BGA: Scouting Willie Colon

Bent , TheJetsBlog.com

Free agency is underway and the Jets have already signed a few guys that Jets fans might not know too much about. Over the next week or so (and throughout the free agent signing window), I’ll be taking a closer look at each of the new signings and trying to assess what they can bring to the table for the Jets in 2013.

In case you missed it, I looked at Antonio Garay three days ago, Antwan Barnes two days ago and Mike Goodson yesterday. Today we move on to offensive lineman Willie Colon.

The 29-year old Colon is 6-3 and 315 pounds and has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers since they drafted him in the fourth round in 2006. He developed into a solid right tackle, but has been struggling with injuries over the past few years. In 2012, he moved inside to left guard and started 12 games. He looks set to compete for a starting role at one of the guard positions, with neither of last year’s starters Matt Slauson or Brandon Moore expected to return.

After the jump, I’ll be reviewing his career so far and looking in detail at how well he performed last season, before considering what he could provide the Jets with this year and going forward.

Who is Willie Colon?

Colon (pronounced like Cologne) is a local product who played guard at Hofstra. The Jets were apparently interested in drafting him in the late rounds in 2006, but despite not getting a combine invite, Colon was drafted in the fourth round by the Steelers.

In his rookie year, Colon did not get any playing time until the last two games of the year, where he started at right tackle. He was called for a taunting penalty, but didn’t give up any sacks. In 2007, he started all 16 games at right tackle, giving up 10.5 sacks (per Stats LLC) and committing seven penalties, including five false starts.

2008 saw him develop into one of the Steelers’ top linemen, as they would go on to win the Super Bowl with Colon starting all 19 games. According to PFF, Colon was their 7th best pass protecting tackle and 6th best run blocking tackle in 2008, although he was also penalized 16 times, pushing his overall grade down to 14th. Colon gave up seven sacks, but only 25 total pressures in the regular season.

In 2009, he played every snap and was even better in pass protection, giving up just six sacks and 15 total pressures to grade out as PFF’s top pass protecting tackle in the NFL (and third best overall). His run blocking grade was not quite as good as in 2008, but still well above average. He also managed to cut down on the penalties but still had nine.

In June 2010, Colon suffered an Achilles tendon injury that would sideline him for the entire 2010 season. This left the Steelers with a dilemma, as his contract was set to expire. Now regarded as one of the best right tackles in the NFL, Colon was awarded a five-year, $29m contract. In 2011, he made his return, started one game – playing pretty well – and then suffered a torn triceps and ended up missing the remainder of the 2011 season as well.

This brings us to 2012, where Colon made the transition to left guard. He started the first 10 games of the year, before injuring his knee, limiting him to just one start over the last six games. Once again, he graded out positively in pass protection and for run blocking, but continued to have issues with penalties (12) as he gradually grew into his new role. Colon was set to earn $5.5m in 2013, but it was looking like the cap-strapped Steelers might still keep him. However, they eventually released him, reportedly without even attempting to restructure his deal and the Jets picked him up on a one-year deal worth $1.2m.

Let’s review his performances last season before we summarize our observations to assess what he could bring to the table in 2013.

2012 Season

Week 1 – at Denver

This was a rough start for Colon. Playing against a good front seven, at altitude, in only your second game in 32 months is not ideal preparation to make your debut at a new position. He didn’t help himself by false-starting twice.

They tested him early, running a stunt on his side which saw him drive the defensive tackle to the inside, but the end came underneath to make the sack. On a stunt later in the game, he just about read it in time and got enough of his man plus some help from the center coming over, to prevent a pressure. Colon had some issues in the running game – a couple of times he pulled right but couldn’t create any kind of surge and the runner ran into his back and there were a couple of plays where he failed to sustain his block. There was one play in particular where it seemed like he is still adjusting to playing the guard position. At the snap, both Colon and left tackle Max Starks moved to their left and Colon’s assignment was to block a linebacker. However, he didn’t get far enough to the left before engaging with his man and therefore wasn’t able to turn his man back to the inside. At the tackle position, you don’t generally have as far to go before you set the edge.

Despite his struggles, Colon did otherwise handle his pass rushing responsibilities well. He also had a few good moments in the running game, sealing a linebacker to the inside, making a good lead block pulling to the right and peeling off a double team to make a second level block on three plays which netted 18 yards.

Week 2 – v NY Jets

Colon was much more settled in week two, although at times they had simplified his pass protection responsibilities by getting him to make double team blocks and be ready to come off the block to pick up a delayed blitz or stunting lineman. This led to him surrendering no pressure. The Steelers pulled him a couple of times as the lead blocker with David Harris his target. On one play (which was actually negated by a penalty), he blocked Harris completely out of the play but then gave him a shove, which actually enabled Harris to get back to the ball carrier (who had cut back inside) down the field. On another, at the goal line, Harris actually did a good job of getting leverage to force the runner back inside, but then Colon was able to use his strength to drive Harris inside and into the potential tackler (Bart Scott). This enabled the runner to bounce outside and around Colon’s block into the endzone. His most impressive block saw him one on one with Sione Po’uha who he drove and turned to create a seam. The only real negative play was one where he allowed Kenrick Ellis to split a double team to stuff a run as Starks peeled off. There was also one play where he broke up a fight between Ellis and Maurkice Pouncey.

Week 3 – at Oakland

I was reminded of something Vladimir Ducasse said about making the transition from tackle to guard. He suggested that the hardest adjustment is that if you get half-beaten, you don’t have as much space to recover. That seemed to be relevant here, as Colon picked up two holding penalties on plays (one draw play, one pass) where his man was able to get upfield on him just by getting half a step to gain the leverage advantage. He also got into a fight with Tommy Kelly, but wasn’t penalized.

In the running game, he made a good pulling kickout block on a defensive end and did a good job of holding his ground against Richard Seymour to create a hole for a key fourth and short conversion. There was one play where he again wasn’t able to maintain outside leverage and let his man get off the block, although that did still gain five. He gave up one pressure on a play where he was able to stay in front of his man, although Ben Roethlisberger had to step back to get the throw off.

Week 5 – v Philadelphia

In this game, Colon committed four holding penalties, mostly in pass protection. However, he was terrific in the running game, making a series of pulling or driving blocks. One on series, he made good blocks on four consecutive running plays that netted 33 yards. The first saw him pull right and get to his man’s outside shoulder to force him back inside. The next one saw him turn his man to the outside the set up a run up the middle. He then drove his man off the line, turning him around in the process. Finally, he again turned his man to the outside. Perhaps his best block saw him turn his man to the inside to create a seam for a 17 yard run.

In pass protection, he was bullrushed back into Roethlisberger twice, although he still stayed in front of his man. Three of his holds saw him beaten in pass protection though, one on a spin move and two as his man got upfield on him and turned the corner. His other hold came on a run up the middle that was bottled up. On that play he didn’t do a good job of engaging with his man and then reached for him with a desperation grab.

Week 6 – at Tennessee

Once again, he was much better in pass protection this week, not giving up any pressure. He also had an effective game as a run blocker. In this game, he did a good job of using the pass rusher’s momentum to drive him out of the play as the Steelers ran a draw. He also drove his man off the line and to the ground on another play and did a good job of using his strength to maintain leverage at the point of attack. On another play, he initially drove his man out of the play although he then let him spin off his block at the last moment to get in on the assist downfield. There was one play where he was stood up at the line and the run didn’t go anywhere and another where his man got off his block to stuff a run for a short gain.

Week 7 – at Cincinnati

Another solid game here for Colon as a run blocker, as he made a clean pulling block on a linebacker to spring a 15-yard run and kept his man on the outside as a run went up the middle. Late in the game, he had two good second level blocks to help spring 14 and 32 yard runs. In pass protection, he did give up 1.5 sacks. Geno Atkins drove him back and threw him to the ground for a half sack, although the right tackle was also cleanly beaten so it probably would have been a sack anyway. The other sack he surrendered saw the Steelers shift protection over at the last minute so that the left tackle had to pick up a linebacker coming off the edge and Colon had to move laterally to pick up a defensive end. The end (Michael Johnson) did a good job of spinning off his block to make the sack as a bullrush on the left side left the quarterback with nowhere to go.

