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The Bryan Witzmann film review: Is he a starter or not?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs offense, on the surface, is loaded.

There’s no denying it. Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing last year and is a constant threat to churn out yards on the ground, as well as a dangerous receiving threat. Travis Kelce is one of the best mismatches in the league at any position. Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins are the fastest 1-2 punch in the league. Patrick Mahomes has players and management alike raving about him and did things like this in his only start.

The Chiefs had a very good offense last year and look to be better (if things go as planned) in 2018. They have talent, continuity and great coaching. They are the whole package.

The only concern I’ve seen voiced with any sort of consistency (besides backup tight end, which is a pretty “things must be OK if we’re stressed about that position” concern)? Well, the spot that has vexed Chiefs fans for years: guard.

Not right guard, of course. LDT has become a very, very good player. No, the concern that Chiefs fans have resides on the other side of the line. That’s where Bryan Witzmann started almost every game for the Chiefs last season at left guard.

Now interestingly enough, I haven’t seen a whole lot of actual film review on Witzmann, during the season or after it. Instead, I’ve heard a lot of vague concerns voiced and more of a “Why isn’t Parker Ehinger starting?” general discontent (Ehinger’s review will come next).

Now, if I used the eye test, I would agree that Witzmann was a weak spot along the line last season. Of course, the eye test is a notoriously poor way to gauge a player, as we generally tend to forget the frequency with which things occur. So to the film I went, to try and determine whether or not Witzmann showed potential last season or is as crucial a weakness, as some believe.

If you’ve never read an offensive line film review by me, click here for a very in-depth explanation. The short story: I re-watch every snap on all-22, charting wins, losses, and neutral plays (both as a pass blocker and as a run blocker), along with pressures/hits/sacks given up. This way, we can have a comprehensive view of how the individual offensive lineman did, separated from the rest of the offense.

What is a win, loss or neutral play? Well, again, the link above has the detailed explanations, but it’s basically a common sense usage.

This is a win.

This is a loss.

And a neutral play would either fall in between or be a play in which the lineman wasn’t really asked to do much (say, an immediate throw outside on a bubble screen, or barely helping with a double team in pass protection).

We’ll look at some numbers, then talk tape. Something to keep in mind is that by far the most important number is “loss percentage.” I want my starters at 10 percent or under in that category. The basic principle is this: an offensive lineman winning on a play doesn’t guarantee success, but losing can quite often mean the play is doomed to failure.

All right, let’s look at the numbers.

If you’re looking for some context, click here to find a review of LDT’s 2016 season, or here for a review of LDT’s 2015 season. The great thing about having both for a frame of reference is that we have a good year and a bad year to compare Witzmann to. But first, we’ll talk about Witzmann’s numbers on their own.

Witzmann’s loss percentage of 12.6 percent, while not ideal, isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. For the sake of comparison, it’s superior to LDT’s first year starting by a couple of percentage points. The narrative that Witzmann was some kind of offense killer just isn’t borne out in that loss percentage. He’s not Mike McGlynn out there, even though his loss numbers aren’t what you’d like them to be.

Witzmann’s win percentage is lower than I’d like. Part of that is his usage: he wasn’t asked to go one-on-one against defenders as often as LDT, and therefore lacked the opportunities to rack up wins. Of course, that also protected him from losses, so it’s a double-edged sword. Overall, his win percentage reflects what you can find on film: that even on Witzmann’s good snaps, he’s generally not a dominant player.

When you compare Witzmann’s 2017 to LDT’s first year as a starter, he stacks up pretty well. It’s when you compare him to LDT’s 2016 that you realize how far short he fell from being a “good” starter up front. But overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Witzmann, while not as good as I’d like, wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared.

Which brings me to Witzmann’s film. He has a very specific set of strengths and weaknesses. The good news is that his strengths are generally things that can’t really be taught, while his weaknesses are things that may well improve with time.

First of all, Witzmann is a plus athlete and moves very well, both laterally and in space down the line or getting to the second level.

Andy Reid, since arriving in Kansas City, has absolutely shown a “type” when it comes to his offensive linemen. He wants athletes. Witzmann fits the bill.

Any guard in Reid’s system is going to be asked to do a great deal of pulling in space and executing tough reach blocks. Having fast feet is absolutely necessary to do what the Chiefs want to do in the run game, and Witzmann is very good in that department.

