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The big Zach Fulton film review: Chiefs starting guard? Or center?

I'm taking a break from reviewing rookies to get back to guys who suited up for the Chiefs last year. Last we left off, I was smack dab in the middle of looking at Zach Fulton's film. That project is completed and we're ready to rock.

Fulton is a pretty controversial player among Chiefs fans (much like LDT, his main competition for the LG spot). The biggest issue that divides us seems to be Fulton's time at center. I've heard people say that Fulton is a superior center to Mitch Morse (balderdash, say I). I've also heard people say that he's mediocre at center. As always, when sides are drawn the truth can often lie somewhere in between (kinda). But we'll get to that.

Because of the uniqueness of Fulton's situation - people wanting to know how he did at center as well as guard - I decided to view three games of Fulton at RG, three games of Fulton at center, and two games of Fulton at LG (for good measure). My goal was to look at his game and try to figure out two things: if Fulton is good enough at center to justify trying out Morse at guard, and whether I would prefer him or LDT to get the nod in 2016.

All right, let's do this. If you're interested, I've done reviews on multiple offensive linemen at this point.  Here is the Mitch Morse review,  here is LDT, here is Jeff Allen (miss you big guy!), and here is Mitch Schwartz. A little work distraction for those of you who haven't read those past reviews (you're welcome, bosses in the Kansas City area).

All right, here's the part where I explain the process. Skip ahead if you know what this is all about.

I watch each snap on all-22 (Madden view is great for OL review) and track the following: pass block wins, pass block losses, run block wins, run block losses, and neutral plays.

A win is where the lineman clearly stops the rusher or eliminates a run defender. A loss is when the lineman gets beat (kinda obvious, no?). A neutral play is where the lineman holds his own but doesn't do enough to win, or the play goes another direction so quickly he isn't asked to do much, OR if a lineman spends the snap as help double teaming defenders (not really winning individually if you've got help).

The most important number is loss percentage. On what percentage of plays are you getting beat? Generally, I've found the goal to be 10 percent. If you can keep your loss percentage under that number, you're a doing a solid job. A little over is acceptable, but once you start ranging too far over 10 percent it's time to worry. Win percentage is less important, but can separate a good performance from a great one.

All right, with that out of the way, let's look at some numbers. Let's make something clear, though... while the numbers are certainly important, you need to understand that it is by nature subjective. What I track as a "win" or a "loss" is going to be different in some cases than what you would. I tend to lean toward being a harsh grader to try and avoid being a homer. The meat of this is the stuff after the numbers. Those are the "what." The film review is the "why." Always keep that in mind.

Now that I've said that, here are the numbers so you can skip right to the comments!

Game/Position PB Wins PB Losses RB Wins RB Losses Neutral Win % Loss %
CIN/RG 10 4 6 2 51 21.9% 8.2%
CHI/RG 7 2 5 4 35 22.6% 11.3%
MIN/RG 10 6 5 4 37 24.2% 16.1%
SD2/LG 6 1 9 3 33 28.8% 7.7%
BAL/LG 6 3 11 5 29 31.5% 12.9%
OAK1/C 3 2 6 3 32 19.6% 10.9%
HOU2/C 8 2 12 6 29 35.1% 14%
NE/C 11 5 10 5 54 23.5% 11.8%
Total 61 25 64 32 300 25.9% 11.8%

I never know how much to talk about the numbers. As I said, they are secondary to the "what." That said, there are a few things that caught my eye.

First of all, Fulton's win percentage isn't terribly high. Now, that number is of secondary importance for an offensive lineman (again, not losing is MUCH more important than winning when you play on the OL). However, it's an accurate statement to say that Fulton isn't a guy who just crushes blocks all that often. For comparison's sake, Morse won on 39.6 percent of his snaps. LDT won on 31.3 percent of his.

Fulton generally needs a pretty specific set of circumstances to win on a snap. We'll get more into that in the film portion, but he generally does well in situations where he's got a matchup right in front of him and he doesn't need to get outside of the phone booth.

