When asked during my playing days if I could add anything to my physical repertoire, what would it be, I always answered longer arms. Though I also would have loved to have been bigger, faster and stronger, increased arm length would have been first on my wish list.
Much like a boxer who has a reach advantage, offensive linemen with long arms can affect their opponents before they are affected themselves. I can't tell you how many times during my career that I found myself with a defender's hand in my chest or on my shoulder due to his advantage in arm length. And though there are techniques that can help combat this disadvantage, long-armed players never really have to worry about learning them.
I bring that up now because the eight offensive tackles taken in the first round of last month's draft are finally able to hit NFL practice fields for some extended hands-on training as they attempt to hone their craft. Though most of them whetted their appetite with a post-draft minicamp, the organized team activities, or OTA's as they are known in league lexicon, are the first real opportunity for these players to take what they were taught in the classroom onto the field on a daily basis.
As one would expect, not every offensive line coach trumpets the same characteristics when determining the likelihood of success for a given player. The Indianapolis Colts Howard Mudd looks primarily for quickness and arm length because of the way he teaches his offensive linemen to jump set in pass protection. Alex Gibbs, now of the Houston Texans, has had success for years by finding lean athletes with great lateral speed to run his one-cut zone blocking scheme. Others, like the New England Patriots Dante Scarnecchia, emphasize mental and physical toughness, believing those players will come through in the clutch.
Though every offensive lineman in the NFL must possess some level of competency in all of these categories to even get an opportunity in the NFL, the following list represents the most important qualities I look for when evaluating fellow offensive linemen.
Toughness is often talked about in NFL circles yet so rarely defined. Being mentally tough involves having the poise to maintain one's composure no matter how adverse the conditions. It means remembering assignments and avoiding penalties in critical situations. Mentally tough players are incredibly dogged in their pursuit of self-improvement. Players who possess a great deal of this quality are amazingly persistent with their effort. No matter what the score is or how much time is left on the clock, you can count on these guys for maximum effort, and effort counts in the NFL.
The other component of toughness is the physical variety. Physically tough players do whatever it takes to play through whatever pain or maladies they may be dealing with, and trust me, every lineman is dealing with something as the season wears on. Just as importantly, a player with a high level of physical toughness takes a unique delight in pounding and punishing his defender on every play. It is not enough to just block his man; he wants to physically demoralize his opponent by beating him into submission. The Jets paid a premium for guard Alan Faneca, in part due to his reputation for having a tremendous amount of mental and physical toughness.
Football IQ is an integral component of success in the trenches and it has absolutely nothing to do with GPA, SATs or even the Wonderlic for that matter. There are some Ivy League players who have little chance to make a roster due to their lack of football acumen, just like there are plenty of NFL success stories involving players who had significant academic difficulties in high school and college. Academic pedigree means very little but football know-how can make a huge difference in one's on-field production.
Smart offensive linemen can tell when a team is going to run a stunt based upon the alignment of the linebackers and the body lean of the defensive linemen. They can make difficult adjustments or audibles on the fly in the heat of the battle.
The difference between wins and losses in the NFL is so small that the quick decisions on blitz pick-ups by an intelligent veteran player like Indianapolis' Jeff Saturday or Chicago's Olin Kreutz could be a determining factor in the outcome. Being able to make a split-second assessment when 90,000 people are screaming and a 360-pound man is six inches from your nose is an entirely different type of intelligence than most people can even comprehend.
Sure, you have to be fast to be an NFL player, but more importantly, you have to be quick. The game moves at such an incredible rate that if you are a split second late off the snap, you may already be beat.
There are two components of quickness that coaches look for. The first one is initial quickness. For an offensive lineman, it represents the time it takes to make his first two steps out of his stance. Any evaluation of film will show that a lineman's chances for success are drastically increased every time he gets both feet on the ground before engaging the defender, whether it is run or pass. Knowing the snap count is an incredible advantage for an offensive lineman who must use this to establish positioning and leverage on his typically more physically gifted counterpart.
The other facet of quickness is change of direction, which is basically the ability to quickly alter one's momentum. More than any other quality, this is often what separates the best from the rest. Elite tackles like the Redskins' Chris Samuels and the Bills' JasonPeters are blessed with an uncanny ability to recover after they are beat, simply by redirecting themselves and getting back in front of their defender. Though this is a skill that is often worked on by lineman around the league, only a few players possess the fancy feet that lead them to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.
As I mentioned earlier, arm length is a physical trait that can't be altered. Its importance varies depending on who you ask. Both the Bears and the Falcons have been criticized in some circles for taking offensive tackles in the first round in ChrisWilliams and Sam Baker, respectively, who fall below the average in terms of arm length.
The Bengals' Paul Alexander and Indy's Mudd often look for long-limbed linemen due to their belief that it helps tremendously in pass protection. Alexander in particular is a believer in drafting players with overwhelming physical traits, as evidenced with the selections of Andrew Whitworth and Stacey Andrews in recent years.
The two characteristics that one thinks of when talking about offensive linemen -- outstanding size and power -- are more a luxury than a necessity. Without a high level of the first three qualities I've already listed, a player with great size or power will always be a step slow or a second late. Raw power really only comes into play once a defender is engaged.
That being said, it is certainly a nice thing to have and there are coaches out there like the Cowboys' Hudson Houck and the Redskins' Joe Bugel who place a premium on a player's ability to generate power. The luxury of being an above-average player in terms of size or power is that you can be more patient with many of your movements knowing your size will help protect you.
In pass protection, for example, an extremely powerful player can sit back, relax, and wait for his defender to come to him, knowing full well that he doesn't have to worry about the bull rush. This patience allows players like the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden or the Eagles' Shawn Andrews to see things unfold up front and react to them, rather than getting out of position as a result of being overaggressive.