CA Charting Project: Reviewing free agent C Evan Dietrich-Smith

As you certainly know by now, on Thursday the Colts finally, mercifully, released Samson Satele. The timing of the move was a bit surprising, since there was no real incentive to cutting him now rather than after they had signed a replacement. He must have been pretty lousy, huh?

Let’s have a moment of silence for my beloved WTF is Samson Satele Thinking? segments.

Thank you. Seriously, though, I wish the guy well. For all his faults, he always tried hard. He’s good enough to be a backup center, but woe to the team that signs him as a starter.

The last couple weeks, I looked at two possible Satele replacements, Alex Mack and Brian de la Puente. Cleveland slapped the transition tag on Mack, which means the Colts would have to come up with an offer the Browns didn’t want to match to get him. The Browns are one of three teams with more cap space than the Colts, so that seems unlikely. De la Puente, meanwhile, is an inconsistent schmuck.

This week, I went into my analysis of Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith hoping he’d at least be a little better than Satele and would present a viable alternative to Mack.

After charting four of Dietrich-Smith’s games (week 1 at San Francisco, week 2 vs. Washington, week 6 at Baltimore and week 17 at Chicago), I think he’s far and away the Colts’ best option of the three marquee free agent centers. He’s not quite as good as Mack, but he’s not far off, and he’s a much more realistic target. If he’ll take a reasonable contract (say, three years and $10-11 million), he could be the answer to the Colts’ center issues.

DISCLAIMER: Grading offensive line play is inevitably subjective, since it’s impossible to know assignments and how the linemen are coached. These scores are based on whether the lineman appeared to succeed in his assignments, based on his apparent targets and how the plays developed. I assign all blocks a grade of ‘+’ (good block), ‘-’ (bad block) or ‘/’ (not involved, usually meaning the lineman couldn’t find anyone to block); ‘/’ plays are not scored. See here for an explanation of my terminology.

Pro Football Focus rated Dietrich-Smith the NFL’s 8th-best center in 2013, including 4th in pass blocking (one spot ahead of Mack) and 14th in run blocking. His game-by-game numbers were a study in extremes, so I broke down the games PFF had as his best and worst pass blocking performances (San Francisco and Washington, respectively) and his best and worst run blocking performances (Chicago and Baltimore, respectively). In all four games, he was fairly close to his average in the other area.

Here’s my charting table for Dietrich-Smith:

For an idea of how he stacks up, here are my tables on Mack:

De la Puente:

And Satele:

As I’ve said many times, block charting is an inexact science. But over the course of a couple hundred blocks, it tends to normalize and give you a pretty good idea of the player’s level of performance. With these four guys, the total block percentages match up perfectly with my impression of their quality of play. Mack is the best, but Dietrich-Smith isn’t far behind. Satele is far worse than either of them, and de la Puente is a little better than Satele when he’s on and even worse when he’s off.

Dietrich-Smith is nearly on Mack’s level in pass blocking. He’s not quite as hyper-alert and flexible as Mack, and he usually gets simpler assignments (“go help the left guard,” as opposed to “wait three beats to see if anyone’s coming, then help whichever guard is in more trouble, and be ready to shift to the other side”). But he’s strong, active and consistent, and he’s excellent at locking on to a defender and shutting down his rush, even when his quarterback holds the ball a long time.

Watch what Dietrich-Smith does to the Bears’ Jeremiah Ratliff here. Aaron Rodgers can’t find an open receiver, and the rest of the line is breaking down, but Ratliff can’t get out of Dietrich-Smith’s grip:

You could handcuff Satele’s wrists to Ratliff’s and connect their facemasks with a zip tie, and he still wouldn’t maintain that strong a grip for that long (oh Samson, how I’ll miss you).

Lest I seem to be gushing like Jon Gruden, I should point out that Dietrich-Smith does have his faults. He wasn’t great at spotting stunts, especially early in the season. On this play, he even looked a little Satele-like:


That was the only real mental lapse I saw from Dietrich-Smith. He made occasional mistakes in pass protection and gave up a couple hits and a sack, but the frequency of those plays was low.

In run blocking, Dietrich-Smith is a cut below Mack – my three-game sample for Mack included two of his three worst run blocking games of the season, and he still graded out seven percentage points higher than Dietrich-Smith. But Dietrich-Smith was a different beast in the Chicago game than he had been early in the year. Whereas he almost never pulled in the first three games I charted, by the end of the season the Packers were pulling him regularly when they ran their neo-Lombardi power sweep, and he looked quite good doing it, completing all five pull blocks on running plays.

Dietrich-Smith also looked the best of the three (even better than Mack) on zone runs, on which a certain Colts running back excelled at Alabama. His zone blocking worked wonders for Eddie Lacy, another Alabama alum. If the Colts are serious about doing whatever it takes to get that one guy going, they should consider installing more zone running plays, and Dietrich-Smith would be a big help in that area.

Watch him clear out DaJohn Harris on this run:

Jermichael Finley’s backside blocking is bad, so the run gets swallowed up quickly, but for a moment there are a few huge cutback lanes. Even he-who-shall-not-be-named-until-he-looks-like-a-real-NFL-player could pick up a few yards there.

I have fewer images and GIFs in this piece than I had in the last couple mostly because Dietrich-Smith isn’t a flashy player. He doesn’t often blow you away with brilliant blocking, but you don’t notice him screwing up much, either. Most of the time, he quietly does his job and moves on to the next play, which is exactly what the Colts could use in a center. At this point, I think he’s their best bet.