Plans for securing the top tackle spot saw Matthews and Richardson slide down the "pecking order" — Matthews, a little bit with Richardson dropping into the third-day draft picture — thanks to the dominating season recorded by Auburn's Greg Robinson.
The NFL Draft Report had devised a statistical charting system for offensive linemen years ago. Based on the performances last season, James would rank third among all offensive tackles with an 87.3% grade for blocking consistency during his final campaign. Throughout the 2013 schedule, James was as dominant as ever, appearing to have secured a draft position somewhere in the second round.
The Vols recorded a total of 30 touchdowns on offense (18 rushing, 12 passing), with the right tackle producing 13 touchdown-resulting blocks. He also posted 89 knockdown blocks while defenders lining up over the senior have managed to register just two of the fifteen sacks given up by the front wall.
New head coach Butch Jones was quick to recognize the success the Volunteers had with James leading the way up front. Throughout the season, James cleared out the rush lanes, delivering seven touchdown-resulting blocks as the Vols scored 18 times on the ground. Close to 60 percent of their rushing yardage (1,334 of 2,261) came over the right side of the Tennessee line led by their senior tackle.
James had an opportunity to leave for the National Football League following his junior season, but returning to the Volunteers was just what he needed, both on the field and off.
"I wasn't ready to leave physically or mentally," said the team's senior captain.
"I felt like I had a lot to build on strength-wise and growing up-wise. It definitely helps that all of us stayed together as an offensive line." His consistency on the field is a reflection of the coaching James has received throughout his career at Tennessee. Head coach Butch Jones and his staff raised that bar considerably when they stepped in the door.
"They brought a lot of consistency in their message," James said of the impact Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney have made on him. "They preach effort and working hard. A lot of coaches say it, but they live it every day. I feel like this coaching staff definitely has me playing a lot harder."
James has a tall, linear build that can add at least another 20-25 pounds of bulk without the weight impacting his overall quickness. He possesses an athletic frame with very long limbs (35-inch arms and 83-inch wing span), big hands, good bubble, a firm and solidly built midsection, athletic body with adequate lower frame thickness. He looks trim at just a shade over 310 pounds, but that can surprise a defensive lineman, as he has above average strength, and knows how to combine that power with a strong anchor and a long reach that consistently keeps his opponent off his body.
James has the frame to develop more bulk, but he possesses above-average strength, especially in the lower frame and appears to be stout at the point of attack, despite possessing a linear, basketball player-like physique. His athleticism and loose hips explains his flexibility moving laterally and he has good quickness on the move to attack second level defenders (see 2013 Western Kentucky, South Alabama and Georgia games). You can see on film that he has the suddenness getting out on the edge to block for the outside running game. He shows good change of direction agility, loose hips and good agility to sit and anchor. Despite his tall frame, he has become quite adept at keeping his pad level down. He might lack explosive speed, but is fairly nimble for a down lineman, displaying good body control moving down the line, as he has probably the best change of direction agility of any UT lineman in the last decade. He runs with a normal stride and shows good agility and balance in his retreat and kick slide to develop into a quality pass protector. With his body control on the move, he should have no problem at the next level, if called upon to make contact down field.
James is an intelligent athlete who is also a hard working student of the game. He tests well and shows solid field vision and instincts. He has no problems learning and retaining plays and hustles until the whistle. He easily takes plays from the chalkboard to the playing field. Even though he honed his skills as a right offensive tackle, you have to be impressed with his vision and ability to acclimate quickly to his move over to left tackle, thanks to the high amount of pass blocks he made during the 2013 season (six of his thirteen touchdown-resulting blocks came during passing situations). He has a very good understanding for blocking schemes, works well in unison with his right guard and tight end on combo blocks/double teams and can adjust to defensive stunts and games with ease. Since stepping into the starting lineup, he has not been called for any false starts, personal fouls or holding penalties.
James is a classic warrior on the field with good work ethic in the training room. He has worked hard to bulk up since coming into the Tennessee program at 270-plus pounds in 2010, but he still needs to add more bulk to his frame, especially if he is to project to right tackle at the next level. He is a highly competitive type whose spirit and enthusiasm are evident on the field. He comes off the snap with a hard drive and has developed good aggression as a blocker, knowing when to stay in control or flash a little nastiness (see 2013 Austin Peay, South Alabama and Kentucky games). He competes with a strong hand punch and shows desire and intensity finishing his blocks.
