EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published on June 18, 2020. Feels relevant again now with the Eagles moving Jason Peters to left tackle and likely having Matt Pryor start at right guard.
ORIGINAL STORY BELOW.
After injuries ripped through the Eagles’ offense in 2019, the franchise and fanbase alike were looking forward to hitting the reset button and entering 2020 with the roster at full strength. That pipe dream lasted until last week, when star right guard Brandon Brooks announced that he had torn his Achilles tendon and would be out for the 2020 season.
So I guess now that news is out yes I tore my other Achilles but when life gives you lemons you make lemonade. I’ll be back and better than ever. Appreciate the love ✊— Brandon Brooks (@bbrooks_79) June 15, 2020
Brooks is an elite player and a key cog in one of the NFL’s best lines, and his loss is going to hurt. But the Eagles did get a look at their current contingency plan for a prolonged Brooks absence last season, as minor injuries from Brooks let backup Matt Pryor catch a few snaps at right guard. And suddenly, Pryor now looks like a starter on a 2020 Eagles offense with a ton of pressure to perform up to expectation.
Pryor was a sixth-round pick for the Eagles in the 2018 NFL Draft as a big-bodied offensive tackle out of TCU. Of course, the Eagles would drafted an even bigger body at offensive tackle one round later in Jordan Mailata, while alluding to Pryor’s guard background as a big contributor to the selection. Pryor was a teammate of Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who the Eagles had drafted in 2016, and had filled a rotational role as a backup at both guard and tackle; Pryor seemed to be in a similar mold.
The Eagles seem to like their big bodies at guard under Doug Pederson. They added Brandon Brooks (6-5, 335 pounds) in his first year to start at right guard and drafted Isaac Seumalo (6-4, 303 pounds) to eventually take over at left guard. They added Vaitai (6-6, 320 pounds) and Pryor (6-7, 332 pounds) to back up those spots.
It’s clear to see why the Eagles want to back up Brooks with size. The Eagles ask for far more double-teams and combo blocks from the right side of their line than they do the left, due to the unique blend of power and athleticism that the Brooks-Lane Johnson combo offers.
In honor of his contract extension, here's Brandon Brooks (and Lane Johnson) absolutely beating the snot out of the Chicago Bears on various double-teams pic.twitter.com/lZFuH9ewsm— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) November 11, 2019
To execute the same running concepts in the event of a Brooks injury, as was the case last season when Brooks dislocated his shoulder in Week 17 against the Giants, the Eagles needed a guard with tackle-like size and rolling power to win on those combo blocks. Enter Pryor.
The last play in that cut-up is particularly important. The Eagles love to run this same-side zone concept with the back set to the TE-Wing side, as it gives the great angles against the linebackers while pitting the back in space against corners and safeties. But it only works if you’re able to completely uproot that 3-technique that Pryor and Vaitai throw onto the turf. That’s where Lane and Brooks have been extremely successful in their time together in Philadelphia, and Pryor and Vaitai were able to win there as well.
Of course, Vaitai is in Detroit now. But if Pryor fills in for Brooks long-term at right guard, he’s shown in the few live reps he’s had in his young career that combo blocks in the running game aren’t going to be a problem. Pryor is long, strong, and violent with his hands, so in many head-up situations he holds his own. It’s the body positioning and timing that really makes Pryor effective on double-teams, as he understands how to work in tandem with teammates to create rolling displacement and open up huge running lanes.
The Eagles ask for more variety and adjustment from their offensive line than almost any team in the league. Their running game is extremely multiple and changes from week-to-week, if not from half-to-half. Pryor’s background at tackle from TCU actually helps him here, as he has a great head for angles and spacing, a product of his varied background along the offensive line. Pryor didn’t test very well at TCU’s Pro Day, but he’s actually a fairly brisk climber with enough juice to keep his balance and recover when challenged outside of his frame. He doesn’t bring the same athletic ability that Brooks does at his size, so the Eagles’ running game will be a little limited in that regard — but on an interior with Jason Kelce and Isaac Seumalo, Pryor can be protected from regular asks to climb to the second level and tag linebackers.
While there will be an inevitable dropoff in play from Brandon Brooks to, well, just about anyone else, Pryor is well-suited to keeping the Eagles’ running game humming.
But what about pass protection? When the Eagles drafted Pryor in 2018, I broke down some of his TCU film for BGN. At the time, I really liked Pryor’s potential as a developmental tackle and potential kick inside to guard. That discussion largely hinged on Pryor’s ability to develop his footwork and grow in his pass sets.
The biggest issue you see on Pryor’s tape from a results standpoint—not a trait or technique standpoint—is how frequently he loses the edge because of insufficient depth. Accustomed to playing on the inside, and unable to utilize a vertical set, Pryor regularly leaves the door open for outside rushers, despite the fact that he has the agility to establish good pocket depth.
