Where will Taylor Lewan line up if Titans draft Laremy Tunsil?
The NFL draft is now less than a month away, and there’s no real consensus on what the Titans will, or should, do with the first pick. Mississippi tackle Laremy Tunsil should be in contention for the top spot, and we’ve already taken a look at his production and skill-set. He allowed just 15 total pressures in 599 pass-blocking snaps over the last two seasons, and could bring immediate help to a unit in need of it; last season, Tennessee’s offensive line collectively ranked 27th in-pass blocking efficiency after allowing a league-high 37 sacks. Several players spent time at right tackle over the course of the season—Jamon Meredith, Byron Bell, and Jeremiah Poutasi—but all three graded poorly. The only source of stability came at left tackle, where second-year player Taylor Lewan was the only one of the team’s offensive lineman with a positive overall grade; he ended 2015 as PFF’s 12th-ranked tackle (83.3 overall grade).
Tennessee addressed its interior line during free agency by signing center Ben Jones from Houston, and adding Tunsil would further protect the team’s second-year QB, Marcus Mariota. If they do elect to go that route with the first pick, it’s worth asking which player the Titans would play at right tackle. Lewan would presumably be the one making the switch, especially given comments made by coach Mike Mularkey. However, he’s logged just two snaps at RT over two years in the NFL, and those came in the 2014 preseason, compared to 1,260 regular season snaps on the left side. Tunsil has likewise been a full-time LT over the past two seasons at Ole Miss, so either way, the team would be getting a right tackle with little to no experience on that side.
PFF’s Sam Monson has previously written about the mechanics of an offensive lineman switching sides, with input from Andrew Whitworth and Geoff Schwartz. His conclusion: it’s difficult.
What prompted Monson’s writing was Tyron Smith’s drop-off in his second season after moving to LT. Smith had a ridiculously good rookie year at right tackle in 2011, finishing the year with the eighth-best overall grade among all tackles. After making the switch in 2012, he regressed to just slightly above-average overall, with the bulk of the drop coming in pass protection. Smith has since bounced back to become the league’s second-highest-graded tackle (behind only Joe Thomas in 2015), but his 2012 season is somewhat of a red flag. Looking back at the grades of other tackles that have played both sides over the last several seasons paints a similar picture.
Among those players is Michael Oher, who saw time at both spots over 1,100+ snaps during his rookie season in Baltimore with solid results—he finished with a top-15 overall grade, positive in both run- and pass-blocking. However, his play wasn’t equal on both sides. Oher’s cumulative grade in five games at LT was -2.7; in 13 games at RT, it was +30.7. After switching to left tackle full-time in his second season (2010), his cumulative grade dropped to -3.8, with an increase of 17 pressures allowed over his rookie year. He’s moved back and forth multiple times over the last five seasons, but 2009 is still the only year that he finished with a positive overall grade.
The Patriots also saw that drop-off last season with Sebastian Vollmer, who made a midseason switch to left tackle, playing 678 snaps there after a season-ending injury to Nate Solder. After compiling a +115.3 cumulative grade over six seasons at right tackle, Vollmer had his worst season by far in 2015, earning a -12.6 cumulative pass-protection grade, down from +11.0 in 2014.
There are multiple other examples to note, including Eric Fisher, Jamon Meredith, and Charles Brown, that saw at least a short-term drop in production after switching sides. Given those and the previous examples, it seems probable that Lewan would see a similar decline given his lack of NFL experience at right tackle. However, that drop would have to be massive to be worse than what the Titans had at that spot last season, and it’s likely that he’d continue to be at least an above-average run blocker.
At this point, who knows how the Titans value Tunsil compared to the other players in the draft. Regardless, this will be an interesting storyline to follow if he does end up in Nashville.