By Matt Waldman
A pervasive theme of this year's Futures is the profiling of football players who transcend the typical boundaries of their position. Hines Ward comes to mind as the NFL prototype for my definition of a "football player." Ward was a favorite of former Steelers' coach Bill Cowher, who learned much of his craft in Cleveland under Marty Schottenheimer.
The former Browns' head coach built a team of football players who, despite their unfortunate history against the Denver Broncos and John Elway, were one of the best teams of the 1980s. Herman Fontenot was a running back on those Cleveland teams, who, as a role player, embodied Schottenheimer's definition of football player. Run, catch, block, return kicks, and occasionally throw, the former LSU back did a little bit of everything for the Browns. Schottenheimer once said, "Guys like Herman Fontenot . . . make it easy to coach a team."
Cowher's first coaching gig was Cleveland's special teams unit in 1985 -- the same year when Fontenot was a rookie. It wouldn't be a surprise if Cowher thought of Fontenot when he took Ward 14 years later.
It would be a shocker if Cowher or Schottenheimer didn't love the likes of Florida State's Nick O'Leary. The Seminoles' tight end's range of versatility doesn't bleed into the running back or wide receiver realm, and he's not the kind of freakish athlete that gets fantasy football owners excited, but he has the potential to become a complete tight end. That statement alone epitomizes my working definition of "football player."
The grandson of fabled golfer Jack Nicklaus, O'Leary's style is more blue-collar like Nicklaus' rival, Arnold Palmer. O'Leary's athleticism fits more along the lines of tight ends and H-Backs like Heath Miller, Chris Cooley, and Owen Daniels -- players who do a lot of the dirty work to sustain drives without a lot of glory.
O'Leary does a lot of Florida State's dirty work to keep Jameis Winston looking good on the field. This year's contest against Notre Dame has eight plays that showcase this point and highlight why he's the type of football player that coaches will love.
O'Leary is listed at a relatively small 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, but he displays a lot of sound technique and relishes the physicality of the game. This run with 10:30 in the first quarter from a 1x1 receiver, 21 personnel I-formation set is a good illustration of run-blocking prowess.
O'Leary is on the wing of the left tackle versus a defensive look that has a 3-4 feel. Note the skill O'Leary has at timing his punch so his feet are flat on the ground when he fires into the defensive end, and then he rolls his hips upward. These are hallmarks of a technically sound punch with initial pop and power behind it.
O'Leary also keeps his pads downhill on this reach block and his hands are strong enough to sustain position inside the end's chest while turning the opponent outside as his ball carrier teammate works inside -- excellent block.
Here's another reach block against a linebacker from a 21 personnel I-formation set with O'Leary once again on the left tackle's side of the formation. This time, O'Leary is alongside the tackle at the line of scrimmage and works up field to the middle linebacker on a run heading to his side.
The combination of O'Leary's downhill path and the linebacker's east-west orientation helps the tight end generate an early push and continue that momentum to turtle the defender 11 yards past the line of scrimmage, helping the runner earn 10 yards up the sideline.
The initial contact isn't the soundest of technique, but note the hand placement and movement of the feet to stay with the defender. It's important to see plays like this one, because most blocks don't have perfect technique from start to finish, and watching how a blocker adjusts to the situation is important. The first highlight illustrated that O'Leary understands how to use perfect technique when the opportunity is there. This play reveals that O'Leary has no problem adjusting to the situation and making the best of what's there for the taking.
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One of the most impressive elements of O'Leary's game is his pass protection. Florida State uses this skill while aligned in formations that force opposing defenses to consider him as a receiver. One example is this 1x2 receiver 11 personnel shotgun set where O'Leary is on the wing offset the right tackle.
Both O'Leary and the receiver are tight to the formation. This set has utility as a perimeter run, a pass with the tight end as a receiver, and a pass with O'Leary as a blocker. In fact, one could call this a 2x2 receiver 10 personnel set with O'Leary as the slot receiver because he's in a two-point stance. It's a versatile alignment.
In this case, O'Leary works with the right tackle to double-team the defensive end. The tight end drops two steps at the snap, sets a strong angle so he doesn't open his hips too early, and delivers a punch with pop to the opponent's outside shoulder.
O'Leary's punch once again has strong timing and he rolls his hips into the contact, stoning the end and maintaining an open passing lane for Winston to deliver a deep slant, which the receiver catches in stride. One of the more consistent, good behaviors of O'Leary's pass protection technique is that he is slow to the "open the gate," meaning that he keep his hips and pads aligned so the opponent doesn't have an easy inside or outside path to the passer.
