by Ben Muth
It’s the offseason, which means the action has moved from the field to the front offices of the NFL. Readers of this site would probably agree that the draft is the most effective way to build and improve your team. It’s young, cheap labor that can grow into star-level players at replacement-level prices.
But the draft isn’t until April, and you can go out and get an All-Pro right now (well, technically, next week) if you’re willing to pony up. This is especially true if you need an offensive tackle, where the current free agent crop offers multiple Pro-Bowlers and former first-round picks. This week I’ll look at the top handful of bookends in my eyes and evaluate some of their strengths and weaknesses. They’re discussed in order of who I would target if money was not a concern at all.
One last note before we start: I watched Ryan Clady and William Beatty for this column before they signed deals to remain with their current teams. I won’t go into too much detail except to say I love Clady (he would be on top of this list) and wasting his pass set on a Tim Tebow-led offense is like entering your Ferrari in a demolition derby. He’s an above average run blocker too, but the reason he’s going to get paid is because of his pass set. Gorgeous. I may talk about Beatty in our next article, as he fits more into that second tier of tackles.
Sebastian Vollmer: Right Tackle, New England Patriots
Since the Patriots were one of the teams I covered this year, I got to see a lot of Sebastian Vollmer. Clearly I’m a big fan of his, as I’ve raved about his play a couple of times this year. He’s a good run blocker, though not a truly dominating one (like a Joe Staley). He's also a top-flight pass protector, particularly for a right tackle.
What makes Vollmer such an effective pass blocker is maintaining proper body leverage and being effective with his hands. By proper body leverage, I mean where he keeps his body in relation to the quarterback and the pass rusher. He’ll change up his pass set throughout games (jump setting, vertical setting, 45 degree setting, and quick sets that turn into aggressive sets), but he always has great leverage on the defender. He rarely engages without his outside foot splitting the defender right down the middle, which is exactly where you want to be in pass protection. (For diagrams or further in depth analysis go here or here).
J.J. Cooper's "Under Pressure" charting marked Vollmer as responsible for 3.5 sacks this year. I can think of 1.5 or possible 2.5 (depending on crediting) that Vollmer gave up to Cameron Wake his first week back from a back injury. He looked stiff and immobile and frankly like a different guy that game.
That back injury is my only real concern with Vollmer. The good news is that he got healthier later in the season and played well through the postseason. That means his back isn’t totally shot, and that he can manage it even if it gets bad on him midseason. The bad news is that he’s been dealing with back injuries since college (it’s the reason he fell out of the first round) and big guys with bad backs are a historically dicey situation. He only missed one game this year, but he missed 11 in 2011.
That being said, without having any actual medical information, I can only go by what I see. And from what I see in Vollmer is a 28-year-old tackle who got banged up in the middle of the season but then got healthy enough to play like the best right tackle in football in the postseason. I’d be willing to spend big money on him.
Branden Albert: Left Tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
I had a real hard time deciding whether to put Albert or Bengals right tackle Andre Smith in this spot. I think their talent level is about the same, so it comes down to how you value their strengths and weaknesses. For me, I’ll take the better pass blocker with a creaky back over a player who has physical strength but past weight and work ethic issues.
Albert is a guy that grows on you as you watch him. He was only responsible for one sack all year (again, according to Cooper’s charting). Granted, he did miss some time, but giving up just one sack in 13 games is still really impressive. It’s even more impressive when you watch him pass block because it’s not conventional at all.
I don’t know how describe his pass blocking technique except to say that it’s never the same thing twice. He’ll get hunched over, on one foot, or sometimes completely turned around. But no matter what his body position looks like he always keeps the rusher away from the quarterback, and at the end of the day that’s what the job is.
Albert isn’t as strong in the running game. He fails to generate movement on inside zone plays and isn’t great on the second level. He does do one thing very well though and that’s reach people on the play side of outsidezone. Albert does a great job with hat placement basically every time the Chiefs run the play to his side. As a result he either gets the edge defender to over compensate and stretch too far outside, or he seals the defender inside allowing Jamaal Charles to bounce it around the corner.
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Being great at that one play was perfect for Kansas City because they ran the hell out of it, but Albert’s impact in the running game takes a considerable hit if he goes to a team that doesn’t run stretch plays as much. Still, he’s an elite level pass blocker as a left tackle and that carries a lot of value. I think it’s worth putting aside health concerns even if you’re a team that doesn’t run much outside zone but still needs a tackle upgrade. He would be a great addition for the Steelers or Cardinals.
Andre Smith: Right Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals
As I said, the difference is razor thin between Smith and Albert, so which one a particular team targets should largely come down to scheme. Smith’s biggest asset is his size. He’s big and heavy and can absolutely swallow defenders up. He reminds a lot of Lincoln Kennedy, in that he’ll fire off, grab defenders, and just hold them in place. It’s almost like he’s sealing them off in a tomb. The first play of the Week 15 Eagles game offers a great example of this.
Cincinnati was in an I-Right Twins formation and running an outside zone concept with a pin and pull by the right tackle (Smith) and guard (Kevin Zeitler). Philadelphia was in a base 4-3 over alignment. Smith was down-blocking on the three-technique (Cullen Jenkins) which isn’t a particularly difficult block, but it illustrates Smith’s engulf technique.
Smith fires off and immediately turns his hips to seal the defensive tackle inside. After this, he stops his feet completely and just braces/leans against Jenkins. Notice that Smith’s man is in exactly the same place he was before the snap. Jenkins has maybe moved six inches.
By the time Jenkins gets off the bock, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is ten yards outside with two lead blockers. The Bengals gained 29 yards on this play and Smith was a small part, but you can see how defenders struggle to escape from Andre Smith’s natural gravitational pull.
The problem with the fire-out-and-brace technique is that Smith will sacrifice generating any movement of his own when he does this. It’s great when the Bengals are running outside of him or if Kevin Zeitler gets great movement next to him, but it can clog up running lanes if people around him aren’t great in their execution. There are times on Power and Inside Zone where Smith does the exact same thing and essentially performs the same function as a Sam Adams type nose tackle. His man won’t make the play, but the running back has a lot less room to find a seam.
What’s frustrating about Smith’s run blocking is that there are times when he does keep his feet moving after contact and he generates good movement. He just doesn’t do it frequently enough. While preventing your own man from making tackles is good, knocking him off the ball three yards is better.
In pass protection, Andre Smith is the proverbial dancing bear. He’s huge, but his pass set is surprisingly nimble and quick footed. He occasionally steps underneath himself (picks up his outside foot and brings it right back down without gaining any ground) on his first kick but for the most part he has a very nice pass set.
His punch isn’t very good, he tends to be more of a catcher, but it’s not really a big issue with him because he’s so big and gets such a good initial set. Guys either have to run too far outside to get around or try to bull rush him and risk disappearing in his mass.
The times that Smith gets into trouble in pass protection are typically due to a lack of overall athleticism. I mentioned he has light and quick feet in his pass set, but that’s literally the only time he has shows any agility. He runs terribly and isn’t great at stopping and changing direction. So after his initial pass set, first three kicks (which are a combination of learned skill and natural aptitude), if he hasn’t engaged a defender it can get pretty hairy out there for him.
It’s the reason he struggled so much against the Eagles. The first game I watched for this column was the Bengals' playoff loss to the Texans. I thought Smith played pretty well considering he was matched against the DPOY for most of the game. But as I was watching I thought he could struggle against wide rushers, so I was thrilled to learn that Cincinnati played Philadelphia in Week 15. It turns out Smith can and did struggle against wide-nine techniques.
This play is from the second quarter. Smith’s initial pass set from the waist down is good here. He gained a lot of ground with his first step and has a good relationship with the rusher at this point. I hate his airplane arms because it takes too long to punch with your hands down by your thighs, but Smith isn’t much of a puncher anyway.
But as the play progressed he got uncomfortable with the space between him and the rusher. So, rather than continuing to kick and waiting patiently to punch, Smith ducked his head and reached for the d-end (Brandon Graham). Now he’s completely straight legged and on top of that he can’t see the Graham. During the draft you are going to here the term “natural knee-bender” roughly 1.3 million times. The above picture is what a waist-bender looks like. It is better to be a knee bender.
Because it’s a slippery slope from waist-bender to planker. Despite what Darren Rovell will tell you, planking was never cool. It won’t get you more twitter followers, but it will get you the X of Great Shame.
Despite that last diagram, I do like Andre Smith a lot. Maybe not $9 million a year a lot, but I think he’ll get close to that. i just wanted to show how it can and does go bad for him.
In a few days, Part II of our look at free agent tackles will cover Jake Long, Jermon Bushrod and Phil Loadholdt. See you then.