Under the Microscope: Laken Tomlinson

Every season good players are overlooked or undervalued across the NFL. As we approach the regular season, Brandon Thorn will look at players who are not getting the appropriate level of attention from big media – or even smaller entities – and put them under the microscope to evaluate their skills and traits and see what others might not. Next up is Laken Tomlinson.

LeCharles Bentley made a statement at the inaugural Offensive Line Performance seminar this summer that stuck with me. In reference to offensive line play, he instructed the people in attendance to, “Appreciate the craftsmanship” of the position. It resonated with me because it is what I attempt do each time I study tape, and it’s something that frankly isn’t done enough. Too often we look for the “what” rather than taking a step back to appreciate the “why” and “how.”

There is a tremendous amount of nuance that goes into every play for every position that is all too often overlooked. This includes the context surrounding each play, and the more of it that we can gather as evaluators the more accurate our assessments become.

As we move into the 2016 NFL regular season I will be expanding the Under the Microscope series from individual players to an evaluation of position groups and scheme. There will still be plenty of individual analysis done, but it will more often fall under the umbrella of specific position groups. Next up is Detroit Lions left guard Laken Tomlinson’s Week 3 performance against the Green Bay Packers.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Background

Tomlinson was drafted by Detroit under the team’s old regime, led by former General Manager Martin Mayhew, as a first-round pick (28th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Tomlinson went to college at Duke University where he started 52 games (all at right guard) over four years. He was also a team captain in 2014.

Since entering the NFL, Tomlinson has struggled learning the nuances of offensive line play, namely with his punch timing and strike zone recognition in pass protection. This issue arises because of his tendency to overset tight shades and give up his inside by not obtaining proper half-man leverage prior to the initial strike. This is his biggest weakness, and something that rears itself in almost every game you watch.

When Tomlinson excels it is because of his raw athletic and physical ability. His mobility in the ankles, knees, and hips allows him to achieve good leverage on defenders in the run and pass game, and he also plays with a chip on his shoulder. Last year Duke Manyweather and I gave out Offensive Line Awards for the best individual blocks of the 2015 season and awarded Tomlinson the “Look for Work Block of the Year.”

In case you missed it, it was against the Seahawks in Seattle on Monday Night Football:

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Up until this current season Tomlinson displayed the tools, but lacked the refinement to be an upper-echelon offensive lineman. I wasn’t expecting to feature him this season for this series, but after reviewing the tape of the Week 3 games, Tomlinson kept jumping off the screen. I decided to rewatch the game with my focus solely on him, and came away very impressed with several aspects of his game. Let’s take a closer look.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Pass Protection

The Lions offensive line faced a tough opponent in the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 3. The Packers interior defensive line boasts major talent, led by arguably the most disruptive interior defensive lineman in the NFL, Mike Daniels.

As I built context around this evaluation, Tomlinson’s performance became more and more impressive. The caliber of opponent is on the high end, the Lions are playing away in a hostile environment, and Tomlinson is coming off of a rough game against the Tennessee Titans where he was called for multiple penalties and gave up several pressures.

The Lions OL coach Ron Prince is an advocate of his players jump setting defenders in pass protection. This is a risky proposition for any offensive lineman to consistently employ against any opponent, much less a second-year interior lineman (Tomlinson) against an elite player such as Daniels.

The reason it is risky is because it discounts the need to create space at the snap, instead working to eliminate space and engage the defender immediately and violently. Although this can end things quickly if your base is strong while your strike is accurate and powerful, it also can result in some ugly misses and the announcers knowing your name – something that is rarely ever good for an offensive lineman.

In pass protection getting out of your stance, creating space, and obtaining a half-man relationship are crucial for success, particularly on the interior where things happen at a much faster pace than they do with offensive tackles on the outside.

It is worth mentioning that jump setting interior defensive linemen is always risky, but even more so against guys who have the ability to use speed in their rushes such as Aaron Donald or Gerald McCoy. Against the likes of pure power rushers such as Daniels, the risk of jump setting is generally lower. Daniels affects the passing game primarily using a bull rush to walk blocker’s back, collapsing the pocket in the process.

If a blocker can achieve a well-timed, accurate strike from the get-go, the chances of someone like Daniels developing momentum and power lessen. It’s still risky, but a better strategy than sitting back waiting for Daniels to initiate contact with a head of steam.

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As previously mentioned, jump setting on the interior requires very good hand placement, strike zone recognition, and a strong base in order to transfer power from the ground up. Tomlinson gets out of his stance and immediately engages Daniels who is aligned in a 3 technique over his outside shoulder. His base is strong and his strike lands in the defender’s chest. Daniels’ right hand explodes into Tomlinson; however, Tomlinson is able to reposition his hands to create leverage and this allows him to recover inside against Daniels’ club / rip move.

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This is the first play of the third quarter for the Detroit offense, and Tomlinson again faces Daniels, again in a 3 technique.

Creating leverage with your hands is an advanced skill for offensive linemen in pass protection and is typically achieved through hand repositioning. The key is hand placement and timing, and it involves getting the hands underneath the defender, which marries the hips with the elbows and causes the lower half of the body to bend and create leverage. This is an excellent example from Tomlinson, and again is demonstrated after initially jump setting one of the more powerfully explosive interior players in the NFL.

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Here we get to see Tomlinson become the aggressor, while showing off his underrated power. A powerful strike begins from the ground up, and is subsequently transferred to the hands. A strong base is critical to begin the generation of power, and from there it travels through the feet, legs, core, lats, and hands. Tomlinson executes this and delivers a powerful strike to Daniels’ chest, stunning him, and forcing a less than optimal swim move that exposes his chest. Tomlinson remains balanced through the engagement, and is in position to recover and shove Daniels into the ground.
It isn’t mentioned enough how talented Tomlinson is in terms of play-strength and power, but we clearly see the results can be special for the second-year pro against an elite player when it all clicks.

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Daniels decides to slant inside on this play rather than continually try to run straight through Tomlinson’s chest. This forces Tomlinson to recover inside using a hop-back technique that is designed to anchor by losing ground gradually in order to gain ground on the backend. The less hop-steps back needed the better.

Tomlinson hops back twice before deciding he’s had enough and plants his feet into the ground to counter Daniels. He has absorbed enough of his momentum to turn the tide, and because of the outstanding mobility in his ankles, Tomlinson is able to win leverage, and is in position to deliver power through his hips. The result is explosive hip extension, and not only the absorption of Daniels’ power, but the redirection of it further inside.

This is my favorite clip because of how impressively Tomlinson’s mobility, anchor, and power are on display. This is four times Tomlinson has beaten Daniels one-on-one by taking the fight to him, and something you will rarely see anyone else do this season.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Projection

Tomlinson is still a work in progress in many ways. He needs to increase his awareness in pass protection both spatially, and in recognizing late-developing blitzes. Too often he is out of position when uncovered, and it results in him being late to assist his counterparts up front. Despite these and the concerns with his game mentioned in this piece, there are distinct improvements in his skill set that are progressing.

With a good athletic profile that includes the mobility needed to win leverage consistently, Tomlinson’s power and tenacity are showing up more and more as a pro. As long as he can continue to get coached up on the nuances of playing the position mentally, there is reason to believe that the former first-round pick can live up to his billing as a good starter in the NFL.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout. Read more of his work here, including his look at David Bakhtiari against Everson Griffen, an explanation of why Doug Free is underrated, and his piece on Kansas City Chief center Mitch Morse.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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