Scout's Notebook  

Hyundai (2017 Draft)  

Does NFL have offensive line problem? Plus, Jared Goff's growth

Print

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» Sean McVay's instant impact on 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff.

» Four crucial subplots to keep an eye on in Week 2.

But first, a look at the state of O-line play in the NFL ...

* * * * *

"Where are the good offensive linemen?"

When a veteran scout asked me that question at a college game a couple weeks ago, I didn't give it much thought at the time. I simply thought it was a crusty, old scout complaining about a position group that is undervalued in the public sector but viewed in high regard on the scouting trail. While quarterbacks, pass catchers and running backs dominate the conversation in fantasy football drafts, general managers and scouts around the league still cite offensive tackle -- particularly left tackle -- as one of the core positions of a championship-caliber squad in real football.

In a league governed by quarterback play, team builders believe protecting the passer is tantamount to success.

"It never changes," an AFC team's college scouting director told me. "Everything is built around the quarterback and the passing game. On offense, you're always trying to find a QB1 -- and when you get him, it's all about keeping him protected and upright in the pocket. ... With defenses loading up on pass rushers at defensive end and defensive tackle, you have to keep the edges protected and find a way to stop the leakage on the inside.

"In a perfect world, you would have a pair of offensive tackles that can hold their own in pass protection and find a way to piecemeal the interior. ... It's hard to find five great offensive linemen, but if you can get the right guys in the right spots, you can win a lot of games."

To that last point, it is easy to see why the Cowboys, Steelers and Raiders field explosive offenses, given that all currently boast sensational lines. Each unit features elite athletes on the edges and nasty, nimble competitors on the inside. Although those teams used different methods to build their respective fronts, the common denominator is the overall athleticism, toughness and physicality that jumps off the screen when you watch them play.

The Cowboys and Steelers possess homegrown units built through astute drafting in successive years. Dallas spent three first-round picks in four years on LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick and RG Zack Martin -- and then added RT La'el Collins as an undrafted free agent after a unique and unfortunate circumstances torpedoed the likely first-rounder's stock. Meanwhile, in one three-year span, the Steelers used a pair of first-round picks on interior blockers (C Maurkice Pouncey and RG David DeCastro) and added RT Marcus Gilbert with a second-round selection. LG Ramon Foster came aboard after going undrafted, while LT Alejandro Villanueva joined Pittsburgh as an unheralded free-agent signee.

On the other hand, the Raiders signed four of their five starting offensive linemen in free agency: LT Donald Penn, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson and RT Marshall Newhouse. RG Gabe Jackson, Oakland's third-round pick in a 2014 haul that also included Khalil Mack and Derek Carr, is the one homegrown stud. The Raiders' front line is the perfect example of a pro department assembling a solid cast of blockers with complementary skills through alternative means.

That's why I don't necessarily agree the sentiment that there is a dire lack of quality offensive linemen available. Coaches and scouts with a clear understanding of what they want to play at the position are able to identify proper fits in the draft and free agency. Whether it's the agile edge blockers with a combination of size, length and body control or the rugged interior blockers with a nasty disposition, the best evaluators are still finding their guys. And that starts with a good plan.

I worked as a scout in Seattle under former Redskins GM Scot McCloughan when he was the Seahawks' director of college scouting in the early 2000s. I remember him giving me specific instructions when scouting each position. McCloughan told me that offensive tackles needed to have exceptional size, arm length, quickness and flexibility to match the premier pass rushers in the game. He advised me to look for offensive guards with outstanding strength and power. He wanted interior blockers to be able to move defenders off the ball in the running game while also showing the balance and body control to anchor against hard-charging pass rushers. With centers, it was all about their football intelligence and consistency. McCloughan believed they could overcome athletic limitations with their awareness and overall understanding of blocking concepts.

But it's more than identifying the right kind of guys at each spot -- it's also finding a way to develop them in challenging times. The collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 severely reduced the amount of practice time teams can have with their players. Also, full-contact practices are quite limited. With other restrictions spelled out in the agreement to limit team drills and one-on-one periods in the offseason program, the NFL doesn't offer as many opportunities to fully cultivate a young player's skills as it used to.

"You don't have enough time to develop guys on the field," a veteran offensive line coach who's worked at all levels of the game told me. "Playing on the offensive line requires a lot of reps and you simply don't have enough opportunities to teach them through live contact. Plus, the padded-practice limitations during the regular season make it harder to prepare young players to get ready for the pro game."

This is something Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians pointed to at the 2016 Annual League Meeting when asked to address the declining of offensive lines around the league.

"Yeah, because they don't get to practice," Arians told reporters. "Offensive linemen and defensive linemen can't get better in shorts. And they're prohibited from going one-on-one. That's all they do for a living. So of course they're going to get worse, because we can't practice. And then only one practice a day in training camp, only one practice a day during the week up until, what, about Week 14? So, it's extremely hard to get young offensive linemen better. Because they don't ever get to practice football. They're not getting any better practicing soccer.

"Since we've made the rule changes (in 2011), the quality of the football is going way down."

In addition to this gripe among NFL coaches and scouts, there has also been plenty of finger-pointing at the college game for failing to supply the NFL with plug-and-play O-linemen. Pro evaluators point to the spread offense as one of the detrimental factors.

"You rarely see offensive linemen in three-point stances," an NFC scout said to me. "They are always in a two-point stance (in the spread) and they spend most of the game position blocking pass rushers on quick throws. You rarely see them fire off the ball in the run game or execute some of the tasks we will ask them to do at the NFL level.

"It makes the evaluation harder because you're projecting so much when grading offensive linemen."

After hearing so much complaining from NFL folks about the quality of line play at lower levels, I reached out to a college coach -- who also has experience coaching at the high school level, as well as a brief stint in the CFL -- to get his gauge on why it's been so difficult for NFL coaches to find and develop offensive linemen.

"We have the same challenges as pro coaches," the college assistant coach told me. "We don't have a lot of time with the kids and you're trying to teach them technique and scheme on the run. If they're talented and have to play early in their careers, we're trying to get them up to speed on the concepts before we can get the details of footwork and hand placement.

"Granted, we don't carry as many protections as pro teams, but it's still tough for a high school kid with limited experience or exposure to grasp high-level concepts. We try to rep it as much as possible, but it's hard to get them ready for the NFL when I'm struggling to get them ready to play college ball."

I think that is an important point to remember: College coaches shouldn't be expected to get their players ready for the next level. The college game is vastly different than the NFL, and pro coaches need to consult their old high school/college coaching manuals to see how they can build functional offensive linemen and effective units.

"They should steal a page from our book and have extra periods for the developmental guys," the college assistant said. "We have scout team scrimmages and extra individual periods for our young guys to help them hone their skills. If they can add 15 minutes of individualized time for their bottom-of-the-roster players or practice-squad guys, they will see their O-Line improve quickly."

Another way to improve O-line play is to recruit better athletes to play up front. This is something that the Seattle Seahawks have attempted to do under Tom Cable in recent years with the team converting defensive linemen to blockers. The veteran coach successfully nurtured J.R. Sweezy into a top-notch offensive guard after the ex-N.C. State standout entered the league as a lightly regarded defensive tackle prospect taken in the seventh round. With the veteran assistant also having enjoyed success at the collegiate level with conversions (see: Jeremy Newberry and Tarik Glenn during Cable's time at Cal), I can't knock the Seahawks for attempting to flip guys from other positions to the offensive line. Sure, the daring moves elicit eye rolls and snickers from traditionalists, but the prospect of turning an undrafted free agent into a quality starter is a potential game changer for teams with great teachers at the position.

OK, yes: The Seahawks' offensive line has struggled to keep Russell Wilson upright in the pocket the past few seasons. (Losing Sweezy to a lucrative free-agent deal with the Buccaneers didn't help.) But that's missing the larger point here. I believe the conversion model is one that should be considered by others -- but with a twist. Instead of focusing on defensive linemen moving over to offense, teams should identify oversized tight ends with the potential to transition to offensive tackle. Tight ends are superior athletes and they're familiar with the responsibilities in the running game. Not to mention, they have been exposed to blocking edge rushers in one-on-one matchups, which gives them a chance to master the skills in time. Considering how many college teams execute this conversion with recruits and young players, I would steal a page from their playbook to upgrade one of the league's marquee positions.

"If I had to do a conversion, I would rather move a tight end to offensive tackle because it isn't foreign to him," the college assistant told me. "You have to bulk them up, clean up their technique and flip their mentality from being a pass catcher to blocker, but you could uncover a few good players if they are willing to fully buy in."

In fact, there are already some notable success stories on this front. Jason Peters, Alejandro Villanueva, Garry Gilliam and Nate Solder all successfully transitioned from tight end to offensive tackle as pros or during the later stages in college, so the blueprint is there.

In this pass-happy league, it's high time for teams to consider every option to build a sustainable fortress around the quarterback.

