Monday, May 1, 2017

With Garcia, McDermott, Patriots Improve Tackle Depth In Draft

After waiting some twenty-seven and a half hours to find out who the New England Patriots were going to select with their first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the anticipation turned to aggravation when Patriots' defacto general manager Bill Belichick decided to make all of us wait another hour to find out what was on his evil mind.

Turns out, it was what we expected all along.

In our final mock draft, as well as throughout the entire draft process, our thinking revolved around the notion of linemen, more linemen and still more linemen - and Belichick didn't disappoint, taking two defensive ends and two offensive tackles, effectively plugging the two "weaknesses" on the Patriots' roster, thinking towards 2018 along the offensive line and choosing rotational depth on the defensive edges.

Because, that's all the Patriots really needed.  They weren't desperate to fill a starting position as twenty-one of twenty-two starters from the Super Bowl are back as incumbents - only cornerback Logan Ryan is gone and he's been ably replaced by free agent Stephon Gilmore - so the focus in the offseason has been to acquire depth while preparing for next offseason, when some key starters will become unrestricted free agents.

One of those starters, left tackle Nate Solder, is going to command top dollar on the open market - we're talking eight figures - and that could be a bit rich for the Patriots to absorb for a guy that carries around the injury history and personal baggage that Solder does, hence the selection of two tackles in the draft, both in need of some development under the watchful eye of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia...

...the most intriguing of which is Troy University's Antonio Garcia, a slight but athletic bookend who has all of the physical tools to take on the blind side.

At 6' 6" and weight that varies between 280 - 300 pounds, Garcia sports the physique and nimble feet of a basketball power forward, a position he played in high school, but was never considered functionally strong enough by professional football scouts to be able to compete with the speed-to-power defensive ends he would face at the NFL level - that is until he put on a leverage clinic at the Senior Bowl.

The Atlanta native, who mentioned that he always dreamed of protecting Patriot quarterback Tom Brady's blindside, did not allow a sack in over 900 snaps last season as a senior at Troy, and allowed just three sacks in his college career, and recorded over 100 pancake blocks in the running game.  He had a particularly good game against eventual FCS National Champion Clemson, keeping his quarterback clean and registering six pancakes in a narrow loss to the Tigers.

The learning curve with Garcia isn't quite as deep as one would find for a small school tackle, as he consistently demonstrated an ability to adjust to his opponents as each game wore on, anchoring effectively against bull rushers, and slide-stepping with speed rushers to guide them up and around the pocket.  He also possesses a snapping cut block to level bigger defenders in the run game and pulls into the interior to engage gap penetrators.

What sets him apart from most tackles in this class is, as draft experts noted after he was selected, is that he is "nasty through the whistle" - a street fighter who genuinely loves to mix things up in close quarters - and consistently finds a way to get his man blocked, regardless of angle.

Had he played for a major college - Senior Bowl scout Phil Savage observed after a week of practices that "You could have put a Michigan or Ohio State helmet on Garcia and wouldn't have thought twice about his talent level" - he may have been a first or second round selection, but his level of competition held him to the third, where the Patriots traded up to take him 85th overall.

The knock on Garcia is that he struggles to maintain anchor weight, which a professional strength and conditioning staff should help to even out, but regardless of his weight, Garcia will make the roster as a swing tackle to begin with, as he should be more than capable of filling in as needed, and should be more than ready to take over the blind side in 2018, giving the Patriots leverage in contract negotiations with Solder.

Depth wasn't necessarily an issue on the offensive line, though the release of Tre' Jackson leaves only Ted Karras and Chris Barker as depth guards of any experience - but Belichick has had a couple of interior linemen in for visits leading up to the draft, and one or more of them should find the 90 man roster heading into minicamps.

Where Scarnecchia's magic works best is when he gets hold of a natural athlete with decent mobility, and Garcia fits that bill, and then some - but a bit of a more challenging project to be undertaken is with the Patriots sixth-round selection, UCLA's Conor McDermott.

A beanpole at 6' 8" and 307 pounds, McDermott surfaced on the national athletic scene as a McDonald's High School All American and "Mr. Basketball" in Division II-AA in Tennessee before deciding that his future was in football, but then he spent two years on the bench at UCLA before ascending to the starting lineup midway through his junior season...

...then started every game in 2016, both years earning Sports Illustrated's second team All American status, and also showing up on initial draft boards as a potential second-round pick in the 2017 draft, falling to the Patriots in round six due to what scouts perceived as a lack of functional core strength.

But if one watches the game he had against Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, he displayed plenty of base strength to withstand the eventual number one overall pick in the draft's bull rush, allowing one sack on an inside stunt.  Garrett did have him on skates a couple of times, but he did that to everyone - he wasn't the top pick in the draft for nothing.

But what does come to the forefront as a weakness in McDermott's game is his change of direction skills and lack of feel for inside stunts - which is odd for a man that played basketball at such a high level and has natural feet for the kick slide in pass protection - and it showed later in the game against Garrett as he translated speed to power, allowing McDermott to move up to the arch then disengaging and ripping inside McDermott's right shoulder for an easy sack.

It should also be noted that many teams resorted to loading up the blitz coming off the blind side in an attempt to confuse the protection, exposing McDermott's lack of feel for the direction of pressure. Generally, when tackles are identified with that particular deficiency, they are thought to be a candidate for moving to the interior in the pros, but McDermott's height and upright posture in absorbing rushers makes a move to guard next to impossible.

A move to right tackle is a possibility, however, as McDermott is a natural drive blocker in the running game and has the step slide to fit into a zone blocking scheme.  He has a good pull ratio and can climb the ladder to the second level, though the Patriots general like their tight ends to handle that job.

McDermott will take some coaching, and will need to spend time with Garcia with the team's strength and conditioning coaches, but has a future in the NFL is he can become more instinctive of leverage and angles and adds some sand in his pants to help him anchor against bull rushers.

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