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The secret to picking a great offensive lineman in the NFL draft

College spread offenses are making it harder than ever to evaluate offensive linemen for the NFL draft. Here's how to do it right.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The college game has changed how offensive lineman get ready for the NFL, and how they are evaluated for the NFL. The college game used to be a glorified minor league for the NFL. The same basic offensive principles were taught and executed at both levels. You could see a guard block a three-technique on a zone play, or a left tackle pass protect from a three-point stance, exactly how he would on Sundays.

Nowadays, with the advancement of the spread offense in college, a college offensive lineman may only rarely be asked to execute the same assignments and techniques that will be asked of him in the NFL.

In addition, practice time was cut drastically when the new NFL collective bargaining agreement was approved in 2011. The CBA reduced the offseason program from 14 weeks to nine, and created time limits. Training camp went from being daily, with occasional two-a-days, to just one padded practice per day and one day off per week.

I remember during my first few seasons before the new CBA, we would be in full pads twice in week 17. Not anymore. At first, I was thrilled about the changes. I still am — they mean much less wear and tear on players. However, you can trace the slide in NFL offensive line play back to the start of the new practice schedules, alongside the rise of college spread offenses.

So if you’re a college offensive lineman looking to translate your skills to the NFL, or a scout grading college offensive lineman, what are the positives and negatives in a player’s game that translate to the NFL? Can some flaws be fixed with coaching and limited practice time?

It all starts with the stance

“Schwartzie, get over here, let’s fix that stance of yours,” our veteran, and my mentor, Jordan Gross told me. It was early in the offseason program of my second season, in 2009. I had spent the better part of my rookie season trying to become comfortable in a three-point stance, which I rarely did at Oregon.

The most basic of things, the stance, is the first key to becoming a productive offensive lineman. It’s normally the first thing that needs correcting when players enter the NFL.

Playing offensive line is uncomfortable. Getting down in a stance isn’t natural. Straining through your facemask to see the defense — through the defensive line, past the linebackers, and all the way to the safeties — isn’t natural. On half the plays, you start by going backwards against a defender who is most likely quicker than you, and has a simple assignment: get to his gap, and get to the quarterback.

When you start in a stance that's efficient for you, you can play with balance and power, and be efficient with your movement. Because offensive linemen are often athletically inferior to defensive linemen, wasted movement is a no-no. When you have wasted movement, your feet will either be too narrow, or too wide. When you make contact, you will be leaning on guys with your hips behind you, which means ZERO power.

In college, you will notice that a majority of offensive linemen spend their time in a two-point stance, with no hand on the ground. This stance is comfortable — no straining required. But in the NFL, a good three-point stance is required for success. It allows for efficient movement, and also masks whether the play call is a run or a pass.

That’s why you often see college programs with pro style offenses — Iowa, Wisconsin, USC, Notre Dame, and Ohio State — produce excellent NFL offensive lineman. Linemen from these systems have taken so many reps out the three-point stance that they only need to adjust to the speed and strength of NFL defensive lineman.

A false step out of your stance — when you’re supposed to step at an angle to the right, and you step back first; or when pass protecting, you step forward; or your knee flares out when you go to move instead of your foot — is a huge red flag. The first step is ingrained in your movement pattern over many reps. A false step means you do it in drills and haven’t corrected the issue. It also means that when you’re tired, and things are going badly, you will revert to what’s easiest, which is the wasted movement.

In the run game, you have to unload your hips and hands at the same time to generate movement. You can only do this with a good base. You DON’T need to be “low,” though it’s ideal for leverage purposes. If you have strong hands and understand angles and leverage, you will be fine.

Linemen also need certain mental and physical intangibles

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

We need the utmost trust in our line mates to work in perfect unison and be successful. The best linemen know everyone else’s job as well as their own, like who wide receivers are supposed to block on a run.

Physically, linemen must finish. Finishing in the NFL doesn’t just mean pancaking players — that’s rare. Finishing means, essentially, taking your man further than he wants to go, with an attitude. Finishing is so important because it’s a mindset. You build that mindset in the weight room and in the meeting room. It only happens when your body is in a position to move the defender with power — a good base, engaged core, powerful hips, strong hands in the right position, and knowing exactly when to strike.

If you always strive to finish, it will show up on Sundays.

Playing offensive line requires constant reps. Few of us are so naturally gifted that we don’t need the practice. They need to be quality reps, too — reps that are close to game speed and in pads. We have to feel how to block someone, how to unload our hips, hands, and hat at the precise moment of contact, how to block this play vs. that defense, and so on.

Let’s start in on some film but with a few disclaimers

There are great plays and awful plays on tape. Y’all can watch the full copy of these videos and come to your own conclusions. For this exercise I’ll be looking at highly drafted college left tackles, for two reasons: First, it’s easiest to see positives and negatives on film at the tackle position; and second, more emphasis is placed on the left tackle position than any other line position.

Two players from the 2016 draft played in college systems that closely resemble pro techniques, and seem to be panning out in the NFL: Ronnie Stanley, drafted by the Ravens out of Notre Dame, and Taylor Decker, drafted by the Lions out of Ohio State. Watching their film, both play with balance, power, and finish in the run game — exactly what you want from a top college prospect. They shoot their hands in pass pro, and deliver a punch. Then, for better lack of term, they play basketball, doing everything they can to stay in front of their man.

