With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff. The two things that you hear most often about Reiff are that he's well-coached like most Iowa offensive linemen, and that he has short arms. You'll also hear about what may have been his most impressive athletic achievement, which occurred in 2008, when he outran Iowa Coty police for a full 20 minutes before being arrested for public intoxication. While we pause to consider the merits of adding the Simulated Police Chase drill to future scouting combines, let's talk about Reiff's short arms, and what they mean. There are scouts and teams that will simply not consider tackles with arms shorter than 34 inches, and Reiff's arms come in at 33 1/4".
The concern is that tackles will be required to deal with better edge rushers and more complicated blitzes at the NFL level, and the advantage of arm length is considerable in that regard -- when you don't have to punch and stab at defenders as often, you're less susceptible to inside and outside moves. You can keep your hands extended for longer periods of time, keep your wide base and footwork together, and play with more consistency. The closer a defender can to get to your body without a push back, the more you play from behind. There are of course exceptions to every rule, but physical limitations will have scouts and other personnel types demanding compensatory attributes from those players who don't fit the anatomical ideal.
In some ways, Reiff has those assets -- like most Hawkeye linemen, he's got the fundamentals down, and it's easy to see his run-blocking strength and effort on tape. He started every game at left tackle in 2010 and 2011 after moving around the line in 2009. A high-school defensive lineman, he plays with the aggressiveness most coaches prefer, and playing against Big 10 competition will give him an advantage on most draft boards. The question is not whether Riley Reiff has what it takes to play in the NFL. The question is whether he has the optimal skills to play professional left tackle at the highest possible level.
After a thorough examination of his game tape, the jury's still out.
Pros: Good standup blocker who will engage and stick on defenders -- Reiff has excellent functional inline power and he matches up well against power ends. Will fire out on outside run plays and seal the edge consistently. Decent straight backpedal, though he doesn't really flow in pass protection. Adjusts well going from ends to other defenders against blitzes; he works well in zone blocking and understands changing assignments. Reiff's pass-blocking technique is more functional than fancy; he is better backing straight up, hand-fighting to keep pass-rushers at bay, and pushing to keep them out of the pocket.
Reiff has outstanding side-to-side awareness; if a defender looks to stunt inside or outside to beat the first block, he will use his feet to face up and adjust. Has a nasty demeanor when run-blocking' Reiff pinches inside very well and loves to push people around in the run game. Very quick to the second level as a run-blocker, and he consistently hits his targets when he gets there. Knows how to get under pads and gain the strength advantage.
Cons: Short arms show up as a disadvantage when Reiff is asked to keep edge rushers out of the Octagon -- he needs to stab and push defenders as opposed to establishing a "force field" to protect the passer. (comparative example: Matt Kalil is REALLY good at this). Reiff's relative inability to kick-step out and block in the perimeter will have speed ends beating him around the edge and gaining the advantage on the back half of the pocket. In Iowa's power offense, that's an acceptable flaw, but he'll have to refine his outside moves to deal with the Tamba Halis and Jared Allens of the world. Even when he's sitting in zone, speed rushers will occasionally just blow right by him.
Occasionally, Reiff will come off the ball and start fanning out too quickly; this will allow ends to easily beat him inside with quick moves. Will occasionally walk himself back into the pocket. Gets caught up in traffic on tackle pulls outside, though a few technique fixes would allow him to excel at these. Doesn't seem to possess the dominant lower-body strength common to most elite tackles; you rarely see Reiff just stand there and stone a defender with brute strength. Susceptible to swim moves; seems to have trouble re-setting after a defender uses his hands to get by. Not a refined chop-blocker at all -- when he goes low, he's more prone to whiffing than not.
Conclusion: Despite Reiff's obvious limitations, I don't see him as an automatic switch to right tackle in the NFL. In power-blocking schemes like those run by the Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Falcons, and Miami Dolphins, he's got enough fundamental correctness to make it work. For a team passing 50 times per game, however, his inability to pass-block at the highest level with any degree of consistency will limit him. Moreover, I'm not sure how much higher his ceiling is -- Reiff has managed to find ways to get around his physical flaws (arm length; lack of optimal quickness in space) through canniness and coaching, but it's tough to know how much untapped talent remains.
Coming out of USC in 2008, Sam Baker was selected by the Atlanta Falcons with the 21st overall pick with a skillset similar to Reiff's -- he was seen to be a pro-ready player with the kind of game intelligence that would allow him to transcend limitations similar to Reiff's. The extent to which that has not happened for Baker could be an instructive example for teams looking to select Reiff as a "safe" tackle. Or, Reiff could live up to (and exceed) the coaching he's been given, use his toughness to surprise those relatively unimpressed by his game tape, and become a longtime NFL starter. Based on the increasing number of complex blitzes in the NFL, Baker's career path seems likely -- an iffy start at left tackle, and an eventual move to a position that better focuses his attributes and hides his weaknesses.
Pro Comparison: Sam Baker, Atlanta Falcons
More Shutdown 50:
#22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford | #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama | #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC | #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska | #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford | #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech | #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy