In preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft, I've researched and broken down some of the scouting methodologies that NFL teams use, explained how each combine drill translates to the field and illustrated some of the terms player reports commonly feature. These segued nicely into my current series breaking down the attributes, tools and skill sets that scouts look for in NFL Draft prospects when evaluating their play in games.
As I noted while talking receivers and running backs, combine workouts and measurables are excellent benchmarks for athleticism, and at this time of year they're always at the front of our minds. Still, breaking down tape is the absolute best way to evaluate individual players. It's a complex and highly varied process across scouting departments league-wide, but the evaluation of game film can be boiled down to a simple question, whether you're a personnel exec, a pro scout, a pro draft analyst or an amateur fan at home:
What do you look for?
Meet the Bag Man
Each position on the offensive line requires a slightly different skill set, and the body types typically associated with each spot vary. On the outside at tackle, height and/or length are two near essentials, so for most college tackles who are 6'3 and under, a move inside is in order at the next level. That said, while the footwork and roles are different, every lineman must have a few certain attributes, and many players these days are capable of playing several different positions on the line. You see guys who are listed as "G/T" or "G/C" -- guard-tackles or guard-centers -- and there are a few players who separate themselves by being able to play every spot.
As Nevada's Joel Bitonio, a college tackle who saw time at guard and center at the Senior Bowl, told Yahoo! Sports:
"To me, being an offensive lineman is being an offensive lineman. There are different technical aspects and sizes, but just being a good offensive lineman is the biggest thing. Going to the NFL, there is going to be a learning curve. I think that's just going to be part of the learning curve, playing anywhere on the O-line, and I am looking forward to it. I think I am going to feel comfortable at whatever position they put me at.
"You can only have about seven or eight [lineman] active on game days," he noted astutely, "so they want someone who can be versatile and play multiple positions."
One of the first things that scouts likely look for is a player's strength. This isn't necessarily weight-room strength, though I'm sure that's taken into account. What teams look for is a guy who can put his foot in the ground to anchor against an oncoming defensive lineman. If he's uprooted from his spot, does he have the ability to re-anchor before the pocket collapses completely?
Watch below as Zack Martin originally gets too far outside on his pass pro set, but then adjusts and stonewalls the bull rush.
Strength can also be associated with the ability to grapple, latch on and control oncoming blockers without being swatted away or tossed aside.
Legendary coach Bill Walsh published his scouting guideline notes back in 1997, and I'll again reference his insights here. Walsh talked about strength and power, and perceptively noted that as a coach, "you would like long arms that are strong, for leverage. But the timing of the extension, the timing of the block itself, is important. The tackle must have a knack at feeling or knowing where to intersect people."
He went on, "As a pass protector, the guard usually can get help. He just has to have enough power not to get knocked back. He will be helped just by the sheer number of people inside. So he can get away with a shortfall as a pass blocker as long as he has the girth so the defensive tackle cannot pick him up and move him."
"Centers don't often have to block one-on-one with the nose tackle, but if they can it is a great advantage," he noted. "You typically slide a lineman or find a way to help the center. Or he finds a way to help someone else. Now if you have a center who can isolate one-on-one with a nose tackle, it takes tremendous pressure off your guards and everyone else."
Does a tackle, guard or center get push in the run game? Do they affect the line of scrimmage? Do they move people?
Watch #70, LT Joel Bitonio, below (all video via the excellent DraftBreakdown.com), and then check out LT Zack Martin (also #70) affect the line of scrimmage.
I've said this before in this series: I think every GM, scout or amateur evaluator has certain biases and priorities when it comes to the weight different attributes hold. For me, lacking power or strength is nearly a deal breaker, even for a zone blocking scheme.
It's a nasty, physical game, a long season, and whether you're pass blocking or run blocking, an element of power is important. You can technically mitigate things with an underpowered player, but if I were a scout, I'd ask, why even try?
That brings me to a related character trait.
You'll hear scouts say things like, "he plays with tenacity," "he plays with vinegar," "he's a glass eater," "he plays through the whistle" and "he finishes." These things -- all the same -- hold weight with me, more than a lot of other teachable features.
Got that dirtbag in you?
