Is San Diego’s D.J. Fluker a tackle, or a guard?

The newest addition to the Chargers' starting lineup is former Alabama lineman D.J. Fluker, whom they chose with the 11th-overall pick in April's draft.

Although Fluker made his bones in college with his work at right tackle, there are already those who would like to see him move to guard as a pro. Among those pundits is ESPN’s Matt Williamson, as noted by UTSD reporter Tom Krasovic:

ESPN scout Matt Williamson suggests a shuffle. He would move Starks to right tackle, use Dunlap at left tackle and switch Fluker to right guard.

“That way you would have one great player this year on that line in Fluker,” Williamson said. “I think he can be a Pro Bowler at right guard. I think he will struggle some at right tackle. He will have trouble sliding and dealing with speed rushers. At right guard, he can move ahead and smash people, which are his strengths.”

San Diego is faced with a similar conundrum to that which confronted Denver after they drafted Orlando Franklin and placed him at right tackle for a year. Franklin had played three years of LG in college and moved to LT only for his senior year. He was noted as a mauler in the run game and he brought an obvious sense of outright meanness to the line - something that the coaches believed would be contagious. They turned out to be right. The Chargers hope to have the same progression with Fluker.

The need to upgrade guard in Denver was a multi-sided argument. LG had Zane Beadles earning his first Pro Bowl appearance last season, albeit thanks to injuries to others - he was an unlikely choice to be moved once he’d achieved that. Chris Kuper made Denver’s decision easier as he struggled to come back from an injured ankle by hurting his forearm and then having more ankle problems. Kuper played in seven games last year and started five - it didn’t fill Denver with trust, especially after Kuper tanked in the Baltimore playoff game.

Denver was quick to add Louis Vasquez, bolstering the position and eliminating most of the talk of Franklin moving to guard. I’ve read a couple of comments to the effect that San Diego is better off without Vasquez in the news out here (Carlsbad, just north of San Diego), and I think it’s amusing as heck. That line needs all the skill it can muster, and a 330-lb. guard with faultless pass protection skills is not something you give up easily. That’s some serious whistling past the graveyard going on there.
Before last training camp, Franklin was considered by many (including myself), as a potential Pro Bowl guard being used as a right tackle. Last season completely changed that dialogue, as Franklin was highly ranked by PFF and highly regarded by nearly everyone who played with or wrote on him, also including me.

It was a great example of player development - one of the expectations of first- and second-rounders is that hopefully they make that sophomore jump. Franklin did it with power to spare. I give line coach Dave Magazu a lot of credit. I give the rest to Franklin for doing the work, making the offseason his step-up season. I’d have to also give Beadles his due for his own Pro Bowl-worthy performance, too.

Now the question asked in San Diego is whether Fluker is athletic enough to play the right tackle, or whether he should be started at guard. This is what I wrote on him in predraft analysis:

I see Fluker as a tremendous physical talent. If you watched any film of his pro day, you saw a player with a tremendously strong bubble, excellent depth in his kickstep, elite flexibility, and extraordinary power. There were several occasions during games in 2012 when I noticed him making mental mistakes, but I think that he can be coached beyond that level. He has an impressive mean streak in his game and he’s also credited with being a leader on the field and in the locker room.

His weaknesses included a lack of recovery speed and an unfortunate habit of not getting his hands firmly into his man, as well as some problems with his balance. He has to learn a second option to adjust into if his first technique fails. He tends to reach and overextend more than he needs to, rather than stepping properly to get his body firmly into his man and establish a good ‘fit' on the attacker. When he does, he can lose his center and get off-balance. He needs some conditioning work as well. His pass protection is much weaker than his run game, where he can use his natural size and power to clear the way for a running back.

...I'm seeing a lack of enough time with a good coach, despite the overall excellence of the Alabama line. I think it would be wise to try and play Fluker at right tackle for at least two seasons before considering trying him at left tackle. Despite his extraordinary physical gifts, he still has a lot of learning to do.  While he’s very powerful, he’s not as athletic as you’d hope, yet he’s mastered his fundamentals well. In a very deep draft class for offensive tackles, I think he has the potential to be a very solid RT if he can develop that skillset both physically and mentally.

In other words, he’s another walking ‘Franklin’s Dilemma’ - is he qualified enough to handle right tackle, or should he move to guard for a year? Guards are still easier to find than tackles, so the answer matters greatly to a team that’s rebuilding an odious OL. There’s also the question of how much you lose by moving the player around - there are different points of view on that. Some feel it’s better to get players comfortable with multiple slots. Others find they get the best play by keeping the player at a single position.

I think it’s obvious from the above blurb how I feel - the guard theory isn’t something I would buy into without exploring his tackle abilities. I think he’s a very good right tackle who will get schooled at times in his rookie year, like all of them do. He prefers that defenders line up close in to him because he’s poor at getting his hands into them - he doesn’t always move his feet properly, which leaves him lunging if they don’t crowd the line. That may take time to overcome, but a lot of it is based in the angle you meet the rusher with. It’s the other side of the coin from Sylvester Williams's problems in getting his hands into the opposing lineman fast enough.

Fluker’s still athletic and has excellent flexibility - which is one of the keys to finding an effective offensive lineman - as well as having some negatives. He doesn’t recover well if he loses control of his assignment - you have to get beyond that and learn to redirect, repeatedly if need be. Other than those points, I think he’s a major talent. There’s nothing I see that can’t be coached.

To those who called him a reach, that’s only true in draftspeak. To those who think that way, he’s a second-tier right tackle being taken at the 11th pick (and other years he’d be a first-tier tackle, so let’s keep things balanced). To the Chargers, he’s a very talented, athletic, big right tackle with some positional flexibility. That’s something that’s good to get in the first round. I don’t believe they’re going to move him to guard unless he struggles too much at tackle this year. The San Diego line has so many needs that they can’t afford to snooze on a potentially excellent right tackle. Guard are easier to find, which is why Jeromey Clary will be tried out there after years of struggling at RT.

I think that Fluker can be coached up just fine. The problems he has aren’t uncommon in players making the NFL jump. His quick, balanced kickstep and his body of work last year suggest that he can mirror on the right just fine, although he’s been dunned for not keeping his balance when fighting for leverage.

”Is he ‘X’ value at ‘Y’ pick?” Ask them in three years. Right now, he’s a level of talent on the line that the Chargers didn’t have prior to the draft, and he’s one of the top RT/RG candidates coming out of college in the country. San Diego still needs line talent badly, but they’ve nailed down one big slot. If they do as well a few more times over the next few years, they’ll have a quality line.

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