As everyone who knows me knows, I have been evaluating football players for a long time. It's been 42 years since I started making a living doing evaluations. In that time, two positions took me longer to learn how to evaluate and feel comfortable evaluating them: offensive linemen and defensive backs.
When I started out, I was looking mostly at the player's production — meaning, did he win or lose each rep? As I became friends with many offensive line coaches, I began to pick their brains to really learn the nuances of the position. The first thing I learned was I couldn't evaluate a tackle the way I evaluate a guard or a center. These are separate positions, and they require different skill sets. Through years of experience, I feel that what works for me the best is to go through a checklist of little things that turn out to be what the player actually is. In other words, an offensive lineman is the sum of all the parts.
Now I realize that many of you don't or won't do it that way, and that's fine. Each person has their own way of doing an evaluation. The important thing is that in the end, I feel good about the evaluation, and I will stand up for what I have put on paper.
Just to give you a little background, my first full-time job in the League was as a Combine scout for National Football Scouting. As a Combine scout, I had to look at players differently than a team scout would. I wrote a more generic report of the prospect as a player. A team scout has a certain position profile that he has to account for when doing the evaluation. The team scout is looking for certain traits at each position, and if the player he is watching lacks some of those traits, he has to mention that the player is not a "fit" for his team. That does not mean the player is not a good football player, but rather he just doesn't have some of the characteristics that his team wants at certain positions.
For example, with the Chicago Bears, because they play an outside zone scheme, the player has to have a high degree of athleticism. He has to be able to play in space, adjust on the move and make a productive block. In a power scheme, athleticism doesn't mean as much, but girth, strength and power are very important. There are players who just match one scheme better than another. There are some very good offensive linemen in the League that just aren't athletic enough to play within the Bears' scheme.
Orlando Brown is a perfect example. Many fans wanted the Bears to go after him in free agency. It wasn't ever going to happen. Brown is a terrific player, but he lacks the athleticism to do the things in space the Bears want their OLinemen to do. Why try to sign a player that can't play within the scheme? It's foolish.
For the sake of this discussion, I will be more generic than team-oriented. Basically, does a player have the traits to play in the National Football League?
When I am watching offensive linemen, I prefer to look at the endzone copy of the tape. The wide-angle sideline copy just doesn't let me see what I need to see. Before watching any tape, I look to see if there are any verified measurables on the player. Meaning height, weight, speed and arm length. If those aren't available, I look at what the media guide has regarding height and weight. During the course of viewing the tape, I estimate his play speed, and just watching the tape gives me a general idea of his arm length. Tackles need to be tall and long. More than any other position, arm length is of huge importance to a tackle. He has to have long arms in order to play with leverage. I have always been taught that 33" arms is the absolute minimum a tackle can have. I prefer 34" or better. With guards and centers, arm length isn't as important. There are some great interior offensive linemen that have shorter arms. The Cowboys Zach Martin has 32 ½" arms, and he's one of the best guards in the game. Olin Kruetz, one of the best centers of all time, had 31 ¾" arms. Interior linemen play in a tighter space, so long arms aren't quite as important.
The first thing I look at when I put on the tape is the player's stance. Why? Without seeing the player move, I can learn a lot about him just by seeing him line up. I look for the player to be comfortable in his stance with both feet flat on the ground, his knees facing straight ahead, and his butt down low. If a player is up on his toes in his stance, it can mean that he has tightness in his ankles. If his knees are bowed out, it could mean tightness in his knees and hips. Not being able to stay low in his stance can mean the same thing. Offensive linemen must be flexible in their ankles, knees and hips; if they aren't, it will cause movement problems or cause them to play tall.
Next, I watch how the player comes out of his stance. How good is his snap reaction and initial quickness? The last thing I want to see is a player being the last guy off the ball. A player can't be productive if he doesn't get out of his stance quickly.
