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. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Stanford left tackle Jonathan Martin. It's a testament to the program put together by Jim Harbaugh that the Cardinal have four potential first-round picks in the 2012 draft class -- quarterback Andrew Luck, guard David DeCastro, tight end Coby Fleener and Martin. Of those four players, Martin is the only one who either didn't impress in the combine/Pro Day process, or had the kind of game tape that made such things superfluous. After he didn't participate in full drills at the combine due to illness, Martin needed a banner performance at Stanford's Pro Day on March 22. It didn't happen. He ran a 5.48 wind-aided 40, put up just 20 reps on the 225-pound bench press, and came up short in those drills some tie to in-field explosiveness -- 30 inches in the vertical, and 8-feet-8 in the broad jump.
Martin is of course credited with blocking for Andrew Luck's blind side, but as much as that factoid put him on the map, it's also easy to see that he was helped a lot by a series of conservative, short-passing concepts that made blocking a focus and took the heat off the left tackle. Add in the benefits of Stanford's zone-blocking scheme, and the challenge of ranking Martin -- or any other Stanford offensive player -- as an isolated individual becomes more difficult. What you need to see from a player in Martin's shoes are the kinds of plays that pop off the tape, and at a consistent level. Against elite competition, those plays were tough to find; that's something that cannot be said of Luck, DeCastro, or Fleener. Martin will likely be the fourth Cardinal taken in this draft's first round; but is that where the talent tells you to go?
Pros: Martin comes off the snap with a decent kick-step for pass protection; he fans out functionally, though nowhere near as technique-perfect as a Joe Thomas or Matt Kalil. Engages defenders with a solid set of hand moves to keep them away from the pocket. Decent inside pass protector -- he can latch on to a tackle if asked to pinch inside. Quick enough to deal with stunts and sudden inside moves.
Won't often pancake opponents, but does well in space when engaging with a line-level defender -- he'll maintain blocking after he's fired out. Practiced and refined enough in Stanford's pro-style offense to look good on pulls and traps. Fundamentally sound player with good pad level, knee bend. Understands zone concepts and more complex blocking schemes; should find a relatively easy transition to the NFL from a mental perspective. Intelligent and hard-working person and player; turned down a chance to be a fourth-generation Harvard grad and may get his law degree later in life.
Cons: Though he was very functional in Stanford's quick-passing offense, plays taking longer to develop showed Martin's flaws. He's inconsistent when it comes to keeping penetrating defenders at bay; he will let ends peel off and pursue too often. Can get boxed in with his backpedal and will lose strength battles; power rushers can bull him into the quarterback. Has trouble picking up ends when they're slanted wide; he's much more solid when dealing with defenders in a smaller space.
Allows too much leakage on the back half of a rush; doesn't always engage all the way through. Has the up-field mobility to be a good second-level blocker, but isn't always assignment-correct when doing so -- he'll make some pretty big whiffs at linebacker depth. Often helped by tight ends, double-teams, power formations with extra offensive linemen, and right guard pulls from David DeCastro. Not a dominant drive-blocker; you'd like to see more examples of Martin just bulling a guy through and out of a gap. Not the best offensive lineman on his own team -- that honor goes to DeCastro, and by a fairly wide margin.
Conclusion: It's always difficult to isolate players in well-varnished, talent-rich pro-style offenses and assess their true NFL potential; often, you're better off getting a read on a player standing out on a bad offense or defense. Martin presents this problem, because as much as you have to like his experience in a legitimate pro-style offense (not just the conservative offenses some schools like to run, but a real NFL-style set of schemes), the liabilities that show up on tape should give evaluators pause when asking themselves if Martin can be their franchise left tackle. Perhaps the most telling game of Martin's career was Stanford's 56-48 win over USC in 2011. In that triple-overtime thriller. Martin was often exposed by USC's Nick Perry, a speed-rusher who still needs some development himself.
I really wonder how much adjusting Martin will have to do when faced with more complicated fronts at the NFL level, and how well he'll handle speed rushers of the Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware variety. Teams with a heavy percentage of seven-step drops in their passing offense should take an especially wary view of Martin, as he was assisted by the quick timing and distribution of Stanford's offense. This isn't to say that Martin's a bad player, but calling a left tackle your franchise guy is a multi-year commitment, and guessing wrong can sandbag your offense for a good long time. Martin needs to work on quite a few aspects of his game -- most notably, core strength and second-level blocking accuracy -- before he's able to take that designation and really run with it.
Pro Comparison: Sean Locklear, Seattle Seahawks/Washington Redskins/New York Giants
More Shutdown 50:
#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