INDIANAPOLIS – All those wide-open, pedal-to-the-metal spread offenses at the NCAA level have thrilled college football fans and fatigued scoreboard operators. But they have flummoxed NFL scouts and coaches tasked with projecting offensive line prospects to the pros.
That has led to more wasted premium draft picks and failed multimillion-dollar investments, and, well, quarterbacks like Teddy Bridgewater spending a lot of time on their butts.
“You’re still getting big, strong, talented young men with feet to move and the ability to play,” Oakland Raiders coach and former Vikings linebacker Jack Del Rio said at this week’s NFL scouting combine. “But maybe their development isn’t as far along as it was when colleges were more closely aligned with what we’re doing in the NFL.”
Many offensive linemen in spread attacks almost exclusively line up in a two-point stance instead of putting a hand in the dirt like they will be asked to do in the pros. They sometimes line up in wider splits and often don’t have to pass protect as long because quarterbacks play hot potato with the football with so many screens and quick-hitters. There are far fewer double-team blocks, and linemen do a lot of zone blocking in the running game.
And with so many of these spread offenses attempting to operate at warp speed, athleticism and endurance are seemingly prioritized over strength and technique.
“It’s fundamentals that we’re going back now and have to teach. We never had to teach it before,” Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “Great athletes. The athletes are much, much better. But the fundamentals are worse than they’ve ever been.”
And because of the practice-time restrictions that were negotiated into the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, coaches have less time to do something about it.
“We have such limited time with them now with the way the CBA is,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “I think offensive linemen, they’re going to take some time.”
A new approach?
The Vikings over the past decade have preferred to draft offensive linemen in the later rounds and try to develop them into starters down the road, as they did with center John Sullivan and guard Brandon Fusco. Since 2007, they have selected only two linemen, starting offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
Last spring, they grabbed three linemen on the final day of the draft. Fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings had a rocky rookie year while starting every game with Loadholt on injured reserve. Sixth-round pick Tyrus Thompson was a first-team All-Big 12 offensive tackle from Oklahoma, but he was beaten out for a roster spot by seventh-rounder Austin Shepherd, who was far more polished after playing in Alabama’s pro-style offense.
Given their recent record with late-round projects, which may be linked to the shortage of practice time, perhaps the Vikings will reconsider that approach. However, there also are far fewer guarantees in today’s NFL when it comes to drafting linemen early.
Years ago, NFL teams spent top-10 picks on offensive tackles such as Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace and Joe Thomas, plugged them into their starting lineups and didn’t have to worry about them for about a decade. Recently, we have seen high picks such as Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Greg Robinson stumble while making the jump to the NFL.
Kalil, whom the Vikings drafted with the fourth overall pick in 2012, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. But his play declined steeply and his time with the team could soon be up.
“I think they’re considered can’t-miss because of their height, weight and athleticism measurables. But there’s a lot more to playing the position than just that,” former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker said. “In the NFL, it’s such a game of skill and technique that if you don’t take your ability and enhance the technique part of it, you’re going to get beat and you’re going to get beat bad and start to lose confidence.”
Mississippi’s Laremy Tunsil, a strong candidate to be the player the Tennessee Titans take first overall in April, is the latest left tackle to be anointed as a can’t-miss prospect.
Like collegiate defensive ends, the Vikings won’t be able to get their hands on Tunsil. But given how poorly the offensive line performed the past two seasons, they could strongly consider Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, Ohio State’s Taylor Decker or Michigan State’s Jack Conklin if any are available when the Vikings are on the clock at pick No. 23.
Their inconsistent offensive line was crippling in 2015. No NFL quarterback was pressured more frequently than Bridgewater, according to Pro Football Focus. Both Kalil and Clemmings were near the top of the league in sacks and pressures allowed. And while the starting fivesome helped Adrian Peterson win his third career rushing title, the Vikings feel Peterson too often had to try to make something out of nothing.
Coach Mike Zimmer implied two days after the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks that every spot on the offensive line will be for grabs, saying, “We’ve got to do better.”
The Vikings also jettisoned offensive line coach Jeff Davidson for former colleague Tony Sparano. He already is helping their college scouting staff sift through game tape to identify offensive line prospects who have traits that should translate to the pro game.
The Vikings, and their NFL peers, will need to figure out how to project these offensive linemen more accurately. Because those fun and frenetic spread attacks aren’t going away.
“Heck, my sixth-grade son’s team runs a spread offense,” said Seahawks GM John Schneider, who is a graduate of St. Thomas. “They are not learning how to play football the way we did. We are going through a generational shift.”