Meet The Cubs: Johnny Culbreath

>> 5.02.2011

Johnny_Culbreath_SCSU_Detroit_Lions

7.6 (209): Johnny Culbreath

    South Carolina State OT

With their fifth and final pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the Detroit Lions selected Johnny Culbreath, an undersized (6’-5”, 278#) offensive tackle out of South Carolina State. Or, possibly, Johnny Culbreath, a huge (6’-5”, 322#) offensive tackle out of Sound Carolina State.

I haven't been able to figure out the reason for the discrepancy, but ESPN’s database has Culbreath 44 pounds lighter than he weighed in at his Pro Day (he wasn’t at the NFL Combine). I’d already identified “developmental offensive tackle,” in a general sense, as a need for the Lions, but Culbreath is not Nate Solder—and by pure draft grade, he’s also looking up at Jason Fox, last year’s “well I guess this guy is our developmental tackle.”

Scout.com’s high school recruiting database doesn’t contain Johnny Culbreath, and Rivals has him as an unranked tackle. Culbreath lettered in football and wrestling in his hometown of Monroe, Georgia—even winning a state wrestling championship! Rivals lists his high school size at 6’-5", 273—which, I’m not sure how wrestling weight classes work, but did he win the 273-pound class by default? That’s a big high schooler. I’d hate to think that’s what ESPN based their size figures for Culbreath off of, but it looks like it. They even said:

He is an undersized OT who needs to add bulk to his frame and has raw tools. He is clearly a developmental project at this point.

Were they looking at old film? A different guy? How much more bulk than 323 pounds can you add to a 6’-5” frame? Still, at 6’-5”, 273 going into college, Culbreath looked like the real deal. He drew interest from several SEC schools, including plain old South Carolina ($), before committing to Florida State. Unfortunately, Johnny didn’t have the grades to qualify; that may be why a naturally huge dude from Georgia with SEC offers ended up with no ranking. Culbreath went instead to South Carolina State, alma mater of NFL veteran Orlando “Zeus” Brown.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Brown lost three seasons of his NFL career after an errant penalty flag hit him in the eye. Brown sued the NFL and got a $25M settlement, but nevertheless worked his way back to play one more season for the Ravens. Culbreath says lots of people at SC State—including one who coached “Big Zeus”—compared him to Brown . . . considering Brown was a multi-year NFL starter despite losing his best years to that injury, that’s quite a compliment.

In Culbreath’s freshman year, he started eight games for the SC State Bulldogs, sliding over to start at left tackle for the fourth game. In SCSU’s first-ever game against South Carolina, Culbreath started at both OT and DT! In 2008, he played and started the first 12 games, missing the last game of the year with an injury. After that season, he was named first team All-MEAC for the first of what would be three straight times. In his junior year, the “starting left tackle” thing wasn’t a question. At the end of that 2009 campaign, Culbreath was named MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, and FCS All-American by several media outlets. In 2010, he was named a team captain, Preseason All-everything, and held up his end of the deal—again FCS All-American, first-team All-MEAC, etc.

Now, what the experts have said. I already embedded ESPN’s (plainly erroneous) take above, but here are some more:

  • Pro Football Weekly:

    High school wrestling champion, team captain and four-year starter who looks the part with very good size, long arms and large hands with nice movement skills. However, is raw and unrefined technically. Has a lethargic lower body — is not explosive out of his stance and kickslide needs work. Held his own against Georgia Tech, flashes a mean streak and has moldable tools for a patient position coach to work through mental hurdles.

  • CBS Sports:

    Positives: Looks like an NFL tackle with thick lower and upper bodies, good height and long arms. Has natural bend, good technique on slide. Owns a strong punch and extends arms to maintain distance with defender, resets hands multiple times. Effective cut blocker on stretch plays and in pass protection. Hits multiple targets on zone blocks and downfield. Plays with real attitude, attacks defenders in the run game and latches on, finishing the play. Team captain in 2010.

    Negatives: Overextends in the run game and in pass protection, losing posture and opening himself up to be out-quicked in space. Needs to move his feet after contact because won't dominate with pure strength athleticism as he did against FCS competition.

  • SI.com:

    Negatives: Does not use his hands well and tends to do too much catching of defenders rather than jolting them with good punch. Falls asleep at times and is late picking up assignments or recognizing blitzes. Marginal strength in his base and really does not get movement at the point of attack. [Ed. Note: there weren't any 'Positives'.]

The lack of explosion and lower-body drive is the only flaw that sounds like a permanent one; most of the rest of the issues seem as though they’re coachable. Some of the assessments vary wildly, and it sounds as though whether you scouted him during 2009, after 2009, during 2010, or after 2010 makes a big difference on your impression of him. He grew an awful lot in his upperclassmen years (from 278 to a senior season weight of 310; now 322), and his technique improved along with it. Though he isn’t an academic stud or considered a film room junkie, I don’t believe his ability to understand or execute complex plays is in question. He told the National Football Post:

"I think I made a good impression with the visits with the board work I did with all the offensive line coaches. They want to see if can take in the plays. I did real well. They showed me plays. They did an install and I took notes and did a recall."

Normally, this would be the part where we consult the indisputed arbiter of truth in draft prospects, YouTube Highlight Reels, but the pickings are slim. First, an interview:

Last, a SCSU Bulldogs 2009 highlight reel:

This is the only real footage of Culbreath I could find, and a lot of it is defense and special teams . . . and white text on black, and the ESPNU intro, and cheerleaders, and a bulldog . . . anyway. Check out 3:02 for protecting his QB in space, 3:47 for help springing a long run, 4:35 for what seems to be a good zone block (they cut to another angle mid-play)  . . . and then, the best part. At 6:00, pick out Culbreath (#50). He gets his hands on a guy and drives him from inside the numbers all the way to the sideline, pancaking him and knocking his helmet off in the process. If you miss it, our editor helpfully replays it three times. At 7:40 and 8:20 you’ll see Culbreath do his job well.

Mostly, what little info these plays give us confirm the scouts: NFL body, NFL mean streak, and technique that isn’t polished because it didn’t need to be against FCS competition. With some help from George Yarno, and a couple-three seasons to . . . well, season, Culbreath definitely has the potential to become a legit NFL tackle. Whether he does so sooner than Jason Fox, or in time to contribute if/when Backus or Cherilus need to be replaced, well, that I can’t say. If nothing else, history’s on our side: the last SCSU Bulldog drafted by the Lions was a fella named Robert Porcher.


18 comments:

telemakhos,  May 3, 2011 at 1:34 PM  

This reminds me a lot of the sammie lee hill pick a few years ago. Small school guy with big projection that needs some real coaching, something the lions can provide.

Mike aka CJ81TD,  May 3, 2011 at 10:07 PM  

How do you like his chance to kick inside to guard? Seems like he could be a mauler there.

I have to say it is good to have these write-ups back. This makes it feel like the best time of the year is right around the corner. Lets hope all the rich guys don't screw it up.

Thanks for taking the time and I am looking forward to your Doug Hogue write up. It's about time we dressed an Orange-man in Blue!

James,  May 3, 2011 at 10:29 PM  

Thanks for the info Ty. He seems like a guy with some long term potential which usually isn't the case with a 7th round pick.

Matt,  May 3, 2011 at 11:57 PM  

Just thought I'd remind everyone of Detroit's 5th-round pick in 2006, Jonathan Scott. He is still in the league (with the Steelers by way of the Bills), but he never really cashed in on his potential. We all know about where in the draft Tom Brady, Terrell Davis, and Marques Colston went. Can anyone name an o-lineman drafted in the 5th round or later in the last 10 or 20 years who developed into an elite player (not just good, but elite, like Brady/Davis/Colston)? I'm honestly asking 'cause I can't think of one.