But hold on a second! Before you go off saying, "debate over, Fulton is terrible," let's keep talking about those numbers. Fulton's loss percentage, at 11.8 percent, is above my comfort zone. Like I mentioned in the introduction (if you read it), I've found 10 percent to be a good cutoff point from you can do all right with this guy to this guy is going to let too many plays get blown up.

When Fulton gets his hands on a defender and it's strength vs. strength, he almost never loses.

Again, Fulton is past the line. When comparing his loss percentage to Morse (even while at center), it's not even close.  Morse is, quite simply, less likely to blow up a play with a loss. That's a big, big deal, and a major reason I'm not a guy who is in favor of moving Morse aside. Again, we'll get back to this subject, because first we need to do a little more comparing.

This is where things get a little more good news for Fulton. While an 11.8 percent rate of losing isn't good, it's significantly better than LDT was in 2015 (14.3 percent). I know you're running the numbers and thinking "that's like, barely more than one play per game!" But remember this... a loss by an offensive lineman quite often destroys the play before it even has a chance to begin. They are offense-killing machines. Even one more in a game can make a significant impact. So that difference matters. Kind of a lot.

Also, before you decide Fulton's time at center "cheated" him into beating LDT in that area, look again. Fulton's time at center didn't do much to help his loss percentage. What helped him were several games (CIN and the second San Diego game) that were better than anything LDT did last season. Also, while LDT had four games in his nine game sample where he had a loss percentage worse than 15 percent, Fulton only had one.

So going by the numbers game, Fulton has an edge on LDT when it comes to the guard competition. Morse, though, blows him out of the water completely.

The Film

Now, let's talk about the why.

We'll start off with strengths. Fulton's most obvious asset (and everyone knows it) is that he's a pretty strong dude.

When Fulton gets his hands on a defender and it's strength vs. strength, he almost never loses. He's got some real power in both his upper and lower body and is stout at the point of attack. People love to talk about the job he does against big nose tackles, and by and large they're right. Fulton is capable of taking on powerful NTs on his own and will usually get the job done.

I DO have to break up a myth I've seen floating here and on Twitter... Fulton does not free up more blockers than Morse does while playing center. He just doesn't. While Fulton has an easier time with powerful guys than Morse, Morse holds his own there. I made sure to watch carefully to see if the guards were somehow more free with Fulton due to Morse needing help more often. They're not. I'm sorry to be that guy, but it's a myth that gained steam due to Fulton's strength, not based on what the tape says.

You can be the strongest guy on the field, but if you don't beat your defender to the spot you're just another big dude in the running back's way.

Myth busting aside, Fulton's strength is absolutely an asset. When he has someone lined up opposite of him, he is generally able to move them backward or to the side when run blocking. He also does a very good job not giving ground when pass blocking (though he does at times get bull rushed when he lets his hands get knocked aside). A great deal of his game is reliant on this strength.

However, one shouldn't confuse Fulton for a brute who doesn't understand the game. Fulton's technique isn't bad. His footwork isn't great (more due to physical limitations), but he generally avoids lunging, keeps a wide base, and uses appropriate hand placement. He also does a pretty good job picking up stunts (though not delayed blitzes. We'll get to that in the "cons" portion).

So you've got a guy with nice brute strength and decent technique. What's the problem? Well, let me give you an example first and then talk about the issue.

Here, Fulton gets caught lunging a little bit. However, that's not the reason the LB is able to sprint by him and get in Alex Smith's face. Fulton isn't totally off balance here and has time to recover. The problem? His feet are just way too slow to get him back on track.

I could have shown you any number of dozens and dozens of plays, but I feel like this one really highlights the problem in a way that shows how quickly slow feet can hurt an offense. Andy Reid loves having guys execute pull blocks and combo blocks, as well as quite a few stretch runs where OL run parallel with the line of scrimmage while blocking. All of those require guys who can get moving fairly quickly. Fulton just does not have that in him (at least not usually).

