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What is in a position switch for an offensive line prospect in the NFL Draft?

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NFL: 2017 NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A little while back somebody left us a request in a FanPost for a series discussing positional projections in the NFL.

I liked the idea because it allows me to address one of my biggest pet peeves in the NFL Draft evaluation process. That is when people say something like, “If a guy plays X position in college, it’s stupid to have him move to a different position in the NFL.”

It doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to understand why this kind of thinking is ridiculous. Imagine running a business this way. Say there was an employee who lacked interpersonal skills but was great with numbers. Then some bad manager put him into a sales job.

Would you avoid moving him into your accounting department just because he had only sales experience?

It is the same concept in football. A guy might play one position in college, but his skillset could be a better fit at a different position in the NFL.

Today our focus will be on the offensive line. I am going to paint with a very broad brush. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details of things like technique because I want this to be easy to understand.

There are exceptions to every rule, and certain teams value different traits in players. I only want to provide you with a better understanding of why a team might think a player can convert to a different position than he played in college.

Tackle

The tackle spot is very important and very difficult to fill. Players at this position have a tough job.

When you are at guard, you have help to either side in pass protection. If a pass rusher beats you to the outside, there is a tackle to help.

If a pass rusher beats you inside, the center is there to help.

Tackles have guards to help them if they are beaten to the inside, but they have to protect the edge by themselves. That is a lot of real estate.

Not only do they have more ground to protect, they also have the most difficult assignments. The most dominant pass rushers in the league tend to be edge guys. These top edge rushers are both large and supremely athletic. Neutralizing them in such a wide open spot on the field requires a blocker who is also large and supremely athletic.

In pass protection, you need to stay balanced. If a tackle gets caught leaning, he is in big trouble as old friend Wayne Hunter displays here.

The reason you saw pictures of the Cleveland Browns above is Joe Thomas is the recent NFL’s posterboy for great tackle play. By comparsion to Hunter, take a look at how Thomas pass protects.

That edge rusher facing Joe gets nowhere near the quarterback. Thomas’ skill is on display. It takes top notch footwork and nimbleness for the tackle to beat the edge rusher to the spot and maintain the balance necessary to neutralize him.

Hunter was caught leaning by Demarcus Ware. Tackles end up leaning for any number of reasons. In Hunter’s case, it might have been fear. It looks like he got caught cheating too far up the field, spooked by Ware’s potential ability to blow past him. Hunter ended up leaning outside, which meant he didn’t have the balance to adjust and prevent Ware from going inside. When you get caught leaning, the elite edge rushers gain leverage and use it against you.

Another reason a tackle might get caught leaning is his arms simply aren’t long enough. He might have to lean forward so his arms can make contact with a pass rusher. Last year, Greg Gabriel stated in an article for Pro Football Weekly that many teams view 33 inch arms as a minimum to play tackle in the pros.

You can see here how Thomas’ arm length comes into play. He can make contact to obstruct the pass rusher without bending forward. The defender’s momentum is slowed down, and Thomas is in perfect balance, which allows him to maintain leverage.

Height is also usually viewed as an asset for tackles. Part of the reason is taller players generally (but not always) have longer arms. Additionally, the taller a player is the more weight he can add to his frame. In addition to being fast and athletic, the top elite edge rushers are also big and strong. It helps to have a big blocker to put up against them.

In the modern NFL, emphasis has traditionally been put on finding a left tackle over finding a right tackle. That is because most quarterbacks are right handed. The blocking assignment of the right tackle is within the quarterback’s line of sight as he is dropping back. The guy the left tackle blocks is not.

If the right tackle whiffs on his block, the quarterback usually can see it. He can step up in the pocket, scramble, or at least brace himself for a hit. If the left tackle blows his block, the quarterback is going to get nailed with no advance warning.

Given the amount of money modern quarterbacks make, their teams want somebody who will protect that blind side well.

With this in mind, left tackles usually make more money and are valued higher in the Draft than right tackles. If a player is not athletic enough for left tackle, he might transition to right tackle because teams can get away with that guy being a tad less skilled than the left tackle.

While this is the conventional wisdom at the moment, we might be at the start of a shift in priorities. Defensive coaches have noted that right tackles tend not be as effective as their left side counterparts and are adjusting accordingly. Many of the premium pass rushers in the NFL are now lining up primarily against right tackles as a result.

In response, offenses are beginning to use premium resources to address the right tackle position like the Titans with Jack Conklin and the Eagles with Lane Johnson.

Guard

For the reasons noted above, guards tend to not be as athletic as tackles. They aren’t asked to protect the edge.

For the most part, guards are there to win the physical battles inside. Although zone blocking systems do value athleticism, guards are the guys matched up with the big 300+ pound interior defenders most often. They have to control these behemoths at the point of attack to keep the pocket collapsing and to open running lanes for backs.

When a player fails at tackle, the first reflex many fans have is to say he should move to guard. In many instances this is successful, but it isn’t always. It depends on the player’s traits.

It is amazing to think this way now, but D’Brickashaw Ferguson had some rough moments in the first two years of his Jets career. I heard some chatter among fans that Ferguson should be moved to guard. (Please note this was a minority of fans. It was never a serious consideration for the team. I bring this up only to make a point.) Ferguson didn’t fit the profile, though. What was he good at doing? He was mainly an athletic finesse guy. If he couldn’t figure out how to neutralize edge rushers, he wasn’t going to be a successful NFL player. He certainly wasn’t going to be a road grater against 330 pound nose tackles inside. Of course, Ferguson did figure it out at tackle and had an excellent career.

The point is there are some guys who will benefit from moving from tackle to guard, but you cannot simply slide any former tackle inside and expect him to have success. Generally speaking, a tackle who lacks the athleticism to protect the edge but has good strength will be a good candidate to move to guard.

Another distinction between tackle and guard is ideal height. Being tall is generally thought of as an asset for a tackle. It isn’t as desirable for a guard. There is a football adage that the low man wins in the trenches. On plays that come down to power one on one the guy who gets lower can gain leverage.

Center

Center generally comes with a lot of overlap with guard, but two aspects of the position make it trickier.

First, the center typically has responsibilities to help set the blocking assignment. These duties vary by team, but it isn’t unusual for the quarterback and the center to work in tandem. In today’s NFL of hybrid defenses with disguised fronts, it isn’t always easy to figure out what the defense is doing. On critical downs you have to figure out which guys are blitzing, and which guys are dropping into coverage.

Which guys need to be blocked? Guess wrong and you have a free runner.

How many players are blitzing? If you don’t leave enough guys in, again you have free runner. If you leave too many guys in, the defense will blanket your receivers.

These are the things that fall to a center. It is one of the most cerebral positions on the field.

The second major difference is more practical. The center has to make a good snap before moving into his block, while guards can just focus on blocking.

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I don’t have any hard numbers, but my perception is the move from tackle to guard is relatively common. A lot of players might be athletic enough to play tackle in college but aren’t enough to play there in the pros. They might, however, be suited for guard.

You also will see college left tackles slide to right tackle in the pros. Some centers also slide to guard.

Other moves are less common. You might see a guard now and then who has the tools necessary to slide to center. There also are the college guards like Braden Albert with the tools to play tackle at the next level. In Albert’s case, his college team had NFL talent at left tackle blocking him from filling that role in school.

And sometimes players are just stuck at the wrong position in college. A lot of college coaches put their best athlete on the offensive line at left tackle no matter what.

Hopefully this explains a bit why you see some position changes on the pro level.