Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
02 Feb 2011
by Doug Farrar
Though I've covered multiple scouting combines, the 2011 Senior Bowl was my first, and it absolutely won't be my last. The Combine is only marginally about skill evaluation from a reporter's perspective -- we're stuck in the media room most of the time, and you're going to see more of the drills at home on TV. The Senior Bowl is like Lollapalooza for the actual scouts who will make their money in the next three months, and the guys like me who endeavor to put together an amateur mish-mash of observations.
With two practices per day (one for the North team and one for the South), the Senior Bowl practice week combines training camp and meat market to an interesting degree. The fact that it's much more informal down in Mobile, Alabama, than it is in the heavily prescribed environment of Indianapolis means that you can get right on the field and ask the players about what just happened during one of the most important weeks of their careers.
The real story of this senior class will be both sides of the line, so I thought I'd do a multi-part evaluation based on my own Senior Bowl takes -- the first on three offensive tackles, then moving on to other linemen from there. Where applicable, I've also included analysis from a voice far more qualified than mine -- Rob Rang, senior draft analyst from NFLDraftScout.com.
It's never easy replacing a legend. Aaron Rodgers has had to hear about it through Media Week at the Super Bowl, and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi was asked about it at the Senior Bowl. In taking over for the great Joe Thomas, Carimi was presented with a challenge that he met to an impressive degree.
"There are question marks around my game, and I'm confident in my ability to play well," he told the media the day before practices began. "If someone's going to pick me, I'm not someone that's not going to pan out. I'm going to constantly work to add to my achievements. I can't live with myself if I'm not trying to achieve something great."
The first thing that pops off the tape with Carimi is how quick he is right off the snap. It takes him no time to bounce out of his set and engage with a defender. He's very aggressive with his hands and will maintain an excellent hand-punch through the play. While he's not a comfortable second-level blocker, he down-blocks very well -- this is where his power is displayed. Of the three tackles in this article, he has the best kick-step and ability to fan back in pass protection. Given Thomas' excellence in this area as well, I have to assume that Wisconsin's coaches know what they're doing. Because of his excellent technique off the snap, he's less susceptible to inside moves.
Carimi also has good short-area pop when he chips off the line and goes after linebackers in goal-line situations, but his footwork at the second level in other situations leaves something to be desired. He looks like he's on roller skates in short spaces, and it can take him a second to adjust and get his power going at times. He also lunges when asked to perform tackle pulls, but that may be a product of inexperience.
One other technique issue that might affect him is that he plays with more power coming out of the three-point stance than he does when standing up. This is true of most tackles, but in Carimi's case, the difference is more pronounced. With some NFL teams asking their tackles to play out of two-point more often, that may be a problem. With apologies to those readers who find pro comparisons annoying, Carimi reminds me a bit of Green Bay's Bryan Bulaga (you know, the guy who's going to try and avoid getting owned by LaMarr Woodley this Sunday) because of his athleticism and aggressiveness off the snap.
Rob Rang: The Parade High School All-American stayed home to play for his hometown Badgers despite the daunting task of replacing Joe Thomas, an All-American left tackle and third overall pick of the 2007 NFL draft. Carimi hasn't made Wisconsin fans forget about Thomas altogether, but he has played well enough to earn praise from coaches and he owns the physical traits scouts like. Carimi is a potential Top 10 pick because of his prototypical size, excellent athleticism and the importance placed on the left tackle position. NFL offensive line coaches won't like the way he bends at the waist and the number of plays he ends up on the ground, but they will ask their general managers to take a chance on his talent because he could be a longtime NFL starter.
Nate Solder is the man newest to his current position -- the former Colorado prep standout did his high school work at tight end and linebacker, gaining 30 pounds in 2008 and moving from tight end to tackle in spring practice for the Buffaloes. Starting immediately and grading out very highly, Solder quickly ascended the list of elite college tackles, and has the top spot with some analysts. At 6-foot-9 and 315 pounds, Solder has the length and strength most anyone would want in a lineman, but I kept thinking of him during the practice week as the Jake Locker of offensive linemen -- brilliant basic tools, but raw like sushi on the field.
Of all the draft-eligible tackles I've studied so far this season, Solder has by far the furthest to go from a technique standpoint. With his frame, he can engulf defenders at the college level. He doesn't have to exhibit proper footwork at times, and it's difficult to imagine that working at the NFL level. I had the opportunity to interview Ndamukong Suh today, and one of the things we talked about was the transition from college to the pros for any lineman. No matter the side or position, hand placement and footwork seem to be the primary common denominators when discussing success in the move to the NFL.
