Spread offenses in college make NFL a guessing game
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The spread offenses that dominate the NCAA produce a parade of points but also prospects that aren't quite ready for the NFL.
Quarterbacks have to learn to line up under center and scan the field while backpedaling. Running backs have to learn to scurry straight ahead. Wide receivers have to dramatically expand their route tree.
''The football being played from the high school level to the college level is a different brand of football than they're going to be asked to play,'' 49ers general manager John Lynch said.
Nowhere is that gulf more evident than in the trenches where the vast majority of offensive linemen are no longer the plug-and-play types like Ryan Clady or Joe Thomas were a decade ago.
Now, teams have to project how shrewdly and swiftly these big men will adjust to the pro game because most of them have never gotten into a three-point stance to blow an opponent off the ball or been asked to maintain a block for several seconds while his quarterback searches for his target.
While every team sprinkles in some college-style plays, the spread hasn't really infiltrated the NFL, where teams fear their quarterbacks would get exposed to more hits. So it's up to the O-linemen to quickly adapt to protect the passer - and the owner's chief investment.
That puts the onus on personnel evaluators to pinpoint which linemen are going to be able to make that leap.
CHECKING THE CRYSTAL BALL
Titans coach Mike Mularkey looks for play-to-the-whistle attitude: ''You can see it on tape, whether they've got that in them,'' Mularkey said. ''I can see body language. You can see. Film doesn't lie.''
It does hide, though.
''Sometimes, you go through 80 plays and only like eight of them are truly grade-able, where they're at the point of contact and they're actually doing something you're going to ask them to do,'' 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. ''And what you never want to do as a coach is ask a player to do something that he's not capable of doing.
''And so if you can't see that on tape, the next most important thing to me is seeing them in personal workouts, where you can get down there, you can get a position coach to go down there, take them through some drills. And yeah, it's not football, you can't see their toughness and everything like that like you can on tape, but the physiology of how a guy moves, sometimes you have to send a guy down there to see how they move.''
They look for fluid footwork and flexibility in addition to seeing how strong and smart they are.
IT'S EDUCATED GUESSES
''There are colleges that are wide open and throw the ball 100 times, so you don't get to evaluate every technique that they're going to be taught here,'' Bengals personnel director Duke Tobin said. ''You've got to kind of project them in. You've got to project traits. You've got to project size, strength, movement. You've got to project is he an aware player? Can he react quickly? If those are all yes, then you feel pretty confident that he can come in and run the techniques that you're going to have him run.''
Projecting was more of a buzzword at the NFL scouting combine this month than ever before.
''It's easy when you can see a guy go do exactly what you're going to ask him to do and you can evaluate that, judge that. It becomes a little bit more interesting when you have to project, and that's part of our business,'' said Texans GM Rick Smith.
''It still boils down to you want an athletic guy, a guy that has strength and power and smarts and movement,'' Buccaneers GM Jason Licht said. ''So, if you can see those things ... and you can. You just don't see it or identify it as quickly as you did in the past. But you can still see it. It just makes it more challenging.''
BRAIN POWER IS ALSO KEY
Rams coach Sean McVay said as important as athleticism is the academic side because of ''all the different things that they have to handle with blitz protection and pickups and pass pro, being able to adjust in the run game.''
So they want to see the linemen get low for leverage and then see what they have ''above the neck,'' McVay said.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said the college O-linemen aren't ''used to the physicality of the NFL game in a three-point stance, and they're not used to how complex the pass protections are, and I think it slows them all down.''
There are exceptions such as Titans tackle Jack Conklin , from Michigan State, and Lions tackle Taylor Decker, of Ohio State, who came more conventional, power run offenses.
More and more raw rookies, however, are getting essentially a redshirt year like Cardinals tackle D.J. Humphries, a first-round pick in 2015 who debuted in 2016.
''I loved him coming out (of Florida),'' Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. ''We knew what we were getting, a very young guy who had very little skill set and a lot of athleticism. It took him a year to get the skill set. We knew he had the heart. To take these guys and teach them how to play, to hear a play in the huddle and decipher the information, to go up and get down in a stance, to run block that way, to get off on a hard count - it's very hard for these guys.
''They struggle all spring and a lot of times, they really struggle in training camp because that's the first time they've put on pads and actually hit anybody. That's a problem with our game, we just don't get to practice enough in pads with these young kids.''
A NEW CROP
This year's draft class is lean at tackle with the top prospects Ryan Ramczyk of Wisconsin and Utah's Garett Bolles both having started just one year in college.
Arians, however, isn't one to criticize the college coaches for not preparing these players for the pros.
''No, their job is to win games and I'd be doing the same damn thing if I was coaching in college with the 20-hour rule,'' Arians said. ''I'd get the best athlete I could, put him back there (at quarterback) and spread it out. It's our job now to adjust and not criticize what they're doing and really to get our fans to realize your No. 1 pick is not what it used to be. Tony Boselli ain't coming out now because he's in a different offense. There's so much more teaching involved with these younger players right now. Much greater athletes but much more teaching on our part.''
LEARNING ON THE FLY
Sometimes teams decide it's best to let their linemen figure it out on the field.
The Seahawks had the lowest-paid offensive line in football last year, spending just over $6 million on its inexperienced unit that featured a converted basketball player at left tackle, a rookie at right guard, a second-year player with one previous game at left guard and a center on his third position in three years.
The Seahawks took things up a notch last season by training former hoopster George Fant on the fly to play left tackle.
''It was a shock that he could compete, but he showed quite early that he was physically capable,'' his coach, Pete Carroll, said.
NOT JUST THE NFL'S CONUNDRUM
Seahawks GM John Schneider said the pool of O-linemen is thin even for college coaches because the best big men are lining up on the other side of the ball or even at tight end - two groups that are, not surprisingly, very deep in this year's draft class.
''The majority of guys aren't like, `I'm going to be the best offensive lineman in high-school football,''' Schneider said. ''They want to sack the quarterback.''
Ramczyk comes from a power-run offense but even he is under no illusion about being able to step right in and dominate as he did in the Big Ten.
''Going into the NFL is a huge jump,'' Ramczyk said. ''You're playing against the best players in the world. So I don't think it's easy for anyone to adjust.''
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