It was a chaotic day at the NFL Combine on Wednesday, and while general managers and head coaches were getting grilled on the main stage, offensive linemen and tight ends were the real main event. I decided to focus in on the offensive line group in particular -- and it's a fairly deep, talented and diverse group of players this year.
The differentiation game
Making the jump to the pro level is difficult for any position group, obviously, but when it comes to the trenches, a solid understanding of fundamental techniques of playing offensive line is an absolute must. You're no longer consistently bigger or stronger than the guy in front of you, and the margin for error becomes razor thin. So, what skills, attributes, or talents do you have that sets yourself apart from other players in the draft? It was a question that fellow media members and I made sure to ask of just about every one of these linemen.
"I think I play at a very low level, and I think I'm athletic and strong," said South Carolina guard A.J. Cann. "For a guard, I think I'm really athletic. I'm quick, and I think I can basically block anybody if I put my mind to it."
Cann also talked about another fundamental aspect of guard play -- picking up slants and twists by defensive linemen. "We are taught that if you are blocking somebody and your man slants out, you have to have your head on a swivel because anybody can be coming at any different angle so you have to be ready to block. A lot of guys [in the SEC] run stunts, especially in pass situations. You have a lot of twist games and a lot of slants on a angle. That's why your head has to be on a swivel."
In other words, you can't just block the guy in front of you, you've got to be prepared for another defender looping underneath and into your gap. I appreciated this comment because it's not a skill that you hear mentioned all that often -- the ability to recognize and react to line "games" like stunts and twists is an integral part of playing on the line.
"I'm very consistent in my play." Kansas State center B.J. Finney declared when asked about his biggest strength. "I'm the same guy, it doesn't matter. It takes a long time to really make me mad, so I don't let emotion rule my game. I play level headed and I play smart."
As for an area in which to improve? "[Moving] my feet in the second half, when I start getting tired. I've got to keep moving my feet as a wrestler, and I tend to lock up and muscle people. That's the main thing I'm looking into and trying to get better at is keeping my knees bent and my feet moving."
As a former wrestler, though, Finney knows how to use leverage to his advantage. "It helped me being able to manipulate different positions of defensive lineman, using their momentum in my favor, especially in pass protection," he said. "Being able to get their hands off of me, not being able to be moved too much."
Utah offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi listed a few strengths: "My size, my ability to move for a big-body guy, my strength overall. My speed off the ball and my footwork. My footwork helps me with quick recovery."
As for his biggest area to improve upon? "Just my pad level, and I could use a little more flexibility. That's my main concern."
Pad level is tough for the tall guys, generally speaking, and may be an issue for 6'7, 324-pound Corey Robinson. On the other hand, he made a salient, if obvious, point: "I think my size definitely sets me apart. That's what everybody always says.
"I think I'm a good run blocker," he added. "I move people off the line and create holes. I think I'm a smart player," adding a similar point to his teammate in A.J. Cann, "I can adjust during plays and recognize schemes and pick up blitzes.
Colorado State's Ty Sambrailo, simply: "I think my feet [are my biggest strength]. I have pretty quick feet."
Duke tackle Takoby Cofield echoed this when asked the same question. "I would say footwork. If you're playing offensive line, and you don't have very good feet -- you're not moving very well in the lower half -- chances are you're going to get beat, a lot."
Footwork is an aspect of playing on the line that you hear coaches talk about a lot, and in talking with Mocking the Draft's Dan Kadar, he mentioned watching Seahawks general manager John Schneider scouting practice at the Senior Bowl in Mobile. "I watched him observing the offensive line," said Kadar, "And his eyes were just glued to the linemen's feet the whole time."
"Having great feet [is key]," Cofield noted, "And realizing that you're going to be playing against 260-, 270-pound guys that are running 4.4, 4.5 in their 40s, they can move around, they're the best athletes on the field, and you've got to keep them away from the quarterback at 310, 315 pounds."
Not an easy job.
Florida's D.J. Humphries: "I think my fluid athletic ability sets me apart from other guys. There's a lot of guys that are very athletic, like I am, but I think I'm very fluid in how athletic I am. Athletically, it's going to make me stick out, in how quickly I can get to a linebacker or safety."
Of course, the main storyline around Humphries, apart from his apparent ascent toward the top rounds of the draft, is his weight gain to 307 pounds, some 15-20 pounds added since the season.
"The main part for me at the Combine is [concerned with] my weight," he said. "Trying to make the world see what I can do at 300-plus pounds, because I haven't been. It's very vital for the NFL."
It's a fact of life for NFL linemen that the more positions they're able to play, the more valuable they are to a coaching staff. There are a few "pure" left tackles in this league, and if you're not one of those guys (typically taken in the top 10), well, it behooves you to have some positional versatility.
