Brian Billick on NFC East’s draft needs

Billick examines the NFC East’s draft needs and offensive lineman prospects.

April 1 | March 31 | March 30 | March 29 | March 28

 

April

 

Ijalana projects to be interior lineman

 

Ben Ijalana is coming off a double hernia surgery which prevented him from playing in the Senior Bowl, but he shows promise coming out of Villanova. He dominated the Football Championship Subdivision and regularly dominated weaker defenders.

Ijalana started all 52 college games at tackle, but he will most likely kick inside in the NFL. While he is only 6-foot-3 5/8, he makes up for it with his 36-inch arms. Those arms were even longer than 6-foot-8 Nate Solder’s. He will use that length to stifle the defenders initial force coming out of their stance and prevent them from getting into his body.

On the field, Ijalana shows good foot quickness and agility for a big man. He uses that quickness to in the run game to explode out and shoot his hands inside to deliver a pop on the defenders chest. Unfortunately, you won’t always see that same explosion in his kick slide protection in the passing game. Additionally, he was occasionally burned by inside stunts/twists because he turned his shoulders trying to protect against the speed rush off the edge. That lack of pass protection consistency is why he will be a better interior lineman in the NFL.

One other thing to note, Ijalana seemed to have an above average amount of false start penalties, which shows a lack of focus throughout the entire game. Those mental lapses will get him beat at the next level.

 

Rackley’s durability an asset

 

Will Rackley of Lehigh is another small school prospect who has a great shot at being an impact player in the NFL. Rackley finished his college career with 40 consecutive starts in the Patriot League and his team gave up a total of only 14 sacks last year. That durability and consistency is very encouraging to NFL scouts.

Rackley shows superior arm and hand strength and initial quickness off the snap. He shuffle slides his feet with a low center of gravity and a good solid base. While engaged in a block, he has better than expected athleticism and body control, but he looks a little uncomfortable when pulling through the to second level of the defense.

I would have liked to see him drive his man off the line a little more than just control him at the line of scrimmage, especially with the caliber of defenders he went up against on a weekly basis. He, like Ijalana of Villanova, played tackle in college, but projects much better as a guard in the NFL.

Rackley had a good start to the pre-draft season, as he performed solidly at the East-West Game, but then was overshadowed by the bigger name prospects at the NFL combine. I think Rackley is a very good looking "value" pick somewhere in the middle rounds of the NFL draft.

 

March 31

 

Redskins have plenty of draft needs

 

When Mike Shanahan took over the Washington Redskins last year, this couldn’t have been what he had in mind.

With a top-10 defense and the presence of an elite quarterback in Donavan McNabb, the Redskins were sure to improve their 27th ranked rushing attack. Shanahan alone, whose teams have historically run the ball well, was sure to produce better numbers.

Now, a year later, they are 30th in the NFL in rushing, 31st in total defense, and most likely absent of that elite quarterback presence.

From my perspective they will need to address the quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line positions sometime this offseason. Picking 10th in April’s draft will give Washington plenty of options.

Defensively, it added O.J. Atogwe via free agency and if it can keep Carlos Rogers, its first round pick in 2005, that should improve the secondary and the 31st ranked pass defense in the league.

Brian Orakpo — their 2009 first-round choice — is Pro Bowl caliber, but the Redskins could use another rush presence at outside linebacker for Jim Haslett’s version of the 3-4 defense.

If Maake Kemoeatu returns fully healthy that will help to firm up the nose tackle position but getting depth in the draft wouldn’t hurt. I not even going to attempt to predict or pretend to know what will happen with Albert Haynesworth.

Shanahan has said tight end is the only position on the team where he has total confidence. So that appears to be the only position that is not an option in the draft.

Washington does get a break after facing the tough AFC East in its out-of-conference schedule picking up the NFC West, Minnesota and Carolina in its out-of-division games.

 

Size a concern for Hudson

 

Florida State lineman Rodney Hudson was a unanimous first team All-American and is quite possibly the most decorated lineman in ACC history.

I tend to believe that he can be just as successful in the NFL. Hudson’s size of 6-foot-2 3/8 and only 299 pounds at the Combine, is really my only true concern.

Hudson has an excellent week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. He dominated in one-on-one pass protection drills, and shined in the 11-on-11 team sessions throughout the week of practice. He has tremendously quick and nimble feet that continue to chop while engaged with a defender. While his quick feet are impressive, his hands are even faster.

