Spread offenses in college make NFL a guessing game

First Published      Last Updated Mar 19 2017 01:18 pm

Indianapolis • The spread offenses that dominate the NCAA produce a parade of points but also prospects that aren't quite ready for the NFL.

Quarterbacks have to learn to line up under center and scan the field while backpedaling. Running backs have to learn to scurry straight ahead. Wide receivers have to dramatically expand their route tree.

"The football being played from the high school level to the college level is a different brand of football than they're going to be asked to play," 49ers general manager John Lynch said.

Nowhere is that gulf more evident than in the trenches where the vast majority of offensive linemen are no longer the plug-and-play types like Ryan Clady or Joe Thomas were a decade ago.

Now, teams have to project how shrewdly and swiftly these big men will adjust to the pro game because most of them have never gotten into a three-point stance to blow an opponent off the ball or been asked to maintain a block for several seconds while his quarterback searches for his target.

While every team sprinkles in some college-style plays, the spread hasn't really infiltrated the NFL, where teams fear their quarterbacks would get exposed to more hits. So it's up to the O-linemen to quickly adapt to protect the passer — and the owner's chief investment.

That puts the onus on personnel evaluators to pinpoint which linemen are going to be able to make that leap.


Titans coach Mike Mularkey looks for play-to-the-whistle attitude: "You can see it on tape, whether they've got that in them," Mularkey said. "I can see body language. You can see. Film doesn't lie."

It does hide, though.

"Sometimes, you go through 80 plays and only like eight of them are truly grade-able, where they're at the point of contact and they're actually doing something you're going to ask them to do," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "And what you never want to do as a coach is ask a player to do something that he's not capable of doing.

"And so if you can't see that on tape, the next most important thing to me is seeing them in personal workouts, where you can get down there, you can get a position coach to go down there, take them through some drills. And yeah, it's not football, you can't see their toughness and everything like that like you can on tape, but the physiology of how a guy moves, sometimes you have to send a guy down there to see how they move."

They look for fluid footwork and flexibility in addition to seeing how strong and smart they are.


"There are colleges that are wide open and throw the ball 100 times, so you don't get to evaluate every technique that they're going to be taught here," Bengals personnel director Duke Tobin said. "You've got to kind of project them in. You've got to project traits. You've got to project size, strength, movement. You've got to project is he an aware player? Can he react quickly? If those are all yes, then you feel pretty confident that he can come in and run the techniques that you're going to have him run."

Projecting was more of a buzzword at the NFL scouting combine this month than ever before.

"It's easy when you can see a guy go do exactly what you're going to ask him to do and you can evaluate that, judge that. It becomes a little bit more interesting when you have to project, and that's part of our business," said Texans GM Rick Smith.

"It still boils down to you want an athletic guy, a guy that has strength and power and smarts and movement," Buccaneers GM Jason Licht said. "So, if you can see those things ... and you can. You just don't see it or identify it as quickly as you did in the past. But you can still see it. It just makes it more challenging."

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