Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE
Time to give the big uglies some love. What do coaches look for when evaluating offensive linemen? How do they account for things like level of competition and potential versus production? What happens when an athlete has great game tape, but lacks ideal height, weight, or speed? We'll attempt to answer those questions as we get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft.
I admit my bias. I love offensive linemen. I think they epitomize everything that is great about the sport. You know who else would love offensive linemen? Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson believed firmly that an agrarian society instilled within its people the traits necessary in order for a Democracy to survive. Hard work, the delayal of self-gratification, and the diaspora that living on large tracts of land produced were all necessary cultural characteristics of a thriving Republic. And Jefferson, much to the consternation of Alexander Hamilton, believed that those characteristics were best cultivated on farms.
Even though Hamilton's ideal of America flourished instead of Jefferson's, Jefferson today would love seeing the selfless, arduous, and thankless duties that offensive linemen perform any given Sunday. Offensive linemen are the hardest working group on any team. They play the most physical position on the field. As a result, they are often the most humble and genuine members of any football team.
No offensive linemen has ever written a book entitled, "Just Run the Damn Ball!"
After a rough loss, a head coach has never had to pathetically try to excuse a lineman's boorish behavior by saying that he is a competitor and he just wants to win.
An offensive lineman has never gotten into a shouting match on the sidelines with the OC because the OC decided to run an empty formation on 3rd and 1.
But I digress.
As much as I would love to continue to extoll the virtues of offensive linemen and discuss dead Presidents here on BTSC, the purpose of the article (and the ones that follow) is to enlighten the reader as to what coaches look for when evaluating a player.
Most pro coaches assume that offensive linemen are adequate run blockers. Really, all that is needed is a stalemate. Most running backs in the NFL are talented enough to make a play as long as the offensive line gets the proverbial "hat on a hat."
Pass protection is where an offensive lineman makes his money. This is why tackles are rated so much higher than guards. Guards can often get help in pass pro. Moreover, outside of guys like Geno Atkins, defensive ends are the superior pass rushers. Therefore, oftentimes, tackles are on an island against the other team's premier pass rusher.
This is why height, or more specifically long arms, are so valued. The longer the lever, the stronger it is. Once an elite tackle is able to deliver his punch, it's game over.
The trade off with height is athleticism. Normally, because the center of gravity on a 6'8" man is so high, they normally do not have very good balance or coordination. If you do, you've hit the jackpot. One thing coaches look at when evaluating a lineman's balance, is whether or not the linemen engages too much with his helmet. When run or pass blocking a defender, your head should not be involved. If it is, you have too much weight forward and you're going to end up falling forward. Or, as is sometimes the case with someone like Willie Colon, you end up with a holding penalty. All linemen hold, but the athletic ones are able to stay square on the defender. Holding is called when a lineman gets his hands outside the framework of his body. With balance, coaches look for linemen that can play with quick, heavy feet and a great base.
These are the ways that coaches are able to evaluate film irregardless of the competition. If a guard is dominating the guy across from him, but he is playing with a really narrow base, or he has too much weight forward when blocking, the coach can assume that his skill is not going to translate. That player is just getting by on raw strength and ability.
A lineman's strength manifests itself in two main ways on the field. First, the lineman plays with a very strong spine. They play with an S in their back. Linemen should never play with a rounded back. Having a nice, curved back keeps you in all the proper power angles and thus allows you to maintain proper leverage when blocking.
Secondly, coaches look to see how a lineman is able to handle a bull rush. Are they able to anchor and hold their ground? If not, then there is a red flag that the lineman probably has a lack of core strength. Great linemen have the ability to "pop" when they come off the ball. Think of the old Bruce Lee six inch punch. They are able to generate power immediately. This combination of power and quickness essentially puts the defender on skates and allows the blocker to get movement. As I mentioned earlier, this is great but not necessarily needed if you have a good running back. All a good running back should need is a stalemate in the run game.
Offensive line coaches love to watch linemen finish. Do they block to the whistle? Do they finish plays? How are they in space? That would be a lot more important for a team that throws a lot of screen passes. If you don't throw screens, then it is not as important.
Anyone with an elementary knowledge of football knows that linemen need to be knee benders. That is actually somewhat of a misnomer. Flexibility starts at the ankles, not the knees. So, linemen actually need to be good ankle benders. Coaches want to see linemen have this triple extension (ankles, knees, then hips) when linemen perform the vertical and broad jump test. They care a lot more about those tests then a bench press rep test. A guy that can bench press 600 pounds with short arms is useless.
Agility tests are done to test the athleticism of a linemen. Once again though, if you are 6-foot-2, it doesn't really matter how well you can run the L drill.
Offensive linemen have to be coachable. They've got to be able to assimilate a lot of material, and if a coach wants to make an adjustment on the fly, you've got to be able to do that. You'll see me write this a lot thoughtout this series, but arguably the most important part of the combine is the part we don't see. It's the interview. Coaches will follow up the interview by talking to college and even high school coaches about a prospect. They'll talk to college officials. During the combine and pro days, coaches will watch how the prospects interact with each other. They'll try to leave no stone unturned pertaining to the prospect's mental makeup.
As you can see by the amount of words given to each section, game tape is by far the most important. How do coaches evaluate kids from smaller schools that faced inferior competition? As was mentioned, certain coaches have certain things they are looking for. Can they anchor against a bull rush? Do they maintain a good base in run and pass? How is their flexibility? Do they have a strong spine? Do they engage too much with their head? Do they play with good power angles?
How do they dominate their competition? If from a small school, do they dominate their competiton all the time? How do they improve from week one to the last game of the year?
Coaches create a list like this and use it to evaluate their prospects. How well a lineman is able to "check all the boxes" is what determines his grade. A second or third round offensive tackle prospect might have great size. He plays with a good base, but he sometimes falls off of blocks too much. He plays a little too high. He handles a bull rush well but has trouble handling elite edge rushers.
A later pick, say in the 6 or 7th round probably does not have the elite size you're looking for. But, he was probably a very productive college player. Usually, with these guys a coach sees something. "Hey, he might not have long arms, but he constantly wins in pass pro." Or, a coach might fall in love with the intangibles. He might think that a player is able to compensate because they play super aggressive.
Honestly, if I could identify projected 7th rounders that could start in the NFL, I'd be interviewing for GM jobs right now. At that point, you just try to identify a few things you like and hope you have something to work with.
Everyone has their own way of doing things, and everyone has some things that are particular to their scheme. The things I tried to highlight in this article are common fundamentals. I look forward to seeing what everyone has to add with their comments.