Word of Muth: Free Agent Interior Linemen
by Ben Muth
Last week, we looked at a handful of free-agent offensive tackles. This week, we’re shifting our focus inside to some interior offensive linemen. Since free agency started Tuesday, three of these guys have already signed, but we’re going to take a look at them anyway and see what they can bring to their new teams. Mostly because I already watched the film.
Let's get to it.
Andy Levitre: Guard, Tennessee Titans (formerly Buffalo Bills)
Levitre was the consensus top guard on the market, and I agree with that consensus. A former college tackle, Levitre is a very strong pass blocker -- possibly the best at the guard position. Feet, punch, hand replacement, base, and positioning are the main focuses of pass blocking, and while Levitre may not be elite in any one of those categories, he is at least above-average in all of them.
He moves well laterally and can change directions fluidly and without hesitation. His feet are quick, if not at the level of a Marshal Yanda. The key to his change of direction is that he doesn’t waste any movement. He only takes as many steps as is necessary to get into position, and he doesn’t take overly long steps. As he slides his feet, they may only move six-to-eight inches at a time, but that keeps his base wide and allows him to change direction almost instantly.
Levitre’s upper half is just as good as his lower half. He doesn't have a particularly heavy punch, but it’s accurate. He does a nice job of getting his hands inside of defenders and controlling them with excellent forearm strength. More impressive than his initial punch though, is his hand replacement.
As an offensive lineman, you are going to get your hands knocked down in pass protection. Pass rushers are not going to rush like they’re in straight jackets: they swipe, chop, spin, swim, and do whatever necessary to get your hands off of them. When defenders are able to knock your hands down, you have to be able to replace them, quickly and accurately, right back into the defender’s chest. Levitre excels at this, usually replacing his hands before the defender has even finished his move.
I’m not quite as high on Levitre as a run blocker. He’s probably a little better than average, but he’s not a true road-grader. His problem is that he plays too high. He fires off well, but he tends to stand up too quickly from there, eventually winding up chest to chest with the defender. As a result, he has a hard time generating a lot of movement on his own.
Take a look at the picture below, Levitre is almost completely straight-legged before Ryan Fitzpatrick even hands the ball off.
The good news is that Levitre seems to have really great grip strength, and is able to lock on to defensive linemen. So even if he’s not moving them out of the way, they are having a hard time escaping the blocks. This makes him an effective double-teamer, because he can hold the defender in place while the center or tackle drives him.
Levitre is also good at the second level in the running game. His above-average lateral quickness and grip strength allow him to mirror and eventually reach linebackers. I’m not sure if all this can justify his new contract, but at least the Shonn Greene signing should take a little focus off of Levitre’s newfound fortune.
Louis Vasquez: Guard, Denver Broncos (formerly San Diego Chargers)
Looking over the free agents, I thought that Levitre was pretty clearly the top player available on the interior offensive line this year. You can debate where the other guys on the list rank, but Levitre is at the top from a performance perspective. That being said, if I had to choose between Levitre at $46.8 million or Louis Vasquez at $23.5 million, assuming that those numbers are fully indicative of their contracts, I’d take Vasquez everyday and twice on Sunday.
Like Levitre, Vasquez is a better pass blocker than a run blocker at this point in his career. He’s not a terrible run blocker, and has come a long way since being part of Mike Leach’s run game embargo at Texas Tech. He generates good initial movement in the running game, but doesn’t use his hands particularly well as he’s doing it. It’s all helmet and shoulder pads. As a result, defensive linemen often grab Vasquez as he’s trying to escape to the second level and prevent him from making those blocks. (Even if he does get a clean release, he can struggle against linebackers.)
Let’s take a look at a third-and-2 play from the second quarter of San Diego’s game against Carolina. San Diego ran a basic lead inside zone concept that required Vasquez to double the nose tackle to the middle linebacker.
Both Vasquez and center Nick Hardwick fire off with good pad level. They are starting to get decent movement, but you can see that Vasquez’ right shoulder is already turned slightly towards the nose tackle. That’s because the nose tackle is grabbing Vasquez by the sleeve hole. (I’m sure there is a technical name, but football should be simple, so sleeve hole it is.)
Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is scraping over the top to fill the hole. Vasquez is trying to get away, but he can’t escape the defender's grasp. You can barely make out the bottom of Vasquez’ numbers trying to go one way, while his shoulder pads go another.
Vasquez finally escapes the nose tackle, and gets a piece of Kuechly, but not very much of one. He’s too far behind the block to really accomplish anything.
And so we reach the inevitable conclusion to the play. Kuechly makes the tackle for Carolina. A positive sign for the Broncos is that this particular bad habit may be the result of coaching. If you scroll up and look at the left guard, you can see he’s having a similar problem.
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A lot of teams teach leading with a shoulder on double teams. If you do that though, you also have rip up with your forearm. That forearm shiver not only creates a little separation, it raises the defender’s pad level. Vasquez doesn’t tend to do that; he keeps his forearm pinned to his stomach and as a result gets held.
In pass protection, Vasquez is rock solid. He shows more comfort in space than most interior players (probably a result of playing with Texas Tech’s huge splits) and does a nice job of keeping distance between him and the rusher. While he is more of a catcher than a natural puncher, he gets away with it because of great natural strength.
