Packers, Zone Blocking, and the 2019 NFL Draft

The NFL Draft is coming up and offensive linemen are on the wish list for the Packers, a team that has seen its star quarterback go down the last two years with back-to-back season-wrecking injuries.

Lane Taylor regressed a bit after a strong first year as a starter, Bryan Bulaga has only started 16 games once in his career, and the dumpster fire carousel at right guard last year brought back visions of Allen Barbre.

The o-line needs help in this draft, particularly at guard. 

But is it as simple as using high picks at a position of need?

It rarely is.

Offensive lineman are a tougher scouting job than most other positions because they function as a unit – their success is just as dependant on the guys next to them as it is on their own skills and effort.

Blocking scheme is a big part of the equation for scouting offensive linemen and, with a new Head Coach and offensive staff, the Packers are shifting to zone blocking this year.   

So strap yourself in and we’ll dive deeper into zone blocking, how the Packers have and will use it, and what it means for the upcoming draft.

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What is Zone Blocking?

The Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) is an approach to blocking where offensive lineman flow together as a unit, looking for soft spots to push through for second level blocking in order to open up running lanes. 

In traditional gap schemes, lineman each have an individual job to do in order to open a hole in a specific spot using strength and leverage. In this scheme, the running back is given an assigned gap between two linemen to drive into and through, sometimes with a lead blocker to clear the way or a pulling guard to help. Running backs need to be rugged, downhill runners who hit holes quickly to succeed in this scheme.

In zone blocking schemes, the running back patiently runs along the line, waiting for a lane to emerge, then cuts upfield to explode when they see a crease. Vision and anticipation are key for backs to be successful in a zone scheme and Aaron Jones just so happens to have alien-level abilities in that regard. This should be very good for him.

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Don’t The Packers Already Run A Zone Blocking Scheme?

Kind of, but not really – at least not like they will this year.

When Mike McCarthy joined the Packers in 2006, he hired Jeff Jagodzinski to be his offensive coordinator. “Jags” who had learned the zone blocking system from Alex Gibbs in Atlanta the year before, (when Warrick Dunn had a career year with 1,416 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry and made the Pro Bowl at age 30) made it clear that the Packers were going to implement ZBS.

In 2006,the Packers had rookie guards Daryn Colegdge and Jason Spitz who, while reasonably athletic, proved to not be great fits in a scheme that required more mobile blockers. The run game struggled, Ahman Green had his worst season as a full-time starter and Jagodzinski moved on. 

Jags was replaced by Joe Philbin who made James Campen an Assistant Offensive Line coach and eventually the Offensive Line Coach. 

Under Campen, the Packers moved away from traditional “pure” zone blocking into what proved to be a very effective hybrid scheme. Over the years, they got farther and farther away from pure zone blocking, especially when they had bullies like Sitton and Lang on the interior.

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So What Will Change?

With LaFleur bringing in Adam Stenavich to be his Offensive Line Coach, the Packers are returning to ZBS in its purest form. Stenavich was an Assitstant Offensive Line in San Francisco the last two years, where Head Coach Kyle Shanahan ran a full-on zone blocking scheme.

To review some of that history: Adam Stenavich worked as an Assistant Offensive Line Coach under Kyle Shanahan, who was an Offensive Coordinator under Gary Kubiak, who was an Offensive Coordinator under Mike Shanahan (not coincidentally Kyle’s father), who dominated the Packers in the Super Bowl with a zone blocking scheme featuring Terrell Davis.

All of these schemes relied directly on zone blocking, which led to career years for guys like Warrick Dunn, Terrell Davis, Arian Foster, and Matt Breida.

Alex Gibbs, who is credited with brining zone blocking to the NFL (though some historians will credit Vince Lombardi for some of the earliest concepts of the scheme), spent time coaching offensive lines under Mike Shanahan with the Broncos in the mid 80’s and the Raiders in the late 80’s before re-joining Shanahan in Denver for the late 90’s Super Bowl runs.

Bringing Stenavich on is like mainlining ZBS directly from its NFL origin and should be noticeably different from the scheme that has evolved in Green Bay. 

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Drafting For Zone Blocking

One of the keys to success in zone blocking is finding linemen that are mobile and athletic enough to pull it off.

In a traditional power gap blocking scheme, strength is usually the prime requisite for blockers. In this case, you want lineman to drive forward and knock defenders on their #ss. Finding big guys who can blast people off the line is tough to do and those beasts usually go early in drafts.

You know who doesn’t go early?

Weaker, smaller linemen who can move quicker.

Zone blocking started in the NFL when teams found it was difficult to get big powerful linemen when every other team in the league used high picks on those guys and free agency was nonexistent or highly restrictive.

The guys who excel at zone blocking and lack the power traits can be found much later in the draft due to the simple economics of supply and demand.

Remember that 1997 Broncos team that ran roughshod over a fantastic Packers defense featuring Reggie White, Sean Jones, and Gilbert Brown? They had 36-year-old Gary Zimmerman leading the offensive line on his farewell tour as his body fell apart. Zim was well past his prime and the rest of the offensive line was made up of a 7th round pick, two 10th round picks (back when there was a 10th round), and an undrafted free agent. Four of the five starters were 31 or older.

Undersized and unheralded, they were a different kind of line – a cheaper line.

How about that Falcons line that Warrick Dunn went nuts behind? That Falcons line featured a 2nd round pick, a 5th round pick, and three 7th rounders – mostly low picks, but guys who were suited for the scheme. 

The most advantageous part of ZBS isn’t the scheme itself, it’s the fact that it’s easier to draft guys who can run it effectively.

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So What Does This Mean For The Packers In The 2019 Draft? 

The 2019 draft class is a great class for ZBS linemen. One of the main reasons is because so many of the top offensive lineman prospects – the guys that will go in the first and second round – aren’t the guys you need to have to run ZBS.

There aren’t a lot of great top-10 caliber lineman (a cast the usually includes dominant power gap Left Tackles). The top Guard prospects are guys like Cody Ford and Dalton Risner who project to go in the middle to the end of the first round.

Ford and Risner are both capable of running ZBS, but they’re also great fits for a traditional blocking scheme. Ford is a 6’4 340 mauler and Risner has a nasty streak that frequently results in pancakes. Teams with traditional blocking schemes will value them more.

Then you have guys like Jawaan Taylor and Beau Benzschawel. Taylor is potential top 10 pick for his strong anchor and powerful hands, but doesn’t have the desired mobility for ZBS. Benzschawel is a power blocking guard, a dominant run driver that teams will be looking at on Day 2 in a power gap scheme, but who lacks the mobility required for ZBS.

When talented guys like this go in rounds 1 through 3, teams cross offensive line off their shopping list, which pushes the zone blocking specialists even further down the draft.

Guys who were good pullers but don’t have the weight to drive block nose tackles. Guys who were athletic finesse blockers that can’t lower their pads and blast open a gap.

Those don’t sound like good things, but that’s the beauty of it: you don’t need guys who can do those things in a zone blocking system!

You can hang tight until the 4th round and snatch up guys who are great at what you want to do, even if they aren’t very good at things you don’t want to do.

This is value drafting at its finest.

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So Who Should We Watch For In The Draft?

There’s a lot of guys that I’ve been drafting in my mock drafts (which you can view, with full analysis, in our Packers 2019 Mock Draft Archive). Here are some of my favorite zone-blocking guard prospects:

  • Garrett Brumfield: Very good movement and pass protection, struggled with hand placement for drive blocking, but his feet make him a good ZBS fit
  • Nate Davis: Played Guard for three years then struggled when moved to Tackle as a senior, can get overextended in a gap scheme, but is great in space and getting to the second level
  • Dru Sammia: Very mobile and athletic, but light for his height and struggled with power blocking at the Senior Bowl, he has ZBS written all over him

Then there’s also a the time-honored Packers tradition of moving college tackles to guard, which doesn’t have to change in a zone blocking scheme:

  • Tytus Howard: Very quick and mobile, but has questions around his level of competition after playing at Alabama State 
  • Bobby Evans: Good puller with lots of mobility, but isn’t a raw power guy; he doesn’t get his hands out quick for gap control, but that should be less of an issue in ZBS
  • Dennis Daley: Doesn’t move walls on drive blocks even though he’s a strong player, however, he’s very good moving in space and reacts quickly to line change-ups, which is also key for ZBS

These guys, along with others like Chuma Edoga and Isaiah Prince, are currently projecting to slip into the 4th round or later. 

No one knows who will be drafted when, but we can look at draftnik boards and mock drafts to get a feel for about what range guys may go. These guys might not all make it to the 4th round, but the Packers can certainly fill other needs in the 1st and 2nd, then see how many are hanging around in the 3rd before worrying about it.

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Conclusion 

Ted Thompson had a lot of success drafting offensive linemen in the 4th round, but that was became he was a brilliant talent evaluator. It would be foolish to just think we could keep waiting until Day 3 for linemen and be fine.

However, if we look at our new scheme and take a good long look at the talent pool in this class, searching for good fits and where they might fall, this year looks like a great draft to find zone blocking offensive line help in the 4th round.

As luck would have it, the Packers have two picks that round! There’s a lot of holes the Packers need to plug. Protecting Aaron Rodgers as he ages has to be a priority – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to use high picks to do it.

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Check out Packers Draft Central for all our 2019 NFL Draft coverage!

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