The Colts’ biggest weakness going into the 2013 offseason is the interior offensive line.
At center, Samson Satele was a train wreck in 2012, although his replacement, A.Q. Shipley, did perform well when called upon.
With Mike McGlynn manning the right guard spot, and the three-man team of Seth Olsen, Jeff Linkenbach, and Joe Reitz playing at left guard, the guard position was in even worse shape.
With Satele still having two years left on his semi-pricey deal, I see little chance that the team goes in a different direction this offseason.
Guard though, is a different story. None of last year’s contributors are owed big money, and it was assumed than none of the four were long-term options. With a decent guard class in free agency, and between $39 and $43 million in cap room (depending on who you ask), it’s the perfect time to remedy the situation.
The two top guards in the free agent class are Andy Levitre and Louis Vasquez, based on their history and youth. Both guards are very good pass protectors, with average run blocking skills. The Colts have been rumored to be interested in both players, but likely won’t sign both to big contracts. While I could see them spending a decent amount on multiple offensive linemen, I don’t foresee two big contracts to guards.
So, what is the difference between the two? I’ve been asked the question several times by readers, and it’s time to break it down fully.
Four Year Window
The first place to start with the two is to look at their history.
Both players were drafted in 2009, Levitre (out of Oregon State) going late in the second and Vasquez (Texas Tech) in the middle of the third. At 6’3” and 305 lbs, Levitre came in with better athleticism and foot speed (.42 sec edge in 20 yd shuffle) to the 6’5”, 330 lb Vasquez, who held the edge in strength (39 to 23 edge in bench reps).
Both have been four year starters, starting right away as rookies. Vasquez has had a few injury issues, with neck and knee problems causing him to miss six games in 2010, and two in 2011. He did, however, play all season in 2012. Levitre, on the other hand, has played in all 16 games every season in the NFL, although he did have lingering knee issues in 2012 that kept him on the injury report.
Throughout their careers, both have generally been much better pass protectors than they have been run blockers. Levitre started his career in 2009 with a decent year in pass protection (+4.2 grade from PFF, 26th among 55 guards in pressures per snap), but horrible in run blocking (-8.5 from PFF). Since then he’s improved his run blocking, finishing each of the last three years with around an average (0.0) grade from PFF. Meanwhile, he’s improved his pass protection to elite status, finishing 2012 as the highest graded guard in that category.
Vasquez started his career off the exact opposite way, run blocking well in 2009, but struggling in pass protection. But his pass protection since has been above average, while his run blocking has dipped due to a sloppy technique. He finished 2012 with a top ten grade from PFF in pass protection, but was 46th in his run grade (which is about where he’s finished in each of the last three years).
What they look like today
The 2012 season was a good year for both guards, setting them up for good sized contracts.
Both guards had a very good year in pass protection. As I mentioned above, Levitre finished as the highest graded guard in PFF’s rankings, while Vasquez finished 9th (+15.7 and +8.6 grades, respectively).
In terms of actual numbers, Levitre finished tops among guards in pressures allowed per snap in pass protection. Levitre allowed just 11 total pressures, including just one sack, in over 570 snaps in pass protection. Marshall Yanda (Baltimore) also finished with just 11 total pressures, but did it in nearly 60 less snaps.
Vasquez, on the other hand, finished 22nd among 49 starting guards by allowing 22 pressures in 584 snaps. He only allowed two sacks, on the plus side.
Another reference is Bleacher Reports’ NFL 1000, where Matt Miller and his team of scouts grade players after the season and rank them by position. Now, I don’t agree with Miller on a lot of NFL topics, but him and his team put in a lot of work and generally do a good job.
For this year’s ranking, Levitre finished with the highest pass block grade available with a 50/50 grade overall. Miller raved in his explanation for the grade, stating that Levitre had both the initial and lateral quickness needed, but also the strength to hold up against bull rushing DTs.
Vasquez also finished well in Miller’s rankings, finishing 7th in pass rush grades with a 44/50. Miller lauded over Vasquez’ strength and use of the hands, but noted that his lateral quickness is lacking at times.
While the scheme of the two players' offenses may be beneficial for Vasquez in the run game (see below), Levitre's experience and skill in blocking in screen plays in Buffalo's offense should play into the Colts' new offense quite nicely. Levitre was PFF's #1 screen blocker in 2011, and was in the top ten in 2012. That athleticism would come in handy for the Colts in 2013.
As far as run blocking goes, it’s not the strength for either of these players. Levitre finished with a -0.7 grade from PFF while Vasquez finished at -2.0. Miller graded Vasquez at 28/50 and Levitre at 33/50, citing technique problems with both. Vasquez has more strength, but Levitre is more athletic and gets better leverage. Miller noted Levitre as having more “correctable” issues.
The problem with the run grades is the difference in scheme. Chan Gailey in Buffalo utilizes a zone read and trap play that take advantage of Levitre’s athleticism, allowing him to move and attack the defense with his quick step. Vasquez comes from a more traditional offense that allows him to just attack defenders straight ahead with his natural strength. Pep Hamilton’s offense will likely look more like the latter, and Vasquez likely would be a more natural fit.
However, given their natural talent I don’t think it’s enough of a difference to push Vasquez to Levitre’s level.
The final area, and the one that Vasquez does have a distinct advantage on Levitre on, is penalties.
Get this: Vasquez hasn’t been called for a penalty since a holding penalty during Week 6 of his rookie year, a holding penalty on third down that was declined. So yes, Vasquez has NEVER hurt his team with a penalty. That is unfathomable. Levitre tends to be about average, getting between five and eight each year of his career.
If anything was going to get the two at an equal level, skill wise, it would be that. Zero penalty yards for his career so far is extremely impressive for Vasquez.
Personally, I’d still rather go with Levitre, who is an elite talent in pass protection. We saw last season how difficult poor interior blocking can make it for a quarterback. It restricts throwing lanes, collapses the pocket and simply makes things uncomfortable for the quarterback. A guy like Levitre would go a long way toward fixing that.
Nevertheless, when we’re talking about players who will replace Mike McGlynn and someone named Seth Olsen, you really can’t go wrong with either.