Lane Johnson, the No. 5 pick in 2013, started his first game at right tackle for Philadelphia against Washington in the early Monday night game of Week 1. D.J. Fluker, the 11th pick, got his first start for San Diego against Houston in the late game. He, too, lined up on the right side. Johnson played well enough to help his team get a tough divisional road win, and Fluker learned just how hard it is to win on Sundays (or, in this case, Mondays). Each player had his ups and downs.
Unlike with most teams, the Eagles’ right tackle protects the quarterback’s blind side because QB Michael Vick is left-handed. Johnson handled this awesome responsibility well for the most part. He appeared confused at times and missed a blitz pickup early, but he held his own working against talented Washington OLB Ryan Kerrigan. Johnson took away the edge with his above-average first-step quickness and did an adequate job of holding his ground against speed to power. Although he was disruptive at times, Kerrigan did most of his damage when he worked inside.
As a run-blocker, Johnson didn’t blow anyone off the line. He did, however, ride defenders down the line whether he lined up at right tackle or inside left tackle Jason Peters when Philadelphia went with an unbalanced front. As expected, he also showed good range and did a nice job of getting into position at the second level.
Johnson’s athletic ability makes him an excellent fit for an Eagles scheme that requires its offensive linemen to move well laterally, reach blockers in space and handle a breakneck pace. He would also fit in well with Washington's and Houston's zone-heavy schemes we saw Monday night for the same reasons.
One area in which Johnson can improve is aggressiveness. A more violent punch would have kept Kerrigan’s hands down on the backward pass that Kerrigan tipped and the Redskins returned for a touchdown. He also can look for another defender to hit when he slips off his initial block.
As daunting as it is for a rookie making his first start to face Kerrigan on the road, Fluker faced an even more formidable task working against a talented Texans defensive front that stars the best defensive lineman in the game, DE J.J. Watt. Fluker didn’t have the advantage of a high-tempo offense wearing Watt & Co. down, either.
Watt is an elite hand fighter with rare lateral quickness for a man his size, and he regularly exposed one of Fluker’s biggest weaknesses -- a tendency to lunge. He would simply toss Fluker aside and shoot into the backfield when he saw Fluker duck his head. If he can learn to play with better balance and sink his hips more, Fluker won’t whiff as much or spend as much time on the ground.
In fairness to Fluker, it’s not as if it was all gloom and doom. He showed he can match Watt's power as a run-blocker and in pass protection when his technique is sound. Additionally, he showed good upper-body strength and used his long arms to consistently ride Texans OLB Brooks Reed past the pocket.
Fluker is a traditional right offensive tackle in that he can move big bodies off the ball as a run-blocker but has physical limitations that athletic edge rushers can expose one-on-one. He fits well in a Chargers offense that mixes in power blocking schemes and likes to take shots downfield off play-action.
Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews are two offensive tackle prospects who project as first-round picks and compare more favorably to Johnson than they do to Fluker. The prospects playing in the Tide-Aggies game Saturday will get plenty of coverage from us this week, so here are two 2014 offensive prospects who compare more favorably to Fluker than Johnson.
Tennessee OT Antonio Richardson
At 6-foot-6, 327 pounds, Richardson is a mauling run-blocker who overwhelms smaller defenders and flashes the ability to dominate the point with above-average natural strength. Average foot speed lowers the cap on his upside, but he’s not a liability in pass protection. He rarely gets beat by straight speed off the edge. His length and frame mask his average initial quickness and force edge rushers to take wider angles to the quarterback. There’s also some room for the second-year starter to improve despite his athletic limitations. Better hand placement in his pass set will make it harder for edge rushers to beat him with quick inside and double moves.
It will be interesting to see how much Richardson develops and whether the junior decides to declare for the draft or returns to Tennessee at the end of the year. Waiting on the NFL might not be easy, considering he projected as a late first-round pick based on his 2012 tape.
Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
Lewan ended the 2013 season locking horns with presumptive No. 1 pick South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. On Saturday, Lewan also saw plenty of another first-round talent, Notre Dame’s Stephen Tuitt.
Lewan might not be a great athlete and it doesn’t always look pretty, but he almost always finds a way to get the job done regardless of who lines up opposite him. I gave Lewan the best grade we can give an offensive lineman for his run blocking and his toughness after breaking down his 2011 and 2012 tape. At 6-8 and 315 pounds, he’s not as massive as Richardson and has a higher center of gravity. Lewan is still effective because he keeps his pads down despite his height, has enough initial quickness to generate above-average initial surge and is relentless. In terms of pass protection, better speed rushers can get around him and he struggles to redirect quickly when he doesn’t get his hands on defenders. However, he is an above-average hand fighter who can knock smaller edge rushers off course with a strong punch and he rarely loses once locked on.
Lewan is a four-year starter who might have been in the first round mix had he declared for the draft after his junior year, and nothing I’ve seen in his first two games makes me think that has changed. Just one grade point separated Richardson and Lewan heading into the 2013 season.