Had Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley declared for the 2015 NFL draft, he well might have been the first offensive tackle off the board. After deciding to return to school, he is now the favorite to be the top offensive lineman selected in the 2016 NFL draft.
After spending his first playing season at right tackle in 2013, Stanley had big shoes to fill last year as Notre Dame’s replacement for Zack Martin, a four-year starter at left tackle who went on to be a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft and a Pro Bowl guard for the Dallas Cowboys in his rookie season.
As good as Martin was at Notre Dame and already is in the NFL, Stanley could be more highly regarded as a prospect. Unlike Martin, who was always projected to move inside because of his measurables, Stanley has the prototypical length and athleticism that NFL scouts covet in an offensive tackle prospect.
Given that, he could have gone even higher in the 2015 draft than Martin went in 2014 (No. 16 overall). As Stanley explained via a release by Notre Dame’s official athletics website, however, he felt as though he has unfinished business in South Bend before he moves on to the next level:
This was a difficult decision. My dream isn't just to play in the National Football League. I want to win a national championship. I've waited to this point so I could watch the actual game and see if I felt any emotion, and I felt a great deal. I am a competitor. I want to play on the top stage so I've decided that I'm returning to Notre Dame for my senior year.
We've got a chance to have a special season next year. Many of my teammates are returning and I've made strong bonds with lots of them. If all of them weren't coming back this year it would've made it an easier decision to leave. All this, the opportunity to graduate, and much more, led to my decision to stay.
Technically, Stanley still has two years of collegiate eligibility remaining. He is considered to be a senior by Notre Dame, which always lists its players by class year, but he is actually a redshirt junior from an eligibility standpoint.
Based on the quote above, though, it sounds like Stanley already has his mind set toward moving forward to the NFL in 2016. If he continues to perform as well this upcoming season as he did last year, he’ll be in high demand.
Dominant in Pass Protection
When NFL teams look for a franchise left tackle, they search for a player who can consistently handle pro-caliber pass-rushers on the edge and provide consistent protection for the quarterback’s blind side.
Stanley, after just two years as a collegiate starter and just one season on the left side, looks as though he could do that already.
From a physical standpoint, he has optimal measurables for the left tackle position. A long-limbed lineman who is listed at 6’5 ½” and 315 pounds by UND.com, Stanley is a former high school basketball player who combines the size of a behemoth with the feet of a ballerina.
Even more striking than his physical tools, however, is how fundamentally sound he is in using them. Despite his relative playing inexperience, he already has refined technique in both his upper and lower body.
Stanley consistently lands proper hand placement on his opponents, which enables him to lock out his long arms, absorb punches and keep pass-rushers at bay.
The rising senior’s footwork is also excellent. When pass-rushers line up wide, Stanley (No. 78) is able to employ his smooth kick-slide to get out in front of the edge defender quickly, like he did on the following play against Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker (No. 44, bottom of screen):
Golson likes to use his feet to maneuver the pocket and create plays, and Stanley regularly gave him the pass protection he needed to do so. A player who can be trusted in one-on-one matchups, Stanley does an excellent job of fighting with his hands and sliding his feet to mirror a pass-rusher in isolation and keep his man away from the quarterback.
On the play below, also from last year’s Florida State game, Stanley showed that ability as he was able to mirror Seminoles linebacker Jacob Pugh (No. 16, top of screen) for a good five seconds, buying time for Golson to dance around the pocket before ultimately completing a shovel pass.
Stanley’s foot skills make him a fit for any offensive scheme. Have a mobile quarterback and want to create a moving pocket to extend a play? No problem, as Stanley showed on the following example of pass protection (working toward bottom of screen) against Stanford:
If you watch Stanley’s entire game versus Florida State from last season, you will see many examples of his not allowing his opponent—specifically, 2015 second-round draft pick Mario Edwards Jr.—to even get off the line of scrimmage. He consistently gets out of his stance quickly, shuts down most pass-rushing moves and exhibits strength in holding his ground against bull-rushes.
When a pass-rusher does start to get momentum toward the quarterback, however, Stanley does not panic. He is adept at adjusting his angle mid-play to guide an opponent around the back of the pocket, like he did on the following matchup with Pugh (bottom of screen) to not only buy time for Golson but enable the quarterback to take off running for a first down.
