The Kansas City Chiefs have made another move to bolster their interior offensive line by signing a center named Austin.
No... not former starter Austin Reiter — whom the Chiefs had been reported to be interested in re-signing — but former Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Austin Blythe. The Chiefs brought Blythe in on a one-year deal worth up to $1.75 million based on his playing time and team performance. This was the final position along the interior offensive line that hadn’t been yet addressed in free agency.
Blythe has started 47 of the last 48 games for the Rams, spending 2020 as the starting center. Much like previous offseason addition Joe Thuney, he has been quite durable throughout his NFL career. Kyle Long notwithstanding, this is something the Chiefs have appeared to emphasize a little on the offensive line during free agency. And after the 2020 season — in which only one Week 1 starter made it to the Super Bowl — who could blame them?
Let’s take a look at Blythe’s film.
The stronger part of Blythe’s game comes in in supporting the run. The Rams’ offensive system was certainly friendly to him, as it included a lot of wide runs that often left him uncovered, allowing him to excel as a second-level blocker.
Austin Blythe - plus run blocker, technical pass blocker— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) March 31, 2021
He isn't as athletic as Reiter was but he's an exceptional run blocker on the 2nd level.
Expl lateral step to cut off the DT, good punch to re-route the DT for the RG, and balanced close up to the LB to kick him out pic.twitter.com/nwiOC8A3S1
He may not be the most explosive (or the most flexible) center in the NFL — but he plays quick. He’s fast to move after he snaps the football and has minimal wasted motion while working up through his assignments.
On this outside zone run, his IQ and technique are on display. He gets out of his stance with a strong zone step so the nose tackle can’t work across his face — but at the same time, also makes sure he is working upfield. This allows him to get a good punch on the nose tackle so his teammate can pick him up — and then he’s off to chase the linebacker. Blythe is quick to read the linebacker’s leverage, taking a direct angle; he knows he will have to kick the linebacker outside.
His angles to the second level on clean and precise which allows him to frame up blocks. He doesn't have the best reactive athleticism to handle last second re-directs but he's good at winning to the spot.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) March 31, 2021
He's really good at avoiding contact at the LoS when he needs too pic.twitter.com/xfhpbSCIqS
These are Blythe’s strengths as a run blocker: his IQ and his blocking angles when working up to the second level. While isn’t the most agile blocker in space, he gets on top of defenders so quickly that they rarely have a chance to react and get past him. On the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t always have the power to torque players out of a gap — or the speed to cross a defender — but he’s extremely quick off the snap and is able to identify leverage early in the rep.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. In big moments, Blythe’s lack of mass and length can be exposed.
While Blythe (OC, #66) is a more consistent & better run blocker than what KC had last year, there are still some consistent issues— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) March 31, 2021
Lack of length, inability to control blocks/turn them out, and good not great ATH make it hard for him to sustain blocks after the initial contact. https://t.co/fZc0pot68P pic.twitter.com/HN1iOdAXcd
While Blythe tends to make good contact early in a rep (and quickly on the second level), his lack of reach (he has 30.25-inch arms) routinely shows up in his inability to sustain blocks. Against defensive tackles or linebackers, he is easily pressed out of a defender’s frame and disengaged, allowing them to get back into the play.
As we see in the second play, Blythe is in a good position — and initially, has the block framed well. But as the play develops, he is unable to generate movement or create a running lane. He ends up allowing the defender to shed him and assist in the tackle.
But while he lacks NFL mass and length, he displays above-average athleticism. He does a good job maintaining his balance on the move — and has the ability to out-pace a defender directly off the snap. But then his limitations come into play. Attempting longer reach blocks often results in simply trying to run defenders down the line of scrimmage; he doesn’t have the length and power to stop them.
Still, Blythe does present himself as a better run-blocking center than the Chiefs had in 2020. While he has limitations, his attention to detail — and his ability to play quickly — will give him more consistency as a run blocker than we saw last season.
This area of Blythe’s game isn’t quite as strong as his run blocking — but I do think the gap has been overblown. As in the running game, the Rams’ system — with a lot of motion and play-action rollouts — asked little of him in pass protection.
Blythe isn't the biggest OL around but he handles power really well.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) March 31, 2021
Keeps his hips behind him, high-low hand placement allows him to control the bull rush and keep the DT at bay and off-balance. pic.twitter.com/o3legWEVEl
You’d expect a center of Blythe’s size to be pushed around in pass protection — much like we saw with the Chiefs last year — but that really isn’t the case. While he doesn’t have the length or power to present a brick wall against defensive tackles, he still handles direct power very well. He consistently skips his feet back to maintain his base and leverage while utilizing his hands to ever-so-slightly redirect the defender’s momentum.
In this play, he gives up ground on the initial contact, but gets his hands set high and low while maintaining his base. This allows him to push the defensive tackle slightly outside — but you can see, he also uses his inside hand to start pulling down on the defender, preventing the rusher from fully attacking him.
This subtle hand usage — along with the attention to detail around his base — allow him to routinely withstand power rushes from bigger players.
One on One between the two newest Chiefs.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) March 31, 2021
Blythe stays patient and balanced to withstand Jarran Reed's initial swipe. He snags a fistful in the chest of Reed and doesn't let his grip get broken.
Great job hand replacing back to back times w/ his inside hand to control the rep pic.twitter.com/vrUdPtLKkr
In pass protection, Blythe’s hands are the star of the show.
Here, he’s working against new Chiefs defensive tackle Jarran Reed — and his hand-fighting is practically a clinic. His independent hand usage is outstanding; he’s able to punch and latch with one hand and repeatedly hand-replace with the other.
Blythe doesn’t have the reach to simply punch a defender and lock them into place — but he is able to play with his hands operating independently on completely different levels, allowing him to generate unexpected leverage and survive against much bigger defenders. This is how he is able to compensate for his lack of length and top-end athleticism.
A lack of length is also consistently present in his game.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) March 31, 2021
Defenders routinely generate first contact while he's forced to absorb the contact and try to anchor. Powerful DTs don't play that game. pic.twitter.com/cH71ISgUDz
Still, long, powerful defenders can easily get first contact on Blythe, putting him into disadvantageous positions. He’s very competent with his hands and can maintain his balance — but given the lack of some physical traits, there is only so much he can do. There are plays where his lack of length becomes too much to overcome; he ends up on skates and is easily moved out of the way. When defenders can keep him out of their chest, he struggles to keep them at bay.
With Blythe’s average lateral agility, it can become even more difficult for him in pass protection. He’s simply not able to mirror a rusher, keeping them framed and forcing them into his chest. Quicker rushers will always present a challenge for Blythe — especially if it’s a longer-developing passing concept.
The Chiefs made a savvy free-agent move by bringing Blythe in to compete to be the team’s starting center. While he isn’t an NFL superstar, he is a competent starter. He’s roughly the same caliber of player the Chiefs had in Austin Reiter — but he does bring a different style to the offensive interior.
Blythe is a more advanced run blocker who shows high-end technique, IQ and quality second-level blocking. In the way they all play the game, he’ll fit nearly perfectly between Joe Thuney and either Laurent Duvernay-Tardif or Kyle Long. As a pass protector, he will compete and and hold a more stout pocket than the Chiefs often got last season — but his ability to hold up one-on-one will still make the middle of the offensive line a questionable spot.
But perhaps most importantly, this move allows the Chiefs flexibility. They won’t be forced into drafting a starting center or putting third-year player Nick Allegretti into that role without competition. For anyone to unseat Blythe, they will have to show they are at least an average NFL starter.