At the 2009 combine, Vasquez put up 39 reps on the bench press. That was the most anyone in Indianapolis accumulated that year. While most players have a hard time blunting bull rushes without some kind of punch, Vasquez does it pretty easily. He just sort of waits with extended hands and catches rushers. Unlike most catchers, his arms don’t collapse on contact. He’s able to keep them extended and lock out defenders.
The only time Vasquez really gets in trouble is when he plays defenders with very active hands that throw moves in combination. Because his hands are pretty stationary in his set, they make for easy targets. A rusher with a good long-arm move would probably also give him problems.
Donald Thomas: Guard, Indianapolis Colts (formerly New England Patriots)
I got to see a lot of Thomas this year and came away impressed. He was New England’s third guard this season, and as a result saw playing time on both sides of the line. Thomas is an old-school guard in that the best thing he does is drive block. New England’s line has a bunch of big names, but when it came to knocking guys off the ball, I thought Thomas was their best lineman.
That’s actually a perfect fit for Indianapolis’ new offensive coordinator. Pep Hamilton came over from Stanford in the offseason, and the Cardinal ran a power-focused running game that required guards to knock defensive tackles off the ball on the play side. This is a scheme Thomas thrived in with New England this year. Go back and watch the fourth quarter of the Week 13 game against Miami to see the Patriots put the game away by running power behind Thomas and Nate Solder.
The other key facet of power is the backside guard pulling to lead through the hole. Thomas isn’t a great puller, but he can hold his own when asked and seemed to get better at it as the season went along.
For all his strengths as a run blocker, Thomas is merely an average pass blocker. He has solid lateral quickness, but tends to lose his base as plays go along. He also has a tendency to lunge at defenders, which makes him susceptible to counter moves. I should point out, however, that despite these bad habits he offers an immediate upgrade in protection to what Andrew Luck saw in his rookie year.
Brandon Moore: Guard, New York Jets
If age didn’t factor in at all I would have had a tough time deciding between Moore and Vasquez for the second spot in this column. But, seeing as Moore will be 33 next season compared to 26 for Vasquez and 28 for Thomas, I felt fourth was as high as I could list him.
At 32, Moore was a good player last year. He doesn't really have a stand-out facet to his game, but is an average run blocker and pass blocker. I would say the thing that jumps out the most about his game is that he pass sets like a tackle, and I mean that as a compliment. He gets more depth than most guards on his initial set, and generally just looks like a tackle that lined up in the wrong spot. Some might say he sets too soft for an interior player, but he’s stout enough to maintain the integrity of the pocket.
You may have noticed that I haven’t really complimented anyone’s punch in this whole column. I’m happy to change that: Moore has a very nice punch. There’s good snap to it, and you can see the defender feels it when it lands. He has to wind it up a little bit, which is a negative, but he seems to have the timing down to account for his own wasted movement.
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Moore’s biggest issue in pass protection is that he struggles to redirect. When defenders (particularly linebackers or defensive ends on stunts) set him up vertically and dive underneath, Moore has a hard time closing down inside with them.
In the running game, Moore can generate solid movement off the ball and is better at the second level than his general athleticism would indicate. With Moore, you can usually tell if he is going to have trouble on a running play as soon as he makes contact. That’s because sometimes he makes contact slightly behind his landmark on running plays, and when he does he rarely recovers.
What I mean by that is that if he’s reaching a three-technique, instead of getting his head on the outside number, where it should be, it will be on the inside number. When that happens, Moore starts leaning too far forward to try and cheat to get his head where it's supposed to be. This forces him off-balance, and usually ends with him being thrown by the defender. It’s not an all-the-time thing, but considering it is probably a result of a lack of quick-twitch muscles, it could be a big concern going forward.
Brian De La Puente: Center, New Orleans Saints
It’s kind of a weak year for centers in free agency. Brian De La Puente is probably the best one, and he’s almost impossible to evaluate. (And he's a restricted free agent, so there's almost zero chance that he's signing elsewhere.) He’s played well over the past two seasons, but it’s tough to tell how much of his success is dependent on the company he keeps. In New Orleans, De La Puente has always been flanked by either elite guards like Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans or very good guards like Ben Grubbs. If he leaves in free agency, he is almost certain to have less-talented teammates around him.
One thing that would scare me about him is that he seems to have his worst games against 3-4 teams that feature a big nose tackle. In these games, he sees less help than usual and has seemed overwhelmed physically when on his own against these stronger players. One game in particular that stands out this way is the NFC Divisional Round loss to San Francisco two years ago.
The strongest part of his game is probably his ability to get off the ball quickly. He has an explosive first step that allows him to disengage from defensive tackles and move to the second level where he is effective. The problem is that sometimes he seems a little too eager to escape and offers little help to his guards. This is fine if you’re combo blocking with Jahri Evans. It becomes a big problem if you’re lined up next to Adam Snyder.
That does it for this week. I wanted to look at Lance Louis and Geoff Schwartz too, but eventually time becomes a factor. Particularly in these pieces that require multiple games. Hopefully I’ll catch the Bears and Vikings in a future offseason column. As for next week, I’m thinking of trying something a little different: I want to highlight some specific pass-rush moves (with pictures of course) and how they beat offensive linemen.