Breaking Down the Struggles of Top Picks Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher
It's way too early to make any kind of final conclusions after only three games this season and it's ridiculous to even have to write that, but their struggles have flown under the radar for two entirely different reasons.
The Chiefs have been one of the surprise teams in the NFL this season, starting 3-0 after wins against the Jaguars, Cowboys and Eagles. Fisher's struggles haven't been under the microscope because his team has been winning. Regardless of how his play is judged, all that matters is that the Chiefs are winning games.
On the opposite side, the Jaguars have been a complete mess on offense and that doesn't have much to do with Joeckel either way. Sure, better play from the rookie might change Jacksonville's offense in a small way, but the Jaguars have much bigger problems than their rookie right tackle.
We have the top two picks from the 2013 draft struggling and it's not a top storyline in either city. Maybe that's the luxury of taking an offensive lineman with a top pick in the draft. A top pick at quarterback would be on the front page every day, whether he was good or bad. That's just the nature of the position.
Looking at the numbers via Pro Football Focus
|Overall Rank||Pass Blocking Rank||Run Blocking Rank|
|Eric Fisher||69th (72)||59th (72)||63rd (72)|
|Luke Joeckel||45th (72)||32nd (72)||56th (72)|
Pro Football Focus
None of the individual stats or rankings look all that impressive for either player as top NFL draft picks.
Based on their numbers, you'd think that Joeckel is "winning", but can you really say that's the case when you look at the Jaguars and Chiefs right now? Perhaps from taking a broad view, it's easy to look at it that way.
We like to individualize things and rank players because it simplifies what fans want to know. But these two teams are moving in opposite directions and there's only so much Joeckel can do to help the Jaguars win a game. Meanwhile, Fisher hasn't cost the Chiefs any games yet.
Just for argument's sake, if Joeckel and Fisher were the top two ranked offensive tackles in the NFL right now, would their teams' situations have changed? The Chiefs would most likely still be 3-0 and the Jaguars would still most likely be win-less.
This doesn't excuse or diminish their play but it might be an example of how positional value plays a role in a team game.
The stats and rankings at Pro Football Focus shouldn't be taken as gospel, as many of their rankings are subjective, but they do give you a broad idea of how players are playing.
Let's take a look at a couple of plays from each of these players, both good and bad.
In this play against the Philadelphia Eagles you'll see Fisher get beat to the inside by Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin.
The defensive linemen across from Fisher is lined up in a 5-technique, and he's going to shoot across Fisher's face to the inside to meet the right guard. Fisher attempts to get outside to cut off the angle from Barwin, who's coming off the edge, but overcompensates and allows Barwin to easily come back inside and get a hit on quarterback Alex Smith.
While it doesn't fit exactly with this play because his attempt to clean up didn't negate the hit on Smith, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid broke down his rookie right tackle, per Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star.
"Sometimes, he gets in awkward positions and he's got all that athletic ability where he fights his way out of it", Reid said. "Sometimes it's not the prettiest picture but it ends up being a productive play. I appreciate that from him. That you can work with as a coach."
You can see all of Reid's point in this video, but Fisher's struggles in pass protection this season have been in getting beat to the inside. In the first game against the Jaguars, he struggled with defensive lineman stunting and crossing back inside of him.
It's not a matter of being overmatched as much as it is of understanding your body at the level of the NFL. Coming out of Central Michigan, Fisher didn't see a lot of players of that caliber. Like Joeckel, Fisher is also dealing with being moved from left tackle to right tackle. Contrary to what works in Madden, it's not that simple in real life.
In the play below, you'll see the other side of Fisher. In this run against the Eagles, Fisher works his way down the field to help Jamaal Charles pick up a big gain in the fourth quarter.
Fisher does a great job of getting to the second level and maintaining proper leverage and balance as he blocks his man 10 yards down the field.
The Jaguars haven't had the start to the season that they were hoping for and Joeckel hasn't exactly lit it up to this point either. Still, it's hard to be disappointed in the No. 2 overall pick after just three games.
There are many things that need to be addressed regarding the Jaguars. Joeckel, who actually ranks higher than left tackle Eugene Monroe according to Pro Football Focus, isn't one of them.
Joeckel's knows that the mental part of the game is just as important, if not more important, than the physical part. He talked about missing an assignment in the Jaguars' 19-9 loss to the Oakland Raiders in Week 2, per Ryan O' Halloran of Jacksonville.com:
We called something and then we switched it but I didn’t get the second cal. It was a loud atmosphere and it was me not focusing in and listening to [Brad Meester’s] call and that hurt me. I just missed it. It’s something we can fix.
The play that Joeckel was referring to is diagrammed below.
Joeckel slides to the inside to help on the defensive tackle and believes either the tight end that's initially lined up next to him will stay in and block, or that the running back was going to pick him up. Either way, if left a free lane to the quarterback for the Raiders defensive lineman to swoop in.
Something else that Joeckel and Fisher will both have to learn while playing on the right side, and in the NFL in general, is the speed of the game. Not only are they having to learn to do things with their opposite hands and feet, they're also having to do it much quicker and against much stronger players than they have in the past. Their kick-step, punch and slide are all in the opposite direction of what they took in the past and it will take time for them to develop their comfort level.
The play below featuring Joeckel is just an example of the speed of the game being different than what he was used to at Texas A&M.
Joeckel has the difficult task of completely getting across the face of the 3-technique defensive tackle in the red zone on an inside-zone handoff. The defensive tackle is just too quick and blows right into the backfield to disrupt the play and get the tackle for a loss.
Joeckel's first step needs to be quicker. It's just part of the learning process right now for him and the same goes for Fisher as well.
Both rookies will continue to start for their respective teams and develop as the season goes along. Based on what has happened thus far this season, there's a better chance that Fisher begins to see more of the spotlight on his negative play if it continues than Joeckel will.
Who's going to be the better long-term player?
If the Chiefs suddenly drop a couple of games and Fisher continues to struggle, many won't continue to overlook these struggles. Players shouldn't be judged until at least the third year of their careers, but that's just not the way things work in the NFL right now.
Fisher seems to be doing the right things, though, and his teammates believe he's on the right track. Fellow offensive lineman Donald Stephenson praised the rookie, per Paylor of The Kansas City Star:
Everybody struggles that rookie year, and he’s handling it pretty good. He’s always in here working on days off, watching extra film. … He’s already acting like a vet. That’s going to pay off for him. The effort is there.
That seems to be one thing that you don't have to worry about with either of these players. They seem to be self-motivated and understand what they need to do to get better. Joeckel took responsibility for his missed assignment above and owned up to it like a professional. Fisher also seems to be going about his business in a way that impresses even the veterans.
These players might not be having the starts to their careers that they desired, but in the big picture, neither of them have affected their team in a negative way despite their struggles. That's a small victory in itself.
But just like all offensive linemen at any point in their careers, expect to hear their names for the rest of the season only when they're doing something wrong.
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