In football, no offense can perform at a high level without a reliable offensive line, and no offensive line can thrive without good tackles. It takes a unique combination of size, athleticism, intelligence, and competitiveness to be a successful offensive tackle.
The NFL has acknowledged their value and they’ll be the first position I examine in these post-draft positional breakdowns.
Offensive Tackles are freak athletes
Most fans consider the best athletes on the football field to be the faster and leaner players, but that isn’t totally accurate. Not taking anything away from the skinny guys, but offensive tackles are some of the rarest and impressive athletes in the world. That raises the question, why do offensive tackles need to be so athletic?
Due to their position on the offensive line, interior linemen have a much smaller area than they’re responsible for protecting. Guards and centers always have a fellow lineman to each side, and that forces a pass rusher to go through them rather than around them to get to the quarterback. Interior defensive linemen are also typically slower and less athletic than edge players — Aaron Donald excluded.
Offensive tackles are on an island, left to fend for themselves. Edge rushers line up as far as two or three yards out from them depending on the defensive scheme. That’s a ton of ground to cover with little to no help on most plays. Edge rushers are usually some of the most explosive players on the field and typically forty to fifty pounds lighter than the offensive tackle opposite from them. Tackles need to be powerful enough to halt that edge rusher’s momentum and quick enough to mirror their movements.
Size and arm length
Any coach or evaluator will agree that tackles need to be large. If they’re 275 pounds, most defensive lineman will be able to bull rush through them with ease. With that said, arm length is one of the more contentious physical measurements in football. Clearly, there’s a minimum length to be effective at the position, but that minimum will differ depending on who you ask. The traditional cutoff is 34 inches, but considering the number of highly successful NFL tackles with sub-34 inch arms, I think we can move past that benchmark.
Who cares how long his arms are?
Arm length matters because offensive tackles need to create separation to be successful. When pass rushers get in close, they can set up blockers and execute moves too quickly for the tackle to effectively respond. Also, anyone who has played offensive or defensive line knows how important it is to win the hand position battle. When someone gets their hands firmly inside your shoulder pads, you’re essentially at their mercy. I don’t need to spell out how difficult it is to keep someone with 35-inch arms at bay when your own are just 31.
Lets take a quick look at the size and length of some of the NFL’s top offensive tackles followed by Miami’s presumptive offensive tackles of the future, Liam Eichenberg and Austin Jackson.
We can see that the majority of successful tackles have roughly 34-inch arms in the NFL. Although, Some players can exist at the lower end of the spectrum, like Braden Smith who comes in with the shortest of the group at 32.25. Ideally, a tackle will break the 33-inch threshold, but can still survive at tackle in the NFL with 32-inch arms, it just might be difficult.
Agility is another important physical attribute for an offensive tackle, especially one that has shorter arms. It’s imperative for tackles to maintain proper position and leverage on a rushing defender, and that means being able to mirror the rusher’s movements. There are two combine drills that are typically used to measure agility and lateral quickness: the 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill.
It’s going to help having elite agility numbers, but for an offensive tackle, it’s more about meeting or exceeding a minimum score. If your 3-cone is around a 7.9 and shuttle is under 4.8 or 4.9, you should have the physical tools to play the position.
Just like edge rushers are explosive athletes, offensive tackles also need to have explosive strength to drive defenders off the ball in the run game and to halt the momentum of pass rushers. Explosive strength is measured with the vertical jump and broad jump and we can measure upper body strength with the bench press.
You don’t need to have Tristan Wirfs’ level of athleticism to succeed, but you need to be able to quickly produce enough force when you’re driving someone off the ball on a running play or trying to set your anchor against a bull rush. A player with a vertical jump below 25 inches or a broad below 100 is going to raise eyebrows and probably fall down draft boards.
How important is athletic testing to an offensive tackle?
Let me start out by saying that it isn’t the be-all and end-all. There are tackles with sub-optimal testing numbers that succeed in the NFL and the inverse of that is true as well. Though the players that lay an egg at the combine and go on to put up elite production are the outliers — it isn’t common.
