Over the next month, we're going to be providing in-depth scouting reports for each of the Jets' free agency signings. Today, we take a look at offensive lineman Spencer Long.
The 27-year old Long is 6'5" and 318 pounds and was a third round pick out of Nebraska in 2014. He spent the first four years of his career with Washington, where he started 31 games. The Jets signed him to a four year deal worth up to $30 million in free agency.
Long was originally recruited to Nebraska as a defensive end but converted to the offensive line and was the starting right guard in 2011, 2012 and 2013. He was voted as second-team Big Ten in 2012.
Long suffered a season-ending injury in October 2013 and wasn't able to work out at the combine, but was still drafted in the third round.
He didn't play much in his rookie year but started 13 games at left guard in 2015, after an injury to Shawn Lauvao. In 2016, he took over as the team's starting center after Kory Lichtensteiger was hurt early in the season. He started 12 of the last 13 games and entered 2017 as the starter.
In 2017, Long started the first six games but then started struggling with injuries. He played in only one other game all year, as the team opted to roll with rookie Chase Rouillier.
The Jets signed the unrestricted free agent during the first week of free agency and he's expected to take over from Wesley Johnson as the starting center.
Now let's look at what Long brings to the table, divided into categories.
Long couldn't work out during the pre-draft process, but he has impressive size and the biggest hands of anyone at the combine that year. His length is below average though.
Long is regarded as having excellent strength - he reportedly put up 28 bench press reps at his pro day - but lacking natural athletic ability. However, his athleticism doesn't look too bad based on his pro film.
Long has played four offensive line positions at the NFL level, starting games at left guard and center and filling in briefly at right guard and left tackle. Right guard was his primary position in college.
Since 2015, he's only played center, apart from one snap where he lined up at left guard in 2016.
At center, Long is solid at the point of attack and capable of driving his man off the line or leveraging him out of the middle.
However, he actually posted the best run blocking grade of his career when he was playing guard, according to Pro Football Focus.
If there's a weakness, it's that he sometimes doesn't play with good leverage when blocking in space. This enables his man to get off the block and in on the play sometimes.
Here's an example of a play where Long folds in behind the left guard. There he can set the edge on the inside linebacker, but on this case the linebacker is caught inside so he's able to double team on the defensive lineman to set the edge instead:
Pre-draft scouting reports question Long's ability to block on the move, but he looks good leading the way on this pulling block. Again, he doesn't play with perfect leverage, but this is an effective block anyway because he meets his target with force:
Some things are beyond him though. On this play, the scheme requires Long to make a reach block on Aaron Donald to prevent him from blowing up a run from the back side. The result is predictable, but the fact that they would even attempt that perhaps tells us something about Long's capabilities:
As noted, he's at his best when moving forwards. On this play, he drives his man out of the middle to create a lane for the run straight up the gut:
Having noted that Long graded out better as a run blocker when he was playing guard, it's also worth noting that he has been much more consistent in pass protection since moving to center.
Long has never given up many sacks or hits, but surrendered pressure at a much greater rate when playing at guard.
When blocking on the interior, he'll often lose ground on the defensive lineman's initial thrust. He is capable of re-anchoring but that can sometimes cause him issues. He'll also allow his man to disengage from his block at times, which can be more of an issue when he's forced wide from the guard position.
In 2016, Long ranked as the league's 9th best center in terms of pass protection according to Pro Football Focus and he was on course for a similar ranking in 2017 before one game tanked his ranking back down to average.
That was his last start of the season, as he had been struggling with injuries. Those issues perhaps affected his performance that day, which was costly because he was often tasked with single-blocking Fletcher Cox.
Cox got the better of him a few times by exploding into him at the snap, including on this sack:
Long admitted that when he first started learning the center position, snapping the ball and getting into his stance was a problem for him, but one he eventually overcame. It's possible that his lingering knee soreness affected how readily he was able to do that in this game, leading to him taking time off. To his credit, he managed to handle Cox one-on-one on several occasions too.
Long is regarded as a good technician. He has a stocky frame and a wide base, although his balance can let him down at times.
When battling in the trenches, he works hard, constantly changing his hand position to battle for leverage. He doesn't always finish his blocks effectively though.
As noted, he doesn't always play with leverage when blocking in space. He might get out in front of a screen pass well, but he doesn't seem to take great angles to enable him to lock onto a block cleanly.
Here's one play where he was just about able to get enough of his target to slow him down and spring the receiver for a score:
At the NFL level, Long has done a stellar job of keeping his penalty count down. He had just two penalties from 2014 to 2017; one false start and one play where he was downfield too early on a forward pass.
In preseason action, he's been called for two holds and an illegal hands-to-the-face penalty.
As regards special teams, Long has only contributed as a blocker on the placekicking unit in recent seasons and would likely continue to do just that as the starting center with the Jets.
Earlier on in his career he was also a blocker on the return unit and even fielded a kick off and returned it 12 yards in one game as a rookie.
Long is extremely smart, having won multiple academic awards. He is expected to attend medical school at the end of his career.
He has adjusted well to the center position, especially on the mental side of things. He was tasked with making all the calls both in the running game and in terms of setting protections in Washington, although Kirk Cousins was able to overrule him at the line on pass protection sets. Long's ability to do that could be a valuable asset if the Jets draft a quarterback that sees time this year.
When playing in pass protection, Long is often tasked with keeping an eye on everything that's going on around him. He displays good vision and awareness in that role, often helping to block two or three different players in one play. Here's a good example of him picking up the blitz to allow Cousins to get the throw off:
Long is regarded as a hard-working player with a nasty streak and no character concerns.
Long also exhibits tremendous toughness. In 2012, arguably his best collegiate season, he played the entire season with a torn meniscus and didn't miss a game.
Of course, displaying the toughness to play through injuries doesn't remove the concern that those injuries keep arising and may cause Long to miss time.
Long's season-ending injury in 2013 was an MCL/PCL tear and he also had knee surgery prior to the 2017 season. During the first six weeks, he was suffering from knee tendinitis and then he tore his quad muscle when he returned, ending his season and again requiring him to have surgery.
He's also been listed with ankle, hip and chest injuries during his career and missed time in 2016 with a concussion/stinger. Long also missed time in camp with an illness in 2017 and couldn't lift at the combine due to appendicitis.
As we've written many times, we're expecting the Jets to transition to more of a zone blocking scheme due to the coaching changes in 2018.
When Long was drafted, Washington basically ran a pure zone system but that changed at the end of his rookie year when they hired former Jets offensive line coach Bill Callahan.
As Jets fans will recall, Callahan made his name with a power running game but started to add more and more zone elements while with the Jets. He's continued that approach so Long was blocking in a varied scheme over the past three years. He was prepared for that because that's the approach Nebraska took while he was in college too.
In the earlier example where he drove the defensive tackle out of the middle, that was an inside zone run and here's a play where he does an excellent job of getting outside leverage to seal his man off to the inside to spring a big gain on an outside/stretch zone play:
Long was a collegiate teammate of fellow Jets lineman Brent Qvale. He's also played with Quincy Enunwa and Terrelle Pryor.
Long is a good fit and should prove to be a significant upgrade over Johnson. Just from his experience and comfort level with the requirements of the center position, his addition to the line-up should hopefully make the guards play at a higher level and be useful for any young quarterback that gets into the line-up.
He's not played at an elite level, but he's a consistent starter-level performer who has been able to handle difficult assignments and match-ups.
His injury history is a concern, especially since the Jets don't seem to have much depth behind him at the moment. However, they've protected themselves contractually. His versatility is useful too, especially if the team can develop another candidate to play the center position down the road.