Whether it was Jeff Backus, Orlando Pace, Nick Mangold, Matt Light, Joe Thomas or Jake Long, Big Ten football programs have produced outstanding NFL offensive tackles. The 2014 NFL Draft will feature what could be the next great offensive tackle from the Big Ten, Michigan's Taylor Lewan.
Lewan played three years of football at Catus Shadows in Cave Creek, Arizona, as a defensive linemen. By his account he was awful at it. As a senior, he transferred Scottsdale's Chaparral. Not only did he switch schools but he also made the switch to the offensive line. By the end of his senior year, Lewan was offered a scholarship to Michigan.
He redshirted in 2009, then started 11 of 13 games in 2010, becoming a second team All-America selection as well as earning Freshman All-Big Ten honors. His biggest flaw was a propensity for drawing unnecessary penalties. In 2011 he started every game in 2011 earning 2nd team All-Big Ten honors. In 2012 and 2013 he would continue to build his resume earning 1st team All-American honors and back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year awards, becoming only the second Michigan offensive linemen to do so and only the fifth in the history of the Big Ten.
Lewan measured at the combine at 6-foot-7 , 309 pounds with nearly 34 inch arms. He did more than impress at in every drill he did, running a 4.87s 40-yard dash, putting up 29 reps in the bench and jumping a 30.5 inch vertical. His game tape shows off what matters the most; his impressive football ability.
At first glance Lewan biggest attribute is his ability in the run game. In Michigan's zone-heavy scheme, Lewan shows off very good zone footwork, he understands his combination blocks with his fellow blockers and is aware of his body position and angles in the run game. Lewan also has the athleticism to get to the second level which is a must in the zone scheme. He was one of the few college tackles that was successful at staying in front of a run when pulling.
While he doesn't have impressive lower body strength, it is his demeanor as a blocker that makes him successful. Lewan is tenacious and nasty. He blocks from whistle to whistle, sometimes even longer. He enjoys the physicality of the run. He doesn't stop his feet and doesn't give up on a block. Michigan moved him around on the offensive line, lining him up as a TE, as the RT or even using an off-balanced line to take advantage of his run blocking. Below is a play that highlights his intensity as a run blocker.
This play is an example of Lewan's type of nastiness as well as how he works in the zone blocking scheme. With the way that the defensive front is set up, Lewan has a easy shot to the second level. He engages the linebacker, keeping his hands inside and starts to drive him out of the hole. Not content with just creating the hole Lewan drives the LB further out of the way until he pushes him past the sidelines. His block along with the TEs bock and a bad read by the MLB created a huge hole for the running back to get 15 yards.
Lewan also shows great awareness on combination blocks in the zone scheme. He understands when he needs to release from the double team and has the athleticism to get to the next level. As the end man and the key read in the zone he does a great job of turning the defender out on the inside zone and keeping them on the inside on the outside zone (one of the hardest blocks to do in the zone scheme).
Lewan can use his athleticism in a variety of ways aside from zone-blocking in the run game. He was asked to pull many a high number of times for an offensive tackle and had some success doing so. Where is athleticism really shined was in the screen game. The following play highlights Lewan as a screen blocker.
On this play Michigan fakes the run to the right side and has a built in backside screen. The key to this play is Lewan's ability to get out in front of the receiver as an extra blocker. Lewan does a nice job of faking as though he is trying to block the defensive end and then letting him go by. As the DE goes by Lewan runs to get out in front of the screen. Once there he displays impressive awareness in the open field. Many linemen would have attacked the first defender they saw, in this case it would have been the slot CB. Lewan however notices the receiver coming in from the left to block the CB so he slides to the left and turns his eyes to the only unblocked defender. Lewan does a god job of running up the hole, not getting fooled by the defenders quickness and then clearing him out of the way. With about a 100 pound advantage there was no way the safety was going to win this battle. Lewan pushes him out of the way easily and heads up field.
It is easy to see how Lewan's athleticism and demeanor can be used in the run game but as a left tackle he will be judged on his pass blocking skills.
Lewan shows great understanding of pass blocking angles. He adjusts his drops according to the QB's drop and keeps his head on a swivel looking for potential delayed blitzes or stunts. He is very balance in his kick-slide and this allows him to maintain balance at the point of contact. The biggest improvement Lewan made in 2013 is in his anchor strength. The following play highlights this.
In this play you can see Lewan re-anchor himself against the defensive end. He does an excellent job of keeping his hands inside the defender and shows off the core strength and mirror ability to maintain the block. The defensive end in this scenario was clearly over matched. After holding the defensive end and not conceding ground for six seconds the QB decides to forgo the pass and become a runner.
Lewan has a variety of weakness in his game. One of the most frustrating is his inconsistency off the line of scrimmage in his pass drops. Lewan has only average foot speed so it is very important that he fires off the line against the speed rush. However he is inconsistent with his first step at times looking slow and other times coming off quickly. This is seen the most when having to pass block coming out of a three point stance where he slower than coming out in a two point stance.
Lewan also widens his base too far just before the point of contact. I would assume he does this to lower his center of gravity. However doing this slows his ability to move laterally and it can be seen on his tape. It is because of this he is susceptible to the inside move. Unable to move quickly laterally because of the wide he often leans with his block and has trouble maintaining his blocks. This can been seen easily in his bout with Clowney in Michigan's 2012 bowl game.
In the run game Lewan's 6-foot-7 frame is a detriment at times due to his pad level. He can do a better job of bending more and getting underneath the defender. He also needs to improve his lower body strength to help move defenders in the run game as at this point, much of his success in that area has to do with effort and not technique or strength.
He needs to continue to play with in the whistle as he had a reputation at Michigan of drawing a few penalties. Most notably the Michigan State game of 2013. There are also some off the field red flags for Lewan. In 2009 he had allegedly threatened a rape victim who had accused one of Lewan's teammates at Michigan. He has also been charged with misdemeanor assault after two Ohio State fans claimed that Lewan had participated in an assault on them on December 1st. Lewan denies the allegations.
Overall Lewan is a very valuable player in this draft. He versatility allows him to project as either a LT or RT in the NFL. His athleticism makes him an ideal candidate for a zone blocking scheme. Lewan has the ability to be a successful player in the NFL, while he does not do anyone thing at an elite level Lewan should be drafted in the the top 20 and be a successful LT for a NFL team for a while.