He shot his hand inside on the numbers first every time, giving himself a total advantage off the snap of the ball. He uses those inside hands to control the defender and influence him opposite the direction of the play.

Hudson also shows great field awareness in the interior stunt game that defensive lineman use to throw off timing and traditional blocking schemes. He stuns one defender to pass him off to either the center or tackle, and is always in position to block the next defender that flashes in his gap. I would like to see him work on his balance and fight the urge to bend at the waist.

He also needs to become more comfortable getting to the second level and maintain that same athleticism that he shows on the line of scrimmage.

Like the other top interior lineman in this draft, Hudson has the versatility to play both guard and center in the NFL. With his overall body of work and skill-set, I think he be a great value pick for a team in the late second round.

 

Versatility to serve Moffitt well

 

Similar to my analysis of Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin’s John Moffitt plays with a mean streak that will benefit his career in the NFL. Moffitt has started 42 of 45 career games for Wisconsin, which is impressive alone, but he also played through a pectoral muscle injury as well as a sports hernia that was operated on after the 2009 season.

Throughout his college career, Moffitt saw extensive action at both guard and center, with his 13 games as a senior all at left guard. This versatility will only make him more valuable moving forward.

On tape, he is a solid run blocker that uses his positioning and lower body strength to his advantage. By using a strong and violent punch, he is able to get the defender off balance right from the snap. He is a hard worker that fights on every play, often finishing his block all the way through the whistle.

He may be a little bit of an overachiever meaning that his work ethic has carried him further than his talent. That isn’t a bad thing, as he continues to build his skill set and mature as an athlete, he won’t ever lose that blue-collar mentality.

Sometimes his overaggressive style gets him overextended, but that is something that his position coach will be able to work with on.

As I have said before, you really can’t go wrong by taking a Wisconsin Badger offensive lineman. They have the "nasty" streak and playing style that are very much desired in the NFL.

 

 

Boling picking up steam

 

Georgia’s Clint Boling is a prospect who is gaining a lot of momentum. Throughout his career at Georgia, he played both guard and tackle and finished his career with 49 starts (final 38 in a row).

Thirteen of those starts came his senior year, six were at left tackle, but he is better off playing inside in the NFL. Overall, Boling isn’t the most athletic offensive lineman, but he is agile enough to be effective. He has better than average feet and does a nice job of anticipating where the defense will be flowing. Often, you will see a lineman attempt to block a second-level defender and miss because he didn’t take the proper angle.

Similarly, he is a good pulling lineman, but often looks most comfortable in zone block schemes. One thing that concerns me about Boling’s tape is his lack of knee bend and hip flexion. This was a really exposed when matched up against Auburn’s Nick Fairley, and Fairley is the caliber of athlete he will face each Sunday in the in NFL.

Boling is a smart and durable lineman that will obviously benefit from his four years of starting experience in a pro-style offense. Look for him to be grouped within the second crop of interior lineman to be selected in the draft.

 

Saturday a great representative for NFLPA

 

I really enjoyed doing "Total Access" on the NFL Network with Jeff Saturday of the Indianapolis Colts. Jeff is a member of the NFL Players Association Executive Council and an excellent spokesman for the group.

Jeff has a very deeply held belief in the NFLPA’s position and has an evenhanded approach to the relationship with the owners. At the end of the day, Jeff knows that whatever form the new CBA takes, it will be a negotiated one. Unfortunately, the legal action the NFLPA has taken to dispute the owners’ lockout is one that it feels was unavoidable.

Because of the time frame involved, it had to decertify when it did to give them time to force the action of the owners to avoid the loss of game. At least that is what they believe.

At the heart of the players’ request is the need to know what the true operating costs of the owners are, compared to those costs that are associated with a family business that virtually every teams, except for the Green Bay Packers have.

Jeff contends that they are not out to embarrass the owners nor are they interested in what they do with their own profits as long as it can be quantified and considered with regards to what should be included in the players’ percentage.

I believe Jeff strongly thinks that some type of agreement will be reach, or at the very least, some type of court judgment will allow for the season to be played. Like the late NFLPA boss Gene Upshaw, Jeff believes that part of the problem is the divergent views that owners like Jerry Jones and Mike Brown have on the view of the economic model the owner wants. The haves and the have-nots among the owner fraternity may indeed be as much as a problem as the differences between the owners and the players.

