How the top rookie offensive linemen are developing in new NFL roles
It's quite common for offensive linemen to switch positions once they enter the NFL, and last season, the league's two best rookie linemen excelled in new spots. Browns left guard Joel Bitonio played tackle at Nevada, but Cleveland banked on his ability to develop the toughness and “phone-booth” mentality all great guards have. Bitonio responded with a Pro Bowl-level performance. Nineteen picks earlier, the Cowboys had used their first-round selection on Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin with the intention of playing him at right guard, which he did well enough to make the Pro Bowl and grab First-Team All-Pro honors.
Many of the 2015 draft's top linemen will get the chance to develop at the position they were always projected to play as prospects, but just as many are in the process of getting used to new positions, new techniques and much tougher defenders. Listed by draft order, here's where 12 of the most prominent rookie linemen stand halfway through the preseason.
The Redskins selected Scherff with the fifth overall pick, which made a lot of sense given their issues with every offensive lineman not named Trent Williams over the last few seasons. The bigger surprise was O-line coach Bill Callahan's decision to plug him in at right guard, when Scherff played left tackle at Iowa. Unlike some guard converts, Scherff isn't a stubby outside blocker who could only play tackle in college. He came into the NFL with an appealing combination of length, strength and agility. Still, he looked reasonably decent through his first two preseason games, holding his own even amid Washington's near-criminal lack of protection around Robert Griffin III against the Lions last Thursday, but he did get bulled back a bit. That will happen until he learns to use his leverage in a different way at a different position. Whether a right guard is worth the fifth pick in the draft is another question entirely.
The Giants surprised a lot of people by taking Flowers out of Miami with the ninth pick, with more talented and athletic linemen still on the board. Coach Tom Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese were happy with the selection, praising Flowers's raw power. The power is there, but the rawness is, too. Flowers looks very much like a guard convert at times. He's a good drive blocker who will need a great deal of development when it comes to dealing with speed rushers on the edge. When starting left tackle Will Beatty went down in May with a torn pectoral muscle, the Giants tabbed Flowers to be his replacement in the short term. He's played 65 snaps on the left side so far in the preseason, playing to type as a better run-blocker than pass-protector, but we'll see how things work out in the regular season.
The reviews on Peat have been decidedly mixed to date. The No. 13 pick out of Stanford has been dealing with conditioning issues, which is not a good look for a high-drafted future right tackle. Peat was given a team-high 51 snaps in the Saints' first preseason game against the Ravens to try to get the rust off. This has to be a fairly major concern, and it could keep the Saints from making Peat, who played left tackle in college, the starter on the right side early on. The plan was for Peat to challenge Zach Strief at right tackle, but that might not happen so soon when it's time to protect Drew Brees (a heavy roll-right quarterback) in Week 1 of the regular season..
“Peat was so gassed during the post-practice conditioning sprints he was finishing his runs a full five seconds behind the rest of the team,” NOLA.com's Jeff Duncan wrote on Aug. 7. “To his credit, the massive rookie lineman never quit but it was painful to watch him trudge through the session. In 15 years of covering the NFL, I've never seen a player struggle as much as Peat did on Friday.”
Erving played tackle, guard and center at high levels at Florida State, but in the NFL, the positional value of the 19th overall pick has narrowed down a bit. He struggled against the Redskins at left tackle, then fared better against the Bills as the team's right guard. Head coach Mike Pettine has said that he projects Erving as a more natural guard at this point. His ideal position is probably center, but that will have to wait until Alex Mack moves on, perhaps after the 2015 season. No matter—at right guard, Erving adds some balance to a Cleveland line that is as good as you'll see on the left side, with tackle Joe Thomas to Bitonio and Mack in the middle.
Drafted 24th overall out of Florida, Humphries was billed as perhaps the most purely athletic tackle in this draft class. However, he has not impressed coach Bruce Arians with his early work—and Arians is not one to soft-pedal his opinions. He called Humphries “immature” during early OTAs, only to praise his development in later camp work. Just last week, Arians said that Bradley Sowell (and Bobby Massie after Massie returns from his three-game substance-abuse suspension) may have the edge at the right tackle position because Sowell is a pro who shows up every day, while Humphries shows up once a week. These concerns mirror those that came up during Humphries's college career, when he was known to run hot and cold depending on his level of competition. NFL coaches will generally stick with the guy they can count on over the more athletically gifted wild card. Humphries, who has played 67 snaps at right tackle this preseason and gave up a sack against the Chargers last Saturday, may be more of a project than Arizona had imagined.
Laken Tomlinson, Lions—Projected 2015 position: Left guard
There are no such concerns about Tomlinson, the star Duke guard who was taken 28th in the 2015 draft. Detroit plugged him in as the first-team left guard as soon as possible (he was a right guard in college), and he's responded well over 96 snaps in two preseason games. Tomlinson, who had a double major in evolutionary anthropology and psychology, would like to go to medical school when his NFL career is over. He may be the simplest plug-and-play lineman of this year's class. A kid who traveled 90 minutes each way to attend an academically superior high school in the Chicago area shouldn't be too overwhelmed by the demands of an NFL learning curve.
