2020 Draft: Interior O Line
The depth in viable o-lineman especially tackle this year is so good and pretty deep that it requires separate articles, to allow sufficient space for the tackle prospects to be discussed. The interior line therefore get their own piece, though maybe not as talented as tackles, there is potentially one day 1 prospect and certainly a few day 2 prospects who could certainly develop into good o-line starters. What is something to consider is that many of these players could benefit from a Covid 19 shortened season, more time with teams to build up strength then get sufficient playing time to help build experience, making them potential solid starters in 2021.
Going to start with the position meant to anchor the o-line and help the QB call out defensive fronts and identify who they think the mike linebacker is, the center. This years class does not necessarily have a standout number one, as being a bit curious I went looking at different people’s rankings for center and there does not always seem to be consensus (apart from maybe on NFL.com where the draft rankings and Daniel Jeremiah sort of have a consensus no.1). The guys I am going to talk about all seem to appear pretty consistently in peoples top 5 or at least top 10 center lists.
First up is Cesar Ruiz from Michigan. People seem unable to not focus on his spades I mean 11 inch hands, but he has good arm length at over 33 inches and is a solid build for the position. He’s young as well, which should be kept in mind when considering some of the negatives about his game, such as sometimes not recognising stunts and being too slow to help team mates. This is more down to experience (though he is a 3 year starter) than necessarily being a major flaw, though this flaw was the main cause of the ten pressures he allowed in 2019. However, generally he has good eyes, especially in pass protection and good movement, tracking defenders well and sticking with his man brilliantly. Has good reactions and is pretty explosive, though he is not the greatest athlete and though good bend in the knees, maybe at times over bends in the middle, causing at times balance issues, but really rare occasions. Generally he has good awareness of what is happening, importantly he sets his feet well and so does not get pushed back easily. His hand placement and then use of hands when in contact is excellent. I think he also shows good potential to learn to improve, because there is improvement and seems through college he did improve. And one really good trait that you want in your center is the ability to cover two gaps, or take on double teams. He can do that and holds two would be rushers pretty well (this is exemplified against Alabama). He has the versatility to play guard as well, so could start there to learn the ropes a bit before being moved to centre.
There is going to be a bit of a theme now, of centers (and guards) who made up the o-line for other top rate offensive players.
Jonathan Taylor is a deservedly highly ranked RB out of Wisconsin after a phenomenal season for them. However one contributing factor was the superb blocking and gap creation from his fellow Badger Tyler Biadasz. The 6-4, 314lbs center could certainly be considered one of the best here in terms of his help in the run game. He is athletic and explosive, very good at getting his hands on a player first and on run lays is excellent at pushing defenders back or handling them the way he wants them to go. He is good at getting to the second level pretty quickly when required. This excellence does not necessarily translate into pass protection though he is solid. He doesn’t always anchor his feet quickly enough even after getting first contact, however he is a fighter and does not give up being pushed back easily. His explosiveness does get him in trouble as he over extends and can go through a defender with out taking them properly out and then fall over. He also flexes at the middle too often, again leading to some of the same balance issues. However he is an exciting prospect because he could be started at guard then moved to center if need be as he can be flexible in how he plays, starting as a defensive linemen at high school. He brings this physicality to the field. He could be used as a rotational guard especially for the odd running play. Maybe a good fit in Baltimore.
The next in the theme is Lloyd Cushenberry from LSU, again would be considered a good build for center at 6-3 and 312lbs and great reach with over 34 inch arms, with I think the second biggest hand span in the class at 10.38 inches. The Senior Bowl one on one work outs really helped his stock rise, showing good footwork, setting up in a stable strong position, getting his bum down and moving and reading with the rusher well. His hand placement is good. He is considered good on zone run block schemes, and as his running back was Edwards-Helaire, is good at running multiple run schemes for competent backs. He is quick into the second level, showing actually pretty good speed and then awareness in setting up his blocks. He can get out smarted and end up isolated at times and like many young players, will get beat by good stunts, left with no one to block. With more experience (and good coaching) I think this can be over come, you can tell when this happens he is annoyed with himself. He generally has good balance and does not over extend. Most of the time he holds his own but against the likes of Auburn and Alabama he did get bull rushed a few times and forced back, though was not necessarily the culprit for allowing pressure on Burrows. Yes he could play guard, but definitely he has the potential to be a starting center, it seemed he was OK at calling out fronts and communicating and binding the o-line well together. Will likely go in round 2 or 3 and I think if the Bengals did take Burrows, I think getting Cushenberry would not be such a bad idea, quarterback and center parings can really be what make teams.
Washington State’s Nick Harris is an interesting prospect, maybe a tad on the slighter side (for a center) at 6-1 and 403lbs. So he is a good snapper of the ball and calls the defense well. He appears to be better as a zone blocker but overall I thought he was solid and did not give up ground easily. I will be up front and say I do not have a lot on him, however he is clearly talented and in the run game gets up to the next level well to make good blocks. I agree with synopses I have seen that suggest he needs time in a (good) strength and conditioning programme, and with Covid-19, he may get the time he needs to build up the body mass that could make him a good center in the league. At the moment though, he is likely to be over powered by the bigger defensive linemen.
