by Ben Muth
Earlier this week I dropped Part I of my free agent offensive tackle rankings. Since then, the Chiefs have franchised Branden Albert and released Eric Winston. This makes the second year in a row I’ve followed the team Winston has played for and been very impressed by his play, only to see him released at the end of the year.
You can read my year-end assessment of Winston here. I will say Winston’s release surprised me. I’ve written a lot about how much I admire his play -- I think he is one of the 10 best right tackles in the league -- but he seems to be a model professional as well. He hasn’t had any off-field issues, sticks up for his teammates, and is one of the most well-liked NFL players amongst the media. Despite all that, he’s now joining a free-agent class where he’ll be the third-best right tackle on the market. The NFL can be a tough business sometimes.
With that out of the way, let’s continue the countdown of top free-agent tackles, beginning with the guy I feel is the third-best option available.
Jermon Bushrod: Left Tackle, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints were one of the teams I covered last year, so I have seen a lot of Bushrod. He doesn't excel in any particular area, but has a very balanced skill set. I’d say he’s just a bit above-average as a pass blocker for a left tackle. He’s a good athlete with a nice set. The main issue for him is that he doesn’t have particularly heavy or active hands in his punch. He tends to just place them on the rusher rather than delivering a real blow.
Bushrod is better as a run blocker. He’s very good on the second level when shadowing and locking onto linebackers, and while he doesn’t get great movement on drive blocks, he’s typically able to stay engaged with down linemen until the back is through the hole. He can also pull outside and lead on tosses and sweeps.
Bushrod is someone who grows on you the more you watch of him. He doesn’t do anything that blows you away or jumps off the tape necessarily, but put in the tape and you'll see that the guy he’s playing against isn’t really making a dent on the offensive game plan either. I don’t think he’s a game-changer (at least in the sense that offensive tackles can be game-changers) but he can help shore up a leaky line and seems to be a very safe option. He’s not really a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle, but he’s still solid cog for an offense.
Jake Long: Left Tackle, Miami Dolphins
To me, Long is the most intriguing free-agent option this offseason. He’s a former first overall pick and All-Pro that should be in the prime of his career. As recently as two years ago, he was discussed as one of the best offensive linemen in the game. So why is he available? Probably because he hasn’t played like he was healthy for a year-and-a-half, and ended the season on IR with a torn triceps.
The funny thing is that when you watch Long play he still looks great. The first few steps of his pass set are lightning quick. I love his hand placement, particularly in the running game, and when he lands his punch you can tell it really jars the defender. His main problem is that he doesn’t do a great job of actually keeping his man away from the quarterback. That’s kind of a big problem for a left tackle.
I watched the Seattle and Indianapolis games and Long really struggled in pass protection. Long’s biggest issue was that despite his aesthetically pleasing pass set, he wasn’t able to mirror the rusher if the defender countered back inside.
That first picture is from the second quarter of the Colts game this year. You can see that Long is in good position. He’s inside-out and has enough depth to avoid being beaten around the edge.
This is where Dwight Freeney starts to make his move. You can see that Freeney has brought his inside arm up. That’s because he is going to chop down with it and spin inside. Anyone who has watched a Colts game in the past decade knows that this is Freeney’s bread-and-butter move.
Freeney completes the spin (even after all these years it’s still a ridiculously tight circle) and now has a clear path to Ryan Tannehill. Long still has a chance to close the flat down the line and push Freeney just by the quarterback. Tannehill would have to move to avoid the pressure, but he should be able to do so.
But Long can’t close down inside because he’s playing on one foot. When Long went to move inside, he picked his right foot up and it was in the air for what seemed like an eternity. He couldn’t get that foot back on the ground fast enough to close down the direct path to his quarterback.
His right foot is still in the air. Rather than drive that foot in the ground, he swung it back behind himself. From here, only Han Solo could have saved Ryan Tannehill from a sack and fumble, and he was in a galaxy far, far away.
Obviously, Freeney has given a lot of tackles fits over the years, particularly with the spin move, but it wasn’t just Freeney. When I watched the Seahawks game, Chris Clemons was giving Long fits too. See if this looks familiar.
Freeney and Clemons set their spin move up differently, Freeney has a chop/spin while Clemons has more of a bull/spin, but the results were exactly the same. And it wasn’t just spin moves -- it was almost any time a defensive end countered inside. Clemons and Freeney are both good pass rushers, but if you play left tackle those are the types of guys you need to be able to block. Last year, Long struggled to do so.
Long still looks and moves well enough most of the time to give me the feeling that he isn’t shot. Plus, he’s still a good run blocker. I’m not sure if Long is ever going to be the player he was, but I think there’s a chance he could get back there. Even if he doesn’t, he does enough to help a team to stay on the field. Though probably not enough justify $11 million a year or whatever he’s asking for.
Phil Loadholt: Right Tackle, Minnesota Vikings
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The best part of Phil Loadholt’s game, by a wide margin, is his ability to block on the backside of the inside zone play. If he’s blocking a down lineman, he does a good job of washing down three-techniques out of their gaps and giving Adrian Peterson big cutback lanes. If he has to come off linebackers he can do that as well. Considering inside zone is the Vikings base play, he's very valuable to them.
The problem is that when Loadholt is on the front side of running plays, he has the worst case of Fred Flintstone feet I’ve ever seen in my life. He takes 37 steps to move a yard-and-a-half. You always hear offensive line coaches talk about taking short, choppy steps out of your stance ... but this is ridiculous. The goal is to get your second step in the ground before contact. There are times on outside zones where Loadholt takes five or six steps before engaging the defensive end. The result is that he chops his feet in place until the defender engages him on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage. Now Loadholt is big and strong, so sometimes he’s able to move the defender despite this, but more often than not he ends up in a stalemate with his man in the backfield.
In pass protection, watching Loadholt is like watching two different players. His upper half is really good. His punch is straight and direct with very little wasted movement. He does not have a devastating punch, but he’s accurate with it and times it well enough to keep defenders away from his body.
The problem is that his bottom half is all out of whack. His feet are all over the place in his pass set. He’s constantly clicking his heels together and it looks like he might trip over himself. Look at this shot below from the Rams game:
He’s freaking cross-legged during his initial punch! I don’t know what that is, but it ain’t ball. The real shame of it is that he wastes a great punch. His arms are fully extended right in the defender’s chest, and you can see he actually buckles Chris Long’s back a bit. That stops Long in his tracks, which would normally be a good thing. But Loadholt’s feet continue to stumble outside like a sailor on payday, leaving a clear path to the quarterback for Long. It’s no wonder that the guy has had 22 penalties in the past two seasons. He probably has to grab pass rushers to keep from falling over.
Loadholt is big and physically talented enough to get some looks, but his feet would be a serious concern for me.
That does it for the offensive tackles. I’ll be back at the same time next week to look at the top free agents on the interior line.