Meet the Cubs: Johnny Culbreath

Ty digs through the countless (and contradictory) analysis and YouTube videos of Detroit' last pick.

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.com 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.com 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. 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 into the video 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 (No. 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.

About The Author
Ty Schalter is a professional geek and family man He regularly converts his undying fandom into words and numbers both for RoarReport com, and his Detroit Lions blog, "The Lions in Winter "

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