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How spread offenses are changing evaluations on both sides of line

Spread offenses are more prevalent than ever in college—and that means linemen are often ill-equipped to enter the NFL. How are front offices and coaches adapting their evaluations to the proliferation of the spread?

INDIANAPOLIS — One of the biggest benefits of the NFL Scouting Combine is the ability to talk to just about every NFL coach and general manager over a two-day stretch. Through this, you can get a real feel for league trends and the ways in which the NFL’s shot-callers are adjusting their own philosophies to the ever-changing realities of college talent.

This year, more than ever (and more than anything else), the predominant issue for coaches and GMs is the transition from college to pro for players who have worked in different types of spread offenses, and how NFL teams have had to adjust to certain technical and schematic changes. At my first combine in 2007, I talked with then 49ers GM and current Redskins GM Scot McCloughan about this, and he was the first league executive I’d seen who had a real handle on how quicker passes, wider line splits and pared-down playbooks would affect the talent draw in the draft.

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Almost a decade later, it seems to be all anyone’s talking about—and asked about. And one thing’s for sure: NFL personnel are far more concerned with how the proliferation of spread concepts in college has affected basic offensive fundamentals than ever before.

It’s not just that offensive linemen aren’t as adept and experienced when it comes to drive-blocking and power combos. When you watch tape of what some draft analysts believe to be the best class of defensive linemen in at least the last decade, you see a lot more “mush-rush” happening, when those defensive linemen need to be more aware of the read-option concepts they’re facing. As a result, they’re not as aggressive when rushing around tackles and splitting inside gaps.

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Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus told me that based on PFF’s own charting, I’m not wrong in that assessment. Monson said that while LSU is particularly proactive about mush-rushing (it has been for years, by the way), there are other defenses looking to do it more and more—Ohio State is one to watch. And that’s as much about containing the quarterback in a mobile system as anything. It’s not so much about blitzing or not blitzing—really, it’s not that simple. It seems to point to a sea change in defensive philosophy across the board, and the relative lack of aggressive pressure will certainly affect how offensive linemen react.

Greg Cosell of NFL Films, and the executive producer of ESPN’s NFL Matchup, broke it down for me in a different way.

“College is different than the NFL because the run game is so much more prevalent,” he said. “When you see the large majority of college teams in the shotgun, which gives you more running quarterbacks or more quarterbacks capable of running, and the immediate element of the option with the running back offset next to him... they’ll do a lot of flash fakes. That could be read-option, so defensive linemen have to do a lot more reading of that before they rush. So, it may not be a ‘mush rush’ tactic in terms of how they want to rush, but they have to react to the potential of the backfield action and the potential for the run. Because the run is there far more in college.”

That’s one side of the equation. Just as prevalent is the reaction to those read-rushes—more than in the past, you’ll see even the best tackles come out of the snap in a two-point stance, and sit and wait for the ends to react. It’s a different kind of chess match in which each side is waiting for the other to blink. The inside college game then becomes more about technique counters than pure power, which leaves a lot of those blockers on the wrong side of things when it comes time to play in the NFL. Because as Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said, one has to get after the quarterback in the pros instead of waiting for things to happen.

“We’re looking to rush and disrupt quarterbacks,” he said. “We don’t want them to be comfortable back there or sit back, pat the ball and go to different reads. The more you can eliminate that time, the more effective and efficient your defense will be.”

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The problem on the offensive side of things is that at the college level, you simply don’t see the repetitive power-blocking, drive-blocking and combo blocks that are required by every effective offense in the NFL. There are a few programs that still go with the pro-style concepts—Stanford, Alabama, Michigan and Michigan State are four—but more and more, it’s about scoring points through a sustained passing game that requires very little in power concepts.

What you wind up with, as Arians said, is a group of blockers who basically have to redshirt at the next level because they’re so behind on technique. Arians remarked that the three-point stance is the base ideal for nearly every NFL blocker, but since it isn’t taught at the high school or collegiate levels, there’s a major reset from the start. Arians said this about all positions, but specified it to draft prospects along the offensive line: The athletes are better than ever, but the fundamentals are worse than they’ve ever been. For instance, the Cardinals selected Florida tackle D.J. Humphries in the first round of the 2015 draft, and then made him a healthy scratch all the way through the season. That was intentional from the start.

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“We drafted D.J. last year knowing we were going to redshirt him because we had so much to teach him,” Arians said. “If we threw him out there, he was going to fail. Once they fail, it’s hard to get those scars off. He didn’t dress a game purposefully just to get better and better. Going against guys like Dwight [Freeney] and Calais [Campbell] in practice, he got better every week. I think next year he’ll be ready to play.”

