(Ben Fennell is an Emmy Award-winning producer, editor and researcher across several media platforms, including the NFL Network and ESPN College Football. He worked with Mike Mayock on the NFL Network’s draft coverage for five years, and has worked the last two drafts with Daniel Jeremiah. You can follow him on Twitter at @benfennell_NFL. For the second straight year, Ben is breaking down each position in the draft for The Inquirer. Today, in part 4 of our eight-part series, he looks at the draft’s offensive line group.)
While the historically talented wide receiver class is getting all the buzz leading up to the April 23-25 NFL draft, the offensive tackle group also is extremely deep.
Three tackles figure to be among the draft’s first 10 picks and as many as six could go in the first round.
“If not for this legendary receiver group, the tackle group would be stealing the show and we would be talking about how legendary this group is,’’ said NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell.
“There’s all sorts of talent here. There’s top-end talent, like Jedrick Wills (Alabama), Mekhi Becton (Louisville), Tristan Wirfs (Iowa) and Andrew Thomas (Georgia).
“There’s back-end-of-the-first-round guys like Josh Jones (Houston), who was compared to (Hall of Famer) Walter Jones by former NFL offensive line coach Paul Alexander. He gave up just four pressures all year.
“And there’s all sorts of mid-round talent and developmental guys on Day 3. I could literally rattle off 20-25 names off the top of my head that will get drafted this year.’’
After taking Andre Dillard in the first round last year, there’s little chance the Eagles will take another tackle in the first round this year, particularly given their needs at other positions, including wide receiver.
But with 38-year-old Jason Peters not expected back and Halapoulivaati Vaitai gone and the jury still out on Jordan Mailata, the Eagles could be in the market for a potential backup swing tackle in the middle or late rounds.
While the tackle position is deep, the interior line class isn’t. Which likely will have a lot of teams that are looking for inside blocking help scrutinizing the tackle group for blockers that could be moved inside.
“There are only a couple of centers that I see getting drafted," Fennell said. "Cesar Ruiz (Michigan) should be a first- or second-round pick. But there just aren’t a lot of other really appealing center-guard options.
“There are some that are a little bit scheme-specific, like Solomon Kindley (Georgia) and Damian Lewis out of LSU. They’re more power guards. People-moving, vertical-displacement type of interior linemen.
“Because the tackle group is so deep, NFL line coaches might not have a problem sliding some of those guys into guard. Somebody like Clemson’s right tackle, Tremayne Anchrum. He’s 6-2, 310. He’s probably better-suited for guard at the next level because of his lack of height.’’
Jedrick Wills, Alabama, 6-4, 312, 5.05
Tristan Wirfs, Iowa, 6-5, 320, 4.85
Andrew Thomas, Georgia, 6-5, 315, 5.22
Josh Jones, Houston, 6-5, 319, 5.27
Mekhi Becton, Louisville, 6-7, 364, 5.1
Arms: 34 ¼ inches
Hands: 10 inches
40-time: 5.05 seconds
VJ: 34.5 inches
225 Bench: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Wills held down the right tackle position for a left-handed quarterback at Alabama. So that was the blind side. For that reason, I don’t buy the he-only-played-on-the-right-side criticism with this kid. Plus, there are a lot of great pass-rushers that come off the right side in the NFL. There’s a reason the Eagles are content to leave Lane Johnson over there.
“Wills lived up to the hype. He was the No. 1 tackle in the country coming out of high school. A five-star recruit. He was a backup as a freshman, then the full-time right tackle the past two years. He reminds me a lot of (Washington’s) Trent Williams. He’s a good athlete with good play-strength. He’s got a good frame and size and length. His hands are really tight. He’s a good combo-block guy. He can really grip and control at torque strength.
“The biggest knock on him was he gave kind of questionable effort at times and didn’t always play to the whistle, didn’t always look for work or hustle downfield. But that kind of stuff can be coached out of you. He occasionally can overset. But he has the ability to recover, which is great in the NFL. Things are going to go wrong. You have to be able to get out of a bad situation, which he has the ability to do. Because he has such strong hands, he can kind of cut off that inside move when he does overset.
“He’s played a lot of good edge-rushers in the SEC. He’s a little bit better run-blocker right now than a pass-blocker. He’s a bit more of a people mover than a finesse, mirror-you guy. But he’s got a big upside.’’
Round projection: 1
Arms: 35 5/8 inches
Hands: 10 ¾ inches
40-time: 5.1 seconds
225 Bench: 23 reps
Fennell’s take: “This is one huge man. He ran 5.1, which is impressive for a guy that size. It’s easy to do comps for him because only so many people on the planet are that big. So you’re talking Orlando Brown, Cordy Glenn, Max Starks, and Leonard Davis, and that’s about it.
“He plays like Big V (Halapoulivaati Vaitai). He’s bigger than V, but he plays a lot like him. I don’t know if you remember when the Browns were on Hard Knocks a couple of years ago and (ex-Eagle linebacker) Mychal Kendricks had to stand up in front of the team and give them a scouting report on different players on the Eagles. He mentioned V and said you can’t get around him. He doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, but he’s so big you can’t get around him.
