Broncography: Orlando Franklin

What do you look for in a right tackle? It’s a common enough question for fans of the NFL - few players are ‘natural’ RTs, and it’s far more common for a guy who plays LT well in college to be moved to RT in the pros. Ryan Clady is a classic example of what you’re looking for at the LT position - big, light on his feet, mean on the field and incredibly talented with a work ethic to match. While Ryan Harris played exceptionally well in the Broncos' zone-blocking scheme in 2008, injuries and a change of scheme revealed his weaknesses at the position over the two seasons since, and Denver may not retain him. But even if they do, he will probably back up the Broncos' recent pick at 46th overall in the 2011 Draft, Orlando Franklin.

Franklin has quickly become a controversial pick among the fan base. It’s understandable - folks were expecting a defensive tackle, and Franklin played most of his career at left guard, which confuses folks. He’s been accused of being a ‘dirty’ player. He’s better at run blocking than pass blocking, and that’s a reasonable concern. It’s a vast overstatement to say that he can’t pass block, though. When you look at his career, he’s done well in that role. Why don’t we start at the beginning and see where it leads?

Orlando Franklin was born in Jamaica and raised in Canada, later moving to Florida which he would come to consider his home. He began his high school work in Canada but moved to Florida as a junior, and played left tackle in 2005 as a senior at Atlantic High School under coach Chris Bean. He didn’t allow a single sack. It led to Franklin being ranked as a four-star prospect by Rivals.com, as the 23rd-best offensive tackle in the nation. The Florida Times-Union Super 75 ranked him as the #2 offensive tackle. The University of Miami was like a big high school to him. He liked the atmosphere and was recruited as a guard. Due to some problems transferring credits from Canada to the US, he took a redshirt year in 2006.

He began his college career in 2007, playing in all 12 games and starting three of them. He played well enough to share the Rookie of the Year award with Graig Cooper, and graded out at 95 percent with 27 pancakes in 407 downs played. It was a good start.

His sophomore year of 2008 saw his weight increase to nearly 350 lb in the spring following a wrist operation. He quickly found that it wasn’t going to help him, as he’d thought. Back down to his playing weight - anywhere from 316 to 328 is how he describes it, and notes that playing heavier means more injuries, wear and tear on the body - he played in all 13 games at left guard that year. He had 11 starts, coming against Charleston Southern, Florida, Texas A&M, UCF, Florida State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Franklin tallied a team-high 38 pancake blocks and graded out at 94 percent that year. It’s fair to say that his stock was on the rise. He’d suffered a left wrist injury against Florida State the previous year, incurring a fracture and a pair of torn ligaments. That led to a postseason surgery and Franklin sat out ’08 spring practice. It didn’t slow him during the season.

As a junior in 2009, he continued to improve his game. It’s probably fair to keep in mind that this is a player who came to the game late. He didn’t have the benefits (or problems) of backyard games, pickup games as a youngster, or freshman through junior year coaching for his position in high school. Orlando saw that he had the body type to play the line in football, decided that would be his profession, packed up and moved from Canada to Florida while in high school to make that happen, and immediately played well at left tackle. That’s an impressive show of personal will and effort. By the time he was a junior in college, he was getting comfortable with his game. That year, Franklin graded out at 95 percent with 51 pancake blocks and 13 lumberjacks. He started 11 games at left guard and one game at left tackle. You can talk about run blocking versus pass blocking, but when you combine them, you’ve got a player who grades out at 95 percent and who is increasing his pancake and lumberjack blocks each year. He was also an All-ACC Honorable Mention that year, and going against Oklahoma’s All-American DT Gerald McCoy, he reached a 93 percent grade, and limited McCoy to a half-tackle. Despite his late start into football, his game was continuing to improve.

And in 2010, it really did.