James is aggressive blocker with surprising strength (was a weight man for the track and field team in high school, which could explain his impressive power base). On contact and when he drives with his feet, he can generate movement on the double team. He generally plays under control and showed in 2013 that he has made good strides in working his hips to wall off and force the chase route. When he gets tall in his stance, he looks a bit stiff redirection, but when he stays low in his pads, he swings his hips and runs his feet well leading on the sweep. He is usually in position of advantage, especially when asked to seal, as he has good ability to wheel and cut off the back side. You can see on film his suddenness and snap quickness to get out and lock on to his blocking assignment. He keeps his head on a swivel when moving into the second level and works hard to finish, keeping his feet churning when making plays on the move.
James flashes quick, active feet in his kick slide, as he has the lateral agility to mirror and adjust to stunts. Despite his tall frame, he does not appear to have any problems when he has to redirect, as he consistently plays at a low pad level. When he drops his weight, he has no problems adjusting to the outside blitz. He moves fluidly to challenge in one-on-one confrontations and has excellent body control playing in space, demonstrating the initial kick off the snap to surprise a slower opponent (when he drives with his legs and rolls his hips on contact, even the stronger bull rushers are contained). With his balance, he might see some action at guard at the next level, as he can get through holes quickly when asked to pull.
Balance/Stays On Feet
James displays good balance and body control on the move. He does a decent job of adjusting in space, thanks to refining his footwork in recent years (can slide and change direction well to mirror pass rushers, but if gets up on his heels too much, it could see NFL bull rushers walk him back). He handles quickness and movement better when he keeps his pads down, as he does a nice job of playing flat-footed. When he gets too tall coming off the snap, his stance prevents him from gaining leverage vs. the bull rush. Earlier in his career, he needed to improve his overall footwork, as he did not always shuffle his feet and explode off the snap to gain movement. He plays mostly in the pro-style offense, so he won't need much time to adjust his footwork and mechanics to the pro game. He's a good mauler in the trenches, but I think he will provide better and quicker production in his NFL career if he performs in a zone-blocking scheme. He is quick to gain initial position and on contact, he demonstrates strength, along with the ability to adjust, sustain and finish (see 2013 South Alabama and Georgia games).
When he stays low in his pads and drives with his legs, James generates very good pop on contact, as he has learned how to play flat-footed (will get in trouble when he plays on his heels). He consistently gets proper movement coming out of his stance, and on the move, he knows how to drop a linebacker with a crunching forearm shot. He has the agility to clear out rush lanes working in-line when he stays square in his base and moves laterally. He is still developing confidence in his overall strength (would like to see him attack with his hands more often) and due to his tall frame, if he gets too upright in his stance, defenders with a low center of gravity can fire off the line, get under his jersey and walk him back into the pocket. He has a very forceful hand punch when he keeps them inside his framework and while not explosive on the move, he has developed into a quality cut blocker.
James needs to add bulk to his linear frame to handle the more physical defensive ends when playing on an island at the NFL level, but his quickness off the snap allows him to get into a lethargic defender's body before his opponent has a chance to react, though. He is good at reaching and scooping, especially when he sinks his weight to gain advantage and seal off. With his impressive and strong base, he does get good movement on drive blocks vs. smaller opponents. I like that he is consistently aggressive on the run and he has the ability to easily work on the combo block, thanks to his body control when making contact. He is a physical upper body blocker, best suited to play in a zone scheme, and he has that raw power needed to root out and move level-one defenders when working in-line. With that great wingspan, big hands and long arms, he can easily reach and scoop. He consistently gains advantage and seals off, along with showing he excels at getting movement on the double-team (see 2013 Austin Peay and Western Kentucky games).
James is quick in his pass set, thanks to working hard in improving his footwork. Even when he over-sets he has the agility to recover. Despite being 6:06, he plays with good knee bend and uses his wing span effectively to cover vs. edge rushers. He shows good movement aspects in his pass protection when he bends his knees properly (no longer shows must waist bending action). He can reach and seal with suddenness, thanks to his quick first step and long wing span. It is rare to see him beaten vs. edge rushers (the few times that defenders had success with penetrations vs. him, it came on stunts and twists). When he seals a five-tech, he flashes the ability to cut off the back side. With his recent move to right tackle, I was greatly impresses with his pass set technique, as he keeps his pads lower to generate more explosiveness coming off the snap. He sets with good quickness and has that strong base needed to anchor (see 2013 Austin Peay, South Alabama and Kentucky games), showing good hand usage and arm extension, along with the ability and effort to slide and mirror. He has proven that when he maintains balance, he has no problