Gentleman's Disagreement: Guards, Corners, And Colin Kaepernick

En Guard! (see what I did there?) The BRB masthead has an impromptu debate on...well...a lot of things, and all of you get to read it.

A lot gets talked about in the BRB listserv among our...ahem..."eclectic" bunch of writers: Alison Brie, barbecue recipes, Jim Irsay's not-shocking-at-all DUI arrest, and of course we occasionally talk a healthy amount of Texans football. In particular, Football Outsiders' golden boy (golden man?) Rovers McCown and I tend to - let's say differ - on a few subjects from time to time, he being the stat guru and I being the guy who is happy he only had to take one entry level math class in college (I smell a sitcom!). Rather than keep our most recent spur of the moment debate behind closed doors, I decided to open it up for all to see and provide their own commentary. For your reading pleasure, here is our raw, unedited conversation in its entirety.

Brett (on the subject of the Powe signing):

This makes me kind of a bit more excited at the possibility of Daquan Jones now to be honest. No more (immediate) need at NT means we can go after a good run stopping 5-tech prospect like him that can also kick inside to play a cocked nose in an event front in sub packages. Lack of good pass rush ability be damned, I'm good with him at 3.1 as long as he just stops the ground game and lets Watt/OLB's do their thing.

Rivers:

This may be a disconnect in how we are conceptually viewing these things, but for me, if a defensive line prospect is entirely hopeless as a pass rusher, I would rather just sign Aubrayo Franklin or his non-union Mexican equivalent.

In a very related note, I also have zero interest in a middle linebacker, running back, or interior offensive lineman before about the fourth or fifth round.

Brett:

He's not "hopeless" as a pass rusher, he just isn't a freak athlete and relies more on a bull rush than anything else. His biggest redeeming quality is his strength and his powerful hands, which he uses to disengage VERY well when playing the run. IF, and that's a big if, he can convert that skill set into being able to shed blockers equally well on pass downs, then he'll be pretty good. I just haven't seen him make that leap so far.

Also I disagree about taking an OG early, Rivers. I'd be all the fuck over Yankey or Sua Filo if one of them fell to 2.1. It probably won't happen, but I'd love it.

Rivers:

You're viewing this from a "let's make this team better and pick the best player" point of view.

I am saying, from a conceptual point of view where this league is a passing league, and where better guards are not a hard commodity to acquire, I think it's foolish to spend a pick on a player at that position early unless he is so OBVIOUSLY the best player on the board that you'd be bragging to the teams above you that he fell to you for years.

And hey, didn't Chance Warmack fit that mold? Sure seemed shitty in his rookie season.

Brett:

And I could counter that by saying that the worst possible pressure for your quarterbacks to deal with is interior pressure, and that we are now in a division with Gus Bradley, who no doubt about it WILL get his franchise 3-tech one day, and Ray Horton, who sends linebackers up the middle to get his DL on one ones just for funzies. Add on to that conference opponents with young interior stud muffins like Geno Atkins, Sheldon Richardson, Phil Taylor, Corey Liuget, and Dontari Poe, and yeah...guard is pretty important to me. If we don't have a left guard who can be trusted ALONE against penetrating 3-techs or big ass NT's when Myers or a running back isn't available to help him (for one reason or another), then shit will go south for a young QB pretty quick. To compound the issue, O'Brien wants to run more gap plays and strengthen the run game inside the tackles. We've already got an athletic mauler like Brooks at the right side, but now we need someone who is good enough in space to engage linebackers in the second level, is athletic enough to plow open lanes when pulling on power, AND is a good enough pass protector to handle a 3-tech one on one. That's really, really hard to find in my opinion.

Are there are a lot of guards that are decent and get the job done? Sure. Is left tackle still the most important offensive line position? Definitely. Guards, however, should not be marginalized in my opinion, even in this new era of edge rushers. If you don't have good interior protection, guys like J.J. Watt tear your team a new ass hole, and we probably won't be the only team in the AFCS with a great interior rush for long if Bradley and Horton have anything to say about it.