When coming out of his stance, I want the player to come out low and gradually rise up. If a player stands up right away, it shows some stiffness in his body and also gives his opponent a huge advantage. I also look at his steps. Does he take short steps or long steps? I prefer shorter steps as that helps with balance by keeping his feet under him.
Next, I look at how he initiates contact. I want to see the player show some snap in his hips on contact. That shows explosion. Then I look at his feet. Does he keep his feet moving on contact or does he stop his feet and try to re-start? It's important that he consistently runs his feet through the block. It's also important to see if the player finishes the block. Look for a guy who goes snap to whistle. There are times when we see a player start the block very well, but he doesn't finish it. That is a huge negative when grading the play.
An offensive lineman is often asked to make combo blocks, so I then look at how he can come off the original block and get to the second block. Is he athletic enough to take the right angle and quick enough to get to the block on time? Then, can he adjust on the move to make a productive block?
Linemen aren't always asked to pull; it often depends on the scheme they are in. If a player is asked to pull, then I look for him to be able to get out of his stance and turn his body quickly without getting too deep into the backfield. Then does he have the speed and short area quickness to get to the block in a timely manner? Like with all his play, I look for the player to stay low and be under control. Once he makes contact in space, I look at if he can run through the block and stay on his feet.
Balance and staying on their feet is a very important trait. A lineman can't win if he is on the ground. When you watch NFL linemen, you seldom see them on the ground. I refer to players who are on the ground too much as groundhogs, and I severely downgrade them.
There was a player in this past Draft that went in the second round. He was very athletic as far as speed and quickness, but he had poor balance. This guy was on the ground 15 times in one game I watched. In another, it was eight times. Good linemen aren't on the ground 15 times in a season, let alone a game. Sometimes a player being on the ground too much means that he doesn't have enough lower body strength and power. When he makes contact because he lacks lower strength, his legs give out, and he falls off the block. While everyone likes to look at bench press numbers as a sign of strength, with a lineman, it's all about lower body strength. That is where he generates his power to get movement with a block.
In pass pro, I again look for initial quickness. If the player is a tackle, he has to set quickly and take proper angles with his setup. His job is to cut off speed edge rushers, and without a quick setup and the required lateral agility, he can't stop wide speed. Guards need to set up quickly, but because they are inside, a high degree of lateral agility isn't as important as with tackles.
Good defensive linemen always use counter moves to win their pass rush rep. Because of that OLinemen, and especially tackles, not only have to have very good lateral agility but also be able to recover quickly to come back the other way so that he can continue to mirror his opponent.
Bull rushers are always hard to block. Blocking a good bull rusher is all about strength, power and flexibility. It's imperative that the OLineman can bend his knees and sink his hips. He also has to have a high degree of lower body strength to withstand and stop the bull rush charge. Linemen who get tall or lack lower power will get pushed back into the quarterback's face.
Hand use is very important with linemen, but I seldom downgrade a player if he has below-average hand use. I always note it, but I don't always downgrade the player. Why? Because it's important to know what he is being taught but his college coach. We prefer to see a player have strong hands, have an explosive "punch" and keep his hands inside. Guys who don't keep their hands inside have a tendency to lose leverage and get called for holding.
There have been times when I have viewed a film where all the linemen, when they are setting, have their arms out wide and then bring them inside when they make contact. Obviously, they aren't being taught very well, but when you see every guy doing it, I know that is what he is being taught. A lineman has to have a strong upper body to control an opponent with his hands, and part of controlling his opponent is with his hand placement. The one thing to remember is that poor hand use can be fixed with good coaching. Just because a prospect has poor hand use does not mean he can't become a very good pro with good coaching.
What it gets down to is that the player has the proper traits to play in the NFL. If he lacks the necessary traits, no matter how competitive he is, he won't overcome his lack of skill. The player has to be big, he has to be strong and explosive, and he has to be flexible and athletic. If he doesn't have those natural traits, he won't play in the League.