Oh…and this happened:

Week 8 – v Washington

Colon continued to grow into his new role and have an impact in the running game. He had two excellent “seal and peel” second level blocks here on two plays that netted 23 yards. One saw him drive the linebacker to the inside and the other saw him get just enough of his man on the move to allow the runner to get outside. What was striking about these blocks was that instead of just making the usual token double team block before peeling off, he really made an effort to hit the defensive tackle hard to knock them off balance. That’s the kind of nastiness that makes a difference. He made a couple of other good blocks on plays that didn’t gain much yardage but there were two plays where his man got the better of him – one as the defensive tackle won the leverage battle to force the runner to redirect and another where he didn’t sustain his block on a run up the middle.

Week 9 – at NY Giants

This was another good game as Colon spearheaded the running game to 158 yards and a big win. Early in the game, he had a great interior kickout block on a defensive tackle to create a seam for a 17-yard run. He then drove his man to the inside to set up a five yard run on 2nd and three. On another play he made a pulling lead block and the runner initially had nowhere to go, but remained patient and then was able to bounce outside for 12 as Colon regrouped to seal his man to the inside. There were some plays where he didn’t make his block and the run was bottled up, but overall he played a big part in the win, also managing to keep a clean slate in pass protection. Ironically, the biggest run of the game – a 33-yarder that iced the contest – came on one of Colon’s least impressive plays. He lost inside leverage and his man came up into the hole to blow up the run, but then missed the tackle, letting the runner escape into the open field.

Week 10 – v Kansas City

Once again Colon had a big impact in the running game. Again he wasn’t perfect, but had more positive than negative plays. His best block was a perfectly timed pulling block where he hit the linebacker in the hole to set up a 17-yard run.

Colon had another good game in pass protection, with the only pressure he surrendered being on an early release for a screen pass. On another play, he blocked his man in pass protection well and then sealed him to the inside as Roethlisberger took off on a 14-yard scramble, although he may have been lucky to get away with a hold. He definitely frustrated Dontari Poe in this game, as he appealed for a holding penalty on a number of occasions. However, Colon did get called for a hold early in the game as his man again got outside leverage and then compounded that by cursing the official to draw another flag. He also showed good hustle to recover a fumble.

Week 11 – v Baltimore

At that point of the season, Colon was again grading out among the league leaders at his position for pass protection and run blocking. However, he finished the year with two poor games. Not helping was the fact that he injured his knee on this play, which he implied was a cheap shot by Terrell Suggs:

That actually happened in the fourth quarter and although he finished the game and was active for the next three weeks, kept him off the field until week 14.

Despite the fact he graded out poorly, the Steelers still ran for 134 yards, almost 30 more than their average output at that stage of the season. He lost leverage a couple of times and didn’t always sustain his blocks. The Ravens also exploited his lack of experience at the position as Suggs hit Roethlisberger after stunting underneath Colon and James Ihedigbo sacked him on an overload blitz where Colon blocked the same guy as the center, leaving Digs unblocked. He also had a holding penalty on a running play.

Week 14 – v San Diego

Colon had to have his knee drained a couple of times and his return to the lineup in week 14 only lasted 23 snaps as it was clear he was struggling with his lateral movement, giving up three pressures in pass protection (having only given up 11 total pressures in his first 10 games). He false started for the first time since the opener and let his man get off his block to make an assist on 3rd and short after initially having driven him back only to fall over.

Observations

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

Usage - As noted, Colon played guard in college. He also has experience as a defensive tackle. He played right tackle from 2006 to 2011 and moved to left guard for 2012. The Steelers do not run unbalanced line formations, so he hasn’t played as an extra tight end or on the left side.

Athletic Ability – Colon is pretty good on the move, especially considering his size. However, his strength is his most impressive attribute. There were a lot of examples of plays where it looked like he was going to lose leverage, but managed not to with pure upper body strength. In fact, he sometimes relies on his athletic ability to make up for poor footwork or technique. That’s not to suggest he’s a bad technician, these were just plays where he was either slow to react or got thrown off balance by a defender. It might explain some of his penalties though.

