Word of Muth: Lane Johnson and D.J. Fluker
by Ben Muth
Welcome to part three of the Word of Muth post-draft breakdown. This was going to be the final part, but I figured I should come back next week and at least finish off the first-round guys. I’ve always been somewhat of a completionist, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve stuck with The Office for the past 18 months. This week, we’re looking at two guys that I think have some pretty glaring flaws despite how early they went. Really, these two guys going where they did illustrate just how thin this draft was at the top.
I think Lane Johnson is going to turn into a good left tackle, and there’s a very real chance he could turn into a great one. On top of that, he’s a perfect match for what I imagine the Eagles are going to do in the running game. He’s really good at everything you want an offensive tackle to do in an outside zone-heavy scheme.
He’s quick enough to to out-leverage any defensive linemen, no matter how wide they line up: he’s either going to hook them and allow LeSean McCoy to run outside, or he’s going to widen them so much McCoy can run it right off his ass. He’s good on the backside of outside zone as well. For evidence, watch Oklahoma’s very first play of the Texas game. Johnson came down the line of scrimmage to cut the hell out of a defensive tackle four or five steps into the play ... that’s getting a cut deep into the play against a defensive tackle that played it pretty well. That’s really strong athleticism on Johnson’s part.
The other thing Johnson really excels at is blocking linebackers. He’s really good at coming off combination blocks in zone and accelerating to linebackers before they can run over the top, which is all you want from a lineman. Johnson takes it a step further by really popping the second-level guys. Most offensive linemen are content to lock on and sustain the block. Johnson doesn’t just block these second-level guys, he punishes them. In the two games I watched (Texas and Texas A&M), I saw him knock a couple of guys down on the second level. I loved it.
All that being said, Johnson is a pretty horrific fundamental pass blocker who probably wouldn’t have gone in the top five in any other draft. Well, maybe the 2000 NBA Draft. Nothing he does can't be fixed, but if you’re taking someone that early, you would probably like a few less loose nails. Let’s start with the fact that he leads with his head all the time. Here are two shots from one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl to help illustrate what I mean.
They’re muzzle-to-muzzle up there. It’s not surprising that a converted defensive player would have this problem. Defensive guys can lead with their heads all they want (linemen taking on blockers, not defensive backs taking on wideouts) because they don’t have to worry about getting quick-swimmed by offensive tackles. Offensive tackles are generally content to just try to stay in front of you. Defensive ends are not so obliging.
If Johnson doesn’t learn to use his hands and keep his distance, guys are going to be grabbing the back of his pads and pulling themselves right through to the quarterback.
The other really bad habit Johnson has while pass blocking is that he tends to try to really underset wide guys and turn everything into a drive block by the quarterback. First overall pick Eric Fisher does this occasionally too, but Johnson does it so often that it may have been his major at Oklahoma. Here’s a clip from the Texas game to illustrate what I’m talking about.
Notice in the first frame that Johnson’s inside foot is just barely on the red and white line. His kick starts out fine, but you can see trouble in frame three. His feet are basically touching, and damn near crossed over one another. That’s because, rather than continue to kick, Johnson has made the choice to turn and try and run the defensive end by the quarterback. And it works on this play. Johnson runs the defensive end by with ease, but it’s how quickly he goes to this strategy that’s troubling.
Look at the last frame of the picture. Johnson’s shoulders have done a complete 180 from the line of scrimmage, and he’s not even a full five yards from where he started from. There are offensive tackles that can kick four yards deep without turning their shoulders at all, let alone 180 degrees. All he’s done here is shorten the path to the quarterback.
In college, Johnson was bigger, stronger, and just about as fast as most of the defensive ends he played against. If he got his hands on them, he could essentially do whatever he wanted with them. In the NFL, he’ll play guys like Julius Peppers or Jason Pierre-Paul, who will play stronger. If you’re going to try to run them by at four yards, they are going to lean back into you and you’ll be lucky if you push them seven yards by the time they’re at the quarterback. (As a reference, most quarterbacks get between seven and eight yards of depth on a five-step drop.)
Alabama/San Diego Chargers
If you line someone up right across from D.J. Fluker’s face in a five-technique, that end is going to have one really long game. The big offensive tackle is dominant when he can reach out and maul guys right at the line of scrimmage. He’s quick out of his stance, and he’s good at extending his long arms into the defender's frame before they are really out of their stance. I thought Fluker’s game against LSU was as good as you’ll see a college tackle play.
He’s a really good run blocker. If the Chargers are going to run power, and I think they will with Ken Whisenhunt as an offensive coordinator, Fluker will excel at generating a lot of movement in the double teams that power generates on the front side. I see a lot of Anthony Davis in his game when it comes to this. Both are powerful, long-armed guys who are quick out of their stances. (I want to go back in time and tell 49ers fans that an Anthony Davis comp would be a positive, just to see how much they would laugh.)
But I’m not sure he can play tackle in the NFL. At the end of the day, I think his feet are just too heavy. The need for super-fluid feet can be overrated for tackles; for instance, Sebastian Vollmer is a guy with clunky feet at times who gets around it with angles and technique. But you need to be at certain threshold, and I don’t think Fluker is above it.
Basically, I’m worried about third-and-long, where everyone knows the offense is passing and Fluker has to kick to a wide rusher. It’s something he struggled with in the non-LSU games I saw (Notre Dame and Western Kentucky), and it wasn’t the results as much as it was the look of his sets. Here’s a play that really got me down on Fluker.
In the play above, Fluker is in trouble immediately. Look at where his feet are before the snap and where they are in the second frame. His right foot has gone from the 39 to the 41, his left foot has gone from 38 to the 39. Essentially, his feet are a yard further apart than they were in his stance in just two steps. See how wide his base is now? Keep in mind, when the second frame was frozen, he was about to step with his outside foot again.
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That’s his initial kick, where he’s focusing on kicking back as hard as he can. If you don’t have a solid initial kick, you have to be a Lane Johnson-esque athlete to recover. D.J. Fluker ain’t Lane Johnson. So while his outside foot, the foot with no weight on it, is going pretty good, he just can’t get that inside foot going at all.
When he goes to step with his outside foot again, he can only move it about a foot because his base is already so wide. Now he has to take a huge step with his inside foot to get his base somewhat normal, but it’s a long, slow step. Between frame two and three, Fluker took two steps and moved about a foot. That just can’t happen against a wide rusher that has any kind of speed.
At the top of the rush, the defensive end knows he has Fluker beat, but because Quanterus Smith is a good player, he takes the Robert Mathis approach and dips his shoulder right as he bends the corner, so as to prevent Fluker’s long arms from possibly shoving him just by the quarterback.
Fluker whiffs on the punch and Smith sacked McCarron. But that’s not why Fluker is wearing the X of Great Shame. Fluker is wearing the X of Great Shame for imitating Michael Jackson. The Thriller died with the King of Pop, you can’t bring it back D.J., and shame on you for trying.
This may just seem like "one play against a good player" analysis, but it’s not. Smith wore Fluker out this game, and the Notre Dame guys had decent success at times when they just tried to run around him. (I know that statement isn’t saying much, but I don’t want Alabama fans destroying the comments section with cries of "SCOREBOARD.") While I think Smith will be a good NFL player, he isn’t exactly Jadeveon Clowney when it comes to pure speed off the edge. I cringe to think about Von Miller meeting Fluker for the first time.