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NFL Draft: Spread offenses don’t prepare linemen for NFL

Notre Dame offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey, right, and

Notre Dame offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey, right, and Quenton Nelson are seen before a drill at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on March 2. Credit: AP / Gregory Payan

You won’t find many complaints about the up-tempo style played by a growing number of colleges. With spread formations producing points at unprecedented levels, the college game has never been more entertaining. But walk into an NFL front office or coaches’ meeting room and the level of enthusiasm for it is muted. In fact, it’s often nonexistent.

“Some of these [college] kids, there are guys who start for four years, and the only time they have their hand in the dirt is if they fall down,” Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said. “They’re in two-point stances the whole time, and occasionally you’ll see them in a four-point stance on the goal line.”

With quickness and mobility essential for linemen coming out of spread offenses, it has become far more challenging for NFL teams to mold blockers to accommodate the pro game’s more conventional approach. To be sure, the NFL has adopted many elements of the spread offense — four-receiver and sometimes five-receiver sets are much more prevalent. But it’s still not nearly the same style as many run-and-gun college programs, which makes it increasingly difficult for NFL general managers and scouts to project whether a lineman can make the necessary changes.

“Your [NFL] offensive line coaches have to be great teachers, and you have to get [linemen] as many reps as possible,” Gettleman said. “There’s a theory that you need 5,000 reps before you are really ready. It takes time. It’s not natural for a 320-pound kid to back up and pass-block. When you evaluate hog mollies, you have to be patient and take your time to look for the things that all the great ones do.”

Ah, the hog mollies — that hearty fish that Gettleman compares to his ideal linemen. He may be the league’s biggest proponent of developing blockers as the lifeblood of his team, and it’s a big reason he succeeded Jerry Reese. The Giants’ line was at the heart of their offensive problems last year, and Reese paid the price with his job, despite having won two Super Bowls over an 11-year tenure.

Reese was confident his starters heading into last season — left tackle Ereck Flowers and right tackle Bobby Hart — could be long-term answers. But both underperformed, and Gettleman promptly released Hart and signed Patriots free agent Nate Solder to replace Flowers, who will try to win the job at right tackle.

“You have to look at all the basics,” Gettleman said. “Does he play with a base? Can he roll his hips? Can he do this? Can he do that? You’ll find guys who are in two-point stances who can do that.”

But it’s not easy to find them, because many would-be NFL linemen don’t play a style that lends itself to the NFL game. Recently enacted rules limiting contact in the offseason, training camp and the regular season make developing them that much more difficult.

“Reps, it’s everything,” said former NFL guard Brian Baldinger, an NFL analyst for FOX and the NFL Network. “The more reps you get, the more prepared you’re going to be. The only way to become a better right guard is to play right guard. You can’t do it by hitting bags in shorts. You can do all the walk-throughs you want and hit the sleds all you want, but until you block people, you’re not going to get better.”

This week’s draft is considered a mixed bag at offensive line. While there are several highly touted prospects, including Notre Dame linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchy, guard Will Hernandez of UTEP and tackles Kolton Miller of UCLA and Orlando Brown of Oklahoma, it’s not considered a deep draft for blockers. That may have been a factor in Gettleman’s decision to give Solder a four-year, $62-million contract, the biggest ever for a lineman.

But ask the guys up front who are about to find out where they’ll play next, and they’ll tell you they aren’t worried about making the transition to the NFL.

“I feel like I’m pretty well prepared,” Miller said. “[UCLA offensive line coach Hank] Fraley played 11 years in the NFL as a center and brought a lot of knowledge into the O-line room.”

Nelson and McGlinchey have no doubt they can adjust, especially because they’ve seen former teammates, including Zack Martin of the Cowboys, make the jump.

“I was very fortunate that Zack Martin was the left tackle when I showed up at Notre Dame and I spent a year directly behind him,” McGlinchey said. “I got to learn a lot from him.”

Nelson is considered not only one of the top offensive line prospects, but one of the top prospects, period.

“I think I should be talked of in that regard, the top five conversation, because you have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and Fletcher Cox that have just been working on interior guys and you need guys to stop them. And I think I’m one of those guys,” Nelson said. “I think I will help the offense establish the run through my nastiness, and establishing the run also opens up the passing game.”

Cardinals GM Steve Keim believes there is depth among the linemen. “I’ve been impressed not only with the top guys, but the players who could go in the third and fourth rounds and play a role,” Keim said.

There’s plenty of optimism, but NFL teams won’t know how good — or how incomplete — the linemen of this class are until they put on the pads in a league dramatically different from the college game.

“Really and truly, if you watch the teams that win in the NFL,” Gettleman said, “you have quarterbacks who are making plays from the pocket and you have offensive lines that are running old-school NFL runs.”

Welcome to the big leagues, gentlemen.

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