Offensive line problems highlight the needs in the NFC North ... except in Chicago, which is kind of unsettling to think about.
30 Jan 2013
by Matt Waldman
I spend most of my time at the Senior Bowl practices following skill players around the field. I don’t watch a lot of line play in Mobile. Even so, it was difficult not to hear about Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher. The 6-foot-7, 305-pound Fisher was one of the most praised players on the field last week. The most noteworthy praise came from a great source that wasn’t even in Mobile.
Larry Zierlein is a football lifer. He has been an offensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills (2006), Cleveland Browns (2001-2004), and Pittsburgh Steelers (2007-2009). He has also coached the offensive lines of the Houston Cougars (1978-1986), Tulane Green Wave (1988-1990 and 1995-1996), LSU (1993-1994), and the University of Cincinnati (1997-2000).
The reason the last name Zierlein may also be familiar to you is that his son Lance is a sports radio host based in Houston, as well as a blogger for The Sideline View. I had a brief conversation with the younger Zierlein after practice and it was there that he told me what his father thought of Fisher. The elder Zierlein said that he would look at the rest of the tape his son sent him, but it didn’t take him long to realize that Fisher is what coaches call a "six-play" player -– a prospect who you can tell will deliver the goods on a consistent basis as a professional after watching just six plays.
It’s little wonder that a player earning this type of praise from a veteran offensive line coach has been compared to a left tackle like 49ers lineman Joe Staley, who is also from Central Michigan. Staley is known as one of the most athletic linemen in the game, and this high level of athleticism is also Fisher’s calling card.
Staley’s ability to move left or right with good speed and agility enables him to get good position on defenders and deliver a strong punch. Staley consistently follows up on that punch with good hand placement and leg drive to force defenders away from the best angle of pursuit to the ball carrier. The fact that a team can pull Staley and rely on him to get downfield and make plays against quicker defenders at the second level opens up the playbook for a team’s ground attack.
Fisher is likely to take his lumps when he enters the NFL, however, based on his lack of leverage. Fisher has a couple of inches on Staley, which means his pad level can get high during pass protection. Some NFL defenders could stand up Fisher and "walk" the tackle towards the quarterback.
Shorter edge rushers who can take sick angles around the edge with great speed –- think Von Miller or Elvis Dumervil -– will initially give Fisher problems until he can get better at sinking his hips and maintaining good leverage. Shoring up his technique flaws with his hips will also help him when he’s drive blocking: the man-on-man block where the lineman drives the defender backwards from the line of scrimmage.
While I didn’t have the luxury of seeing the exact plays that the elder Zierlein saw of Fisher, here are some examples of what makes the Chippewas tackle a first-round prospect with the potential to develop into the best tackle of this class.
Fisher’s athleticism is most noticeable when watching him pull. This first-and-10 run from an offset I-formation in 23 personnel is a good starting point. Fisher (No. 79) will pull outside his tight end and attack the linebacker (No. 40) in the flat.
Note that Fisher has good enough footwork to make the tight turn outside the tight end and not overrun his angle to the opponent. A pull that begins with too wide of a turn in this situation would allow the linebacker to shoot inside to the backfield. What I also like about Fisher’s form on this play is the position of his hips and arms in the picture below.
Fisher’s head is up so he can see what he’s hitting; his arms are already forward and there is no wind-up that will throw him off-balance; and his hips are coiled so he can explode into his contact.
Note that his gait is short enough that Fisher isn’t overextending his steps. This helps him maintain decent leverage into his contact with the defender. The tackle’s elbows are tight enough that he has his outside hand placed inside the linebacker. The bend in Fisher’s knees and hips combined with the position of his head and his hands are too much for the defender to overcome.
The Chippewas tackle drives the Western Kentucky linebacker five yards downfield, forcing the defender to the ground. There’s a lot of athleticism and coordination needed for this brief spurt of action, and Fisher has it all.
Here’s a pulling block across the formation to Fisher’s right.