This is a key issue. Practice reps at offensive tackle—mainly, the development of a vertical set—could make all the difference for Pryor, as he’ll be able to gain the appropriate depth and stop giving up the outside track so easily. If he establishes a vertical set—or even starts gaining better depth on his 45-degree set, which he’s not yet habituated to doing—he has a bright future at tackle. If he can’t, he’ll be stuck at guard.
We should take a moment to acknowledge that, when allowed to use the most aggressive set—the jump set—Pryor’s natural aggressiveness in terms of punch timing, power, and location re-appear. The jump set is as valid at guard as it is at tackle, and even gives big-time benefits when facing elite EDGEs at OT. Jason Peters uses the jump set at possibly the highest frequency of all NFL offensive tackles, and his technique therein is flawless.
Wherever he plays, Pryor’s jump set will prove a strength of his...It helps mitigate the concerns of his landmarks when gaining depth, and allows him to maximize his frame, reach, and power.
Fast forward two years, and Pryor never really got the crack at tackle that I would have liked to see back in 2018. But the guard alignment protects Pryor from having to solve his issues setting with appropriate depth...for the most part.
As I said of his TCU film, jump-setting lends itself to Pryor’s skillset. It allows him to land hands early on his opponents, and he has a great punch that has improved during his time in Philadelphia. He does well to break hands on bull-rushes and stymie rushes before they can get underway, regularly winning an armpit or a chest to latch and control his opponent.
At guard for the Eagles, Pryor is rarely able to truly jump set by coming hard and fast off the line, but he frequently drops into a shallow 45-degree set in which he looks to initiate contact as early as possible, to prevent rushers from generating build-up speed or angles that he’ll struggle to recover to.
This is where size and strength give a player such an advantage. Pryor doesn’t have nearly the balance or quickness of Brooks, but he does have 35 1/2” vines and a ton of stopping power in his paws. The radius that he’s able to influence allows him to throw rushers across gaps or bring them to a standstill on a power rush.
These aggressive sets, or at the least, the aggressive mindset, must continue to be a part of Pryor’s game. With his specific strengths as an oversized, powerful guard, dropping into deep sets and giving rushers two-way goes will leave him exposed to surrendering pressure. Here, there is major concern for Philadelphia.
Pryor’s snaps at right guard this year were all taken with Lane Johnson off the field, and with Vaitai at right tackle. Vaitai, a player of a similar mold to Pyror playing at right tackle, also used shallower sets more frequently, to try and take the fight to rushers early on the edge track before his average athletic ability was exposed in a race to the corner. But Johnson, perhaps more than any tackle in the league, loves to take deep vertical sets and meet rushers late on the edge track.
Johnson next to Pryor is going to create levels issues on the Eagles’ offensive line — you began to see such problems creep in with Pryor at guard even without Johnson on the field. When addressing stunts and certain blitzes, it’s critical that the relationship between the center, guard, and tackle on either side of the line present a smooth vertical surface so that no outside rush can dart into an interior gap and get a quick path to the quarterback. In other words, the offensive line has to relate to one another without losing their spacing against potential defensive line games.
With an aggressive setter at guard in Pryor, the B-gap can be pried open by defensive alignment and smart stems from potential rushers. You see that frequently here.
Now, a lot of these rushes have something to do with Vaitai, too — a better tackle can solve some of these problems. But the overarching point — that Pryor helps create the problem by failing to gain the appropriate depth on the snap — remains. There’s a sentiment traveling around Eagles Twitter: that playing between an All-Pro OC in Jason Kelce and an All-Pro OT in Lane Johnson should help Pryor. And it will. But it’s worth noting that good offensive lines are more so the product of their synergy than they are their talent. There’s a lot of different ways to play in the trenches, and if there isn’t harmony between your play styles on either side of the line, pressure will seep through the cracks.
Pryor represents a clear replacement-level option at right guard for the Eagles. If you take two totals games worth of film in which he only had one career start and extrapolate it positively with an offseason to prepare and a weekly gameplan catered to his strengths, there’s a good chance he keeps his head above water and we aren’t reminded weekly of the absence of Brandon Brooks. He’s going to give up more pressure and miss more blocks than Brooks — the Eagles’ running game off the right side won’t be as dominant — but with Pryor, the Eagles will be fine.
Could they do better than fine? Yes. With Larry Warford and Mike Person both still on the free agent market, the Eagles could very well grab a stopgap veteran and leave Pryor as the first man off the bench for the offensive line. They don’t need to, but they have the cap space and better free agent options than you typically see in mid-June.
But if they walk into 2020 with Pryor as the starter for the year, I’ll be just fine with that. Growth from Pryor into a starting-level player could very well help prepare the Eagles for Jason Kelce’s retirement, as Isaac Seumalo would kick into center. It’s his job to lose for now, and there’s reason to be excited about his opportunity with a full year of starting on the horizon.