The offensive tackle: Quite arguably the premier position in the NFL behind quarterback. Every year, NFL teams spend premium draft picks and bevies of cap space on securing premier tackle talent. Schematically, the tackle is arguably less valuable than interior linemen, but the brand of athlete needed to function at offensive tackle is so rare, a premium is put on those who can play the position at even a competent level.
The philosophies that frame how offensive tackles should be used or what type is normally successful differ across the league and evaluators. There are many who pine for the quick-footed technicians; Jake Matthews, Luke Joekel and Matt Kalil are tackles that were taken in the top five in recent drafts for their outstandingly quick feet and consistent hand placement and proprioceptive ability. However, there are many in the league who prefer the long, strong and mean offensive tackle; Greg Robinson, DJ Fluker, La’el Collins and Cordy Glenn are players who come to mind. Maybe these players were inconsistent in their technique, but the attitude that the brought to every play maximized natural strength and allowed these players to bully defenders. Ideally, a team would love to find a mixture of both, but it is rare that a prospect comes along with that blend of polish, athletic ability, strength and attitude.
It is interesting to look at these players now, because none of them are exactly dominant players. While each play has either had his moments or stretches of solid play, their weaknesses are exposed. However the stronger, "meaner" offensive tackles often have a much gentler learning curve. I have touched on it before, but the type of athlete in NFL defensive lines is truly special and it takes a certain physical and mental toughness to come out 75 snaps a game, swinging at the defender across from you. The tackles who are fortified by their natural size and strength look to attack offensive linemen, whereas the quick footed, "finesse" tackles often look to control and divert defenders. Thus, they usually depend on relative athletes in college to beat defenders and when that gap of ability closes, the finesse linemen usually ends up being nothing but a player who can move in space, yet rarely take control of defenders.
This dichotomy is perfectly embodied in the top two offensive tackles in the 2016 NFL draft: Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss and Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame.
Ronnie Stanley, the diplomat.
Stanley is outstandingly fun to watch move. His ability to kick and slide on the perimeter is a work of art. He feet move quickly and eloquently, never looking sloppy with any wasted movement or misplaced steps. In pass protection, Stanley perfectly mirrors edge defenders, showing a great understanding of his opponent in space as well his own body. In the running game, those same quick feet and awareness make him an incredibly effective run blocker. Be it in pass protection or run blocking, Stanley does an excellent job positioning his body to wall off defenders. He embodies finesse and technique.
Unfortunately, his game lacks a "bang".
Every play, it feels like Stanley is trying to negotiate with a defender. He does an excellent job getting to a spot, but he tries to purely win on positioning and quickness. Rarely, if ever, does he want to knock a defender on his ass, rather he just wants to quietly escort him out of the play. This is a style I have seen before with Jake Matthews, Luke Joekel, Matt Kalil and other similar athletes, and it is a style that worries me. While I do think Stanley is a better athlete than those aforementioned and possesses better natural strength, I see him try to win consistently on quickness. When he gets to the NFL, he will be exposed to a special sort of violence in NFL trenches, a sort of violence that Stanley does not know how to possess yet. However, his co-star in the 2016 class knows exactly what type of ferocity it takes to play offensive line…
Laremy Tunsil, the heavyweight fighter.
Tunsil is a very good athlete. He does not quite have the light feet of his Fighting Irish peer, but the 6-5, 305 pounder can definitely scoot. More importantly, Tunsil is mean. He has long arms, heavy hands and the will to use them. His punch can disrupt rushers in the most devastating kind of way and he completely erase a defender from the moment the ball is snapped. He does a great job using his long arms to reach defenders on the edge. His feet are sloppy at times, often hurting his initial move off the snap, but he does a great job recovering. He has a never-ending fight in him on every play and will block relentlessly through the whistle. That is incredibly important. Tunsil is at the top of his game when a team is running the ball, as he is a one man wrecking crew coming downhill. He will embarassa and emasculate defenders for four quarters.
Tunsil is not without technical flaws, as he can get sloppy with his feet and hands and can be caught off guard with speed. However, no issue he has is unfixable. His most impressive feat was basically coming off the bench after weeks of sitting due to an NCAA investigation to block the most athletic defender in the country, TAMU’s Myles Garrett and keeping him quiet for most of the game. Tunsil is a freak of a player and who he is above the shoulders gives him truly special potential.
NFL Comparisons: Stanley reminds me a lot of Tyron Smith when he first came into the league. Smith was an incredible athlete, but it took some time for the then 20-year-old smith to grow into his body and develop a nastiness. Both Stanley and Smith are incredible athletes with excellent movement skills, but both needed/need to learn and develop their own strength. Of course, Smith has grown into one of the elite linemen in the league and that takes a certain amount of projection with Stanley. Realistically, Stanley immediately comes into the league as a Jake Matthews type, who is actually having a strong season this year, but had an incredibly rough rookie year as he got adjusted to the game.
On the other hand, despite some flaws, Tunsil strikes me as the type who will be an excellent player from day one. He will have his hiccups, as any young player is wont to do, but he has an NFL skillset now. He has an NFL mindset now. He steps onto the field as a Trent Williams type, but he has the potential to be the next Jon Ogden.
Either player fits in Philadelphia’s offense, but I prefer Tunsil by a bit. Winning in the trenches is a war of attrition, and Tunsil is built to fight that war right now. He will beat away at defenders and degrade them physically throughout the game, so when that fourth quarter roles around, no one wants to face him. Stanley does not really do that, although he absolutely can develop that, as tackles have in the NFL. Both are surefire top ten picks, but Laremy Tunsil is the type of player I would take first overall and not blink.