BGA: Scouting Ben Ijalana

Bent, TheJetsBlog.com

Yesterday, the Jets made three waiver claims to bring aboard three new players, offensive lineman Ben Ijalana, running back Alex Green and defensive end/linebacker Scott Solomon. Jets fans might not know much about these three players, so I’ve been looking in detail at footage from their careers so far to assess what they might bring to the table.

Ijalana was a second round pick out of Villanova for the Indianapolis Colts in 2011 and was considered one of the top small-school prospects in the entire draft. A promising start to his career was somewhat derailed when he tore his ACL in his fourth NFL game and then he tore it again in training camp the following season. He returned to the Colts lineup for preseason this year, but was a final cut. While scouts were divided as to whether he projected better to guard or tackle at the NFL level, he worked exclusively as a tackle while with Indianapolis.

After the jump, I look in detail at footage from before and after his injury to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses.

Who is Ben Ijalana?

Ijalana had an outstanding collegiate career at Villanova where he was the only non-FBS player to be placed on the watch list for the prestigious Outland Trophy, which is awarded to the best lineman in the country. At the scouting combine, he was dealing with a sports hernia, so his numbers were not particularly impressive, but it didn’t hurt his stock much and the Colts selected him with the 49th pick in the draft, having already picked another tackle (Anthony Costanzo) in the first round.

In his rookie year, he played right tackle on the second unit in preseason and then – after just playing on special teams in the first three games – was called into action at left tackle in the fourth game of the regular season. Ijalana replaced Costanzo, who had suffered an ankle injury, midway through the first quarter. He played quite well, but then got injured himself, suffering an ACL tear early in the fourth quarter. In 2012, he re-tore his ACL before the season began and missed the whole season.

After rehabbing for a second time, Ijalana was back in Colts camp this summer and worked as the third string right tackle in preseason, after which he was released.

We shall now look back at his performance in those nine games. First let’s look at how Ijalana performed as a rookie, before his knee injuries derailed his career.

2011 Preseason

Week 1 – Rams

Ijalana entered the game with 6:31 still remaining in the first quarter and played deep into the second half. While there was some pressure from his side, not much of it was directly his fault. On one play the Colts blitzed a safety and stunted the end and tackle, with the safety looping around the outside of that action. Ijalana did well to pick up his man, but the running back was fooled and wasn’t able to get outside quickly enough. There was also a play where the tight end got beaten on the outside, but Ijalana was positioned to give him inside support. On another play, Ijalana’s man hit the quarterback, but again, he had done his job well here and the quarterback just ran into his man as he went to throw the ball. The one time he was partly to blame came when he picked up a defensive tackle on another stunt and was driven back into the quarterback. Although he stayed on top of his man and allowed the quarterback to get the throw off, it was picked off.

As a run blocker, Ijalana showed some positive signs. On one play, the Colts ran a zone/stretch play to the outside. Ijalana’s man worked his way downhill trying to stretch the play out, but when the runner cut upfield, Ijalana did a good job of using his man’s momentum to keep him going in that direction. On a couple of other plays he got a good surge upfront. There was one play where he was half-beaten but the runner was able to cut back for a first down, so this may have been part of the play design anyway. On another, he allowed penetration, but the run went the other way, so it didn’t affect the play.

Week 2 – Redskins

This time, Ijalana entered the game midway through the third quarter. Again, he wasn’t troubled too badly in pass protection. On one play he was beaten outside, but he recovered to drive his man upfield and allow his quarterback to step up. On another, he was double teaming and recognized a delayed linebacker blitz late, so wasn’t able to prevent him getting a clean run at the quarterback. In the running game, Ijalana didn’t have a major impact because the Colts were trailing, but avoided any mistakes.

Week 3 – Packers

Ijalana entered the game with about five minutes left in the third. He did give up a pressure, as his man was able to get outside leverage and pressure the quarterback low in the pocket. In the running game, he had one good kickout block on a short yardage conversion, but wasn’t always able to lock onto his man when blocking at the second level.

