Zach's Draft Corner: Offensive Lineman Position Breakdown

April 3, 2020

 

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Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.

 

 

 

It's always wise to draft offensive linemen, even if you think you have a strong unit.  The offensive line is truly a unit as opposed to any one player, and the line is only as good as its weakest link.  It only takes one defender to beat a bad lineman and an easy pitch and catch turns into a sack or a turnover.  If one of those strong offensive linemen gets hurt, that strong unit could turn into a weak one mid-game.

 

That's not to say the 49ers offensive line is elite.  While Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey are strong on the outside, Laken Tomlinson has been merely an average left guard, Weston Richburg has been injured, and Mike Person is no longer on the team.  Furthermore, Staley is getting close to retirement, meaning there are four spots on the offensive line that could use long-term upgrades in addition to the two or three that could use short-term upgrades.

 

The 49ers, with their zone blocking scheme, require a very specific type of lineman.  Linemen that succeed in this scheme are generally more athletic as opposed to having brute strength (although strength is never frowned upon).  The linemen each need to interpret and understand opposing alignments and blitz combinations, as the zone scheme relies heavily on communication to make sure each defender is blocked.  Maintaining leverage is important, as the fleeter, weaker linemen tend to need to rely on that leverage to make up for the lack of brute strength.  Moving laterally is a plus, and it is typical for a lineman to pull and move to the second level to get blocks.  While the top linemen generally do well in these schemes, some of these players can be found throughout the draft given that they won't be a fit for teams that run gap or power schemes.  Some top linemen are also not a fit (looking at you, Mekhi Becton).

 

That being said, these are the names that the 49ers should consider throughout the draft.

 

 

Jedrick Wills, OT, Alabama

6'5", 320 pounds

Pros

At his peak level, there is no player in this draft who is as good as Wills.  He consistently displays elite footwork in his kick steps and delivers a paralyzing punch to pass rushers.  On bull rushes, Wills sets his feet and maintains his anchor.  Any rush out there, Wills can stop.  He can also be effective as a run blocker, both inline and moving out in space.  Wills is a complete blocker, and is elite in many aspects.

 

Cons

They seem to be few and far between, but Wills does have the occasional streak of mental lapses where he plays almost aloof.  During those valleys, he plays like his strength alone will be enough to stop the defender, causing him to lose balance and become sloppy.  None of these were in critical situations, so it seems to be a byproduct of Alabama blowouts.  Still, a cold motor can be worrisome.

 

When to draft:  If he is somehow there at 13, he should be highly considered

 

Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa

6'5", 322 pounds

Pros

Wirfs is an athletic marvel.  When moving laterally and in space, especially in run blocking, Wirfs is exceptional.  Combined with his elite hands and leverage that are second to none in this class, and Wirfs is a tantalizing prospect.  At his floor, he will be a top 10 guard in the NFL.  Depending on the team that drafts him, it's actually possible that he immediately starts at guard while honing some of the footwork that troubles him.  With his athletic upside and All-Pro floor, Wirfs is worthy of a high pick.

 

Cons

The footwork I'm talking about is in his kick steps during pass protection.  For being such an athletic marvel, moving to his back diagonal troubles him.  Part of this is that Iowa didn't have him settle on right tackle until his second year, but then he also switched to the left side when linemate Alaric Jackson missed time over the past two seasons.  In addition to playing guard, Wirfs will need to put in extra time after practice focusing on one side of the line and making sure that technique is sound before getting the starting nod.

 

When to draft:  If he is somehow there at 13, he should be highly considered

 

Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia

6'5", 320 pounds

Pros

Thomas is a very safe player.  He is very consistent, and he is at least good at every aspect of playing offensive line.  He also has the longest arms of the top prospects, giving him the highest floor of any offensive line prospect in this draft.  He is good inline as a blocker, but can also move in space and block on the second level.  There's nothing he can't do adequately.

 

Cons

Is it worth taking an adequate player when there are possible elite players left on the board?  It always worries me when a first round player does not have an elite trait.  If you need an offensive tackle who is sure to be an average starter, then Thomas is your guy.  For instance, if you are Tampa Bay and need a tackle who can come in on day one and be adequate, Thomas is your guy.  However, I don't see Thomas being very different in year four than he is in year one.

 

When to draft:  13 or small trade back from 13 but in the top 20

 

Cesar Ruiz, IOL, Michigan

6'4", 319 pounds

Pros

Ruiz is a very fluid mover, and combines that with very functional strength due to his ability to utilize angles and leverage.  It's always fascinating to see offensive linemen who are very mobile, as men that big should not be able to move so well.  Ruiz uses his hands very well, placing powerful punches on the widest part of the defender to stop him in his tracks.  Ruiz also has a lot of experience at center, making him versatile all across the interior of the line.

