Ranking The Interior OL
Admit it. You pay no attention to the interior of the offensive line. As much as you are willing to admit that everything begins with line play, you tend to think more about the left tackles, the guys charged with protecting the quarterback's blind side. The guys Hollywood might make a movie about.
Guards and centers, not so much.
Here are three pretty simple reasons you need to start paying more attention to the interior of your favorite team's offensive line:
* Quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball faster these days, which means defenses have less time to get to the quarterback. The shortest route to the quarterback is up the middle, and blitz pressure is coming more on the inside than from the outside (or the disparity is far less than it used to be). You want to protect your quarterback? You better be able to do it not just on his blind size but from right smack in his face.
* Centers don't just snap the ball. The good ones make protection calls for the offensive line. The more a center can take off the plate of the quarterback, the more effective the quarterback can be reading coverages pre-snap. Peyton Manning always gave tremendous credit to Jeff Saturday, his center in Indianapolis, for handling that vital task. If you have a young quarterback, you need a center who can be trusted to make the right protection calls (maybe the one advantage Geno Smith had with the Jets offense last season was having Nick Mangold at center).
* Left tackles are expensive, and -- like quarterbacks -- there simply aren't enough elite ones to go around. NFL front offices are starting to realize that they might be better off spreading money across the offensive line, making sure they are sound at all five postions rather than simply securing that one (albeit important) piece. They wouldn't be thinking that way if they didn't recognize the important contributions made by those three big guys at the heart of the offensive line.
Here are the top 10 interior offensive linemen available in the 2014 NFL Draft:
1. Zack Martin, G, Notre Dame: Yes, I have Martin as my No. 4 offensive tackle, the position he played in college. For various reasons -- arm length first and foremost among them -- a lot of us see him as a better guard prospect. In fact, he'd be the best guard prospect in the draft. As a tackle, you can find flaws; specifically, you'd have to be concerned with his ability to get his hands on and lock up premier edge pass rusher. Inside at guard, though, his lack of length would not be a detriment, and his surprisingly quick feet would be an asset. He will have no problem pulling or getting out in front of screens. He's not a top-10 prospect like Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack were last year. But I could easily see Miami, San Diego, Cleveland (with its second pick) or New England making him a first-round selection.
2. Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State: Jackson is straight out of Central Casting -- a massive lineman (6-foot-3, 336 pounds) with the thickness through the lower body that passes every eye test. He's as strong as you'd expect someone Jackson's size to be, who will be a brute force in the run game and impenetrable against any interior bull rush. And Jackson moves surprisingly well, so he'll have no problem pulling and leading a G Power run. His technique has been polished over the course of his SEC-record 52 college starts.
3. David Yankey, G, Stanford: Because he went to Stanford, the impression of Yankey is that he's a cerebral guard. Which he may be, and it might give him an advantage in tracking protection schemes that often are changed seconds before the snap. But he is a physical, athletic guard who also could play some tackle if needed. Teams committed to running the ball might look at Yankey's role in the best rushing attack in Stanford history. They'll see a guard with good burst and short-area quickness, with enough strength to hold the point of attack against bigger defensive tackles and even some of the massive nose tackles.
4. Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA: Su'a-Filo is the antitheis of Jackson. He's the lightest and leanest of the top guard prospects, though he should be able to add weight without compromising too much of the quickness that is his best attribute. He's going to have good burst off the snap and will be able to get to the second level of a defense. Technique-wise, he's a solid pass protector. Where he could be at a disadvantage is when facing a bull rush against a defensive tackle 20 pounds heavier.
5. Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor: Richardson looked like a first-round prospect throughout the season, in part because he's built like a classic NFL guard. He's 6-5, 325 with tremendous strength in both the upper and lower body. He's fallen a bit, though, because he doesn't seem to be the masher you want from someone that size. He looks less dominant than Jackson at the point of attack, which may be a factor of the full-speed spread offense he played at Baylor. Richardson looked like he wasnt needed to assert himself. That makes me wonder how he'll respond at the next level. Will he be a satisfactory guard for an up-tempo team like Philadelphia or Denver? Or would he respond if he lands in a place like Pittsburgh or Green Bay, with backs who are more likely to run the ball between the tackles?
6. Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State: Richburg has emerged as the best center prospect in the draft, primarily due to the technical soundness and ability to call protections developed as a 50-game starter. In a draft overrun by early entries, experience and NFL readiness counts for something. What hurts him is his lack of ideal size. Richburg is 6-3, 298; only two offensive linemen under 300 pounds were drafted in 2013, and they were both tackles. He's probably best suited for a team that faces primarily 4-3 fronts (like everyone in the NFC South), to minimize potential matchup problems against mammoth nose tackles 35 pounds bigger than Richburg. If Green Bay loses Evan Dietrich-Smith in free agency (to the Giants, perhaps?), might he be the Packers' pick in the third round?
7. Dakota Dozier, G, Furman: It won't take long into his rookie season before Dozier stands over a defender he's pancaked and some announcer christens him the "Bull Dozier." Dozier could be one of the more interesting sleeper picks among interior linemen. He owned most of the matchups he faced in the Southern Conference against FCS defenders by his sheer physical advantage. Dozier has the size (6-4, 313), strength and temperament that will attract the eye of NFL line coaches, who would love the opportunity to refine his underdeveloped technique.
8. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas: At 6-5, 312, Swanson is bigger than Richburg. He just plays smaller. Swanson is technically sound, eminently capable with a high Football IQ. But teams are going to wonder if he has the strength to win battles against interior linemen at the next level. His future (short and long term) may be in the hands of the strength coach he finds waiting for him in the NFL.
9. Chris Watt, G, Notre Dame: Watt looks like a relatively safe prospect to me. He's experienced, with the footwork to prove it. He looks like a smooth mover, getting to the second level or positioned properly in pass protection with consistency. Watt isn't going to become a physical force at the next level. But you don't worry that he's going to get your quarterback killed either.
10. Brandon Thomas, G, Clemson: Like Martin and Dozier, Thomas is another tackle who will be more effective moving inside. He has the hands and feet to establish position at the point of attack, and the lower body strength to hold his own against a power rush. Like Richardson, though, he seems to lack an edginess that NFL teams like to see in their linemen. Again, maybe it just wasn't the nature of the Clemson offense. But if he can develop that mean streak and become more of a force, he'll develop into a decent NFL guard.