I don't mean to just write the kid off, but, well, that's basically what I'm doing. I'll be fairly stunned if he ever becomes a player of note. . .and would love it if he makes me eat my words.

telemakhos,  May 4, 2011 at 1:01 AM  

Matt,

To be fair, basically the only two notable events in an offensive lineman's career are getting drafted high or making the pro bowl. No one else hears their names or sees their highlights on any other day.

That said, if you looked through all of the league's starting offensive linemen, I'm sure the average draft position would be quite a bit lower than the average starting QB or RB

TimT May 4, 2011 at 8:33 AM  

A little more info on Culbreath via Schwartz's tweet:
"Culbreath was a four-year starter at SCSU. He could play left or right tackle or we could move him to guard. He's a good athlete."

"Could move him to guard".
As with so many other positions on our team, you don't have to study the depth chart too hard to discover we have room to add a developmental player, or even a depth player that could challenge for a starting spot. (especially at guard)

Also, the team is holding true to their ideals, in that Culbreath appears to be the smart and versatile type of player they desire.

Anonymous,  May 4, 2011 at 9:46 AM  

You can see all the draft picks at tackle for the last 10 years here:

http://www.nfl.com/draft/history/fulldraft?position=OL&type=position

Not too many familiar faces past the 4th round. Jared Gaither was a 5th round supplemental pick, though.

There's always gotta be first time though :p

Matt,  May 4, 2011 at 2:21 PM  

That's kind of my point, telemakhos. First of all, yes, OL's average draft position is lower than average QB's. This is in no small part due to the fact that A - way more OL are drafted overall than QBs and B - they don't go in the Top 5/10/20 as regularly as QBs. For instance, 12 QBs were just drafted and a third went in Round 1, but, by my count, 41 offensive linemen were also drafted and only 8, about a fifth, went in the first round (only 1 in the Top 10).

So, you're absolutely right that OL goes, on average, later and also that more OL are drafted overall. Shouldn't this create a GREATER chance for a "late round surprise," though? Again, why can we all easily name at least a handful of late round studs at other positions, but not a single OL? In scanning through the link Anonymous posted, I came across one name that jumped out: Mark Tauscher, 2000 7th rounder by GB. There's a couple other "maybes" back there (Chris Kemeoatu, Daniel Loper, Scott Wells, Kevin Sampson, Justin Hartwig, Rick DeMulling, Charlie Johnson, Dave Szott), but, again, no "Tom Brady of the O-Line" unless you count Tauscher. Oops, just noticed a couple more, Matt Birk, 1998 6th rounder; Tom Nalen, 1994 7th rounder.

So, there's a couple of Cs and maybe 1 OT that fits the bill. Just seems like there should be a few more, to me.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the Lions' Lydon Murtha and Victor Rogers. A couple more late-round OL who did what late-round OLs do.

Anonymous,  May 4, 2011 at 3:35 PM  

Sounds like dude has a shot at being a player in the league. Thats all you can ask out of a 7th rounder. I like the pick.

-Lankownia

thewillhelm May 5, 2011 at 3:08 PM  

There is a little bit of a difference with this guy than other late round OL though. He was a high school state wrestling champ. A good wrestler adds an additional skill set to the position. A skill set that is invaluable in the trenches. The champion of this theory is Stephen Neal. He does not show up in your draft list because he was not drafted. He is a multiple time probowl guard for the Patriots. AND he did not play any college football. However, Stephen Neal was a two time NCAA D-I champ in the heavy weight division. His senior year he beat Brock Lesnar for his second title (Lesnar beat Wes Bunting the following year for his lone title). Video if you are curious: (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3zhsq_brock-lesnar-v-stephen-neal-1999-nc_sport)
Even Brock got a shot at playing in the NFL when he tried out with the Vikings. A little too raw and one too many fights in training camp prevented him from landing on the 53 man roster, but the Vikings wanted him on the practice squad and wanted him to play in NFL Europe.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brock_Lesnar#National_Football_League_.282004.E2.80.932005.29) Well we know that he turned that down and jumped to the UFC, but that is still pretty impressive for a 27-year-old that had not played football since high school.

