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Laurent Duvernay-Tardif took a massive step forward last year and it’s easy to see why the Chiefs paid him

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So around this time last year, I reviewed first-year starter Laurent Duvernay-Tardif’s (hereinafter: LDT. Also hereinafter, no more ridiculous-sounding words like “hereinafter”) film from nine games. I did so for the same reason I review every single Alex Smith dropback or every single Terrance Mitchell coverage snap: because I’m insane, but also so you don’t have to.

The results of that film review were ... well, they were rough. I saw a lot of flaws in LDT’s game, and wasn’t sure what the Chiefs were thinking letting him take the starter’s spot. Here’s an excerpt from the end:

LDT is a classic example of fans really latching on to a player's physical potential. He's definitely got some tools to be a solid guard in the NFL. But he was not even average in 2015, or all that close to it. Nor did his film change over the course of the year in a way that makes me believe it's likely he'll make a big jump forward in 2016.

No one will root harder for LDT to seize a starting guard job than me, and I hope to eat these words. But unless he's quite a bit better than he was in 2015, he will continue to be a weak spot on the line that will shoot some plays in the foot every week.

Before I even get started, let me go ahead and pull out a fork and a plate. You know, something to munch on some words with. Because I just reviewed seven games of LDT’s in 2016 and, well...

The times, they are a-changing. Let’s talk about LDT’s 2016 film, shall we? Let me start off by saying this: after reviewing over 400 snaps, I very, very much understand why John Dorsey locked LDT up long-term. And frankly, the contract LDT signed (which had a lot of us scratching our heads) could turn out to be an absolute steal.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, the process.

If you don’t know how I review offensive linemen’s film, click here for a refresher. Long story short, I watch every snap using all-22’s Madden camera, tracking wins, losses, and neutral snaps. Then I do math (ewwww) and look at “win percentage” and “loss percentage.” Loss percentage is the money stat, as a LOSING offensive lineman hurts you way more than a WINNING offensive lineman helps you. Win percentage is how you go from good to great. I want my starting offensive linemen to lose under 10 percent of the time (or right at it). It should also be noted that the majority of any OL’s snaps are going to be neutral ones. That’s just the nature of the game.

For frame of reference, last year LDT’s loss percentage was 14.3 percent and his win percentage was 31.3 percent. I wrote that his loss percentage was far too high and that his high win percentage didn’t even come close to balancing this out. Additionally, LDT’s losses tended to be incredibly quick, so quick that they ruined almost any chance of success.

But enough about then. Let’s talk about now. Because the now is worth talking about.

The first thing that should jump out at you is the fact that LDT’s loss percentage has been nearly cut in half. That’s a drastic improvement, obviously, and I really don’t know what else to say on that. LDT went from a guy who was far above what I was comfortable with to someone who not only falls beneath the range I want to see from a starter, but is starting to creep up on very good to exceptional territory.

When offensive linemen lose, it wrecks game plans. The first job of any guy up front is “don’t lose.” Everything else comes after that. LDT took that most important aspect and basically treated it the same way he treated defensive players in 2016.

On the other side of things, LDT’s win percentage (which was already a pretty good number) actually went up to an even more impressive range. LDT won on over a third of the snaps he lined up. While wins aren’t as important as “not losing” on the line, they can help a play go from good to great, and can even be the difference at times between a touchdown and a goal line stuff.

However, LDT’s film was (if it can be believed) even more improved than his raw numbers.

When I criticized LDT’s 2015, some of my primary issues were as follows: leaning/lunging rather than punching, slow to find work (help other blockers), slow to find defenders at the second level to latch on to, and pretty extreme issues with balance (stemming from really, really rough footwork).

I paid special attention to those areas and I’m thrilled to say with one minor exception (that we’ll get to in the negatives part at the end), LDT improved by absolute leaps and bounds in 2016 from what we saw the year prior. And really, leaps and bounds barely do it justice.

First and foremost, LDT is no longer a guy singing one of my favorite gospel hymns. While he’s not always completely upright (head above waist), he’s very solid now when it comes to setting up a solid base and punching rather than leaning or lunging.

Feet are everything for offensive linemen. Often in 2015 LDT’s feet were all over the map. One snap to the next they looked completely different, and it showed when he tried to anchor against NFL linemen or linebackers. His leaning/lunging appeared to be at least in part to compensate for not having a strong base, and it just killed him in pass protection.

That’s not the case anymore. LDT’s feet aren’t perfect, but he consistently did a good job keeping them under him, set wide, and continually resetting against bull rushes. Because of that, push-pull and swim moves no longer sent him flying to the turf. Those two moves in particular absolutely killed LDT against Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe in 2015 (he lost on nearly 20 percent of the snaps taken that game).

LDT got to go up against both Jackson (now with the Jaguars) and Wolfe in 2016, and he acquitted himself very nicely.

While LDT’s feet get a little behind him there, it’s night and day from what it looked like when Wolfe bull rushed him a year prior.

We often hope that players will shore up their biggest weakness. In LDT’s case, he clearly put in the work to do so. Again, he’s not perfect with regards to balance and footwork, but he’s markedly better to the point that his natural strength and athleticism are able to help him hang with even very tough interior defensive linemen.

And the difference doesn’t just come through on wins or neutral snaps. It matters on losses as well.

Here, LDT gets beaten by some nice handfighting and an aggressive move towards the QB (though to be fair, Nick Foles made things worse by rolling towards the defender for some reason). But there’s a key difference between how he was beaten here and how he’d get beaten in 2015: it took a couple of seconds to happen.