 

Cons

There are a few processing issues with Ruiz.  It ultimately comes down to a matter of patience.  Ruiz wants to attack and hit somebody, which is always a nice trait for a football player.  The issue comes into play in combo blocks, where Ruiz can be late to hand off blocks or see/communicate stunts.

 

When to draft:  31st overall

 

Matt Hennessy, IOL, Temple

6'4", 302 pounds

Pros

Hennessy might be the smartest player, including non-offensive linemen, in the entire class.  He truly understands every facet of football, and is always in the right place making the right block with the right technique.  He has good mobility and can pull and block on the second level with the best of them.  He also played center for three seasons, giving him versatility on the interior.  Hennessy is the perfect zone lineman on the interior.

 

Cons

Hennessy is a zone lineman only.  His sub-par strength all but removes the potential of him working inline in a gap or power scheme, so he won't even be on the board for half of the teams in the league.

 

When to draft:  Mid-day 2 after a trade back

 

Kyle Murphy, IOL, Rhode Island

6'3", 316 pounds

Pros

Murphy is an athlete.  He has very good mobility on the interior, and couples that with very good strength.  He is a scheme-versatile guard who dominated the competition, even if it was only at Rhode Island.  He played both tackle and guard while at Rhode Island, which gives him exceptionally good footwork for a guard.

 

Cons

At Rhode Island, Murphy succeeded simply because of his athleticism.  When you place an NFL-caliber guard at a small school, he is going to dominate them.  His technique, especially with his hands and his punch, is dreadfully inconsistent.  It's almost as if he just flies his hands out at the snap, knowing that he will take out a sub-par defender if he even partially lands his punch.  At the next level, he won't win by being a better athlete.  He has a high ceiling if he can hone his technique, but it might take a little while.

 

When to draft:  Mid- to late day three

 

Keith Ismael, IOL, San Diego State

6'3", 300 pounds

Pros

Ismael is a ready-to-go interior lineman, both at guard and center.  Ismael is a very smart player who understands defensive concepts well.  He can call out defensive alignments and operates as an integral cog on the line.  He is also very mobile, making him a perfect fit for a zone blocking scheme.  If the 49ers want to keep the 31st overall pick or somehow miss out on Matt Hennessy, Ismael would be a fantastic consolation prize.

 

Cons

Just like Hennessy, Ismael is a zone-only blocker.  His strength is even lower than Hennessy.  It would be crippling in the wrong scheme, but merely limiting in a zone scheme.

 

When to draft:  Mid- to late day three

 

Charlie Heck, OT, North Carolina

6'8", 309 pounds

Pros

The athleticism Heck has managed to keep despite all of the additional weight he put on at North Carolina has been fascinating.  Heck was only 6'0" tall and 145 pounds his freshman year of high school and was recruited as a tight end.  North Carolina embraced his height and athleticism and made him a tackle, very much like a current 49er who has had a very successful career.  Given the newness of the position, the technique that Heck still manages to show is promising.  Heck is as high of an upside pick as any tackle that will be available on day three.

 

Cons

There is still a long way to go for Heck.  His anchor is not strong enough to play guard, so he will be a tackle or bust prospect.  A team like San Francisco may be great for him to learn the position without pressure, but he still needs to improve every aspect of his technique to be even a serviceable starter.

 

When to draft:  Late day three

 

Jake Hanson, IOL, Oregon

6'5", 295 pounds

Pros

Hanson is another mobile interior lineman who would be a good fit in a zone scheme.  He was the leader of the Oregon offensive line that, while it may have underperformed overall against the projections, was still one of the best units in the country.  Hanson understands alignments and blitzes well, and he uses his mobility very well in maintaining blocks.

 

Cons

While prospects like Hennessy and Ismael lack the strength to play in a gap scheme, Hanson may lack so much strength that he can't even fit in a zone scheme.  Hanson is taller, meaning he has to work even harder to maintain leverage and hold his blocks.  Hanson has the mental side of playing the position down, but his physical deficiencies may be too much.

 

When to draft:  Late day three or undrafted

 

Jon Runyan, OT, Michigan

6'5", 321 pounds

Pros

They key to Runyan's game is footwork and body control.  Runyan moves very well in space, enabling him to get into his pass sets quickly and block in space effectively.  You never have to worry about Runyan, who is very experienced and the son of a Pro Bowl tackle, being in the right place to make a block.

 

Cons

I'm giving Runyan an incomplete grade here.  It's clear that he lacks functional strength.  The question is why?  Is it that he merely doesn't have the muscle?  Or is it a result of his technique?  Runyan's hand placement is terrible, grazing and slapping defenders rather than focused punches in the chest.  If Runyan can fix his hands, will he have enough functional strength to succeed?  Or will he fail regardless of his hand work?  In my opinion, he is worth a shot as an undrafted free agent to see if the 49ers can work some magic.

 

When to draft:  Undrafted

 

 

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