This game was also notable because current former Jets #4 quarterback Graham Harrell led an exciting comeback win down the stretch.

Week 4 – Bengals

This time, Ijalana entered late in the second quarter. He had some surging blocks in the running game, driving his man off the line and, at one point, picking up a block at the second level and driving his man downfield. Ijalana was troubled a couple of times in pass protection, but still managed to avoid getting cleanly beaten. He gave up a pressure on a screen pass by letting his man release to the inside, which may have been part of the play design. On another play, he was half beaten around the corner, but was able to get enough of his man to slow him up and prevent him getting to the quarterback in time. He did give up one pressure on the last drive, as his man made an inside move on him while he backpedaled, but the drive was still successful, leading to a Colts win.

2011 Regular Season

Week 4 – Tampa Bay

Ijalana was called into action at left tackle on Monday Night Football, following the Costanzo ankle injury as mentioned above. On his very first play he made a decent block at the second level. He had an excellent run block later on in the first quarter as the Colts ran a zone/stretch play and he got inside leverage on his man to drive him out of the play and create a big lane for a 13 yard run. However, there was a play later where he was stood up and the run had nowhere to go and was stopped for a short loss. He was given some help in pass protection, with backs and tight ends staying in some of the time. There was also one play where he blocked down on the defensive end and the left guard backed off to pick up the linebacker coming off the edge. When he was called upon to block one-on-one he did okay for the most part, although there were two plays where he was half-beaten (one outside, one inside) but there was no pressure recorded because the quarterback got rid of the ball quickly. His ACL injury occurred as he tripped over another lineman in the pocket at the end of a play where his teammate had given up a sack.

My impressions of the pre-injury Ijalana were extremely positive. Even though he was working against backups, he did get some early game reps in preseason and also handled himself well in his regular season appearance, where he was working against Adrian Clayborne for the most part.

When you hear about a second round tackle from a small-school that doesn’t make much of an impact in his first few years, it’s difficult not to consider Vladimir Ducasse, but this is a totally different situation. Unlike Ducasse, it looked like Ijalana was close to NFL-ready even as a rookie and it’s just his injuries that prevented him from making that final step, whereas Ducasse looked like a long-term project right off the bat.

Ijalana used a combination of long arms and agility in pass protection, as well as having good footwork. If he ever got half-beaten, he was usually able to recover and at least get some of his man to prevent any kind of clean hit. He did give up some pressures in those five games, but none of them saw him get cleanly beaten. Whenever there was a stunt, he handled it well, suggesting he has good instincts and intelligence, but it was that agility that enabled him to adjust his position to stay in front of his man and react.

As a run blocker, he looked really good when able to really lock onto his man, but this didn’t happen as often as it might have. However, even when he wasn’t getting all of a block, he was slowing people down, just by being athletic enough to get out in front of a man and using his long arms and upper body strength to get a piece of them.

Unfortunately, the Jets are getting a post-injury Ijalana, so let’s delve into the footage from this preseason to see how the 2013 model matches up.

2013 Preseason

Week 1 – Bills

Ijalana didn’t get into the game until there were less than five minutes to go, with the third unit. He ended up playing 11 snaps at left tackle and there was some pressure from his side, although there was only one play where he was almost beaten. The other pressure came about as a result of the quarterback not changing up his protection. Three times, rushers came unblocked off the blind side as Ijalana was double-teaming with the left guard.

Week 2 – Giants

Ijalana probably wouldn’t have played at all in this one, but there was an injury late in the game. He was in for five snaps, three of which were kneel downs. The other two were a run for a short gain and a short pass, on which he almost got beaten for a pressure.

Week 3 – Browns

Ijalana played the entire fourth quarter and part of the third. He held his own for the most part, but did give up a quarterback hit on an inside move. On another play, he failed to sustain his block at the point of attack and the runner was stuffed for a loss.

