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GIF Horse: A tale of two tackles

Who will win the Broncos’ right tackle competition?

It took three days for George Paton’s decision to pass on tackles in the NFL Draft to come under serious fire. On May 4th, the Broncos veteran Ja’Wuan James suffered a torn Achilles that ultimately led to his release from the roster. On May 12th, Paton signed former Bear Bobby Massie to a one-year contract, presumably to replace James as the starting right tackle. A day later, the Broncos doubled down at the position by signing former Giant Cameron Fleming to a similar one-year deal.

Credit where credit is due. Rather than take a leap of faith with Calvin Anderson’s development after 132 offensive snaps in 2020, the Broncos’ first year general manager chose to add two experienced competitors in order to try to solve a roster hole that’s lingered since the Peyton Manning era.

Now the question becomes: will it work?

To answer that, as well as the question of why each free agent was available to and through May, I spent the days immediately following the Massie and Fleming signings poring over their 2020 tape. In addition, I dug up what I could on their charting stats from Sports Info Solutions. I also tried to look into their medical history.

What follows are my thoughts and findings as I compared both. For clarity’s sake I believe it’s necessary to share that I grade player traits on a 1-7 scale: poor, marginal, adequate, solid, good, very good, and elite. I learned this from Dan Hatman at the Scouting Academy and it’s been something I’ve stuck with since.

My hope is that this piece provides Broncos Country with more information to form an opinion on the Broncos’ right tackle competition, as there remains a very real possibility it’s the biggest question hanging over a potential Super Bowl roster.

Who are they?

Bobby Massie entered the NFL as a 4th round pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 2012. Since then, he’s played in 122 career games with 114 starts. He’s played a full 16+ game season three times: 2012, 2014, and 2018. He missed the first two games of his 2015 season with the Cards due to a substance abuse suspension. He signed a three-year contract with the Bears in 2016 and started 64 games for Chicago before a 2020 knee injury landed him on Injured Reserve and ultimately ended his career in the Windy City.

Massie signed a 1-year contract with the Broncos and counts for $2.275 million against the 2021 cap. Cutting him would create $1.575 million in dead money and free up $700k in cap space.

Cameron Fleming entered the NFL as a 4th round pick by the New England Patriots in 2014. Since then, he’s played in 112 career games with 44 starts. After his rookie contract expired, Fleming played two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before he signed with the New York Giants last March. A backup for most of his career, Fleming played a full 16+ game season for the first time in 2020.

Fleming signed a 1-year contract with the Broncos and counts for $1.65 million against the 2021 cap. Cutting him would create $1 million in dead money and free up $650k in cap space.

What do they do well?

Standing 6’6” and 325 lbs., Bobby Massie has prototypical size for an NFL tackle. At 35” his arm length sits just under the 80th percentile for baseline measurables. Massie is a solid athlete with good quickness and agility for a man his size, which shows up most in his reach and play in space. A 10-year pro, Massie displays solid mental processing with the ability to recognize games without notable issue.

Per Sports Info Solutions’ charting, the Bears used zone concepts on 84% of their plays, which helped to showcase Massie’s strengths in the running game. He’s a good zone blocker when he’s on his track on outside zone concepts and has the reach to cut off the backside when it’s running away from him. He’s also solid on the second level. When asked to block on gap concepts, Massie’s at his best working double teams where he looks solid. Throughout the games I watched, Massie displayed an ability to lock out and steer opponents when he’s able to land his strikes, as his grip strength is solid.

Massie looked solid in pass protection overall. He’s solid on vertical sets and quick enough on his slide to reach and fan out players such as the Carolina Panthers’ Brian Burns. He looks good on jump sets and should be a reliable blocker if he’s on the field during the Broncos’ play action shots. His athleticism and reach show up on screen plays, where he’s good.

