Football Outsiders and their expert statistical analysis are compelling metrics for use by football fans. Many a thesis on BTB has been substantiated by their fine work. But the guys at FO aren't merely statistical innovators; they are superb football scribes and shrewd talent evaluators in their own right. As proof of this, I'd like to draw your attention to two articles that they have posted of late, both of which tackle a topic of great (and, often, grave) concern to Cowboys fans: the offensive line.
Early in the season, if you'll recall, we featured one of FO's recurring columns, Word of Muth, penned by former Stanford (and all-Pac 10) OT Ben Muth. Muth initially set out to analyze four teams' offensive lines, rotating among the four each week. However, after Wade Phillips' dismissal, he judged the Dallas o-line so poor and the Cowboys to be so irrelevant that he stopped covering them and picked up the Steelers instead. But that doesn't mean he stopped writing about our beloved 'Boys; in a recent Q & A column, he answered several fascinating questions from readers and handed out final season grades:
Dallas Cowboys: C-. Just below league average. They have a really good center and a pretty good left guard. Doug Free looks promising on the left side, but Marc Colombo looks past it on the right side. Leonard Davis' wife is on a reality show, and that was probably the highlight of his season. It was a rough season for Davis.
While his grade is by no means surprising, he does offer some terrific insights: what coaches focus on with rookie linemen; the nuances of blocking for screens; who makes calls at the line, and what is involved in doing so. If you are at all interested in line play, I suggest you bookmark his column and make it required reading in 2011.
Moving from the (forgettable) past to the (hopefully, more memorable) future: On Wednesday, FO's Doug Ferrar offered his take on three of the big-name tackles in the upcoming draft--with a slight twist. Most pundits have tagged Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, Boston College's Anthony Castonzo and Colorado's Nate Solder as the top three OTs. Ferrar dispenses with Castonzo and elevates Derek Sherrod of Mississippi State, a move of which I heartily approve. Here's a snippet from Ferrar on each of the three prospects:
The first thing that pops off the tape with Carimi is how quick he is right off the snap. It takes him no time to bounce out of his set and engage with a defender. He's very aggressive with his hands and will maintain an excellent hand-punch through the play. While he's not a comfortable second-level blocker, he down-blocks very well -- this is where his power is displayed. Of the three tackles in this article, he has the best kick-step and ability to fan back in pass protection.
Carimi also has good short-area pop when he chips off the line and goes after linebackers in goal-line situations, but his footwork at the second level in other situations leaves something to be desired. He looks like he's on roller skates in short spaces, and it can take him a second to adjust and get his power going at times. He also lunges when asked to perform tackle pulls, but that may be a product of inexperience.
Of all the tackles through Senior Bowl week, Sherrod seemed to stay (and play) most within himself. He stands with a wide base, adjusts well to the blocker in front of him, down-blocks well, and does a great job of getting upfield to take on linebackers -- this may be his best trait. He's outstanding in space.
I wondered during the week if Sherrod didn't have a specific anatomical advantage. Although he has the long arms you want in an NFL tackle, his height (6-foot-6, the shortest of the three players discussed here) also allows him to play with a lower base and gain the "explosion advantage" (getting under the defender's pads before he gets under yours) on a regular basis.
Of all the draft-eligible tackles I've studied so far this season, Solder has by far the furthest to go from a technique standpoint. With his frame, he can engulf defenders at the college level. He doesn't have to exhibit proper footwork at times, and it's difficult to imagine that working at the NFL level. I had the opportunity to interview Ndamukong Suh today, and one of the things we talked about was the transition from college to the pros for any lineman. No matter the side or position, hand placement and footwork seem to be the primary common denominators when discussing success in the move to the NFL.
While Solder's footwork puts him in place to succeed -- especially at the second level -- he lurches and chases a lot of pass protection, especially in the back half of a pass rush. I can see him losing a lot of inside moves to edge rushers because his step outside is so pronounced. Of similar concern is the fact that he doesn't always stay engaged while run blocking. He has a worrisome tendency to slide off defenders when he's trying to get a push inside. He's also going to have a problem with quicker and more talented NFL ends getting under his pads. If it happened in college (and it did from time to time), it will happen at the next level.
What impresses me most about Solder is his agility going forward. I think he will be more successful in a zone scheme because he's quick enough to get upfield and make things happen consistently. But in places that require pure power and advanced technique, it was clear to me that Solder is still a work in progress. From all accounts, his work ethic will keep him on the right path, but to these eyes, Solder has undeniable question marks.
I know February has only just begun, and I want to stay as objective about the draft's shifting sands for as long as possible, but I'm really starting to like Carimi. And it wouldn't surprise me to see Sherrod leap into top-tackle contention after scouts see how athletic he is at the combine.
On the other hand, the more I hear about Solder, the less I like. I think he can learn the necessary technique things that he'll need to succeed at the next level. However, I fear that he's just too tall--and lanky--and that he will too easily surrender leverage to opposing defenders. In short, he won't be able to exploit the "explosion advantage" that Ferrar gives to Sherrod.
Of course, things might be much different in mid-April. That's what makes this process so interesting...