For years now, Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell has been heralded as the NFL’s next great tackle prospect due to his size and mobility. Take a look at any mock draft and chances are, you’ll see his name appear within the first five picks. Aside from Sewell, no other prospect is seen as a potential franchise left tackle by the consensus, but that might not be the case. Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater is a special player and he could end up being the steal of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Rashawn Slater’s name may not sound familiar and that’s because, like multiple other prospects, he opted out of the 2020 college football season to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. This makes his evaluation a bit difficult because he hasn’t played a down of football in over a year. However, this shouldn’t concern NFL teams because he was outstanding during the 2019 season, receiving a grade of 90.1 from Pro Football Focus.
His production in his final season at Northwestern was truly remarkable as he only gave up five pressures in 787 total snaps. He allowed a pressure on just 0.64% of his snaps that year, which is absolutely mind-blowing considering Sewell allowed a pressure on just 0.76% of his snaps. Although Slater was extremely productive in pass protection in 2019, you could argue he was even better as a run blocker. Pro Football Focus gave him a run-blocking grade of 89.1, which was 1.7 points higher than his pass blocking grade.
There are three traits that are necessary for a prospect to be a great offensive tackle in the NFL. These traits include athleticism, strength, and technique. A prospect doesn’t need all three to be successful at the next level, but the best tackles usually have all of these qualities. Slater is a prospect who happens to be extremely athletic and strong while having very good technique.
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Athleticism is a big part of the tackle position because they need to be able to get into their pass sets quickly to block edge rushers’ path to the quarterback. If a tackle isn’t mobile and struggles to get off the line of scrimmage quickly, they’ll probably struggle to block speed rushers and get to the second level when they’re run blocking.
Slater is a great athlete and his mobility shows up the most in the run game. His ability to get off the line of scrimmage and move into the second level where the linebackers are is extremely impressive.
On 1st and 10 with 7:25 left in the first quarter against Ohio State, Northwestern lines up in a pistol formation and runs up the middle using a zone-blocking scheme. Since the Wildcats are zone-blocking, their offensive linemen have to block specific gaps rather than specific players. This gives Slater the freedom to move into the second level and block a linebacker.
He gets off the line of scrimmage quickly and explodes up the field to cut off the linebacker’s path to the running back. It’s incredible how fast he’s able to go from the line of scrimmage to the second level. Once he gets to the middle of the field, he does a great job of putting his hands on linebacker Cody Simon which neutralizes him and prevents him from penetrating the wide-open hole created by the offensive line.
The most impressive aspect of Slater’s game is his technique. He is extremely intelligent and understands how to use his hands in order to win in pass protection. Against Ohio State, he faced the toughest test of his career as he went toe-to-toe with Chase Young, who ended up getting drafted number two overall in the 2020 NFL Draft by Washington.
He did just fine in this matchup as Young had his least productive game of the season. Slater’s mobility and technically sound hand usage allowed him to not only survive but thrive while going up against one of the best edge rusher prospects in recent memory.
On 1st and 10 with 8:46 left in the second quarter, Northwestern ran a play-action pass out of a shotgun formation and the quarterback ends up running into a sack. Although the play ended in a sack, Slater had a really good rep vs. Chase Young. While he did have a little bit of help from the tight end at the beginning of the play, his hand usage is what made this rep successful.
Young tries to get around Slater by using a hand swipe to move the tackle’s left arm out of the way, but Slater puts his left hand on Young’s chest, which keeps the edge rusher from being able to dip his shoulders and turn the corner.
During the 2019-2020 season, Chase Young dominated every single tackle he faced because he is extremely explosive and he’s flexible enough to dip his shoulders and flatten his path to the quarterback quickly. He made life difficult for anyone blocking him because he was too fast, too flexible, and too strong to handle. Despite being bigger, faster, and longer than Slater, Young struggled to pressure Northwestern’s quarterback because Slater is quick on his feet and accurate with his hand placement.
Slater is far from a perfect prospect, though, because he has one glaring issue: his arms are short. Having short arms could cause him to struggle as a tackle in the NFL, but even then he could still succeed playing inside as a guard. His ability to move in space and neutralize defenders while on the move would make him an amazing interior offensive lineman at the next level. This kind of tackle/guard versatility makes him even more intriguing as a prospect.
From now until the draft, fans and draft experts will continuously bring up the fact that Slater has short arms, but choosing to focus on his underwhelming arm length will cause people to overlook all the fantastic traits that made him one of the best tackles in the country during the 2019-2020 season. Although having longer arms would definitely help him succeed at the next level, his performance against Chase Young shows that he can still be a quality tackle moving forward.
Penei Sewell may end up being the best tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft because of his size and athleticism, but Rashawn Slater deserves to be included in this conversation. His mobility, strength, and technique more than make up for his underwhelming arm length, and these traits could make him one of the best tackles in this class. If he falls outside the top ten, which seems likely right now, he’ll outperform his draft position and become one of the best value picks of the 2021 NFL Draft.