After finally corralling the coaches film through various sources, I started my weekly tape review of the trenches. My focus began with assessing the two highest drafted offensive linemen in the 2021 class (Penei Sewell & Rashawn Slater) and how they fared in their debuts. I put together a synopsis of each player’s outing with video included.
These were valuable games to study as I begin the process of tracking and chronicling their career development since both Sewell and Slater faced very good or elite competition for a substantial amount of reps.
The plan is to circle back on these guys (while adding others) near the midway point of the season to gauge their progress. The first game establishes the baseline for each player.
Lions LT Penei Sewell - 1st round pick (7th overall)
Primary opponents: 49ers DEs Nick Bosa & Samson Ebukam
Setting the stage
Shortly after Detroit announced that starting left tackle Taylor Decker suffered a hand injury in practice leading up to the season-opener against the 49ers, the coaching staff quickly made the decision to switch Sewell over in his place. This was the most logical choice for two reasons; Sewell played exclusively on the left side during his career at Oregon, and he struggled to get comfortable in the preseason during his adjustment to the right side. Some players can make the transition from one side to the other more smoothly than others, but for Sewell, it was evident that it was going to be an awkward process.
The excitement leading up to the game was palpable considering Sewell was back in his comfort zone on the left side, and he was set to face elite competition in Nick Bosa.
I graded Sewell as the top lineman in the 2021 class and saw a special prospect. At just 20-years old, 330+ pounds, with elite explosiveness, power, and mental acuity, I saw a player with a near limitless ceiling. His youth, inexperience, and time away from the game (opted out of the 2020 season) were my only major concerns about his evaluation. His far-reaching runway to improve (ex. in three years during Week 1 of the 2024 season, Sewell will be just 23-years old, the age of some rookies) is a rare commodity that plays a significant part of his value as a player.
Sewell’s Week 1 Review
Two of Sewell’s top strengths from his scouting report:
Being explosive out of your stance as an offensive lineman in pass protection and the first one moving at the snap is a reliable marker for success, especially against elite competition. This was evident right away from Sewell at left tackle. It allowed him to find his set points under control and balanced against Bosa for the majority of their matchup.
This screenshot illustrates Sewell’s incredible initial explosiveness and ability to time the snap perfectly.
This rep ended with Sewell showcasing smooth footwork to transition into his anchor and excellent play strength that shut down Bosa’s attempted bull-rush.
It becomes apparent just how dominant Sewell can be when we contrast what his explosiveness and play strength can do in a similar situation against a rotational level player like Samson Ebukam. Notice how abruptly Sewell’s anchor stops Ebukam in his tracks.
This is another example of how Sewell can annihilate middle of the pack level players. Here he is tying up Ebukam on a screen off of play-action.
Going from Bosa to Ebukam in this game provided Sewell a break, but his reps against Bosa were transfixing and really spoke volumes about his confidence level at left tackle.
Showing patience in a pass set with proper weight distribution and discipline to not bite when a rusher sets up their move with stutters and hesitations is typically reserved for seasoned, high level starters. Sewell demonstrated it a few times in this game, including on these two reps broken down below.
The last play I want to highlight showcases some of Sewell’s ability as a run-blocker.
A blurb from his report:
The finish on this play is notable, but it’s Sewell’s pad level, quickness, and precise fit on the double-team that showcase refinement rarely seen in a 20-year old player.
The finish is a flash of what Sewell can do when he gains superior leverage on a smaller defender. His violent power is eye-catching even though 49ers DT Kentavius Street is a rotational player forced into expanded duty because of Javon Kinlaw’s absence.
While Sewell wasn’t perfect in the game (losing three reps handily to Bosa, giving up a tackle for loss and two pressures), he battled with a premier edge-rusher, including reps without help, and flashed many of the traits that made him such an intriguing prospect.
This was a very encouraging performance considering he moved to the left side at the last minute and was able to hit the ground running after struggling throughout the preseason at right tackle. Decker is set to miss around a month due to his injury, opening the door for Sewell to further settle into his position with a chance that he doesn’t relinquish it once the Lions activate Decker off of injured reserve. At the very least, the Sewell/Decker dynamic will likely cause some interesting internal discussions by the coaching staff and front office as to how they want to handle a tricky situation.