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That’s one way to try and dodge the alarmingly high bust rate for highly picked blockers over the last few seasons. As I wrote last September, the percentage of hits when drafting esteemed linemen is pretty grisly since 2008, and it seems to get worse every year. Many place blame on the NCAA’s overall change in offensive philosophy. Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable believed the difference in technique to be so bad that it was basically impossible to solve, so his team was going to go a different way and convert defensive linemen to the offensive line. It’s a theory that’s had mixed results for Seattle at best, but as Seahawks GM John Schneider told me Wednesday, the team isn't ready to scrap that idea.

“All throughout the league, everyone’s concerned about offensive line play,” Schneider said. “You can talk to college coaches who are recruiting high school kids, and that’s a concern as well. In terms of our philosophy, we’re going to keep attacking it the same way we always have. Tom does a great job, and he’s a great teacher. There’s a lot of experience in that room, and those guys do a great job of coaching up the position. Whether or not we convert guys, it really depends on what the draft looks like.”

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Then again, there are those in the league who believe—and have proven—that as long as you put the right kind of thought process behind your line, you can hit on the right players. For all their personnel shortcomings in other areas, the Cowboys have done a marvelous job of building what’s become the NFL’s best young line. They did it by taking specific players in the first round year after year (Tyron Smith in 2011, Travis Frederick in ’13, Zack Martin in ’14), and as coach Jason Garrett put it to me, it can be that simple as long as you understand that there are players who fit your scheme—or who can be trained to do so.

“One of the things we made a commitment to was rebuilding our offensive line,” Garrett said. “That started five years ago with Tyron Smith out of USC, and we’ve allocated resources three of the last five years, and we drafted players we believe are cornerstone players. It’s a cause for great optimism to have guys like that, who are the right kinds of guys and outstanding players. It requires a commitment, it requires an allocation of resources.”

More specifically, it requires the types of players with the combination of athleticism and experience in pro-style offenses who can make those transitions. Smith was an athletic marvel at USC, but he also got a load of fundamental training. As did Frederick at Wisconsin. As did Martin at Notre Dame. (Martin was a pro-style blocker, and trained as such, despite his presence in a spread-style offense.) When the Cowboys were able to take La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent last year despite Collins’s first-round talent due to an off-field incident, there was also the fact that at LSU Collins had experience in an offense one might term NFL-ready, if far too basic at times.

So, is the schism due to a real lack of developed talent at the line positions, or are some coaches and GMs just giving up and firing excuses at the problem? When you watch tape of this year’s class of blockers, there are clearly some players who appear ready for prime time. Tackles Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss and Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame seem to have everything in order, but we’ve said the same things about guys like Matt Kalil and Luke Joeckel over the last few years. It’s more of a crap shoot than ever.

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Perhaps the most interesting example of a spread-style blocker with potential beyond that narrow frame is Texas Tech’s LeRaven Clark. The 6' 6", 312-pound Clark was a freshman All-America at right guard and made multiple All-Big 12 teams when he kicked to left tackle, but there’s a lot of trepidation about his NFL future because he played in a spread system in which he simply wasn’t asked to do a lot of the things NFL tackles need to handle. There may be teams who reject him because of that, but based on my own tape evaluation, I think that’s a mistake. I believe Clark has the frame, aggressiveness and nascent power to become something special at the next level—it’s just going to take the right team and coaching staff to see it and respond.

When you watch him excel in a multi-step kickslide and extend his hands to envelop pass-rushers, it’s easy to wonder if the spread bias has gone too far. Clark, who’s working on three-point stances with performance coach Bill Lewis in Arizona, put it very plainly—people aren’t seeing everything he can be.

“We did a lot of things out of two-point stances, we did some three-point stance in short yardage situations, but I feel pretty comfortable in my three-point stance when I come off the ball for sure,” Clark said. “There's definitely a misperception there—most people don’t think we have any combo blocks or power blocking in our plays. They think it’s just inside zone and outside zone. But we have a few running plays, and we run the ball more than people think. Our running back [Deandre Washington] ran the ball for [1,492] yards last year, and you have to run the ball a little bit to get that many yards.”

We’ll soon see where Clark lands, and we’ll watch over time how the consternation about spread offenses in the NFL works itself out. One thing’s for sure—college teams aren’t changing their approaches, so unless multiple NFL teams want to miss out on a major talent pool year after year after year, there’s more adapting to be done. No matter the year of the combine, and no matter the specific subject, it’s a constant dance between the college and pro game.