Jacksonville Jaguars rookie offensive lineman Ben Bartch was never going to have a normal rookie season.
The former D-III offensive tackle, who was a tight end in 2016 and 2017, was being moved inside to guard in the same year he was facing a serious uptick in competition. Add in the COVID-19 pandemic, which severely hindered Bartch's ability to gain stability in his new role during the offseason, and it would be understandable if Bartch came into camp and had his struggles early on.
So far, though, the strong, athletic fourth-rounder hasn't struggled. Instead, he has excelled, bucking a perception that small school players such as himself face serious roadblocks in the NFL.
"In my experience, I’ve had a lot, well not a lot, but I’ve had success with guys that come from small schools and a lot of times people will think guys from a small school—he’s not going to be as technically evolved or has been coached as well. You know, it couldn’t be further from the truth," head coach Doug Marrone said on Aug. 20.
"But I will tell you what I’ve seen from Ben and a lot of these other young linemen, is that—Ben specifically has the power, has the ability. So, I’m really excited about him. You know, now a lot of times with linemen—sometimes when you’re always trying to do things the right way, you tend to overthink a little bit and it kind of holds you back and you’ve got to work yourself out of that. I think he’s done a really nice job."
Bartch was an out of the box pick for the Jaguars in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. The St. John's of Minnesota offensive lineman was picked with the No. 116 pick, making him the first player from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to be drafted since Ryan Hoag was selected by the Raiders with the final pick of the 2003 NFL Draft.
The Jaguars needed more young talent along the offensive line, but it raised some eyebrows to see the team select Bartch considering the value the team has placed on level of competition in the past. Bartch, however, had shown them enough at the Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile, landing him directly on the Jaguars radar at the top of the draft's third day.
“I like Ben, I like him. His college tape was good, but level of play didn’t give you a great indicator of what he possibly could be," offensive line coach George Warhop said on Sunday.
"I thought when he was at the senior bowl before he got hurt, I thought he competed extremely well there. [He] showed some things that we like in our guys, some strength."
So, why has Bartch stood out at Jaguars practices as a rookie despite his small-school pedigree and the move to guard? Part of it surely has to do with the fact that he isn't facing many starting defensive lineman (though he has won reps vs. Timmy Jernigan). But another part of it has to do with the way Bartch has carried himself in his first camp.
Last year, the Jaguars were able to benefit from their rookie offensive lineman having a developed sense of maturity, in that case Jawaan Taylor. So far this year, it appears the Jaguars have another rookie offensive lineman who, so far, just looks like he belongs on the NFL field.
"He has some tenacity. He’s a bright kid. I think it’s really just him getting comfortable. He hasn’t shied away from the competition, just technically getting used to how we want to play, making the transition from tackle to guard," Warhop said. "It’s not as easy when you don’t have a spring, so he’s fighting through the early parts of making that adjustment, but I’m fired up for him. I think he’ll be a good player for us in the future.”
It remains to be seen exactly when Bartch can be expected to crack the starting lineup. The Jaguars have preached stability as a strength of their offensive line, and the experience of veteran guars Andrew Norwell and A.J. Cann give them the starting spots along the line in 2020.
Perhaps Bartch could rotate with Cann like Will Richardson did last year, but that seems unlikely. Richardson competed with Cann for the starting guard spot in all of camp last year, while Bartch has clearly been the backup in comparison.
But what about moving forward? If Bartch continues his current trajectory, it shouldn't be too hard for him to find a spot -- even if it isn't at guard.
"But I think that he’s a guy that can play multiple positions. I think he can play guard, we’ve got him training at center and then obviously we’ve seen him play tackle before, so we feel [really] comfortable. He’s done a good job along all those young guys," Marrone said.