Tale of the Tape: Taylor Lewan vs. Jake Matthews

The 2013 NFL Draft saw several talented offensive linemen selected in the first round. It was the first time since Jake Long (Dolphins, 2008) that an offensive tackle was selected with the No.1 pick overall (Eric Fisher, Chiefs). In fact, offensive tackles were both the first AND second overall picks (Luke Joeckel, Jaguars, 1.02).

The amazing part of last year’s offensive tackle domination of round one is that there’s a chance the 2014 NFL Draft will have two players at the position graded HIGHER than Eric Fisher, yet it’s a virtual lock that neither will be the first selection come next May.  With the 2014 NFL Draft class showcasing names like JaDeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina) and Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville), it’s likely that the best an offensive tackle can do is No.3 overall.

That’s still not too shabby.

I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks breaking down film of this year’s likely offensive tackle class.  I haven’t limited my study to seniors; I’ve been reviewing film of draft-eligible juniors as well.  At the end of the day, the 2014 NFL Draft could have as many as four tackles that are issued first-round grades by FRG scouting, with the top two (as of press time) being Taylor Lewan (Michigan) and Jake Matthews (Texas A&M).

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to many.  Taylor Lewan was already in the discussion as one of the best offensive line prospects in the Country last season.  His decision to return to school came as a bit of a surprise (now possibly a regret as he would’ve challenged to be the first player selected.)  Jake Matthews benefited from all the exposure received by his teammate, Luke Joeckel, as the more scouts watched film on Joeckel, the more it became apparent that Matthews might just be the better longterm prospect.

There’s no debate.  These guys are good.  They’re going to be first-round picks.  But who’s better?

Every scout knows that the tape doesn’t lie.  I decided to evaluate Lewan and Matthews with the intention of comparing and contrasting the two; A tale of the tape, of sorts.

Now, it goes without saying that there is a LOT of football to be played.  There’s a chance that a player like Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama) could declare for the 2014 NFL Draft and have an improved 2013 season of film.  His upside is undeniable, and he could leapfrog both Lewan and Matthews.

But for the purpose of discussion and debate, let’s take a look at Lewan vs. Matthews in the early battle for the king of the offensive tackle ring.

Attribute
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Physical MakeupLewan is a physically imposing man. He stands 6'8" and weighs 308 lbs. The best part of Lewan's physical makeup is that he's not fat. He's not soft. He's just a big, well-built prototype for the position. Lewan has thick legs that run all the way down to his calves, suggesting he will have the body type needed to anchor vs. NFL bull rushers.
Strength/PhysicalityLewan possesses plus strength and overall physical ability for an OT prospect. He's a mauler and enjoys driving his opponent to the ground. He won't get beat physically very often. His strength is really on display with his initial punch in pass protection. When he uncoils his hands, he creates a stun/jolt on contact that disrupts his opponent's initial step. It's a true asset in his game. Lewan is a scrappy fighter, too. He's a tough guy who doesn't let up when he's in the power position. His hands and forearms are strong enough that once he has control of the defender's chestplate, it's game over.
Movement Skills/Athletic AbilityLewan isn't the most fluid athlete. He's a bit of a waist bender, sometimes causing him to overcompensate and lunge toward the defender. He's susceptible to a quick outside/inside move, suggesting less than elite COD ability. For a big man, he's able to get to the 2nd level consistently, but his average COD skills causes him to whiff in space at times. He has good length which helps him recover when he's beat off the snap. But he's going to have to how improved film versus speed rushers this season.
Pass ProtectionLewan is an adequate pass protector with the potential to develop into an elite blindside tackle. His initial kick-step flashes good quickness and rhythm at times, and combined with his powerful punch and overall strength/technique/anchor, he's able to stonewall his opponent. He's not consistent enough, however, in his get-off and needs to establish prove that he is not limited to the right side in the NFL.
Run BlockingLewan's overall size, strength and hand usage makes him an asset in the in-line, power running game. He locks onto the defender and continues chopping his feet while moving forward. Lewan consistently gets to the second level, but serves more as an object to side-step than as an effective blocker in space. He doesn't appear to be an ideal fit for the ZBS, which could impact his overall draft value.
OverallWith some improved tape in pass protection vs. speed rushers, Taylor Lewan will challenge to be the first non-QB/Clowney off the board. His experience and overall physically dominating traits projects as a longterm, franchise-caliber offensive tackle in the NFL.
Attribute
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Physical MakeupStanding 6'5" and weighing 305 lbs, Matthews measures in right where you'd like to see an OT prospect (minus a few pounds). Matthews appears to have the body-type that can add another 10 lbs or so, which would bring him into the ideal height/weight range. His overall appearance is fit and muscular, leaving no doubt that he's a hard worker in the weight room. While his frame isn't what I'd consider broad, his lower-half is thick and well distributed. He looks the part.
Strength/PhysicalityMatthews is a great combination of adequate strength and very good technique. He sits into his stance well and maintains a nice, straight back that results in a good anchor and overall ability to withstand a bull rush. He's not a mauler, but he's not quite a finesse player either. Matthews is a nice combination of the two, which will be attractive to all NFL teams regardless of their offensive philosophy.
Movement Skills/Athletic AbilityThis is where Matthews really shines. I haven't seen many linemen with his footwork, both in the quickness and efficiency of his steps. He's not going to be beaten by the speed rush, and has elite COD ability. In addition to his rare footwork in pass protection, he's quick and agile enough to get to the second level and finish a block in space. I have little doubt that Matthews will be considered the best athlete at the position for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Pass ProtectionAs a result of his elite footwork and really solid technique, Matthews has all the makings of a franchise-caliber left tackle. My only concern at this point is with his hand usage. At times he can get sloppy with his hand placement, sometimes resulting in him grabbing the outside shoulder area of his opponent. This is nit-picking, though. He has very few flaws in pass pro.
Run BlockingJake Matthews isn't going to be a mauling run blocker. But he'll certainly get the job done. He finishes blocks in space and can move like a man much lighter. He needs to become a bit more of a velcro player, as I'd like to see him hold onto his run blocking assignments a bit longer.
OverallJake Matthews is an offensive tackle prospect with very few flaws. Barring injury, there's no doubt in my mind that he has the talent to be a top-5 pick in next May's draft.

So, who’s the “winner?”

After taking a thorough look at both players, it’s obvious to me that their ultimate draft position (who goes higher) will depend on which teams are selecting where.  Taylor Lewan is going to be more appealing to the smash mouth, run-first teams.  Jake Matthews will be a godsend for a team that likes to sling the rock .  That said, and since the point of this piece was to determine who has a higher grade RIGHT NOW, I’d lean slightly in favor of Taylor Lewan simply because of his overall strength and ability to dominate in the run game.  Even if he is just an adequate pass protector in the NFL, he is going to add a level of toughness to a unit that is hard to find.

It can’t be said enough that the 2013 tape is going to be a huge variable in both Lewan and Matthews’ evaluations.  Lewan has some room to improve in pass protection, whereas Matthews has to show that he can handle sliding over to the left side.  This battle will go down to the wire, and it will be a lot of fun watching it play out.

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