“Same with Becton. You know how the Eagles’ tackles have that violent kick-out that Jeff Stoutland teaches? Well, Becton plays so far back already, there’s no depth to get. He’s already out there. He doesn’t have to fly out. His foot’s already there. You can’t get around this guy. He’s square, so he’s ready for twists. He’s ready for inside moves. His arms are so big, you can’t get around him. The issue is on run plays. So there’s going to be some technique stuff to deal with.
“He’s proven to be a lighter athlete than people thought. He ran that 5.1 and looked good in the position drills at the combine. He wasn’t used to a lot in space at Louisville. So I think scouts are starting to get a little bit more of a well-maybe attitude about him. That’s why I put him as my riser.
“I know a lot of people really like Becton. But he’s just a little too scheme-specific for me. I like the flexibility of having an athletic, loose guy on the edge. I want my tackles to be able to play out on the perimeter. I want David Bakhtiari. I want Lane Johnson. Becton is 364. You’re not going to get him out on the edge very often. Is he going to be able to do anything in the screen game for you? Probably not.
“But he is massive. Did I mention that you cannot get around this guy? He’s not for everybody. But he’s good at what he does if that’s your scheme. He’s a lot like Andre Dillard in that you watch him and you don’t see anything that really knocks your socks off. Then you realize he just pitched a shutout for three games.’’
Round projection: 1
Arms: 36 5/8 inches
Hands: 9 ½ inches
40 time: 5.06 seconds
VJ: 30 inches
225 Bench: 26 reps
Fennell’s take: “Peart played on both sides at UConn. He reminds me a lot of D’Brickashaw Ferguson. He has that basketball-player profile. He has a very angular frame. He’s got the wide shoulders into a tight waist. He looks lean. He doesn’t have any jiggle on him. He’s not a fat guy.
“The one issue with those basketball guys is they just don’t have great play-strength. It’s just the way basketball guys train. The way their torsos develop. You don’t have a whole lot of butt. But he’s got really light feet and loose hips. He can mirror and dance with you. He likes to play out on the edge. He pulled a ton in the run game. He’s rarely on the ground. He’s a really balanced player. He’s a good combo blocker. So anything with athleticism is his forte – the screen game, combo blocks, running the arc against speed rushers.
“But he needs to get stronger. He’s just got no butt. He’s got no nasty. But there have been other guys like that that have come into the league with higher pedigrees, like Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson and Joe Staley. And they’ve managed to make very successful transitions.’’
Round projection: 4
Cesar Ruiz, Michigan, 6-3, 307, 5.08
Lloyd Cushenberry, LSU, 6-4, 312, 5.27
John Simpson, Clemson, 6-4, 321, 5.24
Tyler Biadasz, Wisconsin, 6-4, 314, N/A
Netane Muti, Fresno, 6-3, 315, N/A
Arms: 33 1/8 inches
Hands: 11 inches
40 time: 5.08 seconds
VJ: 33.0 inches
225 Bench: 28 reps
Fennell’s take: “Ruiz is a South Jersey kid who went to the IMG Academy in Florida like a lot of top high school kids. He was a four-star recruit. He’s a center, but also played some right guard in his career. He reminds me a lot of Rodney Hudson. Right handed snapper. Pulls quite a bit. Really good on combo blocks. Gets good initial contact on double teams and getting movement on defensive tackles. He’s rarely on the ground.
“In a year with a down interior line class, Ruiz feasibly could go at the back end of the first round. Whoever needs that center of the future, he’s definitely the clear-cut No. 1 guy. He’s really athletic. He’s really a complete center.
"He’s the type of guy who, if he’s sitting there at 30 or 31, somebody might trade up to get him. There’s not many like him on Day 2 of the draft. That’s why guys get pushed up in round 1. Because the collective position group isn’t deep. You have to go get them while they’re there.’’
Round projection: 1-2
Arms: 34 1/8 inches
Hands: 10 3/8 inches
40 time: 5.27 seconds
225 Bench: 25 reps
Fennell’s take: “Cushenberry was a graduated senior. He was given the prestigious No. 18 jersey at LSU this year. Obviously, being an offensive lineman, he couldn’t wear it in games. So he could only wear it in practice.
“He had some brutal, brutal double teams with his right guard, Damian Lewis. He played really well this year, including in the national championship game. Then he showed up at the Senior Bowl and played well.
“He’s like a lot of those other LSU players, including Edwards-Helaire and Moss, whose trajectory has just continued to rise through the year and into the pre-draft phase. The conversation most of the year was just dominated by Joe Burrow. But people eventually opened their eyes to the play of Cushenberry and the rest of the offensive line and the skill people.
“Nobody gave love to this offensive line. But they did a great job all season long. Played a lot of good football against top competition and Cushenberry was a big reason for that. In a down interior line class, I can see him being the second or third center off the board."
Round projection: 3
University of Louisiana
225 Bench: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Dotson probably was the No. 1 combine snub. I’m not sure why he wasn’t invited, but he could’ve really helped himself in Indy. The fact that he never got a chance to work out for scouts at a Pro Day hurt him even more. Dotson was a first-team All-American. He played really well in combination with his right tackle, Robert Hunt. The two were a dominant force on the right side. Dotson has good quickness. He’s powerful. He’s a people mover. He has tremendous grip strength. He’s just a mauling type of interior player who is going to get grabbed in the late rounds and open people’s eyes in training camp.’’