As Stanley moves forward into the 2015 season, he can still work on becoming more consistent as he blocks the blind side for a new Notre Dame starting quarterback, Malik Zaire, this year. All in all, though, Stanley has no glaring weaknesses that should stop him from being a successful pass protector in the NFL.
Can Stanley Make an Impact as a Run-Blocker?
How teams feel about the answer to that question could make a difference in whether or not Stanley is the top-10 overall pick he has the potential to be. While his pass-blocking skill is outstanding for a player who still has two years of collegiate eligibility left, he has not shown that he can make the same sort of consistent presence in the run game.
Despite his size and strength, Stanley has not exhibited much ability to generate power. He rarely drive-blocks defenders more than a couple of yards off the line of scrimmage, and he often struggles to move his man backward at all.
To a similar extent, he does not regularly translate his athleticism into making downfield blocks in space, though he shows more potential in that regard.
A screen block is not precisely the same as a run block, but nonetheless, the following clip—on which Stanley blocked Florida State safety Tyler Hunter to lead Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller to an 11-yard touchdown—shows his potential to accelerate to the second level and impose his size upon a smaller defender.
Stanley does not consistently show that level of ability to find a defender in space and get a body on him, so he needs to improve in that regard.
Where Does Stanley Fit in the 2016 NFL Draft?
Altogether, Stanley needs to make strides as a run-blocker this upcoming season if he is going to solidify himself as one of the top prospects in the 2016 NFL draft.
The good news is that NFL teams tend to value pass-blocking ability, especially in a prospective left tackle, more highly than run-blocking ability.
Furthermore, a lack of power should not stop a team from drafting Stanley, especially if he shows development in that area in 2015. While he could continue to get stronger through hard work in the weight room, his length and athleticism are naturally inherited traits that many offensive tackles—even some who are already starting in the NFL—are unable to match.
Stanley’s top competition to be the first offensive tackle chosen in the 2016 NFL draft could be Ole Miss junior Laremy Tunsil. He has similar physical attributes to Stanley but is not quite as natural in pass protection and is also coming off a fractured fibula suffered in the Peach Bowl last season.
Other offensive tackles who project as potential first-round picks and could compete for draft position with Stanley and Tunsil include Ohio State senior Taylor Decker, Michigan State junior Jack Conklin, Baylor senior Spencer Drango and Texas Tech senior Le'Raven Clark.
Regardless of how those players or any other offensive linemen who might emerge as top prospects perform, Stanley should be one of the first players selected in the 2016 NFL draft assuming he declares, stays healthy and continues to perform at the high level he did last season.
In comparing Stanley to prospects from recent drafts, he does not yet project at the same elite level as the top two offensive tackles from the 2014 draft, No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson and No. 6 overall pick Jake Matthews. If he can take a leap forward as a run-blocker and have an excellent junior season, he could reach that level.
Within the 2015 draft pool, however, Stanley might have already given No. 5 overall pick Brandon Scherff a run for his money. As aforementioned, some draft analysts—including Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller—felt that Stanley would have been the top prospect at the position this past spring.
Adding to that, Miller also considers Stanley to be among a group of six prospects who stand out, in his opinion, as the top talents in the 2016 draft class.
All of those players (spoiler alert: you might see a few of them as our top-prospects-by-position series moves to the defensive side of the ball) have the potential to be among the top picks next spring.
Stanley’s case in comparison to some of the others, though, is not only bolstered by his skill set but also his position—left tackle—which is typically valued at a premium in the NFL draft.
This article is part of a series on the projected top prospects at each position for the 2016 NFL draft. Also read:
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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Jim Harbaugh is apparently a big fan of Lil Wayne, so much so that he sent the rapper an autographed custom Michigan Wolverines jersey.
Harbaugh tweeted out a photo of Lil Wayne with rapper Jack Kennedy. Kennedy was a walk-on quarterback at Michigan from 2009 to 2012. Kennedy was one of the openers for "Big Show at the Joe" at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena on Friday night.
Harbaugh penned the jersey with "To Wayne, proud to be a fan of yours, Go Blue!"
Expect to hear Lil Wayne boom through the stadium speakers this upcoming season.
[Twitter, h/t College Spun]
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