There is no question in my mind that a deal can be reached, and that both sides are simply waiting for the courts to decide who has what leverage before they can proceed. The players who are going to be most harmed are those who would have normally been free agents.

They, on the sort term, will simply be the causalities of the negotiation wars. Some may recoup their loses because of a subsequent increase in player revenues, but many are going to see lost wages that will never be recouped.

The NFLPA would do well to put a gag order on their entire member community and simply let guys like Jeff, who have a genuine love of the game and a thorough understanding of the issues, explain their views. Unfortunately for the owners, they do not have a counterpart to Saturday to present their points of view in as a believable way.

 

March 30

 

 

Cowboys could land top offensive lineman

 

Even though they are coming off a 6-10 season that included a midseason firing of head coach/defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Dallas Cowboys will enter the 2011 draft considered by many as one of the most talented teams in the NFL.

Jason Garrett has firmly established himself as both the head coach and offensive coordinator while owner Jerry Jone, has brought in Rob Ryan to recraft a defense that fell to 23rd in the league in 2010.

With Tony Romo returning from injury, priority No. 1 must be protecting their franchise quarterback and that means focusing on the offensive line. With the exception of Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode and starting left tackle Doug Free, the Cowboys current depth chart is made up of free agents and trade acquisitions. Dallas has not drafted an offensive lineman with a first-round pick this decade, and with the exception of Gurode (second round, 2002), none of the three lineman taken in Day 2 of the draft is still with the team.

Dallas is picking ninth overall and should have a couple of really good options should it decide to fill this need with its first pick. In my estimation, none of the teams ahead of Dallas are in the market for offensive lineman, therefore the Cowboys will have their pick of the litter. As usual, it is also a possibility that Jones will be looking to move back and add later picks if he determines there are lineman of value in later picks/rounds.

Defensively, Ryan should have plenty to work with anchoring around DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff along the front seven. Inside linebacker, Keith Brooking is likely on the back end of his career so they make look to find his future replacement on Day 2 of the draft.

Like the rest of the NFL East, the Cowboys catch a break with the NFC West on their schedule, but will also face the tough AFC East and up-and-coming Detroit and Tampa Bay.

 

Sherrod a high value pick

 

I have said earlier that Derek Sherrod is the best value pick all of the offensive tackle prospects. Sherrod was a three year starter at Mississippi State and served as team captain.

During those 35 college games, he showed that he plays with a lot more finesse than he does power. He plays with good overall balance and slides his feet well while engaged in a block.

He is a positional run blocker who seals his man more often than he does drive him off the ball, but where Sherrod will make his money is in pass protection. He has great quickness in his pass set and rarely is beaten by a speed rush off the edge. HIs uses his lower body well to keep a firm base and a heavy inside leg.

Often, NFL speed rushers are so fast that a left tackle will set so quickly that they turn their shoulders and give up a secondary inside rush. You see this with Dwight Freeney of the Indianapolis Colts all the time. He influences the tackle to turn and then uses his patented spin move to beat him inside.

Because the NFL is becoming such a pass oriented league, Sherrod’s finesse play and superior pass protection will be a valuable commodity. I see him as late first-round to early second-round selection who will be a great fit for a pass first offensive system.

 

Carimi’s is best run blocker

 

Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi is a totally different prospect than Sherrod. While I just described how Sherrod is a finesse player who uses body position and quick feet to secure his opponent, Carimi uses raw power and a nasty streak to hold his defender at bay.

Carimi measures in at 6-foot-7 and 314 pounds with 35-inch arms. He bench pressed 225 pounds 29 times and jumped a 31.5-inch vertical. Those numbers are very similar to his top tackle prospect peers, but what isn’t similar, is his aggressive and nasty style of play.

Now, when I say nasty, I don’t mean dirty. Having a "nasty" quality to your style of play is actually a very nice compliment down in the trenches. He plays hard between whistles and often finishes his block with the defender on the ground, and that mentality sets the tone for the remainder of the game.

He has a very strong punch off the ball and a nice short area burst that makes him explosive in close quarters. He is quick enough to reach block on the backside and eliminate the threat of a defensive lineman running the play down form behind. Sometimes, Carimi does drop his head on contact and leans into blocks, allowing for the defender to easily sidestep or shed the block entirely.