Blocks of this sort aren’t always going to end with a direct strike, especially against second- and third-level defenders in space. A tackle pulling across the formation has to possess a strong feel for angles to win with partial contact, good hand position, and enough form to make a difference.
Fisher is quick enough to get ahead of the running back before the exchange, and you can see that he already has his eyes on the intended target as he’s crossing the center-right guard double team. Just like the last play, Fisher’s pulling action is tight to his guard, so he doesn’t create an inside gap for the defender to shoot and blow up the play.
Fisher’s tight turn forces the targeted defender to work further outside rather than shoot downhill. This tight turn is what gives the left tackle the angle to seal the outside. Combined with the right guard sealing the inside, Fisher opens a hole for the running back to dart between them.
Fisher’s ability to set up this angle with a patient approach to the hole pays off. The tackle’s tight pulling action forces the defender to react too far outside to have a realistic angle on the play, and now Fisher is in position to wall off the inside with an angle that doesn’t require a direct hit on the defender.
Fisher’s contact is minimal, but his angle of approach is what clearly widens the gap to the outside for the runner to earn a positive gain. Knowledge of angles is a key component to executing a successful block with power or finesse, and Fisher has proven that he has that covered.
One of the best things about Fisher’s game is his lateral quickness and hands. Those show up in pass protection when you run his tape back. This pass play against Iowa is a good example of form, patience, and quickness.
Fisher’s hand is already off the ground and he’s beginning his kick-slide before the Iowa defensive end even pulls his hand off the turf. The caliber of Fisher’s opponent on this play isn’t elite NFL-level talent, but from what I’ve heard from those I trust who watched Fisher at Senior Bowl practices, Fisher held his own with the better performers at defensive end. The left tackle is quick enough to play at the NFL level.
As Fisher rises from his stance, his hips and knees are bent and his arms are tight to his body –- pretty good form, but he’s still somewhat upright here. Despite this issue, Fisher’s opening step gets him far enough outside to force the Iowa end to continue a wide path.
Note that the Iowa defender is the first to get his hands on Fisher, but the Central Michigan tackle has done a good job of kick-sliding outside, getting his hips in position to deliver a good strike, and keeping his pads lower than the defensive end's. While it would be good if Fisher’s hands were higher at this stage of the play, the tackle displays quick hands on a consistent enough basis that I’m not as worried about perfect form here. If he needs to improve his hand position, I think it will be an easy fix.
Fisher doesn’t get his outside arm inside the end’s pads at this point, but he does a good job working his hands inside within his next step as the defender works the edge.
When the defender attempts to redirect, Fisher’s hands are locked on tight. This is a common sight in Fisher's film. If he gets his hands on a defender in any run or pass situation, he tends to stick to his defender and maintain the block due to his agility.
This pass play against Michigan State freshman All-American defensive end Marcus Rush is a good example of Fisher’s tendency to play with high pad level.
The tackle’s stance is high enough to begin this play that once he gets within range of the end, he has to drop and fire his arms late. Because of that, he doesn’t get ideal hand position and the defender is still lower.
The consequence of Fisher’s high approach is that the freshman is able to walk Fisher towards the pocket, because the tackle lacks the leverage to anchor his feet.
The end pushes Fisher backwards three steps and is in position to nearly disrupt the pass. On this play, I believe an NFL-caliber end bull rushes Fisher into the quarterback. A speed rusher might have been able to get one hand under Fisher and turn the corner on him.
After watching three of Fisher's games, I can tell you that the left tackle has all of the physical tools to thrive in the NFL. Patriots tackle Nate Solder garnered similar questions about his future as an edge protector coming out due to his height. I think Fisher delivers a better punch. As with many offensive linemen, I expect Fisher to need a couple of years to transition to the NFL game as he acclimates to the speed, adds weight, and shores up technique flaws. Once that's complete, the team that drafts Fisher will have few complaints.
1 comment, Last at 30 Jan 2013, 4:00pm by Dean