I am going to talk about two of three Oregon linesmen together as well when watching one always going to get the other. I’m talking about Jake Hanson at center and Shane Lemeiux at guard. These guys formed a formidable duo. Both have what is considered a good build for the position (though Jake is slightly on the lighter side) with Jake coming in at 6-4 and 304lbs and Shane 6-4 as well and a solid 310lbs. For a center Jake may have slightly shorter arms at just under 33 inches but he seems to have good reach and quick hands, placing them well on the inside and controlling his man. I felt Jake appeared to identify defense schemes well and hold the line well together. Always looking for someone to block and again able to take on a double team. These two combined did not allow the pocket to collapse often and allowed Herbert enough time to make mistakes all on his own. As soon as Herbert left their protection he was often flattened. Both are really effective in the run game, Shane certainly able to open any crease into a good lane. He is agile and then sets his feet well on run blocks and able to follow up at the next level. Admittedly he is not the most athletic so this does not happen often but I see this as something that probably can be worked on. Shane has a good work ethic, in that he is always, always looking for contact and looking for a block. So by work ethic I mean maybe just a bit aggressive, so likely to be called for penalties until he calms down a bit. However this ethic of always looking for a block after his own assignment translates into being able read defensive plays as they unfold and quickly switch assignment and block who needs to be blocked. On his own Shane only allowed 11 pressures in 2018 which is pretty solid. In summary, both these guys solidify an o line for pass protection, are fine in the run game, though that is where their weakness is.
This moves us smoothly into the guard position. Notably these are guys that may be second rounders or more likely 3rdor 4throunders, none can really be considered first round prospects, especially considering the number of tackles.
First up is Michigan’s Ben Bredeson, who has the height at 6-5 and weight (315lbs) many consider desirable in the guard position and he has big hands (over 10 inches, always handy for ensuring contact) though maybe slightly short on the arms (still think 31 1/8” is pretty long). He allowed no sacks which is pretty impressive. He is what could be termed when agility meets power, able to stay and mirror defenders and having the power to manhandle defenders out the way, getting up and at defenders quickly. At times it does look like he goes high and a bit too upright at first but his technique for the run game seems to work. His awareness is good, and like Lemeiux (and really what good guards should do), he is always looking for follow up blocks, helping double team if a team mate is struggling, or if he sees a rusher that has not been picked up, doing his best to give as much time to his quarter back as possible. He held up well against the likes of Alabama and Ohio State and was not overwhelmed by players that are ranked higher than he is in this draft. Main fault I think is his possible lack of bend and some of his hand placement and how this will transfer into the pro-game. To put it another way, though he does not get beat, always looks like he could be. He is a solid pick and any later than 4thround will be a bargain.
John Simpson is one of two Clemson guards in this draft, who is graded by NFL.com as the top guard prospect. He has good physical traits, in being big with good muscle mass (6-4, 321lbs) and a good reach with 34 inch arms and over 11 inch hands. This guy is solid and strong, getting hands on defenders quickly. He has a good stance, creating a good frame and is not easily pushed back. Generally good balance but I have seen him out manoeuvred and end up on the ground allowing the rusher through. He is good in the run game, showing actually surprising speed for a guy his size, pulling well and has good awareness to time his hits well. So saying he gets out manoeuvred he does not get pushed back and though he is a bit slow on resetting his feet it does seem to be seldom required. The aggressiveness is there but compared to some of the others, maybe not as much. His game does not look perfect (especially against Ohio) however he is good and he was the best player in the Clemson o-line. He works well in any run scheme, with his strength in the run game. I love how he can at times take out a defender or just stop them completely. Pass protection is good, can be a bit slow to react at times and he does have some handling issues, likely to get called for holding penalties, which will be magnified in the pro game.
There are some sources that have Kentucky’s Logan Stenberg quite high and though generally his tape is good, I have seen some of the one on one at the Senior Bowl where he got blown apart and I am not totally sold on him. I do not know what it is about his footage that I did not like but I just didn’t. However, look out for him, again rated as a run blocker.
I am going to finish on someone who did not play in 2019 due to an Achilles injury yet is entering the draft and really is an interesting yet somewhat unknown entity, Netane Muti from Fresno State. PFF rank him as the top interior lineman and he has only one season worth of highlight reel, which is over 6 minutes long. And that is the big negative, he has only one full healthy season, having been plagued by ankle and foot injuries. He exemplifies what most of these guards excel in, which is being good and strong in the run game, able to pull blocks or just barge defenders out the way to create lanes up the middle. At the combine he managed 44 reps and his strength is that upper and lower body strength, combined with a solid core. From over 200 snaps in 2018 and 2019 before injury, he allowed only 3 pressures, including games against some of the big 5 colleges. Apart from injury, he is not the quickest to reset feet in a move and can be beaten by speed at times. He is not the most agile so when people get on his side, finds it hard to adjust. Is this something that can be improved? Maybe and maybe having a season to fully recover then go to a team with a good strength and conditioning team will help over come whatever is causing him to suffer those injuries. His aggressive playing style, regularly putting top defenders on the ground and not easily moved, with the strength meaning he is unlikely to be bull rushed and forced back into the quarterback will make him an attractive prospect. That he is considered better as a run blocker is interesting and potentially attractive to some teams. Maybe someone like the Giants as PFF compare him to Will Hernandez. Again Muti another prospect who could benefit from a possibly shortened season due to Covid, get some time before playing to hopefully get the strength in his ankles to prevent the Achilles problems.
In a few listings and mock drafts La Fayette’s Robert Hunt is considered a guard, however for the draft he is technically listed as a tackle and Dan has covered him excellently in the article about tackles. He could play well as a left tackle but certainly could move inside and make an excellent left guard. This is the same for Ben Bartsch of St John’s who excelled in Mobile. He originally started out at TE, put on 75lbs and moved to tackle. Dan and I discussed him, love him to bits because he is raw talent that probably has a high ceiling, he is physical, athletic and great at getting at defenders. However, as he hasn’t played guard (and whatever other analysts say) it seems only right to keep him as a tackle.
So that is it, the interior linemen is not a class with maybe outstanding talent but depth at an alright and potential level. Look out for these guys and remember this is not a definitive list, just guys I like. Share your thoughts with us on twitter (@gridirongents) and Facebook (@gridirongentlemen), always like to know who I have missed or who you really like the look of.