JARED GOFF'S GROWTH: Never underestimate the power of coaching

If you at all question how much coaching matters in the NFL, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks, take a look at the passer rating leaders from Week 1 to see how a top-flight play caller can help a QB play at an elite level:

1) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs: 148.6
2) Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings: 143.0
3) Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams: 117.9

Smith, Bradford and Goff lead the NFL in passing efficiency largely due to the careful planning and scripting of a call sheet. Granted, one week doesn't make a season. But when I watched the All-22 Coaches Film of each of their performances, I was blown away with the clever scheming and sequencing used by their respective play callers to accentuate each of their strengths, while also making life easier for them in the pocket.

Whether it was Andy Reid embracing spread offense principles and concepts -- including the option shovel pass, zone read and fly sweep -- to help Smith find his groove or Pat Shurmur utilizing a wide array of quick-rhythm concepts designed to get the ball out of Bradford's hands, these guys put their signal callers in positions to succeed. In addition, they repeated their quarterbacks' favorite concepts from various formations to distract the defense while executing the same play over and over. While some would suggest that this is Coaching 101 stuff, we've already seen enough subpar quarterback play this season to know all coaches aren't created equal.

To that point, I believe Los Angeles Rams newbie Sean McVay is off to a fantastic start in his head-coaching career. The 31-year old offensive wizard suddenly has Goff looking like the efficient field general many envisioned when he came off the board as the No. 1 overall pick in 2016. In a 46-9 blowout of the Colts last Sunday, Goff completed 21 of his 29 passes for 306 yards and a touchdown (with zero picks). Now, I know he shredded an Indianapolis defense that didn't offer much resistance, but notching a 300-yard game with a 72.4 percent completion rate is quite an accomplishment for a passer who looked bewildered as a rookie.

With Goff's fine regular-season debut looking like a continuation of his encouraging preseason, I believe we can start to buy into his potential as a QB1 under McVay. Studying the coaches tape from each of his preseason games and the regular-season opener, I identified a few things the Rams' play caller is doing to help the second-year pro find his groove. First, the Rams are operating at a much quicker tempo than a season ago. The team will hurry to the line after successful plays or jump into no-huddle mode in the middle of series to push the pace against a beleaguered defense. The rapid-fire tempo not only limits the defensive coordinator's call sheet due to communication concerns (fewer blitzes and pre-snap disguises), but it also allows Goff to stand at the line and survey the defense with McVay offering suggestions in his ear (the communication device doesn't shut off until the 15-second mark on the play clock). The added advice likely helps Goff identify vulnerable areas in coverage, which leads to more big plays in the passing game.

In addition to the upping the tempo, McVay has incorporated some of the concepts that were staples of the "Bear Raid" offense Goff ran at Cal under Sonny Dykes. Some of the staple routes in that scheme mirror the basic pass patterns in the West Coast Offense, so Goff is back in familiar territory directing the Rams' new-look offense. McVay has also incorporated a number of quick-rhythm play-action passes that lure defenders to the line of scrimmage, leaving huge windows for Goff to target Bang-8s (a version of the skinny post) and deep crossing routes. With those routes complementing a diverse quick-game package that features hitches, sticks and quick outs, the young quarterback has been dealing from the pocket.

The Rams' implementation of a role-specific game plan for perimeter personnel has also helped Goff find his way. McVay has essentially recreated his Redskins offense in Los Angeles, with Sammy Watkins acting as the deep-ball threat (DeSean Jackson), Robert Woods serving as the reliable possession receiver (Pierre Garcon), Cooper Kupp featured as the chain mover in the slot (Jamison Crowder) and Tyler Higbee/Gerald Everett playing the matchup nightmare role at "Y" (Jordan Reed). That doesn't even include the gadgetry that the team will eventually use with Tavon Austin stepping onto the field as a designated playmaker from any position.

If you think McVay's offensive brilliance is a bit overblown, look at the impact his departure has already had on Kirk Cousins and the Redskins' offense. With McVay as his offensive coordinator from 2014 through '16, the Pro Bowl quarterback posted a 67.3 percent completion rate, a 64:32 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 97.3 passer rating while averaging 8.0 yards per attempt. Without McVay this season, Cousins looked bad in the preseason and Week 1. Granted, he's trying to get used to a new receiver corps, but don't underestimate the McVay factor here.

NEXT GEN STATS: Four intriguing subplots to watch in Week 2

» Antonio Brown vs. Xavier Rhodes: After watching Steelers star Antonio Brown snag 11 catches -- on 11 targets -- for 182 yards against Cleveland in Week 1, I can't wait to see how the Vikings will defend the five-time Pro Bowl selectee in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

The Vikings feature one of the NFL's premier shutdown corners in Xavier Rhodes, who brings a rugged game built on toughness and physicality. The newly minted 70 Million Dollar Man held receivers to the second-lowest completion rate (48.8 percent) among qualified players last season by mixing up bump-and-run and shadow techniques on the perimeter. Rhodes' imposing size and strength make it nearly impossible for elite pass catchers to shake free, leaving premier WR1s frustrated on the island.

