Part 2, OL: Trevor Penning, 'total prick' in trenches, leads class of ass-kickers
Enjoy players who specialize in making a defensive lineman's life a living hell? This draft is for you. Scouts dish on the toughest of the tough in Part 2 of McGinn's series.
This is the 38th year Bob McGinn has written an NFL draft series. Previously, it appeared at the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-’19) and The Athletic (2020-’21). Until 2014, personnel people often were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts. The 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test was not administered at the NFL scouting combine this year, possibly the first time it had been excluded. Players generally took the test at spring timing days in 2021 and at pro days in the last two months. The NFL average score is about 19.
Today: Offensive Line
With apologies to several other offensive linemen, tackle Trevor Penning and center Tyler Linderbaum brought a certain joie de vivre to their college football careers that should make them valuable NFL starters if not Pro Bowl players for years to come.
A self-styled “prick” on a football field, Penning is about as overt with his bullying style of play as the offensive line has seen in a while.
Described by one NFC personnel director as “f-----g ruthless,” Linderbaum goes for the throat on an equally consistent basis but isn’t quite as belligerent about it.
Two sons of small-town Iowa, one is from the Power 5 and the other FCS. If they both don’t go in the first round next week, their wait won’t be long in the second.
Kirk Ferentz signed Linderbaum out of Solon, Iowa, just north of Iowa City, as a defensive lineman in his 2018 class. The year before, the Hawkeyes’ all-time winningest coach never contacted Penning, who lived 175 miles to the northwest in Clear Lake but played at tiny Newman Catholic in Mason City.
After playing sparingly as a defensive tackle in 2018, Linderbaum agreed to the position switch suggested by Ferentz in ‘19. Penning, who arrived at Northern Iowa as a gangly 253-pounder, needed two years of development before his career took off.
“Kirk moved him from D-line to O-line,” an executive in personnel for an AFC team said. “Linderbaum was a Kirk special, but they completely whiffed on Penning. It’s amazing that Iowa missed on Penning and now he’s going in the top 15.”
After Ferentz, an NFL offensive coach for the Browns and Ravens from 1993-’98, took over for Hayden Fry in 1999, the Hawkeyes’ rich tradition of sending offensive linemen to the NFL continued. In the 22 drafts since Ferentz arrived Iowa has had 18 offensive linemen drafted, including five in the first round and three in the second. Guards Marshal Yanda and Brandon Scherff have made multiple Pro Bowls, and tackle Tristan Wirfs already has been to one in his two-year career. Six others have made at least 40 starts: tackles Bryan Bulaga and Riley Reiff, guards Eric Steinbach, Robert Gallery and James Daniels, and center Austin Blythe.
“Those offensive linemen from Iowa are usually pretty successful when they come into the league,” another NFL exec said.
Linderbaum, an outstanding wrestler in wrestling-mad Iowa who started all 35 games the past three years, is as technically sound as any blocker in the draft. He has been compared to Garrett Bradbury, the No. 18 selection in 2019 and the last pure center to be drafted in the first round.
“Just being an Iowa offensive lineman in general, there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders,” Linderbaum said at the combine. “I think the center is a tempo-setter. That’s something I tried to do right away. Make a Day 1 impact when I first moved into that position. I think it’s important that you’re the guy that holds guys accountable and works their butt off.”
Most of the scouting reports on Linderbaum center on his quickness, whether executing a reach block, pulling wide or combo-blocking to the second level.
“He is an athletic position-technique guy,” said one scout. “He’s not an ass-kicking dude, but he does flash it. He’ll try to bury people.”
On Oct. 9, students swarmed the field at Kinnick Stadium after the Hawkeyes beat No. 4 Penn State, 23-20. Unbeknownst to them but also in attendance was an NFL exec, and he found himself spending a lot of time watching Linderbaum in his duel against Brandon Smith, the Nittany Lions’ big, talented junior linebacker.
“This Linderbaum kid was just pushing Brandon Smith around repeatedly,” the personnel man said. “Then the Smith kid would get pissed off and Linderbaum would count 1, 2, 3 on his fingers telling him this is how many times in a row I knocked you on your ass. He’s athletic, quick, smart and extremely physical. Plays to the echo of the whistle.”
The next challenge for Linderbaum will be the one Bradbury hasn’t met in three seasons for the Vikings. Bradbury (6-3, 305) is very similar to Linderbaum (6-2, 302) in workout numbers and intangibles, but he was benched for several games last season because he couldn’t cope consistently with the good, brawny defensive tackles.
“Both of them have similar quickness and movement but I felt Bradbury played with more strength,” an AFC personnel man said in remembering Bradbury coming out of North Carolina State. “Linderbaum’s going to have to go to a (zone) scheme that fits his athleticism. If you expect Linderbaum just to line up and gap scheme and power block people, just from the overall size and length (31 1/8-inch arms), that’s going to become an issue, especially against an odd (3-4) front.”
Iowa, which has had three players picked in the first round of the last three years, takes Draft Day in stride. Not so 90 miles away in Cedar Falls, home of the UNI Panthers. The highest drafted player in their history was defensive tackle James Jones, who started 140 games in a 10-year career that began in 1991 as the No. 57 overall choice in the third round.
Penning, who became Public Enemy No. 1 if you were a defensive player at the Senior Bowl three months ago, isn’t among the 21 players set to attend the draft in Las Vegas but the celebration at UNI couldn’t be more eagerly anticipated.
“He’s all about football,” said a personnel man who has interviewed Penning. “Dedicated. Tough kid. That’s just the way he plays. He said, ‘Nobody’s gonna intimidate me.’”
Penning had his share of rough moments during Senior Bowl week. He needs work, especially if asked to move from his three-year home at left tackle to the right tackle in the pros. What stood out in Mobile was the pushing and shoving Penning initiated in the padded practices.
“The defensive line in Mobile hated this guy,” an AFC exec said. “They just wanted to fight him. This guy is as mean as the day is long. He’s got the right demeanor.”
No punches were thrown. After each late shove, Penning would look or turn the other way, putting the defensive player in danger of being penalized if he retaliated too strenuously.
“It’s not like he’s proactively saying, ‘I’m going to maul this mf every chance I get,’” said one scout. “That’s not his intent. But he finishes basically to the same point on every play. As soon as he finishes it, it’s, like, ‘Alright, I’ll be back in a few minutes. Then I’ll line up and do this again.’ No malice with it until I guess he really gets pushed to the edge.”
Penning drew 13 penalties in each of his two full seasons (2019, ’21). Most were for holding and false starts but he had his share of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, too, not unlike Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan, the NFL player he most emulates.
“Just playing very nasty is just how I believe O-line is meant to be played,” Penning said at the combine. “You want that guy across from you to hate to go against you. You want to see the fear in his eyes almost. You want him to be exhausted and he wants to go home and get on that flight and get the hell out of there. It’s a huge, huge part of my game.”
A panel of 17 personnel people agreed to rank the offensive linemen regardless of position on a 1-2-3-4-5-6 basis, with a first-place vote worth 6 points, a second-place vote worth 5 and so on.
Ickey Ekwonu led the way with 90 points and nine firsts, followed by Evan Neal (80, six) and Charles Cross (61 1/2, two). Other vote-getters were Linderbaum (34), Penning (31 ½), Kenyon Green (20), Tyler Smith (19), Zion Johnson (13), Abraham Lucas (three), Cam Jurgens (two), Chris Paul (two) and Zach Tom (one).
“When it comes down to it,” an AFC exec said, “those tackles and those corners and the pass rushers are going to end up going because those are the positions that people want.”
RANKING THE OFFENSIVE LINE
1. ICKEY EKWONU, North Carolina State (6-4, 328, 4.99, 1): Third-year junior. “He’s a better athlete than Neal,” one scout said. “Smaller, but he does have long arms (34). He’s really athletic and twitchy. Moves easy. He can get out and run. Plays with nastiness even more so than Neal. He can get out on the second level and pancake linebackers. There are times when he’ll overset, but that’s correctable. He gives up sacks. He can be a left tackle or guard.” Made 27 starts at LT and four at LG. “I think he’s the No. 1 player in the draft,” a second scout said. “He’s not perfect but there’s still some upside. He was maybe the safest guy in the draft just because of the position flex and he’s a good kid … (Willie) Roaf probably had a little better foot agility. But this guy has some nasty to him. You can find clips where he’s got people 10, 15 yards downfield and he’s pinning them.” Compared by one scout to Rashawn Slater. “I thought his feet were good enough to catch the speed rushers off the edge,” a fourth scout said. “I don’t know if I’d call him a great one but he should be a real good player.” Scored 29 on the Wonderlic. “He’s a tad knock-kneed,” said a fifth scout. “He’s smart as shit. He understands angles. He’s never going to put himself in a bad position. And he loves to finish.” Added a sixth scout: “He’s the most physical run blocker I saw. He has some holes in him in pass protection. Really thought he played the game (hard).” From Charlotte.