In Part 5 of our scouting series, we examine the offensive linemen. There is a major shortage at this position across the NFL and as a result, the offensive minds in the league have now designed their offenses around the fact that they are unlikely to win in the trenches play after play. Because of all the spread at the college level, few offensive linemen come to the league with a deep understanding and experience of NFL run game concepts. This is in stark contrast to years gone by.
Taking it even further, many of the linemen at the college level have not even operated out of a three point stance. Even taking it a huge step further, the big men on defense that these unprepared blockers must deal with are far more athletically gifted than ever before. In the end, the athletic gap from the average offensive linemen to the average defensive linemen, let alone the top players up front on defense, is just massive in the defense’s favor right now. Getting even acceptable starting offensive linemen has great value (and cost) in today’s NFL and more than ever, there are fewer elite blockers from the front five.
So what do teams in the league look for at this position of scarcity? Flexibility is the trait that narrowly missed our list of three attributes. If you can’t bend your knees and ankles, you will always have much trouble with leverage. Of course having a degree of size and strength is imperative to play this position, but what is even more important?
Studies have really shown lately that if an offensive lineman shines in the short shuttle drills, that most likely, he sets up well for NFL success. That sounds odd, as usually defensive backs, linebackers and running backs would be more associated with being athletes in space that can change directions well. But think about it for a minute: The players offensive linemen have to block are always making these big men change directions to account for their counterpart’s extreme athleticism. In a way, offensive linemen in pass protection are much like defensive backs in that it is a reactionary position and therefore, these guys are forced to redirect against their will over and over. But this also holds true in the running game. Offensive linemen are very often asked to hit a smaller defender in space on the second level or on the move on stretch plays and pulls. Well, those 230-pound linebackers are not just standing still waiting to be blocked. Being agile and showing the ability to change directions in tight quarters as well as in space is extremely important for the big men on offense. Having great feet goes a long way.
These last two tie together. If an offensive lineman has even the baseline skills of size, strength and athletic ability, he can get by very well with smarts and toughness. And usually such players are very difficult to get out of the lineup and go on to have long careers even if they aren’t top athletes. Doing battle in the trenches play after play (and remember, offensive linemen do not rotate and they do play a ton of snaps) is obviously extremely taxing on the human body. These men always are playing with ailments of some sort or another, so being physically and mentally tough in this capacity is necessary. Also, even though the league is dialing back on the nastiness overall, the offensive linemen are still the enforcers if someone on the other team gets out of line. Having a street fighter’s mentality will never go out of style and it rubs off on teammates. Attitude is important. Offensive linemen bring the attitude to the offense.
Offensive line is a very cerebral position. Communication between line mates is essential as is the ability to decipher whom to block and quickly decipher a wide array of defensive concepts. Smart linemen also are constantly working on their technique. As much as any position on the field, technique is super important for offensive linemen. This especially goes for understanding the best angle to take on a given block and with hand usage. It is also important for smart linemen to study and understand their opponent week to week and force these defensive linemen to play out of their comfort zone. In the passing game, great offensive linemen study their upcoming opponent much like a hitter does an upcoming pitcher in baseball. In what generally and rightfully is considered the most rugged of positions in a very rugged game, it is smarts that often sets offensive linemen apart.