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28 Mar 2008
by Doug Farrar
Is the true elite left tackle an endangered species?
Given the prospect reports we've seen over the last few years, you'd think so -- every offensive lineman has a "ding". Even in this year, when there are as many as six linemen who could go in the first round, it seems that linemen can be put in one of two categories. Either their athleticism and agility automatically render them average on the run-blocking scale, or their size or strength put them in the "roadgrader" category (i.e., he blocks like a tank, and is about as agile). What happened to the successors to greatness from a decade ago -- the next in line after Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace, three future Hall-of-Famers whose careers have ended or soon will end? Those giants who could do it all. Why, in these days of specialists, is it either one or the other?
Vanderbilt's Chris Williams may have Allen Iverson's feet, say the scouts, but he's not nasty enough. Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah is apparently flabby and could stand to lose some major weight, despite the fact that he weighed in at 322 pounds at the Combine to Williams' 315. Michigan's Jake Long, the best lineman on everyone's list this year, is projected by some as a right tackle at the NFL level. Could this be because he lacks the moves to play on the left side, or is it because draftniks see the drive-blocking skills and 37 bench press reps at the Combine and just assume he's got cement feet?
Virginia guard Branden Albert intrigues as a tackle prospect, and the words are all good, but it that because he hasn't been seen enough on the outside to find his faults and dismiss him as a result? Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert recently said that this class of linemen is the best he's seen in 25 years. So why are none of these players seen as potentially dominant?
NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang believes that paralysis by analysis is the primary reason for the more recent trend of downgrades and nitpicks (as opposed to legitimate positive/negative analysis) over time. "I don't know that tackles today are necessarily much more specialized (one-sided) than tackles of the past decade. In fact, I'd argue that many of them are better athletes with higher upside -- though fundamentals, in some cases, have fallen by the wayside a bit.
"The reality is that the scouting and certainly the exposure of these players is just so much more intense now than even a few years ago. Boise State's Ryan Clady is a perfect example. He might be the most athletic pass-blocker in this draft. Because he doesn't have dominant upper body strength, he's been characterized as a marginal run-blocker. While he isn't a commanding drive blocker, he can block on the move well and flashes some nastiness. The hype machine, however, takes over and characterizes him (and other tackles in this class) as being more one-dimensional than they really are."
A decade ago, Jones might have been torn down by a legion of "experts" because he was a JUCO transfer and only started one season with a Division-I school. And what about the MRI that Pace refused to have on his knee? Red Alert!!! Scheme has a lot to do with it as well -- Long might not be a fit with a zone-blocking squad that requires more second-level quickness, but he'd be the perfect fit at left tackle in the new power offense that Mike Mularkey will run in Atlanta. As much as draft prospects are poked and prodded (literally and figuratively) as individuals, nobody exists in a vacuum in this game.
It's quite possible that no tackle has been more affected by this phenomenon this year than Chris Williams. The pointman of Vanderbilt's line over the last two seasons, he's labeled by some scouting reports as a one-trick pass-blocker with an inadequate "mean streak" and an inability to run-block effectively. This despite his status as the most consistent lineman in the SEC from a grading standpoint and his status as the man the Commodores generally ran behind. Ignore the 102 knockdowns/key blocks, including 12 resulting in touchdowns in 2007 alone -- the man is too athletic! There must be a problem!
In a recent interview, Williams talked about why some consider his skillset to be one-sided. "We didn't run very much. We ran enough, but we had some games that we ran for 200 yards and our quarterback (first-year starter Mackenzi Adams) was our best runner. We ran a lot of quarterback draws, and I wasn't blocking much on a quarterback draw. I thought I did a pretty good job at the Senior Bowl, and that was my last game to date. If it isn't good enough for a coach, than I'm going to get better."
One reason that some linemen are regarded as better pass blockers is that they operate in a spread offense, which puts them in a pre-set pass-blocking two-point stance. Williams said that Vanderbilt asks their linemen to do this about half the time, and that he can play in a zone scheme or block man-on-man. Either way is fine with him.
"We ran some zone read and I-back, lead-option and power-option, but we didn't run outside of the spread too much," he said. "We ran a zone because we didn't really have a true fullback for a while, (but) either scheme is fine. I don't really have a preference. If you want to run it right down their throats with leads and stuff, that's going to be fine. I think teams kind of cater their offense to what they have. If they have zone guys, they'll run a zone, but if they have big 340-pound linemen, then they'll go right at you."
During the week of practices for the 2008 Senior Bowl, Williams played left guard and both tackle positions, showing a versatility that he first displayed when he redshirted in 2003 and played on the scout team in 2004, when he played guard, tackle and center. "I hadn't played guard or right tackle in two years. Going in there, it was fun knowing I could still do it. Practicing against the elite players was fun and being successful made it that much better."
Born on August 26, 1985 in Glynn, Louisiana, Williams grew up in a very close family. "My mom is a hairstylist, and my dad is a shift supervisor at an electrical plant back home. They've been married for 25-plus years and we grew up in the same house since I was about two. They come to all my games and we plan for them to do that in the NFL as well."
