NFL offenses have never been more prolific than they are today. But despite scoreboards lighting up on Sundays and rule changes that are heavily slanted in favor of offenses, the performance of offensive line play is lacking.
There’s no denying that football looks different today than it did even a decade ago. The evolution of spread offenses has taken over the college football landscape, and while the NFL is adopting many of those concepts, the technical and physical side of offensive line play in the NFL is still worlds apart from college. Because of this, evaluating collegiate offensive linemen for the NFL has never been more difficult. For years, offensive linemen were often considered “safe picks” in the NFL Draft, but they are becoming increasingly risky.
At ACC Kickoff, I caught up with former NFL Pro Bowl offensive lineman Eric Wood, a former first-round draft pick who recently retired after nine seasons with the Buffalo Bills.
“In general, across the nation, offensive line play is down,” Wood said. “College spread offenses can hurt an offensive linemen’s draft prospects because they are doing things so differently from the NFL game. It becomes hard to compare apples to apples and determine how good a guy truly is going to be.”
Perhaps this is why the NFL Draft has experienced a 17 percent decrease in first-round offensive linemen when comparing the last five years to the five before that. That decrease climbs to a 37.5 percent dip when considering just offensive tackles over the same span.
One of the biggest adjustments for college blockers that come from a spread system is transitioning from run blocking in a two-point to rolling their hips into contact from a three-point stance. While the emphasis in college is often to establish body positioning to create running lanes, the NFL requires offensive linemen to move opponents against their will to create space in the run game. Wood spoke to the challenges of that transition:
“It can be really different,” Wood shared. “It’s tough on some guys while others develop the muscle memory more quickly. You have a long time to train between that last college game and the NFL. Even in college, you can be working your hand in the dirt if you're not at a college that necessarily puts their hand in the ground. But like anything - quarterbacks that have to move under center in the NFL that have been exclusively in the shotgun - it’s something you have to learn and it’s tough to identify who will pick things up faster than others.”
When discussing offensive linemen projecting to the NFL, it often requires blockers to switch sides of the formation. Many times, the position the blockers are accustomed to from college is already solidified on their new NFL team and the only course to seeing the field is flipping sides. Wood was quick to point out the work and challenges that goes into that transition.
“You have to practice it, honestly. It can be very tough to go from the left side to the right side or vice versa. If you are a one side guard or tackle, you’re training only certain muscle patterns going in a certain direction, and going the other way is very difficult.”
Some prospects are not only tasked with changing the side of the formation they are comfortable playing on, but completely switching positions. While players can fill certain roles at the college level, their skill set translates differently to the next level and it requires yet another adjustment. Speaking from experience, Wood was quick to point out how difficult it can be making transitions to a new position in the NFL.
“I played 49 straight games in college at center,” said Wood. “To go to the Bills and immediately switch to guard, I did have a summer to prepare so I spent time creating a lot of new muscle memory over that summer. I worked my tail off to try and learn the little nuances, but with each position comes a lot of little learned trades that can make someone great at a particular position. I felt like I knew enough of those at center going into my NFL career. Even in that first year and a half before I moved back to center, I always felt a bit more comfortable snapping the football.”
For many young offensive linemen in the NFL, the challenges compound. It’s no small task making the leap from college to the NFL, but doing so while learning new techniques, changing positions and/or flipping sides of the formation creates a demanding scenario.
While the progression of football has created high-flying offenses, it has never been more taxing for offensive linemen entering the league.