INDIANAPOLIS – At the University of Wisconsin, the offensive linemen are brutes.
They run a few outside zone plays, but it’s not the norm.
“It’s something I’ve done,” offensive lineman Michael Deiter said. “But at Wisconsin, we run a lot of power. Just kind of maul guys.”
There are still teams who value maulers, but the Green Bay Packers are no longer one of them. The list of those who subscribe to the “wide zone” run scheme is growing, thanks to the success of the Los Angeles Rams.
It means teams like the Packers are looking for linemen whose best quality isn’t moving a mountain.
“I think in Matt’s system, a lot of the outside zone stuff requires those guys to be a little bit more athletic, get off the spot a little bit more,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “At the end of the day, good football players, especially the really good ones, can do it all.
“But certainly you’ve seen the teams (who run wide zone), they have athletic linemen who can get out and really cover some space.”
The wide zone works like this: The linemen move laterally toward a landmark in hopes of walling off the defense. The running back’s goal is to follow the caravan and get around the corner to the open field, but if the defense pursues too aggressively, he’ll slow down, let everyone pass and change direction.
It’s a difficult scheme to defend in the NFL and it’s an even more difficult scheme to run in the college ranks.
The reason is colleges can’t find enough athletic linemen to make it work, so teams like Wisconsin don’t run it all that often.
Teams like Washington State never run it.
“We were an inside zone team,” Cougars tackle Andre Dillard said. “We had two running plays.”
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The Badgers consistently contribute to the NFL offensive line ranks and there’s no reason to believe that will change this year with Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards all in the running to be drafted.
All three were at the NFL scouting combine this week to perform in front of coaches and scouts, who have already watched hours of tape on them but haven’t met them in person or seen them perform the standard combine drills.
Deiter should get drafted in the second or third round because he’s one of the more versatile players in the draft and has the athleticism to play in any system. Playing in Wisconsin’s “power” running scheme, he was sometimes the pulling guard who was required to get moving laterally right at the snap.
As a result, he should be a player the Packers have their eyes on.
They got a look at him playing the wide zone at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, last month and as best as Deiter can tell, it went well. He said the fact he played guard, center and tackle at Wisconsin worked to his advantage, offering him a chance to show he’s athletic enough to play anywhere.
But it was different playing that scheme.
“Sometimes you’re just running,” Deiter said of playing in the wide zone. “You have to hit your landmark and you have to run. And you have to get guys moving. I think the toughest part is just getting used to that technique.
“Sometimes you’re just cutting loose and running and not trying to maul people.”
The 2019 draft doesn’t feature a surefire starter like 2018’s Quenton Nelson of Notre Dame, but it is deep at tackle and some of those tackles will wind up playing guard in the NFL.
The Packers have four of their five starters coming back, but right tackle Bryan Bulaga could be a salary cap casualty and guard Lane Taylor will have to compete for his job. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley are the only sure things.
It’s a decent year for the Packers to restock their offensive line and it’s not out of the question that they could use the second of their two first-round picks, No. 30, to select a lineman. If they take someone that high, he’s going to have to be athletic enough to play in the wide zone system and tough enough to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“I do think there’s a point where you’ll sacrifice some of those movement skills for some size because at the end of the day, more teams are going to pass the ball,” LaFleur said. “You’re probably going to have more passes than runs in a year, so to me there’s that challenge of finding what’s suitable still in the run game but also gives you great pass protection.”
If the Packers were to land one of the top tackles such as Alabama’s Jonah Williams or Florida’s Jawaan Taylor, they’d have someone who could probably step into the right tackle position right away. Both might be able to play guard as well and are athletic enough to play in any system.
More than likely, they’ll be fishing for offensive line talent on the second or third day of the draft where they’ve had great luck finding starters (Bakhtiari, Linsley, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, JC Tretter, Scott Wells, Mark Tauscher, Chad Clifton). Everyone except Linsley and Wells were tackles in college, so the Packers have experience moving prospects inside.
Among some of the possibilities are Dillard, Oklahoma’s Cody Ford, Northern Illinois' Max Scharping, who is a Bay Port native, Mississippi’s Greg Little and Kansas State’s Dalton Risner. All are tackles who could stay at that position or be moved inside.
“Most of the questions I hear are, ‘Where can we play you right away?’” Ford said of discussions he has had with teams at the combine. “Every team asks if you’d be comfortable if we’d move you inside.”
In some cases, the move might be because the player’s arms are too short to play tackle or their feet aren’t quick enough to handle NFL edge rushers. But typically, tackles are the most athletic linemen on college teams, so the Packers try to project whether they’d be good fits.
The first box on the checklist will be athleticism.
“There’s a movement skill you’re looking for from those guys up front to implement that outside zone scheme,” LaFleur said. “I feel like we have some pieces already in place there in Green Bay right now.
“We just want to keep adding to that.”