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Chiefs’ Parker Ehinger review: Is he a starter or not?

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As we’ve discussed repeatedly, the Chiefs have what appears to be the makings of a video game offense in 2018. They’ve got speed all over the field, a quarterback who can throw the ball a mile, a mad scientist in Andy Reid who was already running what looked like a college offense with Mahomes at the helm last season.

The Chiefs look very, very good across the board. In fact, a strong argument can be made that every single spot on the (starting) offense is filled by an above-average to elite player, depending on what your opinion is of Patrick Mahomes (whom one must admit is, at the very least, an elite talent). Well... every position except one.

Oh, that pesky left guard spot.

Last week, I broke down some of Bryan Witzmann’s film, as he was the player who started the vast majority of the season at left guard. Of course, it started out that way because Parker Ehinger, who unexpectedly won the job as a rookie last season over Zach Fulton and Jah Reid, tore his ACL in October of 2016 and wasn’t able to return from the PUP list until August (setting him far behind in terms of working with the offense).

Many Chiefs fans, myself included, expected Ehinger to reclaim his starting spot after some time to get healthy. But Witzmann retained the role throughout the season, which left some fans puzzled, especially as he appeared to be the weak link along the line. Of course, Andy Reid can be quite conservative with lineup changes during the season, so that may be the explanation. But plenty of people are still clamoring for the younger Ehinger to get his spot back in 2018.

Since Ehinger only started one game in 2017 (Week 17 against the Broncos), and that game was at right guard instead of left guard, there’s not much film to look at. Despite that, I wanted to check out how Ehinger looked that week to try and determine if I agree with the decision to roll with Witzmann and figure out which one of them I prefer going into 2018.

A good primer for this would be to look at Witzmann’s review (linked above, or here), as well as the review I did for Ehinger’s rookie season (here). Ehinger’s rookie film is worth talking about, as he was not nearly as bad as I thought he’d be based on his college film. But I wrote plenty on it that article, so we’ll focus on his sole game against Denver to figure out how he looked post-injury.

You can click on either review to learn how I break down the film. Essentially, it’s a matter of tracking pass block wins/losses, run block wins/losses, neutral plays, and pressures/hits/sacks. The numbers help provide context, and then we discuss what I see on film. Pretty simple, no?

Let’s look at the numbers, then talk some film.

Now... one caveat to keep in mind: this is a single game, which doesn’t make for a good sample size. I think it would be wise to keep in mind the numbers charted in his rookie film (again, that review is here), where his win percentage was 24.8% and his loss percentage was 11.1%. It’s also important to remember that only about half the snaps Ehinger played were against starters in the Denver game.

That said, Ehinger’s numbers are interesting. His loss percentage (by far the most important number I track) is a very good 7.6%. On its face that puts in him a category that’s markedly superior to Witzmann (who had a 12.6% loss percentage in the 4 games I charted his snaps).

However, all five of Ehinger’s losses were in pass protection, which gives me pause. We’ll talk about the “good” side of that in a moment, but the bad side is that it means Ehinger was much weaker as a pass blocker than a run blocker.

Now I should clarify something... five pass block “failures” in a single game doesn’t necessarily put a guy in a “he’s terrible” category, nor does it necessarily mean Ehinger is worse than Witzmann as a pass protector. In fact, Witzmann lost five times in pass protection in half the games I reviewed, both of which featured fewer pass protection plays than Ehinger had against Denver.

But still, five losses in pass protection doesn’t make me happy. The good news of that is only two of those losses were of the “instant loss” variety, which is what really murders plays (like the sack above, which is essentially ending any chance of success as soon as the ball is snapped).

On the other hand, you have to acknowledge that the guy didn’t lose as a run blocker once in my charting. That’s an impressive day, and considering the Chiefs struggled run blocking at times last season (though in this writer’s opinion that was partly schematic, asking the line to do things it didn’t do well), it’s worth pondering what Ehinger could add to the team over Witzmann.

At the end of the day, when you look at Ehinger’s loss percentage as a rookie (11.1%) and then in the one game he played (7.6%), it’s hard not to draw the conclusion based on that alone that Ehinger should have been getting the nod once healthy. This is especially true when you take into consideration that Ehinger was a rookie and then a 2nd-year player coming off a major injury, while Witzmann has been in the league since 2014.

Ehinger, against Denver, repeatedly demonstrated that he is a very smart player who “gets” how to play on the line. This is true in pass protection (despite his higher loss number there) as well as run blocking.