This pass play with 1:45 in the first quarter is from the same alignment as the last. O'Leary is on the wing of the right tackle and in a two-point stance tight to the line of scrimmage. On this pass, O'Leary is asked to help the tackle.
Watch the tight end slide to the edge as the end corners the tackle with ease. O'Leary moves well and doesn't open that gate too early. As a result, O'Leary is in great position to force the end further up field without leaving an inside path open to the defender.
O'Leary finishes his block with a hard enough punch to buy time for the right tackle to recover and assist with the double team. This work gives Winston tons of time to hit his receiver on a deep cross and get the Seminoles inside the Notre Dame 10.
The tight end also does a solid job of reading games from defenders—twists and stunts.
O'Leary is once again tight to the right tackle in this 2x2 receiver 10 personnel set. He drops into pass protection mode at the snap and slides inside, keeping the pads downhill to stay square to the defensive end while the end and tackle run a twist.
The position keeps the quarterback safe behind him and gives Winston room to climb the pocket from the edge rush from the opposite side. O'Leary delivers an excellent punch on the end with his feet firmly on the ground, and it keeps an escape hatch open for Winston to turn a potential sack into a 5-yard gain.
O'Leary didn't do much as a receiver in the Notre Dame game, but he showed that blocking isn't the only area where he uses his hands and feet well. This 11 personnel shotgun set with 11:19 in the half has O'Leary at the line of scrimmage in a three-point stance next to the right tackle on the single receiver side.
The defensive end is playing a half-step inside O'Leary from a 3-4 look at FSU's 17. The end will try to jam O'Leary at the snap, which is also a sign that the Fighting Irish coaching staff respects O'Leary's work as a receiver and wants to slow him down, because you don't see tight ends jammed that often in the college game.
O'Leary takes an outside step and chops downward on the forearm of the defensive end, driving downhill. Within 5 yards, O'Leary has his back to the end. Although not targeted on the play, the technique to clear the line was clean and well-executed.
O'Leary later demonstrates a shake and reduction of his arm to avoid the jam from an outside defender to work up the seam with 4:54 in the half as the slot man tight to the right of this 1x2 receiver, 20 personnel shotgun set.
The tight end works up the seam to the end zone, but in another display of mad respect for O'Leary's prowess as a receiver, the Fighting Irish bracket the Seminoles' tight end on the play.
One of the underrated aspects of tight end play in the passing game is reading zone coverage. With 13:25 in the first quarter, O'Leary runs a route that gets him open by NFL standards, but his quarterback Winston fails to make the same read of the coverage as O'Leary.
The tight end is at the line of scrimmage next to the right tackle and releases inside the defensive end. It's a minor point, but note the low pad level and drive of O'Leary's release into his stem. These small details contribute to a good stem of a route that can force a linebacker to drop quickly, which allows O'Leary to create separation on his break to the quarterback.
The linebacker reads O'Leary's route and slides outside, anticipating a break in that direction. The defender isn't swayed by O'Leary's stutter step at the top of his stem and cuts off the pass of the tight end's intended break.
However, O'Leary thinks fast enough to the linebacker's read of the route and keeps his break inside rather than drifting outward. This is a smart adjustment based on the defender's position, but his quarterback fails to act in kind.
Winston delivers the ball outside, still anticipating the outside break. What validates this analysis is the non-verbal communication after the whistle: O'Leary points to the location of the linebacker as if he's explaining why he made the break he did. The tone of the body language also indicates that O'Leary was expressing some amount of frustration that Winston did make the same clear read.
Although the Notre Dame game doesn't showcase O'Leary as a receiver, this two-minute highlight package illustrates what the tight end can do in the red zone and the open field. O'Leary has enough agility, coordination, and boundary awareness to win in the back of the end zone. He's also a bully in the open field.
How much of O'Leary's athleticism as a receiver and ball carrier translates to the NFL will determine how valuable he is to an offense. If the speed and quickness hit baselines for the position, O'Leary has upside along the lines of Cooley and Daniels. If it's a notch below, Dennis Pitta was a fine prospect with mediocre combine measurements. And if O'Leary can add 10 to 15 pounds of muscle while sustaining or improving his speed and agility, Miller's career potential could be O'Leary's baseline.
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Because O'Leary is smart, technically proficient, and physical, there will be NFL teams clamoring for his services come April -- even if his career begins with special teams.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.