Tomlinson did allow a sack against the Redskins last Thursday, but Lions coach Jim Caldwell is not too concerned about that.
“This is the big leagues,” Caldwell said the day after. “I’m not certain there has been a guy in this league, at least that I’m aware of that hasn’t given up a sack or given up something early because of the fact that he’s learning a little different type of guy that he's lined up against. So it’s a great learning experience to see whether or not they can adjust. He’ll face a guy this next week that’ll be just as good, just as tough, just as fast, just as strong as he is. In college, sometimes you have those advantages. In this league you have no advantages.”
The 34th overall pick out of Penn State, Smith has been slotted in as the Bucs' starting left tackle, and he encountered some difficulty in his preseason debut against the Vikings. He was absolutely clowned by end Everson Griffen on a sick spin move that was the talk of Twitter for a while. The Bucs are really counting on Smith and fellow rookie Ali Marpet, who also struggled against Minnesota, so turnaround performances will be expected sooner rather than later. Marpet is most likely the team's projected right guard, and he's done pretty well considering his jump from Division III Hobart.
When Rodney Hudson signed a lucrative contract with the Raiders, the Chiefs entered the market for a new starting center. That's why they took Morse, who played both tackle and center at Missouri, with the 49th overall pick. The Chiefs open their regular season against the Texans, which gives Morse precious little time to adjust to recognizing NFL-quality blitzes—not to mention having Vince Wilfork right over his head.
“All these guys are consistently good pass rushers,” Morse recently said about the players he's dealing with in practice and in the preseason. “It's something you've got to step up your game for. It forces you to match their consistency. If you don't, it's going to get ugly for you. You can't beat anyone just off pure athleticism. You really have to master the fundamentals.”
Havenstein may the highest-drafted rookie starter on a Rams line that could feature multiple due to severe attrition in the off-season. The 57th overall pick out of Wisconsin, he's projected as the starting right tackle. Jamon Brown, the No. 72 pick out of Louisville, could play right or left guard, but he's spent the preseason on the right side. The guy who may surprise over time is Iowa's Andrew Donnal, who really impressed me with his college tape. He's played right tackle and right guard in the preseason, matching his versatility in college. I really like his potential as a right-side pass protector. In any event, Jeff Fisher will have his hands full with so much inexperience on that line, and a new quarterback who does not respond well to pressure in Nick Foles.
On the subject of pressure ... Sambrailo, the former trick skier and standout blocker for Colorado State, will be protecting Peyton Manning's blind side in his rookie campaign after Ryan Clady suffered a torn ACL in May. In Sambrailo, left guard Max Garcia and center Max Paradis, the Broncos are looking to develop a left side of their line that brings absolutely no NFL regular-season experience into 2015. New coach Gary Kubiak had better up his game when it comes to making the best of the lines he's got, and Manning had better be rolling right a lot of the time. Not that Sambrailo is a bad player—he isn't—but he's still under development in a lot of ways, which is why he slid to pick No. 59.
T.J. Clemmings, Vikings—Projected 2015 position: Right tackle
Clemmings spent his first three years at Pitt on the defensive line, moving over to right tackle before the 2013 season. In two years, he showed two things: It takes a long time to learn to play right tackle at the major college level, and Clemmings has a fearsome combination of strength and athleticism that could very well condense that development time. When right tackle Phil Loadholt suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the Minnesota's second preseason game, the training wheels came off for good: Clemmings is the starter for sure.
“I think he’s improved a great deal and we spend a lot of extra time on pass protection,” Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said of Clemmings in mid-August. “I think that’s where he’s really improved. He’s an explosive player, he’s got good feet, he uses his hands well. He’s inexperienced, that’s the one thing you’d say where he’s got to catch up ... if T.J. plays like he did Saturday night and like he did in that first game and keeps growing as a player and continues to play well out here, he should be able to be a very competitive player in this league.”
Sooner than later would be good in this case.
Collins is last on this list because he went undrafted, but that wasn't due to any talent deficiency—most experts gave him a mid-first-round grade based on his work at right tackle for LSU, but no one would touch him after he was called away from draft weekend to answer questions for a murder investigation in which he was not considered a suspect. After signing a three-year, $1.599 million contract with the Cowboys, all Collins can do now is play his best and make 31 NFL teams regret their decision.
So far, so good. In his preseason debut against the Chargers, Collins looked like a man among boys at times, bulling linemen and linebackers back as if he was going up against the local high school. Chi Chi Ariguzo will attest to that fact.
He gave up a sack against the 49ers in his second game, but everything points to Collins seeing serious starting time on a line that may already be the NFL's best. The only question is where. Left guard Ronald Leary and right tackle Doug Free should be nervous as Collins develops, because he can play inside and outside—and he'll play somewhere soon.
GALLERY: The NFL's top offensive lines