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2021 NFL Draft: The Steelers land a physical lineman in Round 3 of the draft

What did the Steelers get when they took Kendrick Green in the 3rd round? We break it down by looking at the film.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Steelers selected University of Illinois center/guard Kendrick Green in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft on Friday night, providing them a versatile player who will bolster their offensive line.

Green was a three-year starter for the Illini, logging 29 starts at guard and four at center. He earned All Big Ten and Second Team All America honors in 2020. He has quick feet and, as an accomplished high school wrestler, is difficult for defenders to shed once he engages them. At a news conference to discuss Green’s selection, Pittsburgh offensive line coach Adrian Klemm said Green was attractive for his leadership qualities (“he was the alpha of that line at Illinois”) and because he fit the description of players who could “change the demeanor” of the Steelers up front. In other words, Green is tough and nasty.

One drawback is that Green is just 6’2 and has short arms for a lineman, which can be an issue against bigger defenders. Still, Green will likely be given the opportunity to compete for the starting center position in Pittsburgh as a rookie. He could also be considered as an eventual replacement for David DeCastro at guard.

For this film breakdown, I’ve chosen Illinois’s game against Northwestern last season. This is a nice game to evaluate because Green gets reps at both guard and center and because Northwestern is a quality opponent. Let’s take a look.


One thing that jumps out immediately about Green is how quick he is off of the football. Below we see him at left guard (#53) blocking an outside zone play to his right. Green has to reach the one-tech tackle lined up to the right of the center. That’s a full two gaps over, yet he does it with ease. Watch how quickly he gets out of his stance and, on contact, flips his hips to pin the defender, creating a seam for the running back:

Outside zone is a staple of Matt Canada’s offense and a play at which the Steelers’ new starting running back, first round draft pick Najee Harris, excels. It’s easy, given Green’s quickness and fluidity, to see him as a nice scheme fit for that play.

Here’s another example of Green’s quick get-off. He’s at left guard and will block out on the three-tech defender on this inside zone run. Green’s speed off of the football allows him to strike first, gain good hand position and run the defender out of the play:

Here, on an inside zone RPO, Green’s get-off, leverage and strong base (he squatted 700 pounds at Illinois) allow him to put the three-tech on the ground:

On the next play, Green is blocking inside zone to his right. He’s responsible for anything that shows in the A-gap between him and the center. Initially, he blocks the 2i tackle aligned on his inside shoulder. But as the tackle pinches towards the center, Green passes him off and picks up the linebacker, who is running a twist into the A-gap:

While I’d like to see Green play a bit lower and deliver a better blow on the backer, he manages to wash the backer out of the hole and open a lane for his back. More importantly, he demonstrates an understanding of his responsibility in the zone scheme and the discipline not to chase or be fooled by a stunt from the defense.

Here’s one more inside zone run, again to his right. Green (left guard) is again fast off of the football, this time pinning the backside one-tech as he slants across the center’s face into the near A-gap. Green loses his feet on the play (something that happens fairly often with him, which he will have to correct by not lunging) but he stops the stunt cold and provides his back a nice lane through which to run:

Green also moves his feet well in pass protection. On this throw, he sets with a good wide base, keeps his hands inside and mirrors the feet of his adjacent defender. This keeps Green on balance and stymies the defender’s rush:

I like Green’s effort in pass protection on this next play. He’s at center here and executes a slide protection to his right. He initially engages the defensive tackle but, realizing he has help from the guard, keeps his head moving and locates a loop stunt coming from the opposite side of the line. Green works back to help on the stunt before hustling to get out in front of his quarterback as he leaves the pocket. Green shows great situational awareness on this play, which speaks highly of his football IQ.

There is also a nastiness to Green’s game that will make old-school fans happy. Green seeks contact and commonly plays to the echo of the whistle. Watch him here as he pulls around to block the linebacker on this power-read play. The backer flows with the outside run action and Green cannot get to him. Rather than give up, he chases the play, finds a dark-colored jersey and hammers it:

On this play, Green picks up a safety inserting himself into the box to defend an inside zone run. The safety, not showing great enthusiasm for engaging Green, spins away. Green pivots, finds the football and then launches himself at a pursuing linebacker. It’s a play that demonstrates great hustle, but could also prompt a trigger-happy referee to reach for his flag. It’s also the type of play that endears a lineman to his teammates for the all-out effort it displays:

Here’s one more. On this pass play, Northwestern rushes just three defenders and Green finds himself with no one to block. So, he does what all linemen are taught by “finding work,” which is coach-speak for putting his body on someone. Green obliges, flattening the unsuspecting nose tackle:

Green will have to learn to navigate the fine line in the NFL between great hustle and unsportsmanlike conduct. In all of the scouting reports I read on him, he was never described as a dirty player. Physical and nasty? Yes. Dirty? No. There’s no doubt plays like these will make him popular in Pittsburgh, so long as he confines them to the whistle.

Green’s game is not without flaws, of course. Sometimes, his aggressiveness can put him at a disadvantage. Here, again at left guard, he climbs to block the middle linebacker but gets out too quickly, opening a backdoor through which the backer flows to the football. Green needs to be more patient here, not turn his shoulders and force the backer to go over top of him to get to the ball-carrier:

On this play, Green, at center, runs a pin-and-pull sweep that should look familiar to Steelers fans. This is a play Maurkice Pouncey executed successfully many times over his career. Green looks good getting out and pulling. He moves well for a big man with a thick lower body (much better than players like Josh Meyers and Trey Hill, two center prospects who were commonly mocked to the Steelers throughout the draft process). However, as we noted above, Green has a tendency to lunge and get off balance, which we see here as he attempts to kick out the corner near the sideline. Granted, the corner avoids contact by backing away from Green. But you can see how Green drops his chest and lunges while initiating the block. If he’s going to be utilized in space on linebackers and safeties, Green will have to work on keeping his feet under his shoulders and staying square on his targets:

Oddly, there are times where Green falls into lazy habits as well. Occasionally, he will morph from the most aggressive player on the field into one who makes initial contact then passively watches the play.

Here, at center, he has A-gap protection responsibility. He slides to his left to engage the one-tech tackle and receives help from the guard, who has no one threatening him in the B-gap. The one-tech makes a half-hearted attempt to split the double team and then plays paddy-cake at the line of scrimmage. Correspondingly, Green gets caught with his feet anchored to the ground, which is both lazy and dangerous (it’s a good way to have someone roll up on your knee):

This looks more like a Friday afternoon practice rep than a play in a live game. While Green technically does his job, you’d like to see him make more of an effort to either bury the one-tech or at least chop his feet to protect himself. I have no doubt Coach Klemm will preach consistency on every rep to maximize Green’s potential.

Outlook

The Steelers had a chance to draft Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey in Round 2 but passed on him to take tight end Pat Freiermuth from Penn State. The decision seemed odd to those who believed Humphrey was the best center in the draft. But Humphrey, as good as he may be, is more of an athlete and technician than he is a mauler. Green, while displaying good mobility, plays more in the mold of Alabama’s Landon Dickerson, who was drafted at No. 37 by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Steelers, while nervous about his multiple knee surgeries, gushed about Dickerson in the pre-draft process. This suggests they were looking for a more physical player in an effort to, as Klemm said, change the line’s demeanor. With Green, Kevin Dotson and Zach Banner in the fold, that transformation appears underway.

Joining Dotson and Banner in the starting lineup seems a matter of “when,” not “if” for Green. He may be good enough to win the job at center in training camp. If not, Green could backup both the center and guard positions as he develops. He’s a solid acquisition whose versatility, mobility and nasty streak could make him a fixture for years to come in Pittsburgh.