Because of this style of play, I believe him to be a better right tackle than left. Some clubs are even considering him as an interior lineman to take better advantage of his skill set. No matter where he plays on the line, he is the best run blocker available in the draft.

March 29

 

Giants could use offensive tackle

 

Few teams had a stronger statistical 2010 than the 10-6 New York Giants. When looking at the numbers that usually dictate success in this league (rushing defense vs. rushing offense and explosive play differential), one would have a tough time explaining how this team missed the playoffs.

The Giants were the seventh best defense and were at the very top in regards to gaining/stopping explosive plays. Then again, in what may even be a bigger statistical differentiator, the Giants also led the NFL in turnovers committed with 42.

New York was one devastating DeSean Jackson punt return away from the playoffs, but that single play took the emotional soul from this team. The following week Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdowns against Eli Manning’s four interceptions. I don’t need to tell you who won that game.

Still, the Giants seam in pretty good shape going into the 2011 season. Bolstering their defensive tackle and linebacker positions will be an early initiative in the draft, but passing up on an offensive tackle with the 19th overall pick could prove to be difficult.

At best, last year’s draft had limited results. Defensive end Jason Pierre Paul, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and safety Chad Jones all had very minimal impact.

Although teams don’t tend to travel well from coast to coast, The Giants will benefit from facing the NFC West. That will be countered by the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints in their out of division games and a brutal run through the AFC East.

 

Pouncey’s top interior lineman

 

Mike Pouncey is a versatile lineman who has experience playing almost everywhere on the line of scrimmage … even on defense! As a freshman, Pouncey actually was a defensive lineman for the Florida Gators before moving to offense in his sophomore season.

As a guard, he played alongside his twin brother Maurkice Pouncey, before taking over his center position as a senior.

When you watch Pouncey play, you see a good athlete who plays light on his feet but can anchor down and get physical when needed. That athleticism is on display when you watch him pull on counter and trap plays. He runs a tight line through the hole and gets to the second level quickly to clear a path for the running back.

His initial punch is powerful and he keeps good leverage to hold up the defender at the line of scrimmage. As an interior lineman, you don’t always have to drive your defender down the field, sometimes a stalemate is a win.

If the middle of the line allows penetration, it almost always disrupts the timing of the play regardless of it being a run or pass. Late in the game as fatigue sets in, Mike tends to stand up straighter and bend at the waist rather than the knees. He will need to fight off that urge to be a consistent performer in the NFL.

Because of his versatility and and body of work, Pouncey will be the first interior lineman to be selected in April’s draft. It doesn’t hurt that his twin brother, as a rookie, was a key contributor during Pittsburgh’s run to the Super Bowl.

 

27-year-old could make impact

 

Baylor’s Danny Watkins did not take the traditional route to big time college football. Watkins grew up playing hockey and was fighting fires before he even stepped onto a football field.

He transferred to Baylor after two years of junior college ball and became an immediate starter on the Bears offensive line. Two years later, and he is working out at the NFL Scouting Combine and preparing for the NFL draft.

Watkins will be 27 by the time he plays his first game in the NFL, and that can be a good thing and a bad thing as teams evaluate him as a prospect. In traditional circumstances, a 27-year-old lineman would already have at least five years of NFL experience under their belt. At the same time, Watkins will come in with a certain maturity level and professionalism that his peers may not display.

On tape, Watkins makes solid initial contact and "sits in the chair" better than anyone else in this entire draft. By that I mean, he anchors down bending his knees, straightening his back and extending his arms to control the defender. He maintains that same level of balance in both run and pass blocking scenarios.

This superior technique was on display at the Senior Bowl in which I do not recall him getting beat the entire week. In one-on-one pass rush drills, which is traditionally more favorable to the defender, Watkins was able to calmly control and hold off the rush to keep his quarterback clean.

Watkins will be the second interior lineman selected after Mike Pouncey, but he could easily have just as big of an immediate impact for his team. I like this player a lot!

March 28

 

Eagles have needs in secondary, offensive lineman

 

What many thought to be a rebuilding year for the Philadelphia Eagles, 2010 proved the Eagles to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders, mostly on the back of Michael Vick.

Now that Andy Reid is the league’s longest tenured coach and the heat is on to translate last year’s 10-6 record into the only thing missing from Reid’s resume: a Super Bowl championship.

The Eagles were one of the leagues most explosive offensive units, but they were in the league’s bottom third for giving up big plays on defense.

Philadelphia’s secondary could use some attention along with an edge rusher to work opposite Trent Cole.

Offensively, they might address the right side of their line seeing that 2006 second-round draft pick tackle Winston Justice struggled mightily against Green Bay’s Clay Matthews. Picking at No. 23, the Eagles will have some options and will most likely take the best available talent at any of the aforementioned positions.

That part of the draft may be exactly when we start to see of run of offensive lineman come off the board. I think they jump on the chance to get a top-three tackle prospect and address the secondary with another of their five picks in the first four rounds.

Philly catches a break in scheduling as they pick up the NFC West, but will have to face both Chicago and Atlanta as well as the AFC East.

 

Castonzo can be immediate starter

 

Anthony Castonzo is still viewed by many as the best tackle in this draft class, but Tyron Smith is closing the gap quickly. Castonzo is similar to Joe Thomas when he was coming out as a prospect as both are good athletes for their size and are smooth in their movements.

At the NFL Scouting Combine last month, Castonzo measured in at 6-foot-7, 311 pounds and completed 28 repetitions in the bench press. Those 28 reps don’t equate to dominating strength, but on tape that movement is explosive off the snap to engage the defender quickly. By shooting his hands inside on the chest of the defender, he is able to control his movement much more easily than if his hands were out of the shoulder pads. Once engaged, he uses those long arms to keep the defender off his body and shuffles his feet well to stay between his man and the quarterback.

At this stage in his career, he proves to be a better run blocker than he is pro protector, but shows the potential to be dominant in both. In addition to being a four-year starter at Boston College, Castonzo was a Rhodes Scholar nominee. Having a gifted athlete who shows the aptitude to absorb and retain a lot of information in a short period will be an asset to whatever team pulls the trigger on Castonzo.

I look for him to be an immediate starter on the right side, and eventually transition to the left as he matures as an NFL tackle.

 

Weight gain key for Smith

 

Twenty-year-old Tyron Smith opened a lot of eyes at the combine when he weighed 307 pounds. For most tackles, that wouldn’t be all that surprising, but Smith’s playing weight at USC was a slender 285 pounds.

Most NFL clubs were looking at Smith to be somewhere around the fifth best tackle prospect in the draft, but now weighing in at 307, he is pushing Anthony Castonzo to be the first tackle taken.

As you would imagine, Smith is a very athletic offensive lineman who has excellent balance and very quick choppy feet. He shuffles well and stays in front of the defender to stop the initial forward progress in pass protection.

He has a quick burst off the ball and explodes into blocks in the rushing game. After that initial pop, he would serve himself well by further developing his strength in his lower half to drive defenders off the line of scrimmage. He appears to be most comfortable in a zone blocking scheme and has above average field awareness. Smith also will give his team an advantage in the screen game as he is fast enough to get out front and clear some of the traffic in the defensive secondary.

Finally, Smith had the second longest arms at the NFL Scouting Combine measuring 36 3/8 inches and still put up 29 bench press reps. While putting up a huge number in the bench press is impressive to me, having longer arms is more critical for an NFL tackle. Smith apparently has both!

 

Solder has great potential

 

Nate Solder out of Colorado is a huge athlete who has a ton of athletic potential. He looks like a character best suited for professional wrestling with his 6-foot-8, 319 pound solid-muscle frame. He will also make for a heck of a football player.

Solder is a former tight end and it shows in his nimble feet and quick pass sets. While he could gain more consistent leverage and hand placement when drive blocking, he is a technician in pass protection. From his sophomore season on, he only allowed his man to get pressure on the quarterback 1.8 percent of the time (21 out of 1,400 passing plays) and just allowed five sacks during that period. When he does allow pressure, it is typically because he over sets and opens up an inside lane.

While Solder’s overall size is impressive, it also may be his biggest detriment. He struggles to bend at the knees and often leans, getting top heavy and unbalanced. He also struggles to really get under a defender and drive him off the ball in the run game.

As it stands today, I have Nate Solder as my fourth best tackle in the draft. If Solder can learn how to use his long arms and knees to dominate defenders, he will make a team sitting with a mid-to-late first round selection very happy.