Why Chicago Bears' Kyle Long Has Been Most Impressive Rookie in NFL Preseason

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Why Chicago Bears' Kyle Long Has Been Most Impressive Rookie in NFL Preseason
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Long has not played like a rookie this preseason as the Chicago Bears right guard.

When the NFL preseason began, Chicago Bears right guard Kyle Long was still fighting for a starting spot. Even though the Bears selected him with the No. 20 overall pick in this year’s draft, they didn’t hand him the starting job right away, instead giving second-year offensive lineman James Brown the chance to start at right guard in their preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers.

Three games into Chicago's preseason, Long is no longer coming off the bench. He has been the team’s first-team right guard in each of the past two games and does not only look very capable of starting, but he also looks like the star of the Chicago offensive line.

How good has Long been? His overall rating of plus-8.0 on Pro Football Focus (subscription required) through two preseason games was the best rating of any non-specialist in the league.

Long was not quite as impressive Friday night versus the Oakland Raiders, and it is unclear how that will affect his standing on PFF once it updates. Nonetheless, he has consistently displayed an array of traits this preseason that give him the potential to quickly develop into one of the league’s elite guards.

 

Proving the Doubters Wrong?

Long was not projected as a top-20 draft selection by the majority of the draft media, so it came as a surprise when the Bears drafted him with the 20th overall pick. To many (consider me guilty as charged), Long appeared to be a desperation selection for a Bears team starved for offensive line talent.

He was viewed as a developmental project as a draft prospect, and with good reason.

While he has outstanding measurables (6'6'', 313 lbs) and promising bloodlines (son of Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long, brother of St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long), he entered the 2013 NFL draft with just one year of major college football experience. He did not even start every game in his lone season at Oregon.

Kyle Long, however, has looked nothing like a project this preseason.

Given his limited experience, the common thought was that Long would struggle early as he continued to develop technically. Still, he would immediately enter the NFL as one of its most athletic offensive linemen.

Instead, he has looked technically sound this preseason, all the while using his athleticism to stand out with some exceptional blocking. It could turn out to be Long, and neither No. 7 overall pick Jonathan Cooper nor No. 10 overall selection Chance Warmack, who becomes the NFL’s best rookie guard this season.

 

How Long Has Dominated This Preseason

Long’s athleticism stands out on the field, but that comes as no surprise revelation. He certainly has the gift of top-notch genetics, and he proved his athleticism at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine when he ran a 4.94-second 40-yard dash, according to NFL.com.

In addition to being the size of a left tackle, he has 33 3/8" arms and 11” hands. But it’s not simply Long’s athleticism that has made him impressive this preseason; it's what he can do with it.

Long already has high-level footwork for a guard. His feet are very quick for an offensive lineman, and he does a good job of both getting upfield to block and moving laterally along the line of scrimmage.

His movement skills are a huge asset to his game in pass protection. Long does a great job syncing up his feet with his hands to mirror the movements of opposing pass-rushers, while he has also shown the ability to quickly move along the line of scrimmage to pick up a key block on the edge, such as he did in the following example versus the Raiders:

Long can be an immediate upgrade at right guard as both a pass- and run-blocker.

His strength and power are still developing, so he does not have the typical game of a traditional run-blocking right guard who would use straight-line power to drive his opponent off the line. Instead, Long’s ability to cover ground for pull blocks, screen blocks and getting to the second level can make him a fantastic run-blocking guard.

As a pull-blocker, Long looks like a natural. He does a nice job of arcing around the line of scrimmage into a new running lane on the left side, then finding his targeted opponent and landing a block on the defender.

On the following example versus the Panthers, Long gets a good start off the line and, with his quick footwork, he is almost around the left side of the line as running back Armando Allen takes the handoff.

He then locks in on his target and attacks him past the line of scrimmage, driving him back to lead Allen to a five-yard gain outside the left tackle:

With his lateral-movement skills and ability to pick up blocks in space, Long is also a very good screen-blocker on the outside.

On the following example versus the Panthers, Long gets ahead of running back Michael Ford as he catches a screen pass on the right side out of the backfield.

He gets in position to set up Ford’s gain with a key block:

Long then used another one of his skills—cut blocking—to make the required block to spring Ford for an 11-yard gain. All while still getting in position with his feet, Long makes a play to go low and cut down the defender, opening a lane for Ford to run in space:

The area in which Long truly excels, however, is in getting to the second level and picking up downfield blocks. He's adept at spotting targets and then getting his hands on his opponent to make the block.

He made a number of second-level blocks in each of his first three preseason games, but the most noteworthy came in the middle of the second quarter versus the San Diego Chargers.

The play itself only managed one yard on a carry by Bears running back Michael Bush, but Long does his job well. He gets off the line free to the second level and quickly gets four yards upfield:

From there, Long generates pure momentum from his speed, size and power. He drives the linebacker all the way back past the first-down yardage mark more than 10 yards downfield, finishing the job with a hard shove to take his opponent completely out of the play:

Though it's only preseason, Long has demonstrated a very well-rounded skill set.

He has great feet which give him a wide blocking range. He is not overpowering, but he has the strength to consistently hold up against defensive linemen. He also does a nice job of placing his hands upon defenders and adjusting them accordingly.

Although he may not play there often given his immediate emergence at right guard, he has also shown to be a special teams asset this preseason. He has lined up as an offensive tackle on either side of the line in field goal protection units.

He has also shown the ability to line up on the kickoff return unit, including a key block he set up for Devin Hester at the 8-yard line versus the Panthers:

 

Where Long Must Continue to Improve

Long could be the Bears’ best offensive lineman as early as this season. But even the most impressive rookie in the class thus far has had his growing pains, and he must improve in a couple of areas to continue to excel in the regular season.

With Long looking ideally suited to stay at guard rather than eventually moving to tackle, he needs to learn how to play lower when he is engaged with an opponent. Due to his height, Long tends to play above his opponent. As a result, he can give up leverage and in some cases lose his balance.

Long must continue to bulk up to be a stronger in-line run-blocker. While he has a strong base and rarely gets driven back toward the quarterback as a result, he also has trouble moving defensive tackles off the line of scrimmage. If he can add a greater power element to his game, he can pave the way for more running lanes while having fewer runs forced outside away from where a defender has filled a gap.

His pass-blocking instincts could also use work:

On this play versus the Raiders, Long had to make a choice between blocking inside or picking up blitzing Raiders linebacker Kevin Burnett. In this instance, he made the wrong choice by blocking inside, where he ended up not blocking anyone.

Burnett got a free rush to quarterback Josh McCown and forced an incompletion:

 

Expectations for Long’s Rookie Season

No one should hedge any bets on a rookie based upon his preseason performance, but Long is making a serious statement this August. If he continues to play as well in the regular season when he consistently faces first-team opposition and has more pressure on his shoulders, he and Bears general manager Phil Emery are going to make many of us look silly for characterizing Long as a “reach” draft selection.

As a draft prospect, it wasn’t clear whether Long would end up playing tackle or guard (he has the versatility to play either on any team).

The preseason has made it much clearer: Long should be an upgrade at right guard and a player who can improve the Bears significantly both in making run blocks and in providing steady pass protection.

 

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.

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