The Chicago Bears raised some eyebrows on the first day of the draft when they selected Oregon offensive lineman Kyle Long with their No. 20 overall pick. It was a surprise to some, those who immediately called it a “reach” without understanding the thought process behind it. General manager Phil Emery did a thorough press conference detailing why the organization liked Long, citing his versatility and athleticism. Along with those two traits, Long also brings upside to the team, creating a combination that all GMs look for in their first-round picks.
In Emery’s press conference, he went into extensive detail when asked about Long’s athleticism. He cited an “athletic index score” or “A-score” that the team used to gauge how athletic Long really is, and what they found in the data that spans decades is that he has rare, top five all-time athleticism. His athleticism scored a nine on the test, which is the highest grade a player can receive, according to Emery.
It’s debatable whether Long is that athletic or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me considering how much more athletic players get every year. One thing that’s obvious from Emery’s conference is that he does use metrics (“analytics”) and does a fine job of marrying it to film study, which still stands above all in evaluation. And when one looks at the film, they find a very athletic and versatile lineman who is still learning how to play the game, but can do anything that will be asked of him by new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.
We still don’t entirely know what Kromer will ask of Long, but we can get an idea of it by watching his lines over the years with the New Orleans Saints. A few things that stood out from his time in New Orleans is that all three interior offensive linemen work in unison, blocking defensive/nose tackles, and the offensive tackles are almost left on an island. They are asked to hold their own in pass protection, but usually after receiving help from a chipping running back or tight end or even a slot receiver. Once the chip is done on a defensive end, the tackles then are left one-on-one with the ends.
As for Kromer’s run blocking scheme, he uses zone blocking because the Saints used zone stretch concepts. It’s uncertain if that’s what will be installed in Chicago, but it would make sense to install at least the outside zone stretch, considering how dynamic running back Matt Forte is when he gets out to the sideline and into the open field. If Kromer uses zone blocking heavily in Chicago, it would be a great fit for Long, who has experience in it from his time in Oregon and is athletic enough to administer the combination blocks from a guard position, where he’s slated to start.
At Oregon, Long showed his athleticism on combination blocks on several occasions. One of the occasions came against Arizona State last season, when he played tackle and was able to clear out a huge running lane for a running back. The play call was an inside zone read, and because Long is the uncovered lineman — meaning he has no defensive lineman lined up across or beside him — he has to help the play-side teammate block the defensive end and then get out to the second level to demolish a linebacker. He does just that when he gets his left arm and shoulder on the end while keeping his eyes up to see the linebacker.
Once he briefly slows down the end, Long is quickly able to get to the near linebacker and use the defender’s momentum to ride him opposite of the direction of the play. This is the goal of a zone-blocking scheme; the line needs to block the defenders “down” and in the direction opposite of the run.
As the play unfolds, Long shows his athleticism and strength by pinning the linebacker toward the sideline and driving him out of the play entirely. A gaping alley ensues, giving the running back plenty of space to run once a cutback has been made.
What’s impressive about Long is not just that he’s able to get out and block defenders, it’s how he does it. He’s very smooth sliding his feet around and looks comfortable in space, whether he’s zone blocking or pulling.
Speaking of pulling, it’s something that he also did at Oregon and that he’ll likely do in Chicago because of Forte’s aforementioned excellence in space. Long is very good at pulling because he has the flexibility to change directions and bend his knees, and as you’ll see in this next illustration, he can drop his weight to execute a cut block.
Oregon’s playing USC this time around, and Long is playing guard. The play call is a quick toss to the offense’s left, where Long will be pulling and lead blocking for the running back. What he’s looking to do is intersect the path of the near linebacker, who will be scraping over the formation and looking to blow up the play, and take him to the ground.
At the snap, Long moves freely and fluidly, wrapping around the left end of the formation and targeting the play-side linebacker. As he nears the defender, he lowers his pads, turns his right shoulder to him, drops his weight and slides to take the defender out.
The ball-carrier then continues outside and runs for a first down. Long’s athletic block makes this play successful and likely caught the eye of the Bears scouts because it’s the type of block that supports the high A-score that they gave.
Moreover, the big question in the Windy City this offseason has been how the Bears will protect Jay Cutler in 2013. Last year, they didn’t really protect him at all and it cost them games, but that’s expected to change now. They fortified their line by signing Jermon Bushrod to play left tackle and have obviously drafted Long to presumably play left guard. But many are still concerned about how the line will hold up because despite the addition of Long, he’s relatively new to the position.
It’s true, he hasn’t played the position long, but he appears to be a smart player and isn’t as raw as some say. He does need to clean up his footwork, and he occasionally over-extends his arms. But he has the athleticism to compensate for those issues while he improves them. He slides his feet well and can bend his knees to anchor down. Here’s one example.
In the same game against USC described earlier, Long is playing left guard once again and at the snap, he’s matched up with a USC defender. It’s a one-on-one battle, and once he engages with the defender, Long lowers his rear, bends his knees, and establishes a wide base with his feet that makes it hard to move him.
The defender then tries to rush outside to Long’s left, and has no success once again. Long is quick to slide his feet laterally, turn his hips and bend his knees while still keeping his hands active.
If you’re not convinced yet, watch the following clip at the 3:16 mark when Long is playing left guard. He withstands the initial surge from the defensive end and then slides his feet parallel to the line of scrimmage while masterfully keeping his hands up and active.
Strictly from a film study view, it’s not common that an offensive lineman moves the way Long does. He has athleticism and flexibility and even a little bit of nastiness to his game that coaches look for. It’s precisely why Emery made Long the No. 20 overall selection despite many clamoring that it was a reach and a character risk (Long has a DUI on record).
Eventually, Emery or his doubters will be proven right. But for now, it’s hard to criticize a pick that offers upside, rare traits (according to Emery) and is a schematic fit.