In 2015, when LDT lost it was often in under a second. While I have yet to find a way to properly quantify the distinction between a loss and a bad loss (one can only go so deep down the rabbit hole, guys), it’s an important thing to note. Losing in two seconds isn’t nearly as damaging as losing in one. A second in the NFL is an eternity. LDT’s improvement with regards to his footwork and leaning/lunging helped him rarely lose in the devastating ways he did the year prior.

It’s also addressed another major issue (balance) that plagued LDT in 2015. He was constantly off his feet his first year starting. In ‘16, I rarely saw him fall. Sounds like a silly thing, but it makes a gigantic difference (because, you know, it’s hard to block from your back).

Another issue that LDT used to have was that he didn’t seem to quite know how to stay busy when he didn’t have a defender to block. There was a lot of looking around but very little engaging. That issue has improved a great deal as well.

In 2016, LDT consistently kept his head on a swivel and stayed aware of how things were going for the Mitches in pass protection. On more than one occasion he saved a bad play with timely help, which is exactly what you need to get from a free blocker. He’s still not on Mitch Morse’s level in this area (basically no one is because Mitch Morse is an American treasure and a good man and hopefully my son), but he’s gone from a liability to at least average. Those types of leaps help win ball games.

Another area LDT has improved (though not as markedly) is his response to stunts and delayed blitzes. Stunts in particular gave him real problems in 2015. In 2016, this wasn’t the case nearly as often and actually got better and better as the year went along.

By the time the end of the year rolled around, I rarely saw LDT and either Morse or Schwartz miss a beat on plays like this. That kind of trust and communication among offensive linemen is something that can only be bought with time on the field together. The fact that they’ll all be back this year should mean that this level of playing as one unit should take yet another step forward, which would be incredible to see.

LDT’s strengths on film remain his combination of strength, athleticism, and willingness to get AFTER defensive players. His strength/athleticism combo in particular are wildly important in the TONS of reach blocks the Chiefs ask him to make.

(By the way, the GIF you’re about to watch is my favorite of the bunch)

Reach blocks are incredibly tough to execute well. Not only do you have to beat an NFL lineman who likely has fantastic recognition to a spot, you have to get across his face and travel farther than he does to get there. THEN you have to have the strength to wall off said defender despite the fact that .01 seconds ago your momentum was moving you in the precise direction you don’t want them going. That crap is hard, and not a lot of offensive linemen are great at it.

In the above GIF, you see LDT executing it to perfection (along with the best human being to ever live, Mitch Morse). Now to be fair, the defensive lineman helps him by taking a single false step, but given the distance that has to be covered and the place the run is going that’s still an incredibly difficult block to execute. And not only does LDT wall off the defender, he PLANTS him into the frozen ground. I love it so much.

LDT was constantly asked to execute tough reach blocks like the one above, and was able to do so far more often than he failed. Being able to execute blocks like that gives an offense options in the running game, as the defense can’t predict as well where you’re going to be running based on the initial movement of the linemen. LDT’s lateral quickness and strength make him an ideal fit.

And speaking of strength, LDT absolutely has it. He’s not quite a powerhouse, but when it’s time to grind out tough yards he was absolutely an asset.

Someone is going to need to get a glass of water for the smashmouth football guys watching that block. Just line up and go to work. Reid’s offense doesn’t call for a lot of that, but LDT can do it when necessary. He generally has very good pad level to go along with his natural strength, which makes him a tough matchup for most defensive linemen.

Now let’s be clear, LDT’s film isn’t perfect. I absolutely would not call him an elite guard at this point. He’s still got a few things to work on:

  1. Locating and locking onto defenders in open space (the one issue I saw in 2015 that hasn’t improved by a wide margin, though it has improved).
  2. His handfighting could still use work, as he’ll get rocked and have his hands swept away at times by superior linemen. This could be improved if he was more consistent about striking first with his punch rather than waiting for the defender to come to him. When he did that, he was generally fine. The trouble arose when he caught rather than punched.
  3. At times it appears LDT will still miss an assignment on a blitz or stunt. Again, this was better in 2016 than 2015 and even improved as 2016 went along, but it need to improve even more before I’m comfortable calling him a great offensive lineman.

And of course, even the areas he’s improved (footwork, balance, staying busy, punching without lunging, etc.) could still get better. I wouldn’t call LDT elite at any aspect of the game right now. However, he is a good overall offensive lineman who can do a wide variety of things well and doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses at this point.

Compare that last sentence to one of my closing sentences from a year ago, where I stated that LDT wasn’t even close to average. Or go back and read the article I wrote about him last year (in case you believe I’m just spouting homer-speak. I torched the guy last year. Which is dangerous because he’s a large man and knows a lot about the human body. That’s a bad combination).

The simple truth of the matter is that I’m not sure I can remember ever having seen a player improve this much from one year to the next. It’s a testament not only to LDT’s natural gifts but in the incredible work ethic he’s shown to address his weaknesses.

The craziest part? LDT’s going into just his 4th year in the league. We’ll see what happens next, but even if he were to just maintain his current level of play he’s worth the contract that was doled out (a contract that, by the way, went from elite money to 8th most in the league at guard in a VERY short amount of time, and will only seem cheaper every year). Given what he’s done so far though, it’s safe to ask whether it’s not more likely that his best football is still to come.