With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. As we head into the final five picks, it's time to review the two best offensive linemen in the 2014 class -- and the first player under review is as NFL-ready as any prospect you'll ever see. The danger is to assume that he can't get better. And that is an erroneous assumption.
No. 5: Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews
Bio: Bloodlines don't always mean much in sports, but when you watch Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews, it's easy to trace his complete mastery of his position at the collegiate level to the fact that his father, Bruce, is a Hall of Fame guard and center, and has coached line for many years. His grandfather, Clay Sr., played in the NFL in the 1950s; his uncle, Clay Jr., did the same for 19 seasons; his cousin Clay is currently terrorizing quarterbacks for the Green Bay Packers, and on and on. As a prized high-school recruit, the younger Matthews almost followed in dad's footsteps and went to USC, but decided instead on College Station. It was a fortuitous choice -- as the Trojans offense went down the tubes at the hands of Lane Kiffin, A&M was blowing things up in 2012 and '13 with Johnny Manziel running around and throwing bombs to Mike Evans. And when Luke Joeckel left for the NFL following the 2012 season, Matthews moved from right tackle to left in a seamless transition.
"I’d like to think I wasn’t grandfathered in," he said with a laugh at the scouting combine when asked about his lineage. "I hope I earned my way here. It is special, the family I came from, and the relationships I have with my dad and cousins and brothers and all the people who have gone through this process. So that’s really special, and something [where] I can look to them to ask what it was like, what their experience with it was. So far it’s been good. I’ve enjoyed it."
Matthews' family is certainly impressive, but there's enough on tape to make him a top-five pick -- no matter what his last name may be.
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.
Conclusion: You will often hear that the competition between Matthews and Auburn's Greg Robinson to be the first tackle taken 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.