Rivers:

So ... should we spend our resources on something to counter something like 20% of teams and 37% of our schedule, or should we spend them to beat everybody? I'm not saying Bridgewater (or any quarterback in this draft) is as good as Luck, but Luck's interior offensive line has been shit for two years and it really hasn't made much of a difference. I mean yeah, ideally, it'd be great to have a Jahri Evans (fourth round) or Josh Sitton (fourth round), or prime Carl Nicks (fifth round) or someone like that, but where could we find them if not the top of the second round?

Corzo:

Rivers is good at making points and makes me want to subscribe to his newsletter

Ron:

I wish we could drop back and snag Haha or Calvin Pryor and Yankey mid and late first.  I think those guys could do a ton to help the Texans long term in areas of current horrific weakness.  Finding trade partners is a bitch though.

Brett:

I'm not advocating reaching for a guard to fill a need, if that's what you are concerned about. I'm a BPA kind of guy. That being said, if a guard and, let's say a slot receiver were both available at 2.1...for context let's say Brandin Cooks and David Yankey...I would take Yankey every time because it fills a bigger need. While Cooks would, as you say, be more relevant against a greater number of teams because not EVERYONE has a great interior rush, Yankey would likely give us more wins than Cooks simply because every aspect of an offense runs through the trenches. Run blocking, pass blocking, neutralizing people who shouldn't be able to be neutralized. Stud OG's are just as important to me as any skill position player in my opinion.

Ron:

Are you guys not panicked about our shitty safety situation?  That seems to be exposing our corners quite a bit for big plays.  I don't see Manning, Pleasant or Keo being the answer to stop the hemorrhaging over the top.  Swearinger looks like a good box patrol, but he's not a vertical guy.

Rivers:

Well I can't defend Brandin Cooks in this construct because I think he's shit. And also that this class is so deep at receiver that I think you might as well wait for the third round.

But if you're asking me to pick between, say, Jason Verrett and Yankey. Even if the former may not contribute right away, I think the answer is very obvious. There aren't enough good cornerbacks to go around. There are plenty of guards in the later rounds or in free agency that can be serviceable. Hell, people bitched up a storm about Dallas' guard problems last offseason. They wound up with like six games of Brian Waters, Ron Leary, and Mackenzy Bernadeau. Their run offense was, statistically, very damn good last year. Was it all those guys? Hell no. But did they hold them back? Not really.

(I should add that another part of my theory is that you always draft tackles and move them inside if they aren't fast enough to be on the edge.)

Brett:

I would personally argue that there aren't enough good guards to go around, either. It's kind of a position group where there's a lot of meh, some really good, and some really bad. With corners, however, there's a lot less "meh" and a lot more "great" or "terrible". It's weird how the standard of deviation is so much greater for CB than it is for OG. It is certainly a lot harder to build a good stable of corners because you need a hell of a lot more of them than you need guards - so obviously they are the more important position - but would I take Verrett over Yankey? I'm not so sure. Verrett would make an excellent nickel corner and probably solve a lot of the problems that Brice McCain left after he got cut, but Yankey would fix just as many problems that Wade Smith left us last season. I believe that having the ability to keep an offense on schedule by blowing open holes in the run game as well as keeping a quarterback upright is what puts points on the board, and at the end of the day modern football is all about scoring. Ask yourself this question, what is more likely to determine the outcome of a game, Jason Verrett breaking up a pass on third down, or David Yankey giving his quarterback time to complete a pass on third down?

It is great if you can find a pro bowl guard in later rounds, and it may well happen more often than finding a pro bowl corner late, but for every Josh Sitton or Jahri Evans there is a Logan Mankins, Mike Iupati, Andy Levitre, or Steve Hutchinson.

I think I'm going to c/p this debate into a post btw. I'll call it...Gentleman's Disagreement or something.

Eh?! EH?!

Rivers:

My belief is that you can taper back the responsibilities of a guard. If they aren't fast, you can ask them not to pull. If they aren't strong, you can use them mostly in combo blocks. With a cornerback? It's almost all reactionary. You will get exposed if you can't do something right.

Just because a cornerback plays on the side of the ball that is more-often trodden on doesn't mean that his plays are less likely to determine the outcome of the game. I think that's a false construct. I mean yeah, if Case Keenum is back there, guard blocking can be the difference between a sack and a completed pass. But if someone with, you know, actual awareness and mobility is there -- i.e. investing picks in a position that I feel actually is important -- then I don't think guard pass blocking is that impactful.

And hey, while you mention Mankins, Iupati, Levitre, and Steve Hutchinson, I see you've failed to mention their contemporaries like Davin Joseph, David DeCastro, Amini Silatolu, Jeff Allen, Danny Watkins, and Chilo Rachal. Any reason behind that?

Weston:

In Houston's situation your first point is why I like Yankee and taking a guard early on in the draft. 

This is all speculation, but I'm assuming Houston is going to do away with the zone scheme they had run under Kubiak where everyone steps zone steps one way and the play flows horizontally that direction. Under O'Brien they will probably run more power, trap and traditional zone. Traditional zone is used to just get as many double teams as possible on the play side. For example, if they are running zone right and there is a two i the guard and center are getting hip to hip to drive the tackle up into the Mike and exchanging based on if the Mike goes to the A or B gap. Additionally, if they run more trap, counter, and power the play depends on the play side double team's ability to get movement and create the hole. So we should be seeing a need to get movement vertically rather than horizontally and a greater emphasis on double teams. 

Last year Brown and Myers had trouble in the run game, but could make single blocks to cover guys up and push them down the line. If they change from the zone scheme, Brown and Myers will probably have a difficult time in the run game. However, I believe a guard like Yankee would not only make the offense better by helping with interior pressure, but he would make Brown and Myers better in the run game as well by having the strength to be the driving force in ace and deuce combo blocks.

I also like the fact you can take the best guard or center in the draft in the second round, unlike nearly every other position where the best player on the board in that position is gone in the first round.

Rivers:

If we need to draft a second-round guard to make Myers or Brown good in the run game then we need to talk about getting rid of Myers and Brown.

And, once again, we are talking about the part of the offense we shouldn't be spending resources to fix. Houston went three-and-out on 20.5% of drives, the sixth-lowest rate in the league. The running game, staying on schedule, coachety coach coach term. Know what happened when we got closer to the red zone and the defense constricted? We couldn't do shit. We finished 31st in points per red zone trip. Because our quarterbacks sucked and we had two worthwhile receivers.

So, my plan is ... get a worthwhile quarterback and more receiving options. And maybe a right tackle since Derek Newton is the replacement levelist replacement level player since Zac Diles. And don't spend a high pick on a guard who solves none of those issues. Thank you.

Brett:

To Matt's and your points, I don't like being forced into limiting an offensive play book because we don't have a line that can do certain things. I want a guy who can bury a DT play side, NOT get made a fool of by a Mike in space on a counter on the next play, and then shut down the interior pass rush when he needs to. I look at average guards and say "hey, they win some and they lose some", and then I look at good guards and say "holy shit what would this offense do without them?"

Kaepernick is already shaky as a quarterback to me. Can you imagine how bad he would be if he didn't have that run game to prop him up? I have seen countless runs in the last two seasons that should have gone for big yardage only for shitty guard play to mess it all up. Even Derek Newton was less of a liability in the ground game than Smith because so much of a successful run play comes from guards rather than tackles. If you have a young quarterback, unless they are Andrew Luck, then you need a great run game, a great defense, or both. If I need a run game, and a run game comes from guards, then guards a high priority to me.

Also, being able to run in the Redzone usually helps fix those Redzone scoring issues. Need a good OL to do that.

Rivers:

Yeah, I want to build a super team that buries everyone in every part of the game too. I also realize that there is a salary cap, and thus, it's important to spend resources in a matter befitting their importance.

Can I imagine how bad Kaepernick would be without that run game to prop him up? Let me see. You mean like, if somehow, a team quarterbacked by Colin Kaepernick finished with a run DVOA of 2.2%, and a pass DVOA of 31.8%, and did that without Michael Crabtree for essentially the entire season? How propped up are we talking here?

Texans red zone DVOA splits: -5.8% (21) run -- despite playing complete zeros at left guard and right tackle -- -31.6% (28) pass.

Weston:

I think most of Kap's shakiness came from only having Boldin as a target to throw too with Davis and Crabtree being injured and he was a much better player with them in the lineup.

I know it’s hard to tell exactly with the zone run game and how much cutbacks skew results, but HOU adjusted line yards are interesting to look at as well.

LE          LT          MID       RT         RE

HOU

3.56

14

3.29

29

4.47

3

3.68

19

4.61

3

But it seems like you can infer the difference in the side of the lines is because of Brandon Brooks being a plus run blocker compared to Wade Smith. This is why I think Yankee could significantly help Brown and the left side when it comes to the run game. Could a guard like Travelle Wharton help out just as much as a stop gap, I don't know, but I'm down with a second round guard because of this.

TexansDC:

When you can't throw in the red zone, or threaten to throw, it's easy to stack up and stop it. Houston, last year, had no threat of that. None. Owen Daniels isn't a big bodied target and no QB knows how to throw a fade or a slant to their big possession WRs.

Bridgewater on a rollout should change that....big TEs should change that.....but I gotta agree with Rivers, the red zone passing offense is junk.

Brett:

You mean the offense that put up 137 yards a game rushing, part of which was Kaep himself out if the pistol, while passing for more than 200 yards just twice in the first 11 weeks of the season? He's a one read quarterback who can't pass for shit unless it's against cover 2, and had to rely on his loaded offensive line to keep both an old as dirt Frank Gore and himself from imploding.

Also, I think that Houston's offensive DVOA is a bit skewed this year considering they practically switched schemes mid season. Shotgun spread all day 'erry day, yo.

Rivers:

Total yardage-based statistics? You're better than this Brett. Golly, I wonder what side of the ball SF was going to favor as they choked the life out of the cream puffs they played in that long midseason win streak?

I am not saying that Kaepernick is flawless. Just that the conventional wisdom that he had a regression season or whatever is ridiculous. Sure, the context means he had some help from his guards -- Iupati didn't have a great season IIRC, and Boone is exactly the type of guard I am saying I'd rather pursue -- but let's not pretend he's not obviously talented.

They switched schemes midseason, with Keenum, for about four or five games. Then they tried to go back the old way (see: Colts, Week 15) and it was an abortion. I can't even tell which side of the argument that stat is trying to help. I'd swear it's mine...

Weston:

I was waiting for that first sentence as soon as Brett brought up pass yards. I enjoyed his game against HOU where Kap was 6/15 for 113 in that 34-3 loss.

As far as the actual argument goes, I'd like to see a pass rusher, CB, or Guard in the second round after QB.

CB would be fit a need and you can groom him in the slot, cut Joseph next year to save 8 million in cap space, and then roll with unknown rookie and Jackson in 2015. OLB you can move Reed inside, have him play Strongside and give Mercilus one last chance to make something happen.

Brett:

You know I'm a film guy over a numbers guy, and honestly I think the film is more telling than even DVOA. The facts are this:

1 - Kaepernick is a physical monster, but without those legs he would be Blaine Gabbert. He can't throw a touch pass to save his life, runs from phantom pressure simply because he can, and if his first target isn't open the play is usually dead before it has a chance.

2 - Knowing this, defenses are content to play the run and have their defensive line go with contain assignments rather than strictly rushing the passer, and they still get production from their ground game (which total yardage backs up, as was my original point). Kaepernick is not a threat through the air. He just isn't. Frank Gore and that line are that offense, not Kaep. Boldin is too slow to get separation on man-breakers like crossers and drags, and all defenses had to do was hi-low Crabs to make him panic.

3 - Harbaugh figured out pretty early in the year that Kaepernick is still an extremely limited quarterback (and that he is nowhere near worth his asking price, but that's a different debate), so by about a quarter through the season...when they started winning...they were back to their ground and pound approach that brought them success the previous two years. When this team doesn't try to feature the run game first, second, and third, they start 1-2. When they got their heads out of their asses in week four, they only lost two more games the entire season (one of which was conveniently against Carolina's fierce run defense). Without a run game, and by extension without an offensive line, that team is straight up screwed.

Young quarterbacks are generally not going to be Andrew Luck. They need protection, they need a defense, and they need a run game. Luck is considered a once in a generation prospect because he literally turns dog shit into gold every Sunday, which very few quarterbacks in the history of the sport have ever been able to do - this year's class included. Without that kind of guy behind center, we have to build a supporting cast around whoever we DO have. That starts with a run game and protection, both of which we don't have, and a defense, which we sort of have. This team has to be above average in four areas to win football games - offensive balance, turnover margin, rushing the passer, and protecting our own passer. Turnovers come and go, and the pass rush I think can be improved under Crennel when he actually lets our OLB's play more than contain, but we have absolutely nothing on this roster that can protect our own passer from the left guard position as well as provide value to the run game to keep things balanced. A guy like Yankey can do that.

Rivers:

I don't entirely disagree with the premise of your Kaepernick points, but I think you are falling into the classic scout's trap of judging a player by his 30 worst plays and 30 best plays. He has a lot to work on, certainly, and did at time show the traits you are talking about throughout the season. At the same time, just as we can't ignore the context, we also can't ignore the fact that he was much more productive statistically than your eye would have us believe. Why is that? It can't all be great play-calling.

As for your judgements on 3 ... 1) Did you just decide to forget where Kaepernick single-handedly BEAT the Packers with his arm? 2) Whoaaa, Kaepernick got shut down by the best defense in football. He must suck! 3) In the Colts game, he was literally throwing at Vance McDonald and Quinton Patton. Davis was out early. The entire offense was discombobulated. As for this blah blah blah run stuff. Week 4's first quarter featured 15 pass attempts and 14 run attempts. Then, once the 49ers found an insurmountable 21-3 lead: 20 running attempts to 6 pass attempts. To pick another game at random, Jacksonville's prior to the 28-0 lead they took: 14 pass attempts,19 run attempts. (And this was in a game where Kaepernick off the edge was KILLING the Jags). In the second half: 15 rushes, 2 passes. The 49ers "featuring the run game, first, second, and third" is actually something that happens ... when the game is already out of reach. Let's not pretend that one side of that isn't informing the other. C'mon now.

So anyway, that silly diversion aside.

1) I am aware that quarterbacks are not all Andrew Luck.

2) I am aware that quarterbacks benefit from having other things their team is good at. Especially in the win column. I don't think they *need* anything to be fine.

3) As I have said, it's not that I don't think having a good guard is a good thing, it's just not something I would pay a premium to get.

4) If I am building my team to succeed in the long-term, I would rather allocate my best assets towards a good pass defense and a good pass offense than work on the run game on either side of the ball.

5) Thus, if we are going to frame it as "helping" our quarterback, I would prefer to help him by giving him a good defense and a good receiving corps than  spending too much to fortify positions that can be filled cheaply and are not as important.

Tim:

Anybody want to volunteer to do a post on Bortles' Pro Day today?

Brett:

The week before the Rams game the Niners lost to Indy because they decided not to give Frank Gore the ball after the first half despite his averaging something like eight or ten yards a carry in the first two quarters. They got burned for not staying balanced and never made that mistake again...and it was a mistake because Kaepernick is nowhere near a good enough quarterback to pass his way out of trouble (or even pass to put other teams into trouble in the first place).

Random semi-related note: I just got out of our pre-show meeting and it was said that there are a boat load of scouts who apparently consider Yankey in the 7th round to undrafted range...and by boatload I mean vast majority.

What the fuck? Am I missing something here? I've watched seven games over two seasons and he does NOT look undraftable to me.

Rivers:

Really having a hard time getting the logic here. One game without his two best receivers was a memorandum on the entire 49ers passing offense, but one against the Packers is just a fluke?

Brett:

Counter point - Dom Capers.

What do you think, BRB? Are guards important in the modern NFL landscape?

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