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Film Comparison of Jack Conklin’s 2017 and 2018 Seasons: Did he come back too early?

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Taken 8th overall in the 2016 NFL draft by the Titans, Jack Conklin was the first player selected by GM Jon Robinson. Conklin quickly achieved success as a rookie with his 1st Team All-Pro season, but he has seemingly regressed every year since. He struggled throughout 2018, and now the Titans have declined his 5th-year option. This upcoming season will be crucial in figuring out whether Jack Conklin can become a longterm cornerstone on this offensive line or not.

Conklin tore his ACL in January of 2018, but was able to come back to play 8 months later for this most recent season. In this article, I will take a look at his 2017 film compared to his 2018 film to discuss if he came back too early.

The Injury and Recovery

In the 2017 division round playoff game against the Patriots, Conklin tore his ACL. After an ACL tear, the quadricep and hamstring muscles atrophy a significant amount due to the inactivity of the muscles while they rehabilitate the ACL.

Most doctors recommend players return to play between 6 and 9 months after ACL surgery. Jack returned after about 8 months, and while this gave his body enough time to heal the ligament, it may not have been enough time to regain his lower body strength.

This is significant for an offensive lineman like Conklin who needs these muscles to form a strong base against opposing pass rushers. As a result, this may have led to Conklin becoming a liability against stronger pass rushers with great power moves. However, I am not a doctor and did not rehabilitate Jack Conklin, so this is all purely speculative.

Also, it is significant to note that he cut down from 325 to 310 lbs before the season began to improve his athleticism. This could have also affected his ability to anchor against power. Conklin would eventually be placed on IR after Week 14 (with another knee injury) to end his 2018 season.

Now, let’s take a look at some of his film to compare his pre and post injury performance.

2017 Film

Conklin was fantastic in 2017. He only allowed 1.5 sacks through the whole season (18 games including the playoffs). This came against a bevy of excellent pass rushers. I will start by looking at film of Conklin against some of the best pass rushers in the league from 2017.

I’ll start off in Week 1 against Khalil Mack:

Conklin did a great job of neutralizing Khalil Mack’s excellent hand usage. He consistently would prevent Mack from getting hands on his frame.

Conklin was also able to absorb Mack’s power and held his ground against Mack all game. In this game, he held Khalil Mack to 0 sacks and 0 QB hits.

In Week 2, Jack went up against a nasty duo in Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell.

Conklin gets great hand placement here inside the shoulders against Calais Campbell and stands stout to give Mariota time in the pocket. Again, Conklin held Campbell and Ngakoue both with 0 sacks and 0 QB hits.

In Week 3, he went up against Frank Clark, who is now the 3rd highest paid edge rusher in the league.

Even when Conklin gives up ground, he gives it up slowly. His wide base allows him to stay controlled as he gets pushed back. Conklin also held Clark to 0 sacks and 0 QB hits.

In Week 4, Conklin went up against J.J. Watt.

For the most part, he faired well against Watt and was able to keep him away from the QB.

However on occasion, Conklin would get stunned by Watt’s powerful bull rush, but I loved his ability to recover here. Notice how after the initial impact that he does not give up any more ground. He was able to regain his footing and leverage to prevent Watt from getting any closer to the QB. Surprisingly, Conklin held J.J. Watt to only 1 QB hit and 0 sacks.

Through the first 4 games, Conklin played lights out. He gave up only 1 QB hit and 0 sacks. His first allowed sack (half sack) would not come until Week 5 against new Titan’s signing Cameron Wake and the Dolphins, and I would not even completely put the blame on Conklin here.

Conklin is in good position against Wake on this play. If it were not for Josh Kline who actually pushes Wake towards Matt Cassel, Conklin would not have been implicated for this half sack.

Conklin would struggle with Wake’s speed off the edge, failing to match the great ball get-off by Wake.

When Conklin did manage to match Wake’s speed, Wake would counter with power, like this hump move here. Conklin struggled mightily against the speed of Cameron Wake this game, allowing 0.5 sacks and 3 QB hits.

Fast forward to Week 9, where Conklin would go up against Geno Atkins.

He was able to stop the bull rush from Geno Atkins all game and only gave up ground slowly. This is significant because Geno Atkins is known for his bull rush and for being one of the strongest defensive linemen in the league.

In these reps above against Atkins, Conklin displays his impressive lower body and core strength. Conklin would also hold Atkins to 0 sacks and 0 QB hits.

As you can see from the stats and the film, Conklin was able to make some of the best pass rushers essentially a non-factor in these games. He was consistent in his pass protection and looked stout in his anchor against some tough competition.

His ability to recover late was excellent due to his solid and wide base. However, he did struggle with speed and needed to do a better job getting out of his stance with more urgency.

Also, contrary to popular belief, I did not notice a significant or excessive amount of help from the tight ends or running backs given to Conklin, which @FWordsPod covers in more detail here:

2018 Film

Now as we look at his 2018 tape, you can quickly tell that he is not the same dominant player that we just saw in his 2017 tape. If I were to describe his 2018 season in one word, it would be “inconsistent”. In some games, he performed well and other games he looked down right awful. In the 9 games he played in 2018 (and only played half in two games), Conklin gave up 5 sacks. For his 2018 film, I will look specifically at where I think he struggled compared to 2017.

The struggles against speed rushers would not change in 2018, but what did change was ability to anchor against powerful bullrushers.

Whereas in previous seasons Conklin could recover after the initial blow, this season he was often unable to reset his feet and regain his base.

This often resulted in Conklin getting knocked over.

This play perfectly displays what I am talking about. Conklin is unable to plant his feet into the ground to anchor down. As a result, he takes two huge trots backward, forcing Mariota to step up in the pocket.

I believe that while recovering from his ACL injury, Conklin lost a lot of lower body and core strength, and that loss is very apparent on film.

Finally just to further prove my point, look at Conklin go up against former Titan’s Avery Williamson, who weighs about 70 lbs less than Conklin. Conklin gets knocked back and looks very unbalanced at the point of attack. This is not the power and strength that you want to see from your starting right tackle.

Conclusion

As I stated before, Conklin only allowed 1.5 sacks in 18 games in 2017, whereas he more than tripled that total in half the amount of games in 2018, with 5 sacks in 9 games. The stats and film make it clear that Conklin was not ready or strong enough to come back into the starting role that early. He needed more time to regain his core and lower body strength back to optimal levels. His games against the Texans and the Cowboys were brutal to watch. He was not only a liability, but his play significantly affected the outcome of the game.

Finally, this brings us back to the current situation. The Titans have recently declined Jack Conklin’s 5th-year option, and Dennis Kelly, who stepped in for Conklin last season, played exceptional football as his replacement. Kelly not only replaced Conklin, he actually outperformed him. In Conklin’s absence, Kelly ranked 2nd in pressure percentage allowed with just 2.3% among tackle’s this past season, according to PFF.

This puts the Titans in a very good position with two capable starters at RT. Either Jack Conklin returns to his pre-injury form and excels this next season, or Dennis Kelly steps back into the starting role. The decision to decline Conklin’s option is all about his injury. When healthy, Conklin is a great player. However, it is understandable for the Titans to be wary of his injury history. Conklin will have the chance to regain his strength with another offseason of recovery, so hopefully next season we will see the Jack Conklin of 2017 and not 2018.