thewillhelm May 5, 2011 at 3:09 PM  

I know that being a high school state wrestling champ is not remotely the same as being a D-I NCAA champ, but it is still better than most guys. Neal and (to a lesser extent) Lesnar tried the NFL with no college football and were much more successful than they should have been. This guy was a state champ and played 4 years of college football. The only other lineman that I can think of, that wrestled, is DT Kelly Gregg of the Ravens. He was a high school state champ and he has massively over performed as a pro. Far from the most talented or physically gifted (stands at 6 feet and a little over 300 pounds), he has done very well because he excels at the leverage game that is played on the line. I am sure there are other former wrestlers on the line in the NFL, but I don’t know of any off of the top of my head.

Ty, it can vary slightly from state to state, but the heavyweight class in my current state is from 215 to 285. When I was in high school it went from 190 to 275. In either case, I do not think a reference to 273 was his weight class; it was probably his actual weight. Pretty big for a high schooler.

telemakhos,  May 5, 2011 at 10:33 PM  

Matt,

My point is that you don't recognize the names because they don't get the hype that other positions do. QBs especially are household names, while offensive linemen can't really show off their individual stats, so even if you're watching, it's tough to tell the difference between a decent and a great offensive lineman.

Matt,  May 6, 2011 at 2:05 AM  

Telemakhos, agreed. I think the "household name" factor is why even the casual fan can quickly name Brady, Davis, maybe James Harrison, and know full well they're forgetting a lot of guys. The reason the OL thing is sticking in my craw is that when I, personally, really sat down and tried to think of a guy, I couldn't (not to be arrogant, but I think of myself as more than a "casual fan"). Then, even when I scoured through Anonymous' link, I could only come up with a handful of guys who maybe meet the Colston level of "consistently good player," two guys (Tauscher & Birk) who hit the Terrell Davis level of "borderline Hall of Famer," and one guy (Tom Nalen) that is on the Brady level of "sure-fire Hall of Famer" (btw, Nalen is 1st eligible after the 2013 season). Now, it'd be easy to go "You got a few guys at each level and one guy up there with Brady. See, it all works out?" except that, using the 2011 draft as the benchmark, 3 to 4 times as many guys LIKE Tom Nalen get drafted as guys LIKE Tom Brady (hey, maybe the Lions should only take guys named "Tom" after Round 4 :-). It seems like I should be able to find two or three guys at each position (T, G, C) on the Brady level, not just one center from darn near 20 years ago. Maybe that timespan is part of the problem. It's easy to say Tom Brady is a Hall of Famer today even though he still has a lot of good years left. Maybe with OL you can't really gauge/appreciate their career until it's over (though I seem to remember Tom Nalen getting a ton of recognition, for a center, DURING his career). It just feels to me like there should be more of these guys, but, for some reason, there aren't.

thewillhelm, good point about the wrestling, but I must take you to task for not mentioning the Lions' own Cory Schlesinger, a two-time Nebraska state wrestling champ (189 pounds). That'll be 5 "Our Father"s and 10 "Hail Demo"s. As for Neal, I'm not sure if you mean him just as an example of a wrestler making it the NFL, a late-round/undrafted OL, or both. For wrestler, you're spot on. For the OL discussion, though, I think he would barely scratch the "Colston level." He was undrafted in '01, signed and cut by New England, signed to Philly's practice squad, then reclaimed by New England. Then he basically didn't play until '04 (so only 1 of his 3 rings really "counts"). He retired on March 2nd and I'd be surprised if his name ever came up in a HOF discussion.