Lastly, and this is SO important, they do so much of this from a three-point stance. They are comfortable doing the uncomfortable.

I’m highlighting Stanley here to save some space, but you’ll see the same thing when you watch Decker. I’ve used film from the 2016 Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Notre Dame. Stanley is efficient with his movements and punches. It’s clear to me why he was drafted highly and has a future in the NFL.

These two clips show Stanley pass protecting from a three-point stance in pass situations, which is rare in college. His stance is efficient, and his kicks are balanced. In the first clip, he shoots his hands with his head back, not leaning. When the defender goes to swipe his arm down, he replaces well.

Notice the balance throughout this rep. It’s common for offensive linemen to lunge when defenders knock down their hands, or to stop moving their feet as they try to reset. None of this happens here. Stanley just plays basketball with the defender.

In the second clip above, he misses with his hands, but the punch is still generated from the right part of his body. Again, Stanley is balanced in his stance. He does an excellent job of resetting his outside hand, getting inside of the defender, and taking control of the block. Because his feet are in a good position, he’s able to stop the bull rush, while resetting his hands. Good work.

In this reach block with the tight end, you can see Stanley doesn’t waste any movement with his footwork. He is efficient and smooth. He gets to his aiming point, and continues to drive the defender further than he wants to go. Would I have liked to see him lower? Sure, or maybe even a tad more explosive, but his footwork is excellent and he plays with strong hands — all things you can work with at the next level. No major red flags.

Fast forward to the NFL and his rookie season: the same blocks he had in college, he is executing in the NFL.

Here is Stanley executing the same reach block he made in college, but he’s more explosive and lower now. Same good footwork, and his hand placement is OK, but his power is improved.

This is clinic tape pass set by Stanley against Pittsburgh’s James Harrison. It looks exactly like his college tape. He’s in a three-point stance, and it’s great physical positioning — hands excellent, anchors on the bull rush. There’s no panic in Stanley’s set because he has done it a zillion times in college.

Also important to note: it’s second-and-9, and he’s down in a stance. It could be run or pass, and Stanley isn’t giving anything away.

Let’s discuss a few players who have struggled to make the transition

Luke Joeckel, Ereck Flowers, and Greg Robinson were all highly regarded draft prospects, and all three have struggled so far in the NFL. Watching their college film, it’s clear that they are athletic and talented, and have the potential to be excellent pros. Joeckel and Robinson played in college offenses that barely resembled anything that exists in the NFL. I could hardly find any clips to make comparisons. Flowers played in a pro-style offense, so it’s even more disappointing that he hasn’t made the transition well.

Flowers had his technique issues in college, but they were overlooked because he's physically superior to his opponents. He wastes movement in his pass sets. Notice in the clips below the hitch in his kick with his front leg and how he opens up late. Because his feet are behind his body and he’s not in a good base, he can’t properly punch. Instead of punching from his back, with his head back and core engaged, he punches from the shoulders, and often has his hands way outside of the frame of the defender.

When you miss with your hands but punch from the back with your elbows in, you can recover. These are techniques that, without the practice time, are difficult to correct.

Again, these are just a few clips. There are times when Flowers was dominant in college. He’s big, strong, and physical. It’s easy to see why he was drafted so high.

Watch the front foot. At the snap, Flowers has to readjust his weight just before he starts. This tiny fraction of time isn’t a big deal in college, but in the NFL, it could lead to a blown play. He punches from his shoulders and rounds his punch. He wins this rep simply because he’s bigger and stronger.

Here, Flowers is playing against Randy Gregory, future draft pick of the Cowboys. He has the same hitch with the front leg, then tries to punch with his shoulders and Gregory catches him in the chest. This is Flowers’ biggest weakness in the NFL, as illustrated by this rep against the PackersClay Matthews from last season.

In the run game, the same issues that hurt him in college, show up in the NFL.

Here is a simple zone play. Flowers is using gallop footwork (which is fine), but notice how his hips are behind him, he leans with his head, and he grabs the outside of the shoulder pads. He has no movement, and he’s too high.

Once again: High, feet stop on contact, hands outside the frame, and when the defender tries to get off, Flowers has to grab him.

There is plenty of good on Flowers’ film. When he is in good body position, no one can beat him on the edge. However, for being a lineman picked near the top of the draft, he has flaws that will be hard to correct over time.

In college, when you’re physically superior to your opponent, some of these issues can be overlooked, but if a lineman struggles with his base in college, he is bound to struggle in the NFL when the game is faster and more precise.

Lack of practice time, which is most appreciated by current players, has no doubt hurt offensive lineman the most, but the NFL is slowly starting to fix the process. Teams are hiring offensive line scouts specifically to help identify college players — players like Ronnie Stanley, Taylor Decker, and Jack Conklin — who are able to smoothly transition to the NFL out of their college systems.

The key to drafting linemen is to look for techniques that translate to the NFL, rather than fawning over the physical traits of a particular lineman who has unfixable issues.

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