A particular segment of Andy Benoit's NYT column from Tuesday on Ryan Clady caught my eye:
Unfortunately, offensive linemen have no other statistics. Sure, there are the little-known rushing stats by field lane (the Broncos when running left last season had 67 power runs, 22 runs of 10-plus yards and 19 negative plays, which are solid all-around numbers), but those are vague and often misleading. For example, a lot of runs to the left are set up by a right guard’s pull block. How is that depicted in the stats?
Many football statistics are circumstantial and/or influenced by a multitude of factors. What’s important is to trust how a player – especially an offensive lineman – looks on film and make that the backbone of evaluation. Because this is what quality front offices do, don’t be surprised if Denver’s “mistake-prone” left tackle soon becomes one of the highest-paid players at his position.
It’s a good point. I do base my evaluation of Clady on film, and here’s what I found:
He’s playing noticeably higher than he was as a rookie. When he gets beaten, he generally gets beaten on technique. When he does lose - and it’s worth clarifying that he wins more than he loses by a heck of a lot - it’s due to a combination of consistent factors.
He seems to have changed his stance, and at times it’s leaving him open to being exploited by a rusher - maybe too often. He used to kickstep out from a deep stance that let him get his hands into the defender with a heck of a punch, and I loved that technique. I don’t know why he’s changed it, but it’s pretty clear on film. He’s getting steadily better on run blocking, though, and he needs to continue there.
I also want to be honest - clarifying and sticking to one way of handling the offense for more than six months at a time might help. It’s hard on a left tackle when you change offenses more than once a bleeding year. He was asked to protect Kyle Orton’s immobility and Tim Tebow’s out-of-pocket and occasionally out-of-mind, 10-12 second scrambles. Everyone is better when they’re given a set of specifics with a qualified scheme and quarterback, and asked to carry them out consistently for an extended period of time. The whole line has gone through a disastrous period in the team’s life, and I think that you have to accept some responsibility on the side of the team.
Another side, perhaps, is that something medical is of issue, but whatever the situation, he doesn’t seem to have the stance and the fire he did as a rookie. I’m seeing him give up on plays as well as committing penalties when he’s beaten - he’s lost the ability to recover that he had early on. That aspect does concern me. Why has this changed so much?
I don’t have that answer. I just see the changes.
People also learn your tendencies in this league. I wouldn’t know if that comes into it and we fans aren’t usually privy to that side. All I can say is that he honestly isn’t where I would have thought he’d be at this point in his career, simply because he started so brilliantly. It set the bar very high. His 2008 was a truly great rookie year, and I know just from the mental errors in 2011 - often penalties for violations that are often made blatantly when he’s been beaten - that he’s been less impressive since then. The level of aggression seems to be lower. The stance seems higher. He’s not a bad player by a stretch - but he’s given critics reason to question what’s going on with the big guy out of Boise State.
Ryan as a rookie had perhaps the most beautiful footwork that I’d probably seen at the position. It was a chance for my inner OL geek to come fully out of the closet, and I learned a lot about the position back then. Why that’s gone away in degree is something the team will probably discuss at some length during ongoing contract negotiations.
Clady hasn’t made a public comment that I’m aware of. There’s plenty of issues on both sides of the table, and I’m sure each is making their own points. How he’s graded out for the past two years will matter. The team will use their own in-house analysis. As a matter of interest to both him and the team, it’s hard to imagine that Ryan's stats won’t be improved by having Peyton Manning’s quick release and accurate passing in 2012. He’s been placed in multiple difficult situations, he’s had to adapt to new QBs frequently, and they weren’t the most LT-friendly passers in the league. Perhaps a healthy helping of Manning will cure what ails him. It’s unlikely to hurt, at the least, but it won’t explain the changes in Clady by itself. Those do need to get fixed.
Given that there are problems on both sides, I’d say that he’s about middle of the pack as LTs go right now. Ryan is due to receive $3.5 million this season, the final year of his rookie contract; the current value of a franchise tag for an offensive linemen is $9.4M. The two sides may disagree on Ryan's level of production, but he's likely due for a raise either way.
I think that he has it in him to be better, but Ryan isn’t the kind of physical specimen that you let get away, and Denver doesn't have anyone who can replace him. He’s a player to work with and rebuild that line if needed. Whatever the reason for the change in his technique, I hope they can fix it. I’d like to see him anchor the OL for a long time to come.
A small piece of other OL news - Despite early comments that rookie Philip Blake was considered interior line depth, word from OTAs via the Twittersphere was that Denver is counting on Blake to battle J.D. Walton for the starting center position this season. That would be fast, but Blake has a lot going for him. I’m looking forward to seeing another good offensive line camp battle.