Every once in a while, film people and stats people fall on completely opposite sides of a particular issue. Garrett Bradbury is a player who creates such a divide. While popular film analysts like Brandon Thorn and Brian Baldinger gush about Bradbury’s unique talents, a more analytical organization like PFF calls him the worst Vikings draft mistake of the decade.
The grim reacher
Without consensus to buy into, we’ll have to do our own homework on Bradbury. A good place to start is his reach blocking. Daniel Jeremiah called him “the Grim Reacher” because of his propensity for the technique. Reach blocking is a technique where an offensive lineman will block the other side of a defensive lineman than the one he started from. The above clips seem innocuous but require incredible agility.
The advantages of these blocks are numerous. When a center can reach like Bradbury, it can turn the tides of blocking math and make everyone else’s assignments easier:
Reach blocks don’t look particularly exciting. They often come on otherwise mundane run plays that don’t exactly leap off the stat sheet. But to a coach who knows how run plays are designed, it’s incredibly exciting. A run-game coordinator’s dream is to lump the most difficult assignment on one guy to make the assignments of four guys easier. Bradbury can handle that burden, enabling all sorts of numbers advantages that don’t ask too much of the Vikings’ lesser guards.
But what about his power?
A common refrain dating back even to Bradbury’s college tape is a general lack of strength. But athletically, this doesn’t show up. At the NFL combine, Bradbury was one of the stars of the weekend. Not only did he nail the agility and speed drills, but his jumps were in the upper tier as well. The broad and vertical jumps are good at measuring lower body power, and Bradbury has a lot of that:
Bradbury doesn’t have imposing size, even for a center. But in function, he boasts elite and well-rounded athleticism. In the run game especially, Bradbury’s tape is littered with examples of him winning engagements and either stalemating would-be penetrators or moving them back outright. Here is a sampling, including some reps against Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks.
So what’s with all the walk-backs? It has to do with Bradbury’s struggles earlier in his career. You probably remember him by the abysmal start to his career. The Atlanta Falcons took advantage of imprecise footwork to generate pressure after pressure against Bradbury. In response, he widened out his pass sets to an almost comical degree, giving him a more versatile base from which to respond to agility and deception.
That wide base is helpful against a lot of rushes, but it opens Bradbury up to poor leverage. With his legs out that wide, it’s very difficult to get his feet behind him against bull rushers. With his legs even with his shoulders, or even in front of his shoulders, he doesn’t have access to any of that lower-body power. Even the strongest upper body won’t stand a chance if he’s already halfway to sitting down.
If Bradbury must keep these wide bases, he can add a lot of consistency by learning to keep his feet moving when he’s getting walked back. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with giving up four steps toward the quarterback as long as the quarterback’s space to throw isn’t disrupted — horseshoes and hand grenades and so on.
However, this doesn’t come up all that often, thanks to the nature of playing at center. Centers are often helped by double teams and rarely attacked in general. Instead, most teams preferred to attack Dakota Dozier or (insert right-guard here) in 2020. But generally, centers don’t give up that many pressures. Bradbury’s 29 surrendered pressures tied for fourth most in the league among centers. Average centers gave up 16 pressures last year. Alex Mack, at the 75th percentile, gave up 12.
From a granular standpoint, that’s one play per game separating Bradbury from the upper tier of NFL centers regarding pass protection. A play per game is certainly not negligible, and a tweak in his anchoring technique is in order. Think of that play per game as a cost, where the benefit is a handful of superhero plays in the run game. As a package, that makes Bradbury a positive contributor, even despite a play like the one above every week.
If Bradbury can learn to keep his feet moving when he’s lost the leverage battle, he can transition an up-and-down play level into a remarkably consistent one. His reach blocking ability, and general agility in space, already provide a ton of utility to the Vikings. Bradbury doesn’t need to improve to be the justified starter. There certainly is room to grow, but he’s already an acceptable center, if not an exciting one. Everything more is house money.