Being a great offensive tackle requires good technique and exhaustive preparation above all else. The athletic tests are more for rooting out players that can’t physically compete at the next level, rather than pinpointing who can. If players meet most of the minimum thresholds, you at least have a shot to compete at the highest level.
Miami’s tackle situation
Surprisingly enough, over the past decade, Miami fans have watched some solid offensive tackle play. Players like Jake Long, Brandon Albert, Ja’Wuan James, and Laremy Tunsil were all good to great players at different times in their tenure for the Dolphins. But after an extensive tear-down, Miami has chosen to replenish the position through the draft. How that will pay off long-term remains to be seen, but there’s a reason for optimism.
Jackson was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft at No. 18 overall. At the time, it was seen as a reach because Jackson, who was a multi-sport athlete in high school and displayed athleticism on tape, was thirty-seventh on the consensus big board and a bit of a project at the position.
First and foremost, he’s extremely young for an NFL player. He was only 20-years-old when he was drafted and is still younger than a lot of draft prospects that were selected in 2021. He started at left tackle for the USC Trojans his true sophomore and junior seasons and didn’t look out of place. Most college offensive linemen aren’t really effective until their junior or senior seasons, so Jackson’s early success is impressive.
Prior to his junior year, Jackson underwent an extremely invasive and painful procedure in order to donate his bone marrow to his younger sister Autumn who suffers from a rare disease known as Diamond-Blackfan Anemia. As the Trojans season opened he was still completing physical therapy to recover from the procedure, but Jackson still played in each game. His youth combined with the unusual circumstances surrounding his junior year mean he is likely to have more room to develop than most prospects.
Along with his youth, Jackson fits all the physical criteria that you look for in an offensive tackle. His arm length, size, weight, and strength are all ideal for the position. Players with Jackson’s measurements and athleticism are consistently drafted early because they’re difficult to find.
(All of Jackson’s pass sets against Arizona’s Hassan Redick and Melvin Ingram of the Chargers)
Jackson also has rare movement skills which are on display in the video above. He can match and mirror pass rushers at a high level and does well against more undersized speed rushers. Hassan Redick compiled 12.5 sacks in 2021, but didn’t come close to bringing down Tua when matched up with Jackson.
I wish everything I had to say about Jackson was positive because he’s a player that I am rooting for, personally. Unfortunately, there are aspects to his game that need some work. The first and most obvious is his ability to withstand a bull rush. He doesn’t set a consistent anchor and too often he is driven back towards the quarterback. Play strength is something that can improve as he physically matures, but he’ll likely always be more of a finesse pass blocker in the NFL and it’s doubtful that he’ll ever be more than an average run blocker.
(All of Jackson’s pass sets against Bradley Chubb of the Denver Broncos)
The other major issue that comes up on tape is hand usage. His punch isn’t particularly strong — another thing that could improve with physical maturity — and he often mistimes it. On the very first play of the above video, he isn’t able to get hands on Bradley Chubb and disrupt his swim move, leaving a clear path to Tua Tagovailoa. When an offensive lineman can land that initial punch it disrupts the timing of the pass rusher and creates separation. A fraction of a second can be the difference between a sack or incompletion and a touchdown. Sometimes that initial shot is enough to make that difference.
Is Left Tackle locked down?
Jackson has the rare physical tools to be a high-level offensive tackle, but he hasn’t shown that level of production yet. He was a good, not great tackle at USC, and was drafted for his potential, rather than what he had already accomplished. There’s reason to believe that he will be improved this upcoming season, but what his ceiling can be remains a mystery.
Eichenberg was selected in the second round of the 2021 NFL draft, at 42nd overall. Eichenberg was a three-year starter at left tackle out of Notre Dame. He’s the product of one of the best offensive tackle and guard pipelines in the nation, and joins other notable players in the NFL like Ronnie Staley, Zack Martin, Quenton Nelson, and Mike McGlinchey.
Eichenberg was one of the safest offensive line selections in the 2021 NFL draft. He has a ton of experience at a top program and improved with each season. He’s technically proficient and should be able to fill in at right tackle immediately. He’s also a high motor guy. If you watch just one of his games below, Eichenberg always goes to the whistle and isn’t afraid to get chippy with defensive lineman.
He also has really solid play strength and tested out exceptionally well in the agility drills. According to PFF, he hasn’t allowed a sack in the last two seasons, and he should be a plus pass blocker in the NFL. He’s an experienced tackle with the athleticism and tenacity to succeed at any level.
(Liam Eichenberg against Duke’s Chris Rumph in 2020)
(Liam Eichenberg against Joshua Kaindoh of Florida State)
This is a tough one to detail for Eichenberg because most of his negatives are hypothetical. The first thing that will come up is his arm length, which we covered earlier. At just 32.38 inches long, he doesn’t meet the typical length requirements for an offensive tackle. Eichenberg is helped by having wider than normal shoulders which bolster his wingspan, but he could struggle with longer edge rushers. This deficiency didn’t really hurt him in college, but it could show up in the pros.
Eichenberg is also on the older side for most prospects. He’s already 23-years-old, a full 18 months older than Jackson, and isn’t likely to develop much more physically. Since he already has a ton of college experience at a top program, he may have maxed out what he can do on the football field. It’s also worth noting that Notre Dame taught a two-hand punch that he will need to change when he gets to the NFL, or edge rushers will have a field day with him.
Can Eichenberg hold down the right tackle spot?
Some of his physical limitations are concerning, but in spite of that my gut says he can. There’s even a chance that he could step into that offensive line and be their most reliable starter immediately. Jackson might have a year of NFL experience, but Eichenberg has shown himself to be the more advanced offensive line prospect. The main question with Eichenberg is going to be how much better can he get? I think he’s an above-average player from day one, but his physical limitations might cap his ceiling in that range.
Depth and developmental players
While the Dolphins don’t have any established high-end offensive tackles yet, they do have a lot of guys who can play in a pinch.
Hunt started at right tackle and would be the obvious choice to step up if Eichenberg wasn’t cutting to start the season. He can give you solid production at the tackle position, but I agree with Miami’s coaching staff that his best position is at guard. He will get a deeper breakdown when I talk about the interior offensive line.
Davis saw more than half of his snaps at left or right tackle last season and is likely to remain a backup because of how valuable his versatility is in that role. Davis has provided average production at tackle in his career and is really useful as a sixth or seventh lineman. Considering his limited physical tools, he’s not likely to get too many high-end games. With that said, the line won’t fall apart if he has to come in.
Fluker is another player on the offensive line that can provide versatility. He played a lot of snaps at right tackle last year for the Baltimore Ravens. He didn’t have a bad season, but I would be concerned about his pass blocking. The Ravens’ offense is very tackle-friendly. They don’t have a lot of true pass sets and they have the most mobile quarterback in the league. Fluker gave up too many quick pressures on the few true pass sets that he did have and that could be a problem in Miami’s offense.
I won’t spend too much time on the bottom of the roster. Adam Pankey played for Miami last year and saw a couple snaps in reserve situations. The Dolphins added Robert Jones as a UDFA from Middle Tennessee State, though I don’t expect him to stick at tackle. He’ll likely kick inside because he doesn’t move well enough in pass sets to play on the outside, but I’ll write more about him in the guard breakdown.
Going into the 2021 season the Miami Dolphins are rolling the dice a little bit at offensive tackle. Given Jackson’s age and career trajectory, they’re banking on a lot of development from him to be a dependable left tackle. Eichenberg seems like a safe bet, but rookie seasons for an offensive lineman can be unpredictable. There’s also a steep learning curve associated with being an NFL tackle. Luckily for the Dolphins, they do still have Robert Hunt who can provide above-average play at right tackle if anything goes awry.
Considering everything covered, there could very well be some setbacks at the position this season. Fans should be prepared for some frustrating games or moments. There’s still a lot of room for optimism as Miami is moving in the right direction. If things break their way, the Dolphins could already have their future bookends on the current roster. Assuming the coaches can get these young tackles spun up quickly, they could have the makings of an impressive offensive line.