He starred at Catholic High in Baton Rouge -- the same high school that once featured Warrick Dunn. Williams' visit to Tampa Bay on April 8th could become a small alumni bash for the former Bears. He earned All-Conference and All-Region awards, and his senior team went 10-2. "I had offers from Georgia Tech, Northwestern and Oklahoma State, Southern Mississippi and Memphis," he said about the recruiting process. "I was probably one of the most recruited guys out of my high school that year, but I wasn't a five-star recruit or anything like that."
Williams chose Vanderbilt having grown up "in LSU's backyard. It's an SEC school, so I knew the competition would be real high. I really liked Nashville, I knew I had a chance to play early and you can't beat the degree. All of those factors made it a fairly easy decision."
However, his desire for competition ran headlong into his need for a degree early on. An engineering major in 2003, Williams switched to Human Organizational Development and lost his chance to play in his sophomore season. Vanderbilt requires student athletes to maintain a specific academic standard before switching majors. "I was trying to gain weight because I entered college at 245 pounds, and the engineering program is pretty tough. I just fell behind and I didn't have the GPA to continue and be eligible for the next semester. They let me stay in school and I was still on scholarship. I practiced and I worked out, but I just couldn't dress or play any games. I was supposed to start at center in 2004, but I couldn't play, so that didn't happen."
Williams spent a frustrating year on the scout team, playing just about every line position and getting his academics back on track -- he served as Vice President of the National Honor Society in high school. "It was very important to my family and it became a lot more important to me," he said about staying in school. "I wanted to get my degree when I got to college and my family holds education very high and in that regard, if I had chosen to go pro last year, my mom would have wanted me to get my degree no matter what."
When Williams finally got on the field in 2005 primarily at the guard position, he discovered that the extra "hibernation year" had helped him a great deal. "In 2005, I was a redshirt sophomore and I was (up to) 320 (pounds). I was dying to get on the field. I think if I had played my redshirt freshman season it would have been more of an adjustment because I wasn't quite physically ready. But when 2005 came, I was ready to get on the field."
2006 and 2007, his starting left tackle years, saw his ascent to the elite. Williams allowed only one sack in each of those seasons. He is perhaps proudest of his play-to-play consistency -- according to draft grades at NFLDraftScout.com, his 85.7% blocking grade in that department was the SEC's best in 2007. What makes him so relentless, as opposed to some players who make amazing plays and disappear for a series?
"It's just the nature of the beast," he said. "Every offensive lineman needs to be consistent, because in a game you might have eight "minuses" in the game that were bad plays. You didn't get beaten, but you didn't do what you were supposed to do. If you let a defensive lineman make three plays, then it's going to look like you got destroyed the whole game; or you might have 70 good plays and three bad plays and then you look terrible.
"You have to be extremely consistent and you just have to do your job over and over again. It's not like, 'How can I possibly do my job this one time?' it's more like, 'how can I do what I just did again?' or 'I just had a bad play, let's come back and not let that happen again.'"
Williams says that his best attribute is his ability to "counter the counter-move," which confounds even the best edge rushers. Is there room for improvement? "Sometimes my footwork gets off kilter a little bit and then I have to be athletic because I've gotten myself in a bad position. Being perfect in that area would allow me to never be in a bad position."
The amateur analysts aside, where does Chris Williams rate as an NFL prospect? How does he really measure up? Rang believes him to be the best pure left tackle prospect from an athletic standpoint in this draft, along with Ryan Clady. Former St. Louis Rams scout Tom Marino, who watched copious game tape on all the major 2008 prospects for his work with Scout.com, told me that first of all, the "nasty streak" aspect is overrated. "I wouldn't worry about his temperament," Marino said. "It's fine, in my opinion. Orlando Pace is not a nasty guy either.
"I think Williams is the best left tackle prospect in the draft. He is very sharp when it comes to football, and I know his position coach, Robbie Caldwell, very well. (Caldwell says that Williams is) the best he has ever been around in 31 years of coaching. Williams knows everyone's assignment, and he's a self-starter who will work to get better.
"He has very good strength, plays on his feet, and carries his weight well -- he could (bulk up to) 325 easily. I really liked his balance and ability to shift his weight and stay under control. He can knock people off the ball and also showed the ability to wheel and seal. I really liked his blocking range and ability to get to the second level. I just didn't think he finished everything. He's a natural knee bender on pass protection. He is patient, with good stab and punch skills. Great fits. He can easily ride people past the pocket, but again I thought he let secured people go too soon at times."
It's a busy time for Williams. This week, he's talking to the Titans, Bears and Lions. Next week, after marrying his girlfriend of three years, he'll head off to Tampa Bay, Kansas City and St. Louis, returning to Tennessee just in time to watch his name most likely get called in the first half of the first round of the NFL draft, with all his friends around him.
Then, it's time to confound the doubters, and prove that the new fraternity of great NFL tackles has increased its number by one.
Thanks to Randi Chapman of ProFiles Sports for her help in putting this interview together, and to Scott Eklund for his able transcription assistance
19 comments, Last at 05 Apr 2008, 11:58pm by Joel Christman