Not one of Ehinger’s losses in my charting was due to him missing a blitz or a stunt. He consistently keeps his head up and his hands alert, sensing when it’s time to pass off pass rushers and head off a player screaming towards the quarterback.

This is a very, very valuable skill, and it’s part of why Ehinger’s losses aren’t generally of the instant variety. Missing on blitzes and stunts is usually the quickest way to get a quarterback killed, and Ehinger avoids that the vast majority of the time. This was the case as a rookie was well, which is part of the reason his film was significantly better than I expected despite shaky (in my opinion) college film and preseason film. While he’s not a perfect or even a particularly good lineman, he’s competent on the vast majority of snaps and doesn’t lose in the ways most young guys do.

As a run blocker, Ehinger’s has always been able to get out in space and make blocks. Interestingly enough, the Chiefs gameplan against the Broncos didn’t call for a lot of pulling from Ehinger, but we have plenty of examples of that from his rookie year.

Based on what I watched, I don’t think Ehinger is quite as athletic as Witzmann, who seems a bit faster when asked to pull or get to the second level after a double team. However, he’s no slouch in the department and I think he looks better at getting a “hat” on someone once he gets into space (whereas Witzmann whiffs a bit more often at the second level).

Something that differentiates Ehinger from Witzmann as a run blocker, and the reason he loses less often there (both against Denver and as a rookie) is that unlike Witzmann, Ehinger is able to generate some movement at the point of attack.

It’s interesting, because Ehinger is definitely lacking in the strength department and doesn’t show as strong an initial punch as Witzmann. But despite that, he’s consistently able to move guys a bit when asked to do so. A big part of this, which you can see above, is that he’s able to get his pad level beneath defenders. That’s something Witzmann often struggles with as a run blocker.

Ehinger’s ability to generate movement shows up both in one-on-one situations and when he’s asked to be part of a double team to wash defenders out of a hole.

Ehinger being able to get movement as a run blocker is surprising to me, because his lack of strength shows up in pass protection. However, I’ll take a pleasant surprise all day when it comes to such things. Overall, Ehinger is simply a better run blocker than Witzmann because he’s more versatile in what assignments he can take on (Witzmann can’t move guys at the point of attack), as well as a guy who is better at locking on to defenders once he reaches the second level.

Of course, again, there’s that strength in pass protection issue. That was his biggest weakness as a rookie, and it remains an issue of Week 17 is any indication.

When Ehinger has his legs underneath him and is able to set himself up well, he generally does a good job in pass protection. He has good feet and lateral movement, can hang with speed rushers, and does a good job overall. But when defenders are able to get him a bit off balance and rush him as half a man, he lacks the strength to recover.

The good news with Ehinger is that generally his pass protection was pretty good against the Broncos, and it was better than I thought it would be when he was a rookie.

That’s not a very impressive pass protection snap, given the help he gets from Schwartz early, but it demonstrates the difference it makes when Ehinger is set up properly. In those situations his pad level, active feet and hand placement allow him to keep defenders well away from the quarterback, strength issues or not. (of course, the main reason I’m showing that clip is that Patrick Mahomes is insane and Chesson lays a great block. But still)

Overall, if I were to pick either Witzmann or Ehinger to start tomorrow for a game, I’d choose Ehinger. I think he’s the better player at this point due to his awareness in pass protection (blitzes, stunts, etc.) and superior power in the run game (note: it’s not that he has good power, it’s that he has at least some power, which is more than Witzmann can boast). They both have a similar weakness in that they lack strength, but Ehinger’s pad level and feet are generally superior and it allows him to get by more often.

The analysis becomes even easier for me when you account for the fact that Ehinger is 25 years old (turning 26 in December), while Witzmann turns 28 in a few months. Ehinger has a chance to add on a bit of strength in his lower body still (tearing his ACL his rookie season likely set that back last year, so we’ll know more in 2018), while Witzmann likely is what he is physically at this point.

In short, one player is a bit better than the other (in crucial areas, mind you) and possesses a higher ceiling. That makes it pretty easy for me. I’m Team Ehinger for next season if the Chiefs roll with the two of them as their potential starting LG. I think he can be a solid player, putting him a notch above my hopes for Witzmann as a “non-weakness.”

All that said, it’ll be tempting if a guy like Wynn or Hernandez drops to the 2nd round. But the defensive weaknesses are glaring enough, and Ehinger’s film contains enough promise, that I think I’d wait until later in the draft to address guard for competition purposes. I guess we’ll see if Brett Veach agrees.