Week 4 – Bengals

Again, Ijalana played the fourth quarter and part of the third. He did a good job in pass protection here and had some excellent blocks in the running game, although they didn’t translate to much success. On one play, he absolutely flatted the defensive end with a pancake block, but the run went for just three up the middle. Shortly after, there was an off tackle run where he got outside leverage on his man and drove him back to the inside. Then, on consecutive plays, he drove his man off the line, but these two plays netted just two yards.

Ijalana didn’t get much of a chance to play in preseason, as it seems the Colts had decided pretty early on that he was behind a few of their other options, some of whom can also play guard so provide more versatility in a depth role. When he did play, it was already noticeable that Ijalana’s lateral movement seemed compromised and he didn’t seem to have the same kind of agility. Having said that, he started to look more comfortable as he got more playing time, so hopefully that’s something that he can overcome in time.

What Ijalana seems to have lost is the ability to be a dominating player (other than a few flashes against backups and third stringers in the last game), which was the reason he was drafted so high in the first place. However, he still has good technique and doesn’t seem to have lost the ability to do a competent job, especially in pass protection.

Unlike the other two waiver claims the Jets acquired, Ijalana is practice squad eligible, so it’s possible they could waive him and put him on their practice squad at some point, but there may be other teams interested because he still has obvious potential if healthy.

Observations

Based on all the footage I watched, here was my take on what Ijalana brings to the table, divided into categories:

Usage - As noted, he played both left and right tackle.

Athletic Ability – Ijalana’s athleticism really stood out before he was injured. Whether he can return to that level or not, he’s still more athletic than a lot of tackles in his current state. How easily he can adjust to having lost a step is the obvious question.

Run Blocking - Ijalana is good on the move and can get a good surge going at the point of attack. While he might not always lock onto a block in space, his long arms can still be an asset here, as he is able to extend his range.

Pass Protection – Ijalana looked like he could be a potentially elite pass protector before his injury. Since then, he might not be as agile as he once was, which will hurt his ability to recover, but he still has long arms, intelligence and good technique, so I feel pretty good about his ability to come in and hold the fort in a backup role.

Attitude – Ijalana is known for being intelligent and hard working. There were no obvious signs of bad attitude, demonstrativeness or chippiness during the games I watched and I found no record of any off-field issues.

Scheme Familiarity – The Colts offense back in 2011 was pretty vanilla, whereas they moved to a more west coast style this year. That should stand Ijalana in good stead in terms of learning the playbook for Marty Mornhinweg’s system. They’ve always used zone blocking too, which again should be helpful for his transition.

Conclusions

Looking around the internet, most Colts fans were hoping that they could retain Ijalana on the practice squad, although some were obviously losing patience with him. They seemed to think he would provide a team with good depth though, so he could be ideal for a swing tackle role, with some potential upside if his physical condition improves over time.

This was probably the waiver claim I was most enthused about out of the three the Jets made. A healthy Ijalana would probably have become untouchable by now, but two ACL injuries in consecutive seasons is one of the few ways you can end up with a prospect like that for free. I think the chances of him ever developing into an elite player are most likely behind him, but if he’s been brought in to upgrade the Jets’ depth at the tackle position, then I would expect that to be achievable. Ijalana was much more impressive than Oday Aboushi in preseason and was better than JB Shugarts (who is on the practice squad) as well, plus he has a small amount of regular season game experience, which neither of those two do.

Ijalana can also play guard and that’s the path that NFL tackles often take once it becomes apparent their lateral quickness is deteriorating due to age or injury. If the Jets keep him in the system for any length of time, that could be their plan for him down the road.

Up next: Scott Solomon, who was a rotational DE for the Titans last year, but just converted to linebacker. I’ll be interested on seeing how he coped with that position change and speculating on how the Jets might be planning to use him.

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