Undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle has emerged from the bottom of the depth chart with a very impressive training camp and preseason. The thickly built Texas Tech product is exceeding all expectations. At minimum, Waddle sure seems to have locked up a roster spot among the final 53.
But can LaAdrian Waddle earn the starting right tackle position for the Detroit Lions?
The competition to replace Gosder Cherilus at right tackle has been open since the start of OTAs. Veteran reserves Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox were the primary combatants, each fighting for the chance to prove themselves worthy of being an NFL starter.
Hilliard started the first preseason game against the Jets, while Fox earned the nod against both Cleveland and New England. After the Browns game, I broke down the entire offensive line's performance at DetroitLionsDraft.com, and in that piece I asserted that Fox appeared to create some real space between himself and Hilliard for the job.
Yet, the behemoth in dreadlocks wearing No. 66 also caught my eye. His performance against Cleveland apparently caught the eye of the Lions coaches as well. Waddle led all Lions offensive players in snaps vs. New England.
Waddle did not disappoint. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Waddle graded out as the second-highest of any Lions lineman at plus-1.7 (Jake Scott topped the list at 5.1). While most of his 46 snaps came against the reserves, he did play two full series against mostly first-team defenders and with most Lions starters still in the game as well.
Check out his form on this Joique Bell run:
Now look at his pass-protection acumen on this Joseph Fauria touchdown reception, from screen shots of NFL.com's highlight package of the game:
Waddle is at right tackle squared up against Patriots rookie Michael Buchanan. Note his tight alignment and staggered stance, with his weight on his inside foot.
Buchanan is attempting to get around the corner, but Waddle has transferred his weight ideally and is perfectly square to both quarterback Kellen Moore and to Buchanan.
As Buchanan tries to separate and get the edge, Waddle is in a powerful position and has eliminated any chance for Buchanan to break inside. He's also provided Moore with a wide escape route should pressure come from the other side.
Waddle is in complete control with a well-placed hand on each of Buchanan's shoulders and several yards from the left-handed Moore's blind side as he begins to throw. Waddle's leg drive and powerful arms devastated his fellow rookie.
In the hours after the game, the concept of Waddle not only making the Lions roster but taking over as the starting right tackle exploded.
Can Waddle really surge ahead of both Fox and Hilliard?
That depends on a couple of factors. Foremost is how comfortable head coach Jim Schwartz is in trusting his tenuous job security to starting an undrafted free agent at right tackle. Schwartz is nothing if not loyal to "his guys," as evidenced by bringing in Jake Scott, Chris Hope, Leroy Harris and Jason Jones from their days together in Tennessee several years ago.
Jason Fox has been a Schwartz favorite since the team selected him in the fourth round in 2010. He has talked up and praised Fox despite the numerous injuries that have kept Fox largely sidelined in his NFL career.
The second factor is how well Waddle sustains his rapid developmental rate. For the vast majority of players, the fourth and final preseason game is all about not getting hurt. For LaAdrian Waddle, the upcoming game against the Bills is all about proving that his earlier performances are not anomalies.
This game represents another excellent opportunity to prove his ability in pass protection. That was the biggest question surrounding Waddle, who came from a Texas Tech offense that utilized an unconventional style of line play that looks foreign to NFL eyes.
Should Waddle impress in the finale, he could very well line up with the starters on Sept. 8 against the Vikings.