Continuing the evaluation of talented prospects in April’s draft, I stay in the trenches of southern California with a look at USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil. Matt is the younger brother of Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil and he has a very bright career ahead, which will start when he is one of the top draft picks of 2012.

Kalil is the highest rated prospect at his position by most scouts and draftniks, and for good reason. He has marvelous and rare physical talent that enables him to execute tasks at a higher level than many others. Along with this, he’s a great fit for the modern NFL offense–which has gone from under center 21 personnel to shotgun spread formations in recent years–because of his ability to mirror pass rushers and keep them off the quarterback in the passing game.

Kalil’s talent is built on several characteristics, which include but are not limited to the size, athleticism and power that scouts seek. Below are some more characteristics that I’ve identified as crucial to the evaluation of offensive tackles, and specifically Kalil.

Size 

Offensive tackles come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from 6’3″ to 6’8″ and anywhere between 300 to 340 pounds, but there are still deep-rooted standards that scouts have set. Typically, scouts will look to find offensive tackles around 6’5″ and 310 to 315 pounds, which is about where Kalil fits in.

Kalil is expected to check in at roughly 6’6″ and around 310 pounds. That expected check-in weight would be an increase from his playing weight, which was said to be around 295 pounds. This weight increase in the months leading up to the NFL Combine can be viewed as a red flag if the weight appears to be water-based. However, this is not the case for Kalil, as he’s spent several days at the API center in Phoenix, Arizona working with a nutritionist on a diet plan to increase his weight, according to his Sporting News diary.

This increase of weight is important to note because it is something that he needed to do, in my opinion, to give him a greater chance of succeeding at the next level at several aspects of the game, such as run blocking.

Flexibility and Balance

The flexibility of an offensive tackle is an integral part of the evaluation and projection of the prospect to the next level. There are two big question that must be asked with an offensive linemen: where does he bend? And does he bend at the waist or at the knees?

If he bends at his waist, he’s going to have issues with his pad level, explosiveness, control and leg drive (power).

However, if he bends at the knees, it is a big difference in play, as all the aforementioned characteristics do not become problematic, and that immediately gives the prospect a better chance of playing at a high level with consistency.

In Kalil’s case, he naturally bends at the knees, which gives him the ability to play with a flat back (quality pad level) and control. The aspect of control is vital because the player has to play with balance and not get caught leaning or “lunging” (bending at the waist and reaching).

Athleticism

With NFL offenses implementing a significant amount of zone blocking schemes and concepts, offensive linemen are forced to make blocks at the second level to spring the ball carrier for a larger gain.

An example of an offensive lineman’s responsibility can be seen when he is uncovered by a defender. When this is the case, he has to administer a combination block with his teammate to the play-side and then slip to the next level to block a linebacker.

This is something that Kalil did multiple times in his collegiate career, executing slip blocks at the second level with ease as well as springing out to the flats to block a moving defensive back who is attempting to tackle the pass catcher. Kalil is light on his feet and changes directions with ease, blocking both down the line of scrimmage (down blocks) and in-space (second level).

Foot and Hand Quickness 

Quick feet are said to be a must at every skill position and it is no exception in the trenches, where offensive linemen must show off their agility by sliding their feet around in tight areas to mimic the movements of pass rushers.

Kalil’s foot quickness, which is seen when he fires out from his kick-slide at the snap of the ball as well as once he’s encountered a rusher, is on par with some of the best in recent time, as he’s able to slide and mirror defenders consistently without any issues. He also shows the ability to quickly set his feet and open his hips in the process of mirroring. However, one minor issue that he has at times is that he doesn’t keep his shoulders squared in the process of mirroring, which will results in him leaving an opening to an inside path to the quarterback.

While quick feet are very important to an offensive tackle’s pass blocking skills, they are not the only traits that the blocker must have. He must also show that he has quick hands that can be brought up off the hips and up into the breast plates of pass rushers. It is important to see how a blocker gets his hands up. Is it straight from the hips up, or is there a windup?

In Kalil’s case, it can be both. When he fires out with his hands compact near his chest, he is able to get them up and out with his elbows locked out without any problems.

However, problems arise when his hands are near his hip area and he’s then forced to bring them up and out. The issue here is that he has a wind-up when attempting to reach the pass rusher because he creates an orbit like motion by extending his arms out from his sides before finally getting inside the breast pads of the defender. This will be a problem at the next level if it is not resolved because pass rushers will see it and get inside of his chest, thus enabling them to control him with an advantage in leverage — something that often was not the case in college because of Kalil’s arm length.

Footwork

Kalil’s footwork, and specifically his base, is something that must be highlighted. The base is created by the blocker when he widens his feet to what should be shoulder width, and he’s then able to sit in that base with power. This is done at the snap of the ball when the blocker executes his initial footwork, the kick-slide.

Once the kick-slide is done, the blocker’s footwork creates a base, which allows the player to play with balance and power. This is often done effectively by Kalil, but there are instances in which he will widen his outside foot too much — past shoulder width — which causes him to lose balance and power.

Anchor 

Kalil’s ability to anchor is interesting. He shows the ability to anchor with enough power when his base is properly setup. This is impressive and surprising in my opinion because, as noted earlier, he did not possess great mass this season, tipping the scales around 295 pounds during the season.

He still needs to improve in his lower body, specifically the buttocks area, which typically should be bigger than Kalil’s rear. A strong buttocks or “bubble” allows the blocker to sit in his stance with great power, and it provides power through the rest of the lower body in run blocking, something that Kalil should look to improve as well. He needs to move defenders more than he does now.

Pad Level

Kalil’s pad level is very good in pass blocking because of several factors. One is the previously mentioned knee bending that he displays when blocking. With his bending being executed at the knees instead of his hips, he’s able to play with a flat back  and his shoulders over his feet, which allows him to be balanced and under control.

Kalil’s run blocking can be an issue because he doesn’t look to take control of the defender with aggression. Instead he constantly punches them with his fists and doesn’t truly gain a leverage advantage.

Pad level is an important part of being a lineman on both sides of the line because it decides whether the blocker or rusher will have the advantage at the point of attack. If the lineman is knocked back and ends up being “too tall” in his pad level, he will have his chest exposed and will be vulnerable to a bulrush. However, if he wins at the point of attack, he neutralizes the pass rusher, who is then forced to work to his counter move — a win for the blocker.

Hand Use

Regardless of the position an offensive lineman plays in the trenches, he has to be able to use his hands at a very high level or he will quickly be exposed.

Kalil’s strength is pass blocking, and his hand use is strong as he looks to initially punch the defender at the point of attack before getting his hands on him and riding him wide of the pocket. This is done with a combination of quick feet that allow him to mirror the defender.

In contrast, Kalil’s run blocking is not as strong as his pass blocking. While he executes basic blocks effectively, such as attacking the inside shoulder of the defensive lineman on a kick-out block, he doesn’t excel at all times at the second level. He’ll slip off of blocks and fall to the ground, and he often doesn’t get his hands inside of the defender, which allows the defender to disengage and continue downhill.

Overall

All things considered, Kalil is one of the best overall prospects and tops at his position in the 2012 NFL draft because of his superior physical abilities.

While he hasn’t filled out his frame yet and he doesn’t have great technique at all times, he still possesses great potential for the next level and should become a franchise’s cornerstone. He constantly has his head on a swivel and appears to absorb coaching well, which is one of many reasons why I expect him to be a top five pick in April’s draft.