"A lot of guys travel [with the team on road games as part of the active game-day roster] because they can play both positions," said A.J. Cann. "I would be glad to play either position [center or guard] so I would be able to make that travel roster. I don't have a preference. I can play both. A lot of guys asked about center. I don't think that's a problem. I can play center probably.
"When you're inside, you're going up against pretty big guys, bigger guys, more stronger," explained La'el Collins when asked about the differences between guard and tackle. "But when you're out there on the island [at tackle], you're going against fast guys with speed and you have to be able to understand where you're at on the field and the personnel you're going against. Since I played both positions, I understand them very well."
"We have positionals twice a week," said Alabama lineman A.J. Shepherd, "where I train so I was working with the coach to learn guard and learn some more pulling. It's different because at guard, you have to punch right away, but at tackle you can wait and see. I've just been working on both because I don't know where I'm going to play."
"I feel guard is a little easier," noted Utah tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, "because of the fact the D-tackle is just right there. Right out of your stance, he's right there in front of you. At tackle you need to be a little bit more fluid in your steps because you're going against some of the best speed rushers. Not only that, you're out in space by yourself. At guard you've got a lot of help, but guard also is more about being physical."
"I feel like, as a rookie, you have to come in and be versatile," said Duke tackle Takoby Cofield. "Unless you're going to come in and be a day one starter, you have to come in and know, at least, how to play the opposite side. So, if you're a left tackle, you have to at least know how to play the right tackle spot. I played left tackle in my career, but early on I played right tackle. I also took snaps at [center] at practice at the NFLPA Game, did some 9-on-7 work, some things like that, so to have the ability to snap the ball and play center, play a little guard out there too, I can move around -- that's huge, because you're trying to make the team. If there's a hole at guard and all you know how to play is tackle, it's hurting you for getting onto the field."
-- I asked South Carolina guard A.J. Cann which NFL player he looks to emulate, and he mentioned Tennessee guard Chance Warmack. "I became friends with [Chance] a while back and ever since then I have been watching his game and just looking at him play." Warmack was also known as a "pure" guard and a mauler in the phone booth, and went 10th overall in 2013.
-- As for Colorado State tackle Ty Sambrailo? "I watch a lot of Joe Staley, I'm from the Bay Area, and he came out kinda when I was starting to play tackle. He's always been a great player. He's fun to watch. Athletic, technician, great feet."
The toughest guy you've faced?
-- South Carolina's A.J. Cann: "I love playing against Clemson when I face Grady Jarrett. I think he's a very good player. He's a smart player and he's very physical. He gives it all he's got every time, and I love playing against guys like that. We had battles all the time."
-- LSU OL La'el Collins: "Game planning against a guy like Dante Fowler, somebody who is an extremely good pass rusher, somebody who can cause problems. So being able to look at him and break down film on him, understanding his moves and what he likes to do and being able to compete against him is nice, against that caliber guy."
-- Iowa OL Andrew Donnal: "Both at guard and at tackle I've faced some pretty good guys. What comes to mind is both the bowl games. I played against some good guys against LSU and Tennessee, against some good defenders. And in Big Ten play, every week's a battle. There's no real days off, which is a good thing, says a lot about the conference."
-- Kansas State OL B.J. Finney: "The one that gave me the most fits would be Chucky Hunter from TCU. He's just got one motor that is unmatched by anybody that I've played. That guy just keeps coming and coming. He'd probably be the biggest pain that I played."
-- Hobart and William Smith OL Ali Marpet: "Danny Shelton [at the Senior Bowl]. He was on the North squad, so I would go up against him in practice. He's a big body. You don't see a guy who's 330, 340, whatever he is. And if you do see someone that big, you don't see him with that sort of explosiveness. The combination of those things was the biggest jump. I think I struggled most of all with the quickness of some of the edge guys. Nate Orchard was a quick guy off the edge, and it was that first step that was the hardest. I got used to it by the third day. And in the game, I was fine."
-- Utah OL Jeremiah Poutasi: "I'd have to give it to my teammate Nate Orchard. He's a tough guy. I go against him every day. He just comes up with new moves every day. He's long, he's strong and he's fast. He's everything you want in a defensive end."
-- South Carolina OL Corey Robinson: "Dante Fowler." (Succinct, but makes sense).
-- A.J. Shepherd: "I'd probably say Markus Golden from Missouri. He's probably the best player I played against all year. He's just a relentless player. If you watch him, he never gives up toward the ball. So even if you block him, he's going to fight you. He's going to hit you with two or three moves in one play.
-- D.J. Humphries: "Besides Dante [Fowler?] Probably Shane Ray. He's the only person who's ever given me a two-sack game in my college career. He's just tenacious; he has a very good get-off, and he's just tenacious in his effort. He's very good. Folwer? He's a freak. Some people, it's like, "I know I'm going to rip. I know I'm fixing to do a swim move." It's just like, he reacts to everything you do. He comes off the ball -- shake, shake -- whatever you give him, he's going to take it away from you."