Ceiling or floor? Technique or talent? Consistency or dominance? These are the questions the team picking the first lineman of the draft will answer. That player will almost assuredly be either Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, or Oregon’s Penei Sewell.
Sewell opted out of the 2020 season, and remained atop most offensive line boards, with the reasons why being clear. His combination of range, power, and raw athleticism is truly impressive. While he needs some refinement of his technique, it’s difficult to blame him for securing his spot as a likely top-10 pick.
Slater, on the other hand, came into the offseason as a lesser known name. He too opted out of the 2020 season, showing confidence in what he had already put on tape. This makes sense given that what he his tape shows consistent, solid blocking in both the run game and the pass game.
So with these two radically different prospects most likely available to the Bengals at number five, could they find a way to pass on them? For the sake of simplicity, I will omit the possibility of Joe Burrow being reunited with his LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase here, with the assumption being that the Bengals prefer Joe Burrow with all of his bones intact.
So which prospect should they bring to Cincinnati? Let’s break down the finer points of each lineman’s game and see if the answer emerges.
Rashawn Slater is a steady, solid pass blocker with minimal technique concerns and good movement skills. He gets into his kick set well, his knee bend is nice, and he rarely gives up his chest. His one minor technical flaw is his slight tendency to play with his head down. This is easily coachable and shouldn’t bring down his grade much, if at all.
The one glaring issue with Slater’s profile is his lack of length. His 33 inch arms are less than ideal for an NFL tackle. Once he gets to the big time, there’s a fair argument that veteran pass rushers could exploit this. Many draft experts have said that this could lead to a switch to guard in the NFL. While this is impossible to predict, it’s fair to say that Slater’s pass blocking is a plus trait.
Penei Sewell is similar, yet completely different from Slater. He brings a totally different skill set to the table and a different gear of explosiveness. His movements are fluid and startlingly quick, and his play strength is exceptional. This level of athleticism means he rarely (if ever) gets beaten physically. Ironically, he shares his only physical flaw with Slater: lack of wingspan. At 33¼ inches, Sewell’s arm length has generated similar buzz about a move to the interior.
The difference is, Sewell’s tape also shows this necessity. One of Sewell’s best-selling points as a prospect is his ability to make pancake blocks. His size, strength, and speed make it easy for him to rag doll defensive players. However, in the pass game something strange happens. While sometimes he will get to the top of his kick step and steamroll the defensive end, other times he seems to lean back and catch the pass rusher, leading to head scratching lost reps. This weakness in space seems to show a lack of seasoning and experience, and suggests a better fit in the closer quarters of the interior offensive line.
Slater is a solid, sturdy run blocker that moves people around. He gets into his blocks cleanly and fills his role cleanly. While he may not necessarily be an impact blocker, he has plenty of edge and raw power. His work in space is good and he has solid footwork/agility. Slater is the epitome of a blue-collar lineman that puts in work in the trenches. His pass game may be his stronger point, but his run blocking is no weakness either.
Penei Sewell, however, is a walking highlight reel in the run game. Watching him work off the edge is like watching a figure skater with an urge to kill. His reach blocking ability is unmatched in the class. His steps are graceful and his hands are explosive. When Sewell gets in space, he makes a play. He works through the defensive levels expertly and he leaves carnage in his wake. He should be put on trial for some of the hits he puts on linebackers and DBs.
Sewell is a certified, bona fide stud as a run blocker, and he’ll be a true nightmare for defensive coaches. He would also translate well to the interior as a run blocker with his affinity for pulling plays. His explosiveness and speed are well suited for the job. As a guard, there’s a lot of Quenton Nelson to see here.
So where does that leave us? Who’s OT1? Who should the Bengals take at 5? Well, as with almost all prospect rankings, it depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a reliable pass blocker to keep your QB upright in the pocket, Slater is your best bet. If you want somebody that could develop into an all-pro, gold jacket caliber monster that makes highlight reel plays, Sewell is for you.
It’s the perennial argument of floor vs ceiling, consistency vs explosiveness, stability vs volatility. At the end of the day, each of them are excellent prospects. Whoever drafts them, whether as a guard or a tackle, will be getting a serious hog.