The countdown to the NFL Draft has begun. In the next few months we will be taking a closer look at some potential draft picks the Jets could be looking at when May rolls around. Today, Mike Nolan takes a look at offensive lineman, Joel Bitonio.
Tale of the Tape
Joel Bitonio is a guy that has gained a lot of momentum on his way towards the NFL Draft. He exceeded many people’s expectation in the 2013 season and had some really strong performances against top teams like Florida State and UCLA, where he took on top prospect Anthony Barr. He carried over his productive season into a strong week of work at the Senior Bowl where he played every position on the line including center. Although Bitonio started at left tackle in 2013 for Nevada, he will most likely be making the transition to guard in the NFL due to his size.
It always raises my eye when scouts say a player needs to move from tackle to guard in the NFL. There are generally two reasons: 1) the player does not have the athleticism to play tackle or 2) the player does not have the length. I am much more comfortable with the latter and this is the category Joel Bitonio falls into. While he doesn’t look explosive, Bitonio is a smooth athlete with really good footwork. He uses “short, choppy” steps in both the run game and the pass, which is what lineman are taught to do starting in Pop Warner. This allows him to maintain his balance and quickly shift his weight when the defender makes any type of counter move.
Another thing that is noticeable is that he doesn’t waste steps. A lot of linemen get themselves in trouble with unnecessary steps that will often times get them off balance or out of position. This is something that was highlighted often in 2013 from Brian Winters. Joel Bitonio does not do this, which is key, because it can be an extremely hard habit to break.
In the run game, Bitonio shows adequate power and aggression. He will finish blocks when he has guys off-balance as seen below. He can be dominant when down blocking inside in Nevada’s Zone Read scheme. (Nevada’s scheme is a little different. It looks like they may be called QB Keeps instead of pure Read plays) He absolutely manhandled UCLA’s defensive Tackle all day. Notice the push he gets here against Florida State from the left tackle position:
Bitonio is solid in run blocking, but his real strength comes in pass protection. This is where his footwork, really comes into play. He is rarely out of position because of it and when he is out of position, he’s still usually able to run the defender past the quarterback. He also shows great patience. He doesn’t lunge at pass rushers which is especially important against 3-4 outside linebackers. It also helps him pass off twisting defensive linemen.
It’s a tale of two halves when it comes to Bitonio’s body. While he has excellent footwork, his upperbody leaves a lot to be desired technically. When I saw that his arm length was 33″ inches, I was surprised they were that long. Watching the tape, it looks like he is playing with 30″ arms. Part of the reason he plays with poor length is that his pad level is often too high. This is the main reason why scouts want him to move to guard.
So why is arm length that big of a deal? Arm length is an important factor for linemen to win the “hand fight”. In pass rushing, the guy who is able to get his hands on the other guy first can control the other. Bitonio often times lets his defender get their hands on him first. When you watch his tape, you will see him get bent backwards as defenders extend their arms on him. They crazy thing was he still won a lot of blocks when this happened because he never stopped moving his feet. In the NFL, he won’t win these blocks and will need to start run blocking through his hips and not his back. The main reason why he cannot play left tackle in the NFL is because his one glaring weakness is one that NFL defenders will easily be able to exploit.
Another thing he struggles with is run blocking in space. In the Fresno State game this year, Fresno linemen lined up about a full yard off the line of scrimmage. Bitonio really struggled run blocking with that much space between he and the defender, often times falling on his face before contact.
How does he fit with the Jets?
Despite drafting three linemen last year, the Jets direction on the offensive line, especially, at guard is still not too clear. Brian Winters struggled in his rookie season, Willie Colon is a free agent, and who knows if Campbell, Aboushi, and Ijalana will be ready to contribute. If the Jets decide to take another lineman this year, Bitonio may be a prime candidate.
At Nevada, Bitonio played in a Pistol offense that required mostly zone blocking. He has shown that he possesses the footwork needed to run block in a zone offense, which is one of the staples of Marty Mornhinweg’s offense. The one area where he could struggle transitioning to guard is in combo blocking. At tackle he didn’t have to combo block too often, something he would have to be proficient at to be successful at guard.
Off of the zone, Nevada would run some QB read plays which required Bitonio to essentially down block. To me, this is the scheme where Bitonio was at his best. It is also very similar to one of the blocks he would need to utilize in the Jets Power scheme. The other type of block is a pull. Bitonio rarely pulled in college, but Nevada did have one play in their arsenal in which the left tackle had to pull. While I thought his track was a little deep on the pull, he showed enough proficiency at it that he should be able to pick it up with more reps.
If the Jets did take him, he would improve their ability to pass pro from the interior of the offensive line. While Willie Colon was solid, Brian Winters was really bad in this part of the game, often needing Nick Mangold to bail him out. Bitonio is a proficient pass blocker and would be an upgrade over Winters, however I don’t think the Jets would be willing to give up on Winters after one season.
Joel Bitonio is an excellent offensive lineman who can probably step in and start in the NFL from day one. He has a foundation to build on in his footwork and athleticism. With some tweaking to his knee and waist bend which can help him play with more length, he can be a solid starting guard for many years to come.
Bitonio is currently projected to be a day two selection and has been gaining steam ever since he “stonewalled” Anthony Barr. Because of this a lot of mock drafts have him going in the early to mid second round. In my opinion, I think he will drop lower than that for two main reasons.
The first is his performance against Anthony Barr is being overblown. Not to take anything away from him, he did play well, but Nevada utilized either an H-Back or Tailback on nearly every play to help against Barr. Having that back there took away Barr’s outside move and made him a one dimensional pass rusher. I don’t think scouts and coaches will be as swayed by this performance as some of the media has been.
The second is his arm length. He is climbing back up the board because of his longer than expected arm measurement at the Senior Bowl, but as teams continue to watch the tape, they will see a guy who plays much shorter than his measurements would have you believe.
Because of these reasons, I think he could be on the board for the Jets in the second round with an outside shot of being around for their third round pick. The Jets probably have other needs that they should draft in the second, but if he is there in the third this could be a great value pick.
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