Standing 6’5, 323 lbs., Cameron Fleming also has prototypical size for an NFL tackle. His 34” arm length surpasses the baseline most NFL teams consider necessary to play tackle. Fleming displays good balance for a man his size, which shows up when he’s asked to readjust to an edge rusher fanning wide or absorb a bull rush. Fleming’s a mean SOB who’s shown quick mental processing when he has a clear understanding of his responsibilities, such as the following week two play against the Bears where he adjusted to pick up a looper late. Fleming’s very good play strength shows up when he’s asked to block at the point of attack, when he’s forced to anchor, and through his grip strength.

Per SIS charting, the Giants used gap concepts on 53% of their 2020 plays, the second highest gap rate in the NFL. It made sense for Fleming, as he is a solid blocker on gap concepts and very good at generating movement at the point of attack. He also has good reach on down blocks, which bodes well for him on concepts such as power, pin-pull, and counter OH. On zone concepts he’s at his best with the action working in his direction, and he’s solid on doubles up to the second level. Fleming has good hands with the kind of grip strength to take control of a defender when he gets his mitts on them.

It isn’t always pretty, but Fleming is a solid pass protector and displays good reactive athleticism. He combines that with his grip strength and competitive toughness to make up for any athletic limitations. He keeps his head up versus stunts and can make it off his outside foot to catch a looper working back inside. Fleming has a good anchor and even held up to the Bears’ Khalil Mack working a bull off the edge. He tends to win leverage battles in the phone booth.

What are their weaknesses?

Massie’s height doesn’t always work in his favor, as he can be a waist-bender and will occasionally look top-heavy. He has adequate balance and foot quickness, which shows up in how often he’s on the ground as well as notable issues when asked to adjust to moving targets on the second level. This will also show up against stunts where a looper will swing back hard inside, which forces him to redirect off his outside foot.

While Massie has 35” arms, there are multiple times I noticed he won’t always play up to his length. Part of this may be due to his adequate play strength, which shows up when he’s asked to root out defenders at the point of attack or withstand a bull rush in pass pro. It can also leave him susceptible to a push-pull move.

Massie’s an adequate gap blocker and his “wins” will usually look like stalemates on downblocks due to his adequate play strength and problems winning the leverage battle. These issues also impact him in pass pro where he displays an adequate anchor. Massie will play high, which allows opponents to get under his pads and push him into the pocket.

Massie’s hands are adequate overall, and as I previously said, he doesn’t always play like a man with long arms. His placement will too often get him into trouble, as he’ll miss his punch and expose his chest. This shows up most against wide 9 techs or stronger ends that can match his length.

Fleming is an adequate athlete overall with adequate quickness and agility, which shows up most when he’s moving through space on the second level. He also displays adequate mental processing due to one rather pressing issue: he’ll freeze up in the face of games designed to present him with two potential rushers to block. This happened multiple times and led to some really ugly plays, the best of which may be a false start he received facing off against T.J. Watt and Devin Bush. It got worse:

Fleming’s an adequate zone blocker overall due in large part to his athletic limitations. His reach on plays going away from him is adequate and he’s not especially quick on the hoof, which hurts him when he’s moving off a double to reach a linebacker on the second level. The issues with processing hurt him most in pass protection where SIS credits him with 24 blown blocks. He will have problems with twitchy wide 9 techniques with the burst and athleticism to stress his vertical sets, and longer edges can give him issues by negating his hands.

Final Thoughts

It may not be as sexy as the QB battle, but the competition between Massie and Fleming is going to be one I’ve got my eyes on throughout the preseason. I have little doubt the Broncos’ power, counter, and pin-pull concepts became the best running plays down the stretch of 2020, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Broncos continue to lean on their gap concepts in 2021. If so, that would clearly favor Fleming as he’s better in the phone booth and creating movement at the point of attack.

On the other hand, issues with Fleming’s pass protection could help Massie win the starting job. It’s worth noting that the former Giant is not as experienced as the former Bear, so perhaps Munchak believes he can coach Fleming’s “freeze-ups” out of him. If he’s right, the Broncos may have found a solid right tackle during the third wave of free agency. If not, Massie may fit the offense as Demar Dotson did a season ago: solid in pass protection and survivable as a run blocker. If he can stay healthy, that is.

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