Run Blocking - The book on Colon is that he has short arms and that probably contributes to him losing the leverage battle at times. However, his strength often enables him to overcome this. Colon had more and more success with the left guard staple blocks (pulling lead block to the right, seal-and-peel block at the second level) as the season went along and he really seemed to get more comfortable at the guard position. He doesn’t always sustain his blocks and maybe isn’t always dominant as a drive-blocker, but he definitely had more positive than negative blocks. The most impressive aspect of Colon’s 2012 season as a run blocker is that he hardly ever allowed any penetration.

Pass Protection – Colon’s pass protection numbers were solid after his move to guard. He ended up with the 18th best Pass Blocking Efficiency rating among NFL guards. Not bad considering it was his first season in that role. A lot of the pressure he gave up came in a situation where he had to pick up another player due to a stunt or overload or from bullrushes where he stayed in front of his man so it was rare for his man to get by him one-on-one for a pressure (although admittedly he did resort to holding to prevent that on a number of occasions).

Scheme Familiarity

Although the Steelers were known for their man-blocking scheme in the Alan Faneca era, they have been incorporating some zone read stuff in their system since 2007 (and are actually talking about a shift towards more zone blocking in 2013, which may be one of the reasons Colon was let go). Colon joins a team that figures to be playing the West Coast Offense, although Marty Mornhinweg recently indicated that they will run multiple schemes. Under Todd Haley (who ironically almost joined the Jets last year before accepting the Steelers offensive coordinator job), the Steelers did introduce some West Coast elements to their offense although they still threw downfield a lot. All of that should mean that last year was good preparation for Colon to come in and pick up the Jets system, which is expected to be heavily West Coast Offense-influenced and with plenty of zone/stretch run blocking.

Instincts – Considering he was playing a position he hadn’t played since college (seven years ago) Colon did seem to handle situations where he had to react to a blitz or something reasonably well, although he was caught out by a few exotic pass rush schemes.

Attitude – Much like the other three signings, Colon has a fiery attitude and comes to the Jets with what he calls a “big-ass chip” on his shoulder. There were several examples of him getting into fights (including one in Steelers camp) and the Vontaze Burfict incident shown above is something Steelers fans loved him for:

“I was hungry and tired of losing on the road,” Colon said, referring to the Steelers’ 0-3 start away from home. “If I’ve got to start a fight to get this team going, I’ve got no problem doing it. … For me, if I have to be the bully, I have no problem doing it.”

Conclusions

Colon was an outstanding right tackle, but his injuries have really hurt the Steelers over the last few seasons. Even last year, as soon as he got hurt, Starks went downhill, which can’t be a coincidence. After two years with just one appearance, it’s encouraging that he managed to start 11 games last year. The knee injury was nothing serious and he played some good games, so it seems like he has put the effects of the heel and arm injuries behind him, although they may be part of the reason he moved inside. These things do add up over time and the Jets probably can’t count on him being healthy all year.

The other concern about Colon is penalties. He has 44 in 62 starts. It does seem like he’s cut down on the false starts – he had 15 from 2007 to 2009 but only three last year, two of which were in the opener (his first game at the guard position). However, his seven accepted holding penalties last year were a career high. Mind you, only two of those came after the fourth game of the year, so it seems like he made the adjustment there – although I would caution that there were several plays where a hold could have been called or was appealed for by a defender.

The most positive thing about Colon is that he seemed to get better as the season went on, suggesting that he was getting comfortable at the guard position and growing nicely into the role. That could make this a potential high-upside move. He got better in pass protection, had more of a direct impact in the running game and cut back on the penalties as the season went on. The season did end on a sour note with two rough performances, but there were other reasons for those – mostly injury related.

If Colon can stay healthy and play as well as he did last year, then he should be a good starter for the Jets at guard. (The possibility of using him at tackle in an emergency is a bonus). However, that’s far from certain so the Jets would be smart to add more depth on the interior, unless they’re higher on Ducasse and Caleb Schlauderaff than any of us realize. If he is healthy then he could even surpass last year’s performance because a lot of his struggles last year were attributable to learning a new position and I don’t see him as the finished article yet, even though he’s still capable of making an impact.

This looks like another low-risk move with potentially high rewards. It will be interesting if the Jets continue to target players that fit this description.




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