Maybe it's because I'm used to watching the NFC West all season and that division has made its reputation over the past couple seasons for being smash-mouth, hard-nosed and merciless in the trenches. The Niners' offensive line in particular is an enviable one, made up of mean human beings who enjoy, nay, relish hitting the people in front of them. There's a psychological edge that you can project when you have a group like this, and it can trickle down to your whole team.
Balance for an offensive lineman is extremely important. Does he lean forward at the snap or get too upright in his stance? Does he maintain his weight over his legs in pass pro and avoid getting overextended or reach too much for a defender?
Watch LT Jake Matthews:
Does he have a flat back in pass protection and maintain a wide stance with nice knee bend?
While power and tenacity are the first things that come to my mind, there is a finesse part of the game that is necessary. Too often you'll see offensive linemen lunging or reaching to grab a defender, getting off balance and falling forward.
Agility & speed
The 40-yard dash is largely irrelevant when it comes to offensive linemen, but short-area burst and agility is definitely something that scouts and GMs like to see.
A short-area explosiveness or athleticism relates to the kick slide for tackles, which requires quick, nimble feet to mirror and contain outside pass rushers while recovering inside to stonewall stunts and twists.
For interior linemen and tackles on the backside of plays in many schemes, this ability to explode out of a stance and cut block a defender requires some quick-twitch athleticism. Pulling and trapping schemes, which are becoming more popular in the NFL again these days, come into play here too.
As Bill Walsh noted, "There is less technique for the guard in pass protection than there is for the tackle. But the guard, on the other hand, is used on many blocking combinations where he must get from point A to point B, pulling through a hole, trapping, pulling on sweeps, coming inside-out on a linebacker blitzing, as [John] Ayers did so effectively against Lawrence Taylor in some epic battles in the early 1980s. So technique, agility and mobility is important for the guard."
Agility also comes into play at the second level, as Walsh alludes to above, when guards or tackles are asked to find and neutralize a linebacker or safety. This is referred to as "targeting" and watching prospect tape, it's easy to see when an offensive lineman has trouble finding and getting leverage on a defender at the second level.
Hand use is very important. Does a lineman pack punch with his hands and shock a defender at the initial meeting? Does he latch on or is he easily swatted away? Does he get his hands into the body of the defender or does he reach too far outside the torso? Can he reset his hands and re-establish control if he loses the initial battle? Can he use his punch and grip to control defenders, keep them at arm's length, and prevent them from getting too close or "into their body" for leverage?
This ends up being a sack on the other side, but watch Taylor Lewan punch, engage and just control the defensive end.
These are things to key in on.
It's not necessarily easy to spot intelligence on tape, but it's something that scouts and GMs must keep in mind. This is especially true for the center position, because he's the commander for the rest of the line.
As Bill Walsh wrote:
"The center is typically the key man in making line calls. Those calls are vital and there is no way you can do without them. With the constant changes in defenses there has to be communication on your offensive line and obviously your center is the man to do it. So the center must have command of the offensive line blocking system and of the game plan and of the individual players defensively they are facing. He must be able to do all that.
It's not just the center, though, who has to process information quickly.
"The offensive tackle, especially in today's football, must be ready for three or four things that can happen," Walsh said. "Historically, he had to be ready for only one or two things. Now he must adapt to a linebacker blitzing outside and the man he was expecting to block dropping into pass coverage. He is going to have to be quick enough to identify this and move and adjust. So now he must be extremely well-versed and prepared for the techniques of what will happen to him once the ball is snapped."
False starts, holding penalties, late hits -- nothing will draw the ire of a fan base more or get you benched quicker than committing a lot of unforced errors in the form of penalties.
Relatedly, as Walsh notes, "the nature of this position also requires an inner confidence and natural self control to deal with frustration and, in a football sense, disaster. And then he must recover and function at a high level in 30 or 40 seconds. Some people have a disposition to deal with that so much better than others." The trenches are marked by intensity. You're slamming into the guy across from you 30-60 times a game. You're going to give up sacks. You're going to get beat occasionally. The way you react to that, respond to mistakes, is key.
This list of skills and tools to evaluate when watching college offensive line prospects is not complete nor authoritative. When I set out to write it, I hoped that it would generate some discussion in the comments section about priority and weight that different evaluators might give each aspect. Which tools have I missed? Which skills are most important at the position? As with anything in scouting, it's probably subjective, so give me your list below in the comments.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports, John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports, Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports