Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (Bob Levey/AP)
Sam Baker can't stay healthy, and he doesn't play that well when he is on the field. Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder are placeholders at best, and if the Atlanta Falcons want to return to the top of the NFC South after last year's disappointment, they desperately need help at the left tackle position. That's just what they got with the sixth overall pick in the person of Texas A&M's Jake Matthews. Matthews is a safe pick, but don't let that fool you -- he's got a lot of room to grow, even though he'll be a good starter from Day 1.
Strengths: Matthews is the most technically sound and polished offensive lineman in this draft class, and that shows up on tape in all kinds of ways. As a pass-blocker, he is fluid and consistent in his kick-slide, and he establishes a solid arc of protection back to the pocket with his footwork and low base. Gets his hands inside a defender’s pads and generally keeps them there — he’s very tenacious. As a run-blocker, he excels not with tremendous root strength, but with an understanding of angles and leverage that makes him appear functionally stronger than he really is. Does outstanding work in slide protection because he’s so good at keeping his feet active but efficient — there aren’t a lot of wasted steps for Matthews, and he doesn’t usually have to recover from his own mistakes. Understands and does well in zone concepts like combos and pass-offs — he keeps his eyes forward and his hands moving, and when he has to jump quickly to handle a second defender, he has no problem with that. Gets out of his stance in a hurry off the snap and moves to block, meaning that he gains the advantage of striking the first blow most of the time.
Matthews is a very quick and agile player, and I think this is an underrated aspect of his game — he has the ability to execute tackle pulls to any gap, and all the way across the line, and he’s great when asked to head to linebacker depth and pop a defensive target in space. Matthews would be an especially great pick for any team with a mobile quarterback, because blocking for Manziel trained him to maintain his protection as long as the play is alive.
Weaknesses: Matthews isn’t a dominant physical athlete — he’s not going to physically overwhelm opponents with brute power, and he has to stay straight with his technique as a result. Occasionally gets too high in his stance, and can be moved back and aside as a result. And if he doesn’t get his hands out first, he’s not prone to re-directing after he’s beaten, meaning he’ll lose battles with more aggressive defenders. This is a core strength issue, and something that his NFL team will want him to correct.
You will often hear that the competition between Matthews and Auburn’s Greg Robinson to be the best tackle in the 2014 draft is a battle between the finished product (Matthews) and the prospect with the higher upside (Robinson). While there’s some validity to this notion, I believe that it also sells Matthews short as a pure athlete with potential to get better. In an NFL conditioning program, and with advanced coaching, he does indeed have upside — it’s just that he already has the ability to be a plug-and-play starter from Day 1 at one of football’s most important positions. That’s no mean feat, and it shouldn’t be discounted. The Falcons certainly won't discount it, and they'll benefit greatly from the start.
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