Once quarterback was effectively removed from the equation for the 49ers at the top of the NFL draft, thanks to trades by the Rams and Eagles for the top two picks, most turned their attention to the other side of the ball for San Francisco’s No. 7 overall pick.
In this final week leading up to the draft, however, another position has been rumored and mocked to the 49ers with increasing frequency: offensive tackle. It’s certainly not an unreasonable proposition. San Francisco has needs at nearly every position on the roster, and if the top defenders are all gone by the time the 49ers are on the clock (very plausible), tackle would make a lot of sense.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the top two tackle prospects in this year’s class, beginning with a player who has been many draftnik’s top prospect throughout the draft process…
Where he wins: On the overwhelming majority of plays, Tunsil looks like the complete package. It can be difficult to discern his dominance in pass protection at times because he makes it look so effortless, but dominant he was. During his suspension-shortened final season at Ole Miss, Tunsil allowed just five quarterback pressures (0 sacks, 0 hits, 5 hurries) in 235 pass blocking snaps while facing the country’s toughest slate of edge rushers, per Pro Football Focus. Tunsil is smooth and fluid out of his stance, equally adept at handling speed or power rushers, almost never loses balance, and possesses excellent change-of-direction ability to redirect and mirror second and third moves.
Tunsil’s athleticism is obvious, not only in pass protection, but also when getting out in space on screens or to pick off a second-level defender in the run game. Speaking of the latter, if Tunsil sets his sights on a linebacker at the second level, you might as well call it a day; he routinely seals off second-level defenders and rarely misses his target when asked to do so.
When asked to drive block on bigger bodies along the defensive line, Tunsil is like some sort of tackle robot that only uses exactly the amount of strength required to accomplish the task. This means he rarely has trouble generating push up front, but never really dominates or overbears defenders either. Depending on your perspective, I suppose that could be a good or bad thing, but you’d be hard pressed to argue it wasn’t effective. Tunsil finished with the nation’s third-highest run block success rate, per Pro Football Focus, and there wasn’t a single instance in the games I viewed where he was beat cleanly in the run game.
Where he struggles: Tunsil certainly isn’t a perfect prospect, but you can’t really point to anything that showed up so consistently on film that you would label it a weakness. That said, there are a couple of things worth watching as he transitions to the NFL game.
On the rare instances when Tunsil did get beat in pass protection, the scenario was typically the same: Tunsil gets beat with a strong outside move because he doesn’t punch and get his arms extended, but rather leans into the block and allows the pass rusher to get into his frame.
Again, to be clear, this didn’t happen often (we’re talking about a few plays in four games, at most), but it’s a technique issue you’d like to see him clean up at the next level.
The other concern you might have was less an issue with Tunsil’s game and more with the offense he played in and the sample-size problem that arises from playing in that scheme. Hugh Freeze’s offense at Ole Miss is heavy on spread option concepts, both of the zone read and run-pass option (RPO) variety. As it relates to Tunsil, this means a couple things. First, on a lot plays that end up as passes, Tunsil is actually run blocking because the play features both run and pass elements. This limits the number of snaps where you get to see him pass block one-on-one with an edge rusher.
Furthermore, the Rebels would often "read" the edge defender outside Tunsil, which meant you often saw him ignoring the defensive line to move up and pick off a second-level defender. As a result, you didn’t get to see Tunsil execute some of the more difficult blocks, i.e., reach blocks, that he will be asked to perform as a professional. There’s little question Tunsil possesses the athleticism to effectively execute these blocks, you just haven’t seen it, which will give some observers pause.
Where he wins: Whereas Tunsil’s effectiveness in pass protection can sometimes be overlooked, Stanley’s prowess keeping his quarterback clean is his unquestioned strength as a player and is readily apparent from the moment you turn on the tape. Like Tunsil, Stanley is incredibly smooth and effortlessly changes direction to mirror pass rushers. Stanley really differentiates himself, however, with how well he uses his length. He almost always lands the first blow—he seems to surprise defenders sometimes with how quickly he delivers that initial punch—and then does an excellent job of locking out his arms to prevent defenders from getting into his frame.
Few pass rushers were able to get the better of Stanley throughout his career. In 2015, Stanley gave up a mere 14 quarterback pressures (3 sacks, 4 hits, 7 hurries) over 458 pass block snaps, per Pro Football Focus, never allowing more than two in a single game, all while having to deal with erratic quarterback play behind him.
Stanley isn’t quite as deadly as Tunsil when getting up to the second level in the run game nor did he show quite the same sort of athleticism in space on screens, but he was effective in those areas nonetheless.
Where he struggles: Stanley lacks the sort of functional strength you’d like to see from a top prospect. This was a bit less of an issue in pass protection, where even though he was susceptible to getting knocked back on his heels by a decent bull rush, he tends to recover well.
The run game, however, was another story. He rarely generates enough push to move defenders backward, and in fact, often ends up on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage when all is said and done. This led to run block success rate that ranked 45th in the nation last season, per Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t awful in the run game by any stretch, as he was able to compensate for his lack of strength with good technique and those freaky-long arms. Defenders only get stronger at the next level, however, and whoever drafts him will be banking on an NFL strength and conditioning program paying dividends in this respect.
It’s mildly concerning that Stanley didn’t test well at the combine, particularly when it came to the agility drills. His pSPARQ score placed him in the 34th percentile among NFL offensive lineman. That alone certainly doesn’t mean Stanley can’t play well at the next level. However, when you consider the slate of opposing pass rushers Stanley faced last season, which wasn’t as strong as Tunsil’s or others in this class, it’s possible the tape overrates how athletic he really is. My money is still on Stanley developing into a very good NFL pass protector, but this is the type of thing you could see people pointing to down the road if he doesn’t pan out.
The bottom line
Both players were fantastic pass protectors at the college level and have all of the tools to become exactly that in the NFL. Specific to the 49ers, both have the requisite athleticism to excel in Chip Kelly’s zone-based run game while giving San Francisco a much needed bookend in pass protection opposite Joe Staley.
At this point, however, Tunsil is simply a more athletic and more complete player. Stanley’s lack of functional strength is the clearest deficiency possessed by either player, and even though there’s a little more projection involved with Tunsil in regards to the breadth of blocks he was asked to execute in college, that’s enough for me to put Tunsil over Stanley atop my tackle rankings.