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Scouting Spotlight: OL Brian O'Neill

March 5, 2018

"You need to start with this present and open this one last."

 

Parents utter these famous words each Christmas morning, forcing children to open presents in the order of most boring, say a can of cooked Chinese oysters, to the best gift ever, like Castle Greyskull.

 

Scouting college football talent for the 2018 NFL Draft is the inverse; we look at the top candidates first, drooling over ability and dreaming of every conceivable scenario to ensure The Manimal ends up on our team. Once we've reviewed the prime candidates, we scavenge like a starved, sickly buzzard to pick at the sunbaked, four-day old meat weakly hanging from a bleached animal skeleton.

 

On paper, offensive tackle Brian O'Neill from the University of Pittsburgh appears to be a prime candidate to play professional football. He's 6'6” tall and weighs 305 pounds. O'Neill made 37 consecutive starts for the Pitt Panthers between 2015-2017, and last year made a switch from right tackle to left tackle. In 2017, he was named a first-team all ACC tackle and played for the North squad in this year's Senior Bowl.

 

A quick note: If you've never played offensive line, switching from right tackle to left tackle is like learning to ski backward; everything you learned one way is now the complete opposite. Making a switch and receiving the first-team honor is no small feat.

 

Despite the accolades, O'Neill's game film reveals a mixed bag of results: at times he looked good, other times he went unnoticed, and a few times he looked lost on the field.

 

The Good

 

O'Neill can dominate a lesser opponent with his long reach and size. Indeed, at 6'6”, he plays tall, much like Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva. And if we view O'Neill through those glasses, it gives hope that he can become a quality professional offensive lineman.

 

The Panthers asked O'Neill to pull left, reminding me a bit of Joe Staley's lead block paving the way for Alex Smith's touchdown run against the Saints in the 2011 NFC Divisional game.

 

I cannot think of many professional tackles with this kind of movement, and O'Neill's unique ability could make for a handful of new running plays for head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. 

 

O'Neill can maul an opponent into submission when needed. However, the strategy has greater success against shorter defenders, not against men with size, strength and chockfull of true grit.

 

The Panthers' offensive coordinator worked O'Neill, a converted tight end, into the offense in a few different ways. Against NC State last year, he caught a lateral from roughly 14 yards out and nearly scored a touchdown. During his time at Pitt, he had three rushes for 39 yards and two touchdowns. 

 

The Forgotten

 

Despite the near touchdown against NC State, I found myself not taking a single note or diagraming a play for O'Neill for nearly four minutes. I went back to watch the tape again, thinking there was something I missed. Oddly, there wasn't anything.

 

My absent-mindedness isn't a knock on O'Neill's talent; instead, it means a team can rely on him to get the job done by any means necessary, despite imperfections in his craft. He can, at times, flash solid fundamentals: he'll sink his hips - providing greater explosive power, and align his elbows and shoulders with his torso - ensuring he hits his opponent square, rather than at an angle.

 

Early in the second half against Virginia Tech, Pitt's offense lined up in a strong left formation. Virginia Tech's defense responded with a vanilla 3-4 look, but the defensive end, already lined up in a 9-technique, widened just a bit more before the snap. It looked as if this was going to be a difficult block for O'Neill. However, as the Y-receiver released vertically, O'Neill opened his left hip and positioned himself perfectly to stop the rushing end.

 

The play wasn't jaw-dropping by any stretch. In fact, of the three games I watched, O'Neill didn't do anything that had me squealing like a 12-year old girl reading the latest edition of Tiger Beat. But, that's the difference between round one talent and round four of five players.

 

The Lost

 

In an article posted this week, Pro Football Focus noted that O'Neill won a measly 27 percent of his 1-on-1 reps during the Senior Bowl practices. These statistics caused me initial concern, and I had to decide how to digest the facts:

1.    The Allen Iverson approach: "What are we talking about? Practice? We're talking about practice, man."

2.    Senior Bowl practices are not a run-of-the-mill walkthrough. No, these are vital moments for professional coaches to dive into a player's ability and skill set. Winning less than 30 percent of 1-on-1 drills for a lineman raises a few red flags.

 

I chose the second perspective.

 

Further film analysis showed that O'Neill isn't a dominating fury of strength in the trenches. He's not a bulldozer, and I saw him get overpowered from time to time. Against NC State, he completely whiffed on an opening block, which isn't the end of the world, but it was an embarrassing miss. A few series later, he was backpedaling in a pass block.

 

Now, I will not claim to have the genius of Bobb McKittrick, but I have coached the offensive line. And there was never a circumstance where I taught my tackles to backpedal when blocking. Linemen must give ground when pass blocking, but linemen never cede power. A backpedal removes all lower body strength and forces lineman to rely solely on upper body strength, which O'Neill lacks, to attempt to make a stop.

 

I did rewind one of O'Neill's plays at least ten times because he broke the cardinal rule of blocking: he blocked outside-in, rather than inside-out.

 

Pittsburg lined up in a shotgun formation with the running back positioned to the left of the quarterback. This alignment should allow the running back to provide support from the center to the left tackle. O'Neill had a Virginia Tech defensive end lined up in a 9-technique with the Will linebacker lined up outside of the end. A cornerback, lined up in press coverage, was about 7 yards from the Will linebacker.

 

At the snap, the end slanted directly toward the left guard, creating a wide space for the Will to shoot the B-gap located between the tackle and the guard. The cornerback left coverage and immediately came flying in from the left.

 

For whatever reason, O'Neill ignored the Will linebacker and looked right at the cornerback. His choice was and forever will be the wrong decision.

 

The cornerback has a longer way to run and is not the immediate threat. O'Neill should have picked up the Will linebacker who had a direct line to the quarterback, and the running back should have picked up the corner.

 

Obviously, I don't know Pitt's playbook, and there could be a handful of reasons for the breakdown in the blocking scheme: maybe this is how Pitt drew up the protection, perhaps the back took the wrong read, maybe O'Neill misheard the assignment, or nobody saw the Will linebacker.

 

No matter, this should have been an uncomplicated read for O'Neill. It's just one play, but it makes me question how O'Neill can handle the complexities of an NFL blitz or merely trying to win battles against someone like Von Miller.

 

The Result

 

This week, the 49ers resigned veteran tackle Garry Gilliam to a two-year extension worth $8 million. That's a hefty sum of cash for a below-average swing tackle who only played about 38 snaps last year before sustaining a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve. Even if Gilliam increases his snap count five-fold this fall, his play is not going to light the NFL on fire.

 

I'm not dying for the 49ers to draft O'Neill, but he's a much cheaper option with a slightly higher ceiling than Gilliam. Additionally, I've grown weak and weary of the 49ers signing and retaining far below-average offensive linemen and basing success on the hopes of a player who resembles a freeway on-ramp rather than a brick wall. O'Neill could be an answer for the team and may flourish under professional coaching. 

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