— They could have hung a sign 81 inches off the ground during the offensive tackle workouts at the NFL Combine reading: “You Must Be This Tall to Enter.”
Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi and Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo each measured in at 6-foot-7. Colorado’s Nate Solder stands a whopping 6-foot-8 1/4. Standing among these oak trees, hulking men like Villanova’s Ben Ijalana (6-foot-3 5/8) looked almost shrimpy. Carimi and the other tall tackles appeared more ready for the frontcourt than the NFL front lines.
It’s unusual to see this many 6-foot-7-plus tackles at the top of the draft class. No offensive tackle taller than 6-foot-6 has been selected in the first round of the draft since the Dolphins selected Jake Long in 2008. There are some successful tall tackles in the NFL, including Long and 6-foot-8 Phil Loadholt of the Vikings, but top prospects usually fit a mold, and that mold has a doorway clearance of about six-and-a-half feet.
One look at Carimi, Castonzo, and Solder tells you that they are gifted athletes, and there’s plenty to like on their game film, too: these are big men who can move. But careful film study also shows why there’s a downside to being so far above the ground.
Watching tape of the top tackle prospects made me wonder: how tall is too tall?
Low man wins
When California beat Colorado last September, the Golden Bears often isolated 5-foot-11, 215-pound linebacker Jarred Price against Solder. Price had a speed advantage on Solder, but there was more to it. On one Price strip-sack, Solder established contact with the linebacker several yards away from quarterback Tyler Hansen and should have flattened him. But Price kept his forearms below Solder’s and delivered a blow to Solder’s midsection and out-leveraged the blocker. As a result, Price steered Solder out of his way, despite a 100+ pound disadvantage.
It was a simple example of “low man wins,” a fundamental principle of the trenches. If you want to control your opponent, keep everything low -- your hands, arms, and most of all your hips/center of gravity. For a man Solder’s size, staying low is easier said than done.
One scout I spoke to in Indianapolis said that diminishing returns kick in once an offensive lineman reaches the dimensions of an NBA power forward. “They have to keep working to bend at the knees, to not pop up at the snap,” he said. “They can’t ever let up on their technique.” Popping up is another of Solder’s problems. Against Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith (6-foot-5), he could be seen standing straight up at the snap, allowing Smith to deliver blows to his torso and get inside him for hurries. A tall blocker standing straight-legged is little more than a rag doll for an elite pass rusher.
Several of this year’s tall tackles are not just long, but lean. Castonzo has a classic lineman’s build, with a lot of mass in his thighs and butt, but Carimi and Solder have relatively narrow trunks. Their “high cut” bodies create even more leverage issues. Carimi, in particular, gets too narrow when run blocking: defenders can turn him sideways and slide around him. Carimi is so strong and athletic that teams will be willing to work with him to perfect his technique, but his size may never convert to NFL strength.
The trigonometry of pass rushing
So Solder got beat by a 5-foot-11 linebacker. He won’t face any of those in the pros, right?
Don’t be so sure. The Patriots were very creative about exploiting mismatches last season, using cornerbacks and safeties as on-the-line pass rushers who could get under and around blockers’ pads. Charles Woodson’s success in Green Bay will turn the slot-cornerback blitz into an NFL fad. Offenses will use running backs and tight ends to neutralize those small, quick blitzers, but with three or four of them coming from one side, that big left tackle will have to take on somebody.
Even when heads-up on a defensive end, the tall tackle faces a unique problem. Robert Mathis of the Colts is just 6-foot-2, but he plays even shorter in the pass rush. On NFL Network, Mike Mayock spent Combine week praising the angles at which defenders like Mathis torque their bodies when turning to attack the quarterback. Mathis can twist upfield with his body at a 47 degree angle to the ground. Do a little trigonometry (74 inches time the sine of a 47 degree angle) and you get 54.1 inches: Mathis is essentially 4-foot-6 with his body at such a tight angle. Try getting low on that!
Mayock mentioned North Carolina’s Robert Quinn as a defensive end who can do what Mathis does -- get low so fast that a blocker cannot control him. Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan is another pass-rush prospect who can out-leverage his blocker. The mathematics of the pass rush usually finds blockers facing defenders an inch or two shorter than them; pass blocking techniques are designed for that geometry. Change the height difference to four or five inches, and the blocker’s increased size can be negated by leverage and logistics.
Too much can be made of the stay-low concept, of course. Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn was upset that he only measured 6-foot-2 at the Combine, asserting that he is truly 6-foot-3. When I asked him if being a little shorter might work to a defender’s advantage, he chuckled. “Maybe if you’re Dwight Freeney,” he said. Given the choice, every NFL team wants players who are both big and fast. But keep in mind that “tall” is not quite the same as “big.”
Height certainly has its advantages for an offensive tackle. Long arms can steer pass rushers away from the quarterback and keep those shorter guys from getting under the blocker’s pads. “Carimi can really lock out with his arms,” the scout told me. “These guys can control [defenders] with their arms and put them on the ground.”
Successful NFL tackles like Long use their long arms to fend off defenders, making them take wider paths to the quarterback.
Height also brings the potential for weight. Loadholt plays at around 345 pounds and 6-foot-7. Chargers tackle Marcus McNeill weighs over 330 pounds. Indeed, Jonathan Ogden was a perennial All Pro at 6-foot-9, but he weighed 345 pounds, with much of that ballast in his thighs, hips, and butt. Weight, and weight distribution, is an important factor when assessing a tall offensive tackle, which is why the thickly-build Castonzo looks like a better prospect to me than Solder or Carimi, at least in shorts and warm-up gear. He has the frame to pack on 10 more pounds of muscle in his lower body, which can compensate for any leverage lost to height.
Some lower-profile linemen (if you’ll pardon the expression) are closer fits to recent tackle success stories like Roger Saffold of the Rams (6-foot-5, 318 pounds) and Brandon Albert of the Chiefs (6-foot-5, 316 pounds). Villanova’s Ijalana is three inches shorter than the big guys, but his arms (36 inches) are longer than Carimi’s, Solder’s, or Castonzo’s. That gives him the wingspan scouts crave, but none of the leverage worries.
Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod, who measured 6-foot-5 3/8 and 321 pounds, is an even better mold fit. Sherrod is “an inch or two shorter than a lot of this year's tackles, and you see the difference in the way he's able to get under pads,” wrote Yahoo’s Doug Farrar, who also told me that Sherrod is also the only top tackle in the draft without a “howling technical weakness.” When I asked Sherrod if being a little shorter gave him an advantage, he acknowledged that it helps him “get up under people” a little bit. “You know what we say: ‘low man wins,’” he added.
Sherrod is still behind Carimi and the others on most draft boards.
Come April, the “low man” who wins may be the general manager at the end of the first round who plucks Sherrod off the board after the tall timber is taken.