A lot of Fulton's losses can be chalked up to a defender getting to a spot before Fulton can and taking advantage. That just kills him as a run blocker. You can be the strongest guy on the field, but if you don't beat your defender to the spot you're just another big dude in the running back's way. That's why a guy like Morse (who isn't as strong, but is a wonderful athlete with near-flawless footwork) has 37 run block "losses" in 15 games, while Fulton has 32 in just 8 games. You have to be able to move.

The problem shows up in pass protection as well. Interestingly enough, I like Fulton better in pass protection at guard than center, for a few reasons. First, the center needs to be able to provide help all over the place. He needs to have good awareness of where he's needed (which Fulton can do most of the time) and the ability to QUICKLY slide to that spot (which Fulton cannot do much of the time). Morse is one of the best centers in the league at helping out during passing plays. Fulton just isn't fast enough to do it consistently.

The other problem is demonstrated in the above clip. When Fulton is faced with fast, agile rushers, he's toast. Now, you may believe that's not going to happen much against a guard or a center. But this is the NFL in 2016, people. Coaches will find your weakness and exploit it. The Patriots identified Fulton as someone susceptible to delayed blitzes during the playoff loss, especially in the second half. They went after him multiple times, with quite a bit of play-destroying success.

That quickness issue is compounded by Fulton's tendency to be fooled by delayed blitzes. It's odd, because Fulton does well with stunts (well, usually. Minnesota killed him with those for a time), but delayed blitzes consistently blow right past him. I have no idea why an overall smart player has a tough time with those, but he does. And his footwork isn't nearly fast enough to make up for it.

The Verdict

As strange as it sounds after I just spent multiple paragraphs "bashing" him, Fulton was actually better on film than I expected. His strength and (usually) sound technique are something that can be an asset. The problem is that he loses a little more often than I'd like, and is a bit limited in what he can do consistently because of his lack of foot speed.

Of course, this is where many people say, "well, physical limitations can't be overcome, so Fulton has a really low ceiling and isn't likely to get any better." To that, allow me to retort.

Here, Fulton pulls to his left right at the snap, gets moving quickly, and absolutely BURIES a secondary player (pretty sure that's Kendrick Lewis, who did not have a good game against the Chiefs).

So... what gives? How is a guy we've noted for having slow feet stick this block? From what I can tell, it comes down to speed of thought. Fulton immediately identifies where he needs to go and who he needs to block, then goes for it without any hesitation at all.

Let's not underestimate the mental side of the game. When young players say the game is fast, they don't just mean players are faster than in college (though they are). In the pros, guys are DECISIVE and defenders diagnose plays quickly. They've honed their read and react instincts to a much higher level than college athletes. Well, being able to do all that reading and reacting a split second faster can make all the difference.

My point? If Fulton is capable of reading and reacting a split second faster (as the game slows down for him, which it may or may not do), his footspeed becomes less of a hindrance. I think it will prevent him from being an elite player, but he could very well be a competent one.

Is that a projection? Sure. Is a guy like Fulton, who seems to demonstrate knowledge of the game and improved from his rookie season to his second season, a reasonable person to believe in with regards to continuing to improve? I think so.

At this point, in my opinion, Fulton is closer to competence than LDT is. He loses less frequently and his losses aren't quite as bad, even though he's more limited in getting out in space.

Does that mean I've gone full Team Fulton at RG? Nah. LDT has a significantly higher ceiling and had a lot more work to do to adapt to the pro game. His issues are almost entirely technique and mental issues. If he's able to get those things to average he'll reach a point Fulton simply can't match, due to having superior physical tools. Frankly, the fact that LDT was close to Fulton last year could be a sign that he's about to blow Fulton out of the water.

We'll see. But one thing I can definitively tell you is that Fulton is a gigantic step down at center from Morse. So as much as I hate to kill anyone's dreams, I just don't see move Morse to guard in our future. And I don't think John Dorsey does either.

The guard competition will remain interesting in camp and preseason. Here's hoping either Fulton or LDT seizes it and never looks back.