He played in 13 games that year, with 12 of them coming at left tackle. He’d gone from being a player with no experience, to moving into the left tackle slot as a senior in HS, and then moved to guard in college. Being promoted to the starter slot at left tackle essentially ranks a player as the best they have on their team’s OL. Franklin was up to the challenge - with him at left tackle, the Miami offense put up 5,477 yards (3,105 passing, 2,372 rushing), which is the second most in school history and the most since the 2002 season (6,074 yards). When you note that this offense managed over 3,000 yards passing, you start to understand that while he loves run blocking, his pass protection is far from poor. With over 2,370 yards rushing for UM that year, you also know that when he says that he loves to run block, he’s not kidding around. Franklin made the Outland Trophy Watch List, was All-ACC Second Team and was a Lombardi Trophy Candidate in 2010. He also received the U of Miami’s Sports Hall of Fame Unsung Hero Award. When he went up against top sackmaster Da’Quan Bowers of Clemson, he was up to the challenge. He’s played well against the best in the college ranks, and that’s all that he could have done up to now.

Orlando has been called a ‘dirty’ player. He, and the Broncos, disagree with that - he says that he plays hard, plays by the rules but plays to the whistle on every down. Jason Fox was UM’s left tackle in 2009 (he will be a rookie LT for the Detroit Lions this year) and he says of Franklin, “He smiles off the field, but when he's on the field, he's all business - like he should be." Miami’s 2010 offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland’s comment was clearly of a more personal nature than your average, canned-sounding responses. He said “We've been through a lot together, some hard times. I'm sure there have been times he has hated me as his coach, but I'm just so proud of the way he has grown up."  That doesn’t sound like a young man who’s hard to coach - just one who needs the coach to communicate well and to hold him accountable as well as teach and support him as a player. Denver has a very solid OL position coach in Dave Magazu, who’s experienced and from all I’ve been able to find on him, very well respected in the NFL community. Unless there’s a reason that I’ve missed, that part of the situation looks like a pretty good match. That includes making sure that Orlando is playing with both emotion and control. The fact is, a highly competitive player who plays well but with a bit of a mean streak usually becomes something of favorite among fans - Ray Lewis, Doug Plank and Bill Romanowski all come to mind, but it’s a long list. So does Broncos linebacker Joe Mays.

Big O, as he’s been nicknamed, may have created some controversy among the fans, but the front office plainly doesn’t share those concerns. The 61 pancake blocks and 16 lumberjacks he achieved in those 13 starts (which lead his team yet again) suggest that when you take down opponent after opponent, some of them are likely to claim that you cheated. When you do some simple math, Franklin averaged almost six pancakes or lumberjacks each game. Some of those guys are going to be angry - and embarrassed.

The ‘dirty’ tag has been said about a lot of OL players. There’s no question that Franklin is one big, mean son of a gun on the field, but that’s what Denver badly needs on their offensive line. They were run over, around and through far too many times in the past two years. Russ Hochstein is a highly versatile player who is a lousy right tackle. Ryan Harris couldn’t stay healthy, and although he was an improvement over Hochstein and Zane Beadles, that wasn’t saying that much. Beadles, by the way, did a good job at left guard, the position that he was drafted for, but right tackle was an open wound on the Broncos' OL. Franklin will get a chance to prove that he’s the prescription for the injury. If he isn’t, he’ll be looked at as a guard - quality depth at tackle, guard and center are always welcome and Denver needs help right away.  Chris Kuper’s contract is up in 2016, and if nothing else, Franklin can eventually move inside if a better option appears for RT. I’m not suggesting that’s all he will be able to do - I think that he was a solid pick. It wasn’t a great year for tackles in this draft. Given that - and the opening that Denver has - Franklin was a good choice:  versatile, mean and talented. Where he’ll ultimately belong will be determined on the field.

Franklin has a good physique for the RT position. He measured 6’5.5” inches tall at Combine and weighed in at 316 pounds, his lower playing weight. Traditionally, tackles are preferred to have long arms - 35 inches is considered optimal - only because it lets the player use them to obstruct speed rushers on the edge for a half second more. It’s an area where Franklin needs coaching and experience, but his arm length is 35 inches exactly, for those who follow that school of thought. His hands are 11 ⅞ inches - big, even for a lineman. Even more impressive is that he has the wingspan of 81 ⅛ inches. His predraft scouting reports were all over the map - some scouts loved him, others didn’t. Here’s a shortened example of both sides, from Pro Football Weekly:

Positives: Very physical and will exert his will on opponents — plays with tenacity and seeks to bury defenders in the ground. Has good body power and substance to anchor and hold the point of attack against bigger bodies. Outstanding football disposition — plays with a mean streak. Outstanding grip strength. Aggressive run blocker. Strong finisher. Battles hard and competes. Is light enough on his feet to handle edge speed. Tough, will play through pain and has been very durable.

