From the Trenches
By Matt and Mike Vahey
The first in a series of articles, we aim to give a unique perspective, from our point of view as ex-offensive linemen, on the certain attributes we believe give each position group the best chance to succeed. While we realize each position has a plethora of evaluation criteria, we wanted to outline the specific traits we believe are the most important for each position, as we’ve seen throughout our playing and evaluating careers. In our opinion, if they have these traits they have a bright future. To start, we’re going to start where we feel at home: the offensive line.
Offensive Line Scouting
In football, there’s no position less glamorous than that of an offensive lineman. However, being ex-offensive linemen, there is no other position group we would rather evaluate. There’s something about an offensive line working in unison, grinding away at an opponent, that’s almost poetic. While these men are mostly unnoticed by most, they are to us the most important players on the field, as games are won and lost in the trenches.
Evaluating these players can be tricky, particularly for the NFL Draft, as each team has certain offensive philosophies and are looking for players that fit their particular schemes. What we try to do as evaluators is to evaluate their skill sets and give their best scheme fit in accordance with their playing style and abilities.
When we evaluate, while there are a multitude of criteria to grade on, we can usually tell a player will be successful if they encompass several of these specific traits: athleticism, functional strength, intelligence, and their mentality. One may ask, “What about their technique?” We agree proper technique is extremely important and we’ll take technique into account when grading, but it can also be coached at the next level. While it’s a topic for another day, the spread offensive also hasn’t helped with the fundamentals of offensive line play either. What we’re focusing on is future projections, what they can pan out to be, and technique is something that can be taught, athleticism cannot be taught.
Athleticism is a trait that is unmatched in offensive line play, and mostly every other position as well. Quick feet, lateral mobility, fluidity in their movement, these are all things we’re looking for in players. The smoother and faster a player can be to their assignment, the better chance teams have at successful plays. Case in point, Jason Kelce. He is a great athlete at the Center position, and is particularly effective in the zone scheme due to his ability to block in space and use his athletic ability to move laterally and gain position on defenders. While he’s not the strongest player, his athletic ability helps mitigate this.
In terms of strength, a lot of every day fans will get caught up in the combine numbers and how many reps a player can put up in the bench press. To strictly go by these numbers, in our opinion, is a little misguided (as an aside – we believe the squat is a better judgment of a players strength). We’ve played with guys who were gym monsters, but that strength didn’t translate on the playing field. When we say we’re looking for functional strength, we mean what kind of power they show on film. Leg drive, hip pop, punch, anchor, these are all factors in a players overall strength not just the old adage “how much ya bench”.
Some examples of what we look for? The movement a player can get on running plays, using their leg drive to create space. On pulls, the kind of snap in the hips the player uses on contact (and NOT getting stopped in their tracks is also important). In pass protection, the initial punch to stun players and the ability to sit down and anchor on a bull rush and hold their ground. These combined will make up a player’s functional play strength.
Maybe the most important aspect to offensive line play, however, may be their football intelligence. Thinking on the fly cannot be understated, as today’s defenses continually become more complex. The need to pick up blitzes, stunts, working double teams in the zone, are all vastly important to the success on individual plays. The faster a player can react and make decisions the better. Being aware of one’s surroundings, situations, and understanding the nuances of the position are critical to success. How do we judge this on film? If a player routinely picks up blitzes, isn’t getting caught off guard by line stunts, and is communicating with their counterparts on the line, this shows us a certain level of preparation and that the player has a good deal of awareness of his surroundings.
While intelligence may be the most important aspect, the X factor is a player’s mentality. Offensive line isn’t a pretty position; you’re constantly going to be in a fist fight throughout a game. We instantly will take a liking to a player who shows a nasty disposition, who won’t back down and plays up to (and while it’s frowned upon we don’t hate through) the whistle. Call it having attitude, being a finisher/ass-kicker etc., call it what you will but being an offensive linemen you need to have a certain temperament to be successful. Those who will walk up to you and punch you in the mouth, and continue to do it throughout a game are the ones you want on YOUR team.
There’s nothing that gets us fired up more than talking offensive line and evaluating the position. These are the selfless players on a team, the ones without recognition, but are the ones who carry a team on their backs. While there are many more touch points on which we evaluate offensive line prospects, we feel it’s those who show these several traits that are going to be the most successful. After all, if you win in the trenches chances are you’ll be successful on gameday.