By Russ Lande
Overwhelmingly, articles focus on comparing prospects in the current draft to determine which player should be selected first, but today I'll compare Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, who played left tackle in their final seasons at A&M in back-to-back seasons. At the 2013 combine, Joeckel measured 6-foot-6 and 306 pounds; Matthews checked in at 6-5 and 308 pounds. In Joeckel's final season at A&M, he started at left tackle, while Matthews played right tackle. Matthews' chance to prove himself came in 2013-14 when he took over the left tackle spot and did not disappoint.
In order to be a successful starting tackle in the NFL you must excel in pass protection. Both men possess the feet and initial quickness to slide out to the corner and get set before explosive edge rushers arrive. Joeckel sets up quickly with an outstanding base which makes it easy for him to mirror pass rushers and to re-direct and slide inside to handle explosive pass rush moves back underneath. Although he has good natural strength, his tendency to keep his hands low and grab outside the pass rusher's shoulders leaves his chest wide open and allows them to jolt him backward initially. Joeckel's ability to block with leverage combines with his athleticism so he can re-set and anchor after the initial jolt. This is much harder against NFL pass rushers, so he must do a better job of punching in pass protection and get quicker at "getting a good fit" with his hands.
Joeckel looks thicker and has better natural strength than Matthews, but Matthews plays stronger as a pass blocker. He sets quickly with good base and consistently "gets a good fit" with his hands and usually delivers an aggressive punch to stop pass rushers in their tracks. His hands enable him to "stone" most straight-line pass rushers and keeps them pinned on the line. Similar to Joeckel, Matthews can adjust side-to-side to handle change-of-direction pass rush moves. Despite their similarities in pass protection, Matthews' hands make him a better pass blocker.
While only a handful of teams try and run the ball to control games, good offensive tackles must be at least solid run blockers. While neither prospect's man impacts many running plays, their blocking styles are clearly different. Joeckel is quick out of his stance and to the point of contact on in-line run blocks. He relies upon his ability to block with base so he can make strong seal-style run blocks or tie up his man while the ball carrier passes. He is very fast getting through the line to the second level, and makes adjusting to block defenders in space look easy. His base allows him to maintain blocks with surprising ease. Joeckel can pull and get out in front on outside runs and has consistently shown the ability to come off his track to make good blocks on the move.
Not as efficient or consistent as Joeckel, Matthews is a more dominant run blocker. Not content making seal-type, in-line run blocks, Matthews blocks aggressively and tries to deliver blows to defensive linemen. When he stays over his feet and maintains proper leverage, he gets movement and drives his man out of the play to open holes. This aggressiveness makes him especially effective on angle run blocks as he often drives the inside shaded man down the line to open huge holes. As quick to the second level as Joeckel, Matthews' aggressive blocking style leads to him leaning and reaching to deliver a blow to defenders in space. He does not consistently stay on and finish blocks. His aggressiveness leads to him stopping feet and over-extending on both in-line blocks and blocks out in space, which will be an issue at the next level. When it comes down to it, Matthews likely opens more holes and is more effective wearing down the man he is blocking, but Joeckel is a more efficient run blocker whose man impacts fewer plays.
To say who will be a better NFL tackle is like splitting hairs, but there are clear differences between the two. They are both elite prospects with different blocking styles. I expect Matthews to be a better left tackle in the NFL because offensive tackles who block with an aggressive, nasty streak often out produce athletically gifted linemen who are positional blockers. That is not to say he will be drafted as high as Joeckel, who went second overall last year, but I would be surprised if he makes it out of the top six.
For Joeckel to become an elite tackle he must become more consistent at "getting a good fit" between the defenders' shoulders, which will enable him to improve his playing strength. As for Matthews, he is sound in pass protection and if he can do a better job of staying over feet and not over-extending on run blocks, he could become a consistently dominant run blocker.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.