Sewell’s Week 2 opponent will be the Packers’ trio of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary.
Chargers LT Rashawn Slater - 1st round pick (13th overall)
Primary opponents: Washington DEs Chase Young & Montez Sweat
Setting the stage
Slater was viewed as the safest O-line prospect in the draft due to his refined technique, athletic ability, efficiency from the ground up, and renowned work ethic. He also trained with Duke Manyweather, cultivating his game even more after opting out of the 2020 season. Add in being able to prepare and practice each day of camp against an elite player in Joey Bosa, and Slater was set up for success in numerous important ways.
Even with that context serving as a backdrop, Slater needed to put it together on the field in Week 1. There was a lot of responsibility on his shoulders considering how often he was left on an island. After combing through the film of Slater’s first game, it was apparent that his hard work had paid off in how he improved his few weaknesses from college while bolstering his strengths to an even higher level.
Slater’s Week 1 Review
Slater drew tough competition in his first start, facing the ultra-talented pairing of Chase Young and Montez Sweat, two players with prototypical physical traits and improving skill-sets. This was the third time Slater and Young squared off going back to their college days.
Slater’s debut was the best of all rookie linemen I saw in Week 1 due to how steady and consistent he was from start to finish. Slater dominated Young and didn’t allow him to sniff the quarterback, while Sweat beat him cleanly just once using a long-arm stab/rip technique.
This first bullet point from the ‘positives’ section of my scouting report on Slater showed itself in this game in a major way:
This can be seen against a Sweat long-arm bull rush that Slater was able to absorb, sit down on, and halt using smooth footwork, mobility, and strain. He also stayed attached after Sweat disengaged to the outside to finish the rep.
Considering that Slater is giving up 2 3/4 inches in arm length to Sweat (33” to 35 3/4”), this is a great example of how a blocker can overcome a significant length disadvantage using proper technique, mobility, leverage, and play strength.
The next two points below were my favorite traits from Slater’s college film, and they translated right away in this game.
In this clip below, Slater showcases excellent body control, balance, and footwork with active hands to reset and stay leveraged up the arc against Sweat’s long-arm-chop move.
Slater showing right away that he can defeat a player of Sweat’s caliber on an island is incredibly impressive. To Sweat’s credit, Slater’s one glaring loss in the game came on another long-arm move from Sweat that Slater wasn’t able to generate leverage on quickly enough to counter it, resulting in Sweat crossing his face for a pressure. This was one of the few ‘negatives’ I had in my report that was a slight concern for Slater, and it will likely pop up from time to time as a pro against rushers with elite length that can string together moves like Sweat is starting to learn how to do (think Chandler Jones & Myles Garrett).
Against Young, Slater was brilliant and made it look easy in how quickly he locked him up with smooth footwork and precise, controlling grip strength. Most importantly, Slater did it almost exclusively on an island without schemed help, which is an indicator of how much confidence the team has in him to handle premier talent by himself. After studying this performance, it’s clear their faith wasn’t misplaced.
The most surprising aspect of Slater’s performance came as a run-blocker, particularly in his ability to generate consistent movement on Young and Sweat with noticeably technique since his college days.
Slater was always a good overall run-blocker, but generating movement on angle-drive blocks was the one area where he had some struggles on tape. Those issues look like a thing of the past after what Slater put on tape in this matchup. Here are three examples that show what I mean.
Slater’s Week 2 opponent will be Cowboys DEs Tarell Basham, Bradlee Anae, and possibly Randy Gregory if he makes it out of the Covid protocol.
Both Sewell and Slater put together impressive debuts against high-level competition with all of the traits that made them obvious first-round talents on display. Seeing their strengths immediately translate and express themselves so prominently is exactly what their teams were hoping to see.
While Slater had a cleaner overall performance, Sewell flashed dominant traits after finding out just days before the game that he would be switching sides. Both players had at least one of their few concerns as prospects pop up on film. I don’t want to draw too many conclusions after just one game, but the level of competition each faced suggests they were the impact starters most people expected them to be.
As we approach the midway point of the season I will check back in on both Sewell and Slater while adding some more notable rookies and assessing their performances.