While Solder's footwork puts him in place to succeed -- especially at the second level -- he lurches and chases a lot of pass protection, especially in the back half of a pass rush. I can see him losing a lot of inside moves to edge rushers because his step outside is so pronounced. Of similar concern is the fact that he doesn't always stay engaged while run blocking. He has a worrisome tendency to slide off defenders when he's trying to get a push inside. He's also going to have a problem with quicker and more talented NFL ends getting under his pads. If it happened in college (and it did from time to time), it will happen at the next level.
What impresses me most about Solder is his agility going forward. I think he will be more successful in a zone scheme because he's quick enough to get upfield and make things happen consistently. But in places that require pure power and advanced technique, it was clear to me that Solder is still a work in progress. From all accounts, his work ethic will keep him on the right path, but to these eyes, Solder has undeniable question marks. Given his relative lack of experience at left tackle, Solder also presents a very intriguing ceiling. He reminds me a bit of Robert Gallery -- major-league potential with a skill set under development and physical attributes that hide certain technique flaws.
Rob Rang: Solder appeared to distance himself from the rest of the offensive tackles on the North team, though Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and Boston College's Anthony Castonzo had solid performances. Solder's relatively slight frame worries some scouts, but others see his already solid weight-room numbers and believe he has the potential to put on another 15-20 pounds of muscle over the next few years. His height works as a detriment when facing smaller, quicker defensive ends, but his off-the-charts athleticism and above-average strength gives Solder a very good chance to be a long-time starting NFL tackle.
If you want to find the key to the Mississippi State rushing attack that has been near the top of the SEC in the last two years, look no further than Derek Sherrod, who has combined power, agility, and efficiency throughout his collegiate career. I would not hesitate to say that he was the most impressive tackle of the week.
Of these three tackles, Sherrod appears to me to be the most consistent on a play-to-play basis, and this really showed up at the Senior Bowl -- from the practice week through the game itself. Carimi and Solder alternated between dominant and sub-par play depending on when you were watching, but Sherrod just rolled on through the week, even when he was asked to kick over to right tackle during Wednesday's South team practice.
"It's been a great learning experience, and I'm just trying to get a bit more versatile," Sherrod told me on the field after Wednesday practice. "There's no difference, really -- you just flip your technique and flip the plays. That's pretty much it. (Footwork is) the same thing, basically. You have to be quick on your feet and have a good punch on both sides.
"I just wanted to prove that I could hang with anybody here -- more than just SEC competition, but to be competitive against players from all around the country. (The blocking schemes are) a little bit different, but they all have the same basic mechanics, and you just go from there."
Of all the tackles through Senior Bowl week, Sherrod seemed to stay (and play) most within himself. He stands with a wide base, adjusts well to the blocker in front of him, down-blocks well, and does a great job of getting upfield to take on linebackers -- this may be his best trait. He's outstanding in space.
I wondered during the week if Sherrod didn't have a specific anatomical advantage. Although he has the long arms you want in an NFL tackle, his height (6-foot-6, the shortest of the three players discussed here) also allows him to play with a lower base and gain the "explosion advantage" (getting under the defender's pads before he gets under yours) on a regular basis.
And in the game itself, he was regularly dominant when lined up next to Baylor's Danny Watkins at left guard (another player who really impressed me during the week). Watkins replaced Jason Smith at Baylor, and Sherrod puts me in mind of Smith, a "finesse lineman" with underrated power who could kick over to the other side and become a franchise right tackle in the right circumstances. Russell Okung has more pure power, but Sherrod makes me think of Okung as well -- a player coming out of college with a well-defined skill set in which there isn't one glaring flaw. In a class of tackles with ups and downs in nearly every case, that may be enough to shoot Sherrod up the boards by the time the draft rolls around.
Rob Rang: Possessing rare foot quickness and balance for a man his size, Sherrod easily protected the edge when in pass protection. At times, he'd extend his left arm out to slow the pass rush of his primary assignment, while leaning inside to help the Bulldogs' young left guards. His nimble footwork and good upper body strength made him equally effective as a run blocker. I've spoken to scouts who would like to see Sherrod finish his blocks with a nastier demeanor. Some of this issue might simply be due to the fact that the game appears to come easy to him.
15 comments, Last at 04 Feb 2011, 9:09am by Dean