Witzmann is a natural athlete who doesn’t have to labor to beat running backs and defenders to spots. He’s also a hustler who will sprint down the field to try and help out on plays that stretch out, no matter where he is when it happens. It’s nice to see. Once in space at the second level, Witzmann misses a bit more than I’d like, but overall does a pretty nice job.

However, Witzmann’s run blocking isn’t perfect. While he actually has a pretty solid punch and some power in his upper body, he lacks the lower body power to move guys off their spot when asked to do so.

While Witzmann wasn’t as rough in this area as I went in expecting (again, his punch was better than I expected, as was his upper body strength), but a pretty clear pattern emerged in his run blocking. When asked to get into space or move laterally, Witzmann was usually successful. When he was asked to line up and move a defender off the ball, Witzmann’s success rate went down and a “neutral” was often the best you could hope for.

Part of the problem for Witzmann in generating power was pad level. While he did a decent job for a guy listed at 6 feet 7 inches, the reality remains that... well, he’s 6-foot-7. It’s tough to get underneath a 6-foot-2 defender when you’re that tall. Now, Witzmann does demonstrate the flexibility in his hips to get low, so I don’t think it’s an issue that can’t be cured. But he’ll need to work on his consistency with pad level if he wants to generate consistent power in the run game.

Overall, I’d say Witzmann’s run blocking was where he was strongest. If he’s able to pack on a little more weight I think he could be a real plus player in that department.

As a pass protector, again, Witzmann wasn’t as bad as I’d expected based on the narrative that surrounded him as the season went along.

Like I said before, Witzmann wasn’t often asked to go one-on-one against defenders. But when he did so, he wasn’t bad most of the time. He’s got decent hand placement and generally had very active feet with a wide base, which helped him a great deal.

However, to call Witzmann even an average pass protector at this point would be a stretch. He really struggled with hand fighting at times and was susceptible to swim moves and clubs in particular.

Normally, when a player struggles with those kinds of moves it’s because he’s leaning too much, not trusting his strength. Interestingly enough, Witzmann didn’t often get caught off-balance due to leaning. He just didn’t seem to have an answer to aggressive swims and clubs, getting batted aside too often in those situations. He’s a young lineman, so my hope is he develops a little more aggression in his pass protection. Too often, it appeared like he was waiting for the defender to make the first move. That’s fine if you’re prepared to handle an aggressive one. But again, Witzmann was unprepared far too often.

As I mentioned earlier, Witzmann wasn’t often one-on-one as a pass protector. He was often the spare lineman whose job was to keep his head up and look for work. That’s one area Witzmann did noticeably improve as the year went along.

Despite the improvement, Witzmann needs to get better in this area. At times he seemed a bit slow to realize where he was needed. In the NFL, an extra half-second is death for a quarterback when one of his linemen loses. The difference in being “usually adequate” and genuinely good at looking for work is what separates fringe starters from contributors.

That split-second reaction time issue seemed to rear its head with regards to stunts and blitzes at times as well. While Witzmann did demonstrate some awareness in those areas, it’s short of what I’d like to see from a starter and Alex Smith took some shots because of it. Knowing where you’re supposed to be at all times is, oddly enough, an undervalued trait for an offensive linemen (and one that is lacking more often than you’d think). Witzmann seemed a step slow at times despite his quickness.

Overall, after reviewing Witzmann I find myself a bit torn. Going in I was absolutely certain I wanted the Chiefs to draft a guard to compete for the starting spot as early as possible. After watching Witzmann, though, I can’t help but wonder how he might look with a year of experience starting under his belt.

As I said earlier, Witzmann’s strengths (namely, his plus athleticism and what looks to be some functional upper body strength) aren’t something that a player can necessarily be coached into. However, lower body power (which is often a function of footwork and just, you know, getting a couple of years older) and recognition in pass pro are things that can be coached up.

The bottom line

The version of Witzmann we saw in 2017 isn’t a guy I’d call an average starter. He’s below average in my opinion. However, he’s closer than I thought he would be. The narrative that he’s terrible just doesn’t check out on film. He’s not terrible. He’s just not good. Not a ringing endorsement, but not a condemnation either. I could see it going either way with Witzmann if they start him in 2018. If what we saw in 2017 was the floor, then he shouldn’t drag the offense down much.

Of course, it’s a risk. But given what I saw on film, I could understand why they might want to give Witzmann a shot in 2018 to improve on what he did last year. Especially considering the much more glaring needs along the defensive side of the ball.

Here’s to hoping he ups his play level about 10 percent next season and makes the whole thought process moot.

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