thewillhelm May 9, 2011 at 12:34 PM  

Matt
Oh jeez, I should have checked back on this sooner. No one will ever see this now, but… I did not know that Corey Schlesinger was a two time Nebraska state champ. That is something I really should have been on top of. I deserve any chastising I get for missing that one. As for Neal, I was going from memory and I thought he had gone to a couple of pro bowls. I just checked his Wikipedia page and he has not. However, he has started a lot of games and I would say that my point of him massively overachieving is still valid. You make a good point about late round OL, but I think you would be hard pressed to find very many players drafted in the 7th round, in general, that have made a significant impact. Telemakhos makes a good point when he implies that if OL received more attention, you might put more of these guys up there with Davis and Colston. Most fans can name back-up QBs (thus crappy) around the league, but would struggle to name pro bowl caliber lineman. However, I think everyone here agrees that any 7th rounder is going to be a long shot as a success story, regardless of position. I have a little more hope with this guy than most 7th rounders because guys that are athletic and 320lbs are hard to find. Also, a wrestling background helps so much in the leverage game that OL and DL play.

Matt,  May 12, 2011 at 11:13 AM  

thewillhelm, I know what you mean about checking back sooner. I'm often bummed at how quickly threads "die" on TLIW. Therefore, I like to check back on old posts and comment even though no one else will probably see it. :-)

As for Schlesinger, don't feel too bad. I only knew 'cause I'm such a huge Lions fan (and LOVE/D Demo - IMO, if true FBs ever went to the HOF, he'd be a shoo-in). I knew nothing of Neal's history, so you get points for that.

And I think your overall point about Neal overachieving is spot on. He could almost get to the Colston level, I think (it would've helped if he hadn't just retired). I would consider many of the other guys I mentioned previously (and some guys I left off that list) right about there, too. I also agree with you and Telemakhos that part of the issue here is just that skill position players are more recognizable than OL overall and so it's easier to think of examples. A slightly different way to look at it is that fans and the media CREATE more Brady/Davis/Colstons than Nalens because of that recognizability factor. I really like this quote: "Most fans can name back-up QBs (thus crappy) around the league, but would struggle to name pro bowl caliber lineman."

Still, I think my overall point remains valid. I'm arguing that because A - more OL play in the NFL (5 start every game, as opposed to 1 QB, 1 RB, and 2 WRs) and B - more OL than skill guys get drafted overall and in each round that one would expect, sort of statistically/mathematically speaking, to find as many, if not more, late-round OL that are considered elite-to-great-to-good than their counterparts at other positions. Metaphorically, the swimming pool's deeper, so shouldn't you be able to fill it with more water? I'm then arguing that when you think really hard and/or actually research it a little bit, the reality does not meet the expectation. It's not just that we can't think of examples, it's that there aren't very many (not as many as one would think, anyway). My mind then naturally seeks an explanation for the discrepancy between my expectations and the reality of the situation. I think recognizability is definitely a factor. Part of it might also be that because more OL get drafted overall, those "surprise" OLs actually go in Rounds 3 & 4, as opposed to later, which, in turn, allows the surprise skill guys to drop. For example, the Patriots drafted OT Adrian Klemm (2nd round) and OT Greg Robinson-Randall (4th) before Tom Brady; the Broncos drafted OT Jamie Brown (4th) and G Fritz Fequeire (6th) ahead of Davis; and the Saints drafted OT/G Jahri Evans (4th) and OT Zach Strief (7th) ahead of Colston. With two All-Pro awards and a Super Bowl ring, I'd say Evans fits the bill as a Colston-esque mid-round "surprise" OL.

Finally, I agree with you on Culbreath. He's got a better-than-average chance, as a 7th rounder, of making some noise.

Matt,  May 17, 2011 at 11:02 AM  

thewillhelm, you probably won't see this response, but just wanted you to know that at least ONE person checked back on this thread. I'm often bummed at how quickly threads "die" on TLIW, so I try to check back on old ones I was involved in. I had originally written another significant reply to your comment, but it got lost in the TLIW snafu the last week or so. Short version, I mostly agree with the points you and Telemakhos have made, but I still think there "should" be more OL guys on the Brady/Davis/Colston levels, that when you go back and look there aren't as many of these guys as there "should" be, and that there's gotta' be some explanation beyond "Well, OL guys just aren't as recognizable/hyped as skill guys."

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