Scrutiny is one thing, but are people looking too hard to find fault with Kalil's game? (Getty Images)
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 USC left tackle Matt Kalil, who has it all going for him on paper. He's got the bloodline -- his father Frank played and his brother Ryan plays in the NFL, he played very well in a highly-regarded program, and he comes right out of Central Casting when it comes to how you want an offensive tackle to look. Good enough on the left side to keep current Dallas Cowboys stud tackle Tyron Smith on the right side, Kalil is a two-year starter who also saw a lot of action in 2009, and his ability to pass-protect kept the Trojans going as quarterback Matt Barkley matured into a prospect who some believe could be the first overall pick in 2013.
Every year, there are draft prospects that drop at the last minute in the media for no specifically good reason, and Kalil appears to be one of those guys in 2012. Though to to be a sure-fire pick for the Minnesota Vikings with the third overall pick at one time, the speculation that the Vikings might trade down and increasing concern about his in-line power have pundits wondering how far he'll slip. Slip from what is a very good question -- NFL teams keep their boards more fixed at this point of the process, and it's the media that starts to throw magnet names at their draft boards, Billy Beane-style, when the draft is just around the corner.
So, who is Matt Kalil, anyway? Is he a franchise left tackle, or is he a player who tends to dissolve a bit when one gets forensic with the game tape? I think he's more the former than the latter, though there are areas of his game that cause concern and require improvement.
Pros: From a template size perspective, Kalil looks exactly like you'd like a left tackle to look -- he's tall, long-limbed, and he's pretty spidery when he locks on to a pass rusher. Long arms allow his to create a "force field" between him and edge rushers -- he's very hard to beat and penetrate outside as a result. Has a good, measured (though not always entirely smooth) dropback in pass pro; his footwork is in line, but he doesn't quite pass the Joe Thomas test when arcing out to seal the edge. Has a good functional kickstep that he uses to keep college rushers out of the circle, but he may need to get quicker and less "practiced" with his timing to keep NFL edge defenders from beating him on the back half of the pocket. Crosses off from one defender to another very well on loops, stunts, and slides -- he's obviously got an outstanding grasp of the fundamentals.
Gets a good punch at the snap to rock his opponent back. Locks on pretty well from a backpedal and he's tough to get around, because his arm radius is so wide. Quick and agile second-level blocker who generally hits his targets and can break off to help his ballcarriers in space. Rides defenders out and keeps contact well in slide protection; Kalil doesn't let gaps open with sloppy technique in these circumstances. He's kind of a Venus Flytrap in pass pro; Kalil will step back, wait for the pass-rusher to move in, wrap him up, and that's all she wrote. Doesn't pull a lot in USC's offense, but has all the basic tools to do so.
Cons: Kalil's length may be an issue in the power game, especially when he's run-blocking -- there are times when he is stronger than he looks because he tends to make everything look relatively easy, but he also comes out of his stance high quite often from a two-point start, and this could lead to him losing strength battles in the NFL.
For all his technical expertise, there are times when Kalil has an opportunity to just bury a guy and doesn't -- that's not really his game. Benefitted from a quick passing game in 2011 that kept him from protecting a lot of seven-step drops; you'd like to see more extended pass protection. Struggles when firing forward in the run game -- he'll let tacklers slide off of him to either side too often.
Conclusion: Right now, Matt Kalil is a just-short-from-finished prospect with a great deal of stuff on the ball and the potential to overcome the liabilities he shows on tape. He's already got Step 1 covered, which is the realization that things are not quite perfect in the run game.
"For me, it's just that I'm so dominant in pass protection, it kinda overshadows my run game," Kalil told me last week. "I feel that my run-blocking was pretty effective during the while season, but as an offensive lineman and as a football player, you always want to improve. I have done a lot of things this offseason -- working on leverage and footwork. When it comes time for training camp, I think the coaches will see the improvement in my run blocking. It wasn't a weakness, but it wasn't one of my strengths. But it's definitely something I've been working on, and it shouldn't be a problem at the next level."
That word "dominant" is kind of a bugaboo with Kalil. He does many things very well, but the overall lack of pure physical domination is something that could see him struggle at the next level. There were just too many times on tape where I watched Kalil make fools of guys you'd expect to look foolish -- college defenders who are either underdeveloped for the grind of the NFL, and some players who don't look like NFL material at all. The bloodline stuff is interesting and gives him advantages in some ways; Kalil is strong in many of the fine points you never see from some tackles of any stripe. If he can become stronger in the literal sense on a play-to-play basis, we may have a multi-year Pro Bowler here. He's just not there yet.
Barring some kind of last-minute weirdness, I believe that Kalil will be selected in the first five picks, and that the projection fits. It does seem that at the eleventh hour, people are over-dinging him for the stuff he doesn't do well, and forgetting the things that can make him a foundation player in most any franchise.
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