Dallas had high hopes that Nagy would be a worthwhile project at center primarily, but he lacked the aptitude needed to be a successful center.
Nagy’s ankle surgery in 2012 was the proverbial straw as far as “cuzzin Jerruh” and the ‘Boys were concerned.
Nagy (6’3”, 308 pounds) was touted by the Detroit media as the heir apparent to center Dom Raiola, but head coach Jim Schwartz quickly doused the speculation in an interview with Justin Rogers of Mlive:
He’s more of [a] guard. He can play center, but he’s more of a guard. He’s probably not in the mix at center, but way [too] premature on that.
Scratch Nagy for any consideration at right guard.
Left Guard and Center
These two positions require similar builds, techniques and skill sets. The Lions demand that players be proficient in both roles.
The key difference is found in aptitude. A player really has to want to play center, a position that carries the responsibility (usually) of calling out the blocking assignments and audibles at the line of scrimmage.
Once a player has committed to playing center, he will need all of his concentration to absorb the playbook and game plans. His leadership has to be unquestioned among teammates.
In a year where the Lions are seemingly blowing up the line, many wonder aloud why Raiola wasn’t put out to pasture as well. The answer is twofold:
First, the garrulous Raiola has the aptitude to lead the offensive line. He’s been doing it for 12 years, under several different regimes and a myriad of schemes.
Second, no other player wants the job bad enough to challenge him for it.
As Raiola’s career winds down, the Lions must identify and develop his eventual replacement. A replacement who will be bigger than the 6’1”, 295-pound “Pygmy Pony.”
The interior line has been maligned for allowing too much pressure up the middle. Raiola’s size, which was adequate 12 years ago, has become extinct due to the proliferation of larger, more athletic nose tackles and defensive tackles in the last 10 years.
Finding a replacement is easier said than done, but the Lions have—perhaps—the most intriguing candidate of the Schwartz era in …
The 6’2”, 308 pound Austin was signed in 2012 as an undrafted rookie free agent. His assignment: get up to speed as an NFL center as quickly as possible.
Austin had a decent 2012 training camp where he worked mostly at left guard. The Lions stashed Austin on the practice squad, where he presumably began his assimilation of the playbook and the nuances of offensive line calls.
Austin’s 2013 training camp should be closely scrutinized. Getting some reps with the “ones” will be a necessary step in his development. Initially, I’d look for LG Rob Sims making the line calls until Austin becomes comfortable in that role. Left guards making the line calls isn’t unusual in the NFL, and there’s no other player qualified to handle those duties in the event that Raiola can’t get on the field.
Sims became a square peg in Seattle’s switch to the zone blocking scheme. Detroit GM Martin Mayhew wasted no time in snatching up Sims, who has become a fixture at left guard.
Many fans don’t realize that Sims is also a very accomplished center. He takes reps in training camp when a fourth center is needed for certain practice segments.
Sims acknowledged in 2009 that he’d play center if needed, but he’d rather remain at left guard. That’s a candid appraisal of his own aptitude that should be heeded if at all possible.
The eight-year veteran has had more chances to challenge Raiola for the starting center role than any other player. Like Sims, Gandy lacks the aptitude for playing center. Unlike Sims, Gandy’s talent has fallen far short of expectations at any interior line position.
The only reasons Gandy remains a pro is that he’s the backup to long snapping specialist Don Muhlbach and a special teams contributor. This is as close to being a sideline spectator with a paycheck as it gets, folks.
As Jake Scott may prove to be one of the Lions’ more valuable offseason acquisitions, Harris will likely prove to be one of the more forgettable.
Simply put, Harris is another JAG (see Bill Nagy). He has the creds of a fringe journeyman-gypsy whose 15 seconds of fame occurred after a cheap hit on Lions middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch last season. The notion perpetuated by the media that Harris will compete at right tackle is laughable.
The 6’3”, 303-pound Harris is listed as a center on Detroit’s roster. To be fair, Harris will get a sniff at center, but (like Nagy) Harris lacks the aptitude to succeed there, not to mention a skill set that will keep his bags packed for his next NFL Gong Show tryout gig.
By all accounts, the 6’3”, 305-pound undrafted rookie free agent wowed the coaching staff during rookie minicamps. Considering the depth at guard/center, Keyton probably deserves better consideration since I currently have him categorized as a camp body. We shall see.
The versatile Keyton played every interior line position for the Central Michigan program that produced this year’s first overall draft pick, Eric Fisher.
Keyton brings an infectious mean streak, a willingness to overcome his limitations through sheer ferocity and perhaps an aptitude for playing the center position that could very well keep him employed.
Keyton won’t ever become a right guard, but he should be given every opportunity to challenge Austin for a spot on the practice squad as Raiola‘s eventual replacement.
Whew! That was a lot of information to digest, and you are more than welcome to disagree with any of my observations. Here is how I’d summarize the situation in the Lions’ interior line:
1. Rookie Larry Warford’s winning the starting RG spot isn’t a foregone conclusion.
2. Speaking of RG, Lions fans should keep an eye on the departed Stephen Peterman’s performance for the Jets. Was Peterman the weak link?
3. LaAdrian Waddle’s best chance to win a job will be at RG.
4. Corey Hilliard could move to RG if the Lions sign a veteran right tackle.
5. The clock is ticking on Raiola’s career. Developing Rodney Austin and/or Darren Keyton now will pay dividends later.
6. Bill Nagy? Leroy Harris? Go fish.
7. Could this be Dylan Gandy’s last hurrah?
Next Up: The Running Backs
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