That’s all fair enough - there’s a lot to like about Big O. Franklin ran a slow 40 at the Combine, but he’d just gone through a meniscus surgery on his left knee, and yet he still ran. His fractured wrist and torn ligaments as a redshirt freshman didn’t affect his work the following season. He’s an emotionally and physically tough player, and he won’t let dings and ‘boo-boos’ affect his game. He deals well with pain and he’s generally been durable. He’s also very good at taking down an opponent legally - or dropping him, and moving on to another player.

Negatives: Inconsistent technique — plays too wide-based and hands too often go outside the target. Relies too much on his natural strength. Tight-hipped, stiff-ankled and has a lot of lower-body stiffness — tends to play upright as a result. Lazy eyes — can be late to see and adjust to the blitz. Has a selfish makeup with a huge ego and a sense of entitlement not desired in the trenches. Not accountable.

The issue raised on his technique is accurate, but this is why you pay position coaches in the NFL - no rookie comes in with perfect technique. Orlando does keep his stance a little too wide in the drills, and he’s stronger kickstepping to the left - moving to the right will take a little time, since the ability has to be developed through repetition. He’ll have to keep his head on a swivel, and learn to bend his knees on every down, not, at times, his waist. It’s a common failing among less experienced players, and for all that he’s accomplished, Franklin is still learning the game. He’s going to keep right on learning - this opportunity has been his goal since he was in high school. He hasn’t wavered on it. He’s shown the grit that is key to success in the pros.

To the other issues, they get to the heart of why some scouts don’t like him. I watched his post-draft interview at Dove Valley, and I didn’t see the attitude that I expected after the general media commentary. I saw a confident young man who is politely grateful for his opportunity, and who believes in himself. In the NFL, you’d better, or your career will be short - does anyone doubt that Tim Tebow believes in himself? Champ Bailey? Clady? It’s one of the things that NFL people resonate with. Franklin had already spoken with Coach Dave Magazu and seemed appropriately respectful of him.

What I didn’t see in that short piece of video was the kind of stubborn, self-absorbed person that much of the draft reporting makes him out to be. To be sure - I haven’t talked to his coaches, his teammates or the trainers at UM. I don’t know the guy personally. I can only talk about what I have seen - and I’ve seen him play, and play well. He is a finisher, someone who isn’t happy unless his assignment is on the ground and he’s laying on top of him or running downfield to find a new victim. When he spoke, he seemed centered and confident, but not cocky. Again from PFW:

Summary: An enormous, ornery big man who looks every bit the part and showed he could handle playing left tackle as a senior. Physically stacks up as one of the most gifted offensive linemen in the draft and can immediately upgrade a run game and even warrant late first-round consideration. However, he will require maintenance and could be difficult to coach. NFL projection: Top-50 pick.

Clearly a personal reaction to the player, but fair enough. As I noted, I have significant doubts that Dave Magazu is going to have any trouble handling this kid. - Magazu has 32 years in coaching, including nine in the NFL and has coached the OL under head coach John Fox since 2007. Magazu and Fox managed to achieve a season in 2009 where both starting tackles were out due to injury for the last four games of the season, yet the Panthers put up two 1,100-yard rushers in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. It’s the first time in NFL history that’s been done. Somehow, their ability at handling the big guy from Miami doesn’t look like the challenge that it’s been made out to be. The comments from Franklin’s college OL Coach Jeff Southland support the belief that Orlando is highly coachable. I recognize that most coaches are going to give a positive review, but I also look at his comments in light of the improvement that Franklin made while working under him. He describes Franklin as ‘a very sensitive guy’. That’s not the picture that the media has painted, but it’s the view of a coach who knows Franklin well.

“Physically stacks up as one of the most gifted offensive linemen in the draft” isn’t that minor either. I’d also note that he’s ranked as a top-50 pick, and Denver obtained him right at pick #46. His overall scouting rank is 7.4 - that’s the rank that you give a player who you expect to start in his rookie year (Rahim Moore, the 45th pick, received a 7.6, which is much the same). National Football Post lists the 7.5 grade as: “Becomes a starter during his rookie year… A prospect who possesses physical attributes that will create mismatches vs. most opponents… A featured player on team”. That’s exactly what the Broncos both want and need in this player.

John Elway has praised Franklin's demeanor on the field, and that’s coming from a man who suffered a lot of sacks before Denver finally put together an offensive line to protect him. The comment on Franklin’s weight is interesting -  his weight went up during the time that he was out following the wrist surgery, but he quickly got it under control. It wasn’t an issue throughout the rest of his college career to my knowledge and I saw him comment that he likes to play at about his current weight of 316 (to a max of exactly 328, he says, which was interesting in its precision), because it reduces injuries. I liked that - young players who reach the NFL have to learn to take care of their bodies, and it was clear that Franklin had at least a basic grasp of what works for him. It reduces the chance that he’ll have weight issues. This, to me, is an example of a scout seeing a one-time incident and covering his tail on it.

Brian Xanders said, “He played guard early in his career. He’s a taller guy at 6-5, 320-325 (pounds). He has really long arms, but when they put him at left tackle, he was a physical, fierce competitor. He takes his guy three or four yards down the field. He’s a good pass protector because he has length in his arms. His footwork was good enough. We just liked his demeanor, and then we had a good interview…He had an edge to him. He was ready to go. We think he fits in also as a right tackle because of his physicality and his size and in the vertical movement he possesses. We’re excited about him.”

John Fox added, “I think he’s an offensive tackle and has a great combination of athleticism and power, and that’s something we’re looking for. He does it with the right set of mindset.”

Even though Franklin was dunned in the media for his personality, the review admits what most of them concluded - the tape suggest that this is potentially one of the best OL players in the 2011 Draft. He’s on-field mean, sure - and as far as the Broncos are concerned, that’s the good side. He’s been productive in multiple slots, and he has improved every year that he’s been in the game.  All of the rest seems like window dressing - the only thing that’s going to matter now is how he produces on the field.

I always expect a rookie to struggle at times - I don’t buy that a first- or second-round grade prepares a young man for the NFL. Nothing does, or can - it’s the best of the best going against you every week, and they’ve seen everything that you can do. They will know your weaknesses, and they’re going to come at you in ways that you probably haven’t seen. But, by the end of the season I expect Franklin to be a much improved, more technically sound player who holds the right edge well. Everything that he’s ever done in his life has led up to this point. Even his worst detractors admit that he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to wilt in the face of adversity.

I love a tough, mean, hard-working OL guy. They’re often the least appreciated, yet most essential guys on the team. We’ve all seen two years of what not having a healthy, talented RT does to a team - and to the injury list of the QBs. It’s no knock on Tebow to note that his ability to run away from pressure was in part a great benefit because too many opponents were living in Denver’s backfield. In that regard, Franklin looks like just the kind of player that Denver needs more of. Former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels loves an intelligent, high character player, and hey, I do too. But these are your offensive linemen, and what you need from them goes past versatility and intellect. They need certain physical traits and skills, and to be successful they need a seriously nasty attitude. Did anyone not stand up and cheer when Joe Mays took a running back, stood him up and just rag-dolled him to the ground? In a larger body, Mays would be a perfect lineman - he’s just got that attitude. Without it, the OL is never quite as effective. Franklin has it.

Orlando Franklin has the physical tools, the attitude and the potential to be a starting right tackle in the NFL. Whether he succeeds is entirely up to him - but so far, betting against him hasn’t been a profitable venture. The running game desperately needs a top blocker. I think that the Broncos just got one. Welcome to the Mile High City, Orlando. I hope that your stay is productive, long, hostile and effective.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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