That said, Rhodes' nose-to-nose style might play in Brown's favor, as the Pittsburgh receiver is one of the premier press-release artists in the game. In Week 1, Brown posted the highest receiver-separation figure against press (4.7-yard average on six targets). Also, his spectacular production from various alignments (two receptions for 25 yards from left wide; four receptions for 58 yards from right wide; two receptions for 20 yards from left slot; three receptions for 79 yards from right slot) will make it hard for Rhodes to contain him if the Vikings elect to have their CB1 shadow the Steelers' No. 1 receiver.

» Mile High mayhem around Dak?: For all of Dak Prescott's brilliance as a pocket passer, he is at his best when operating as a playmaker on the perimeter. As a rookie, Prescott finished with the NFL's second-highest percentage of passes thrown outside of the pocket (18.1). He completed 55.4 percent of those throws with an 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, recording a 103.6 passer rating (the fourth-best mark in the NFL). All of those marks are well above the league averages for QBs outside the pocket: 11.3 percent of throws outside the pocket, 47.4 completion rate, 3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 77.2 passer rating.

With all of those numbers in mind, the Broncos could elect to bring heat from all angles to disrupt Prescott's rhythm in Denver on Sunday. In Week 1, the Broncos blitzed the Chargers on 41.2 percent of their pass attempts and held Philip Rivers to 47.6 passer rating on those plays -- the fifth-lowest mark against extra pressure in the NFL last week. Given the challenge Dallas' offense presents to opponents, with the athletic quarterback's ability to launch throws from anywhere on the field, the Broncos could rely heavily on their blitz package in an attempt to harass Prescott into a disjointed performance.

» How Brady might attack the Saints: The New England Patriots deviated from small-ball tactics in Week 1 in an attempt to push the ball down the field and showcase their new vertical threats: Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett. Brady attempted 11 passes that traveled 20-plus air yards, which is more than he ever attempted in a game last season and well above his 2016 average (4.2). With the five-time Super Bowl champion well off the mark on deep throws (completing just 18.2 percent of them) and struggling to connect at any distance (44.4 percent completion rate for the game), New England's offense didn't look like the explosive juggernaut that we've grown accustomed to seeing over the past decade.

While some of the Patriots' passing woes could be attributed to the absences of Julian Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell and (in the fourth quarter) Danny Amendola -- three of New England's top four wide receivers in 2016 -- the team's desire to showcase a vertical passing game played to the strength of Brady's available wideouts (Cooks and Dorsett are 4.3-second speedsters with big-play potential) and was an attempt to exploit Brady's efficiency as a deep-ball passer (42.0 completion rate, 7:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 120.4 passer rating on passes of 20-plus air yards in 2016).

Facing a Saints defense that allowed Sam Bradford to dial it up frequently in Week 1 -- the Vikes QB completed five of six deep-ball passes for 154 yards and a score (a 158.3 passer rating) -- Brady should take plenty of shots to see if he can develop better chemistry with Cook and Dorsett:

If the Patriots can add a dynamic vertical passing game to an aerial attack that already stretches the defense horizontally, New England will make it hard for teams to extensively play man coverage on the perimeter.

» Carolina's new approach on defense: The Carolina Panthers have ranked as a top-10 defense in four of the past five seasons, but new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is attempting to uphold the tradition utilizing a different approach. Instead of sitting back in traditional zone coverage with a few select pressures, the Panthers are attacking opponents with blitzes from all over the place. Against the 49ers, Carolina blitzed on 21 snaps (most in the NFL) leading to the third-highest pressure rate in the league on quarterbacks inside the pocket. While the increased blitz calls shouldn't rank as a surprise given the team's lack of an elite edge rusher (Julius Peppers is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL history, but he is past his prime at 37), the decision by Wilks to use more zone-blitz pressures is a bit of a departure from the team's conservative zone approach in previous seasons.

Interestingly, the Panthers utilized their 3-3-5 personnel package on 19 snaps, yielding just 2.5 yards per play. The "Okie" package puts three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs on the field to harass the quarterback with myriad pre-snap disguises and blitzes that confuse pass protectors at the line of scrimmage. With this combination of pressure and disguise also leading to more one-on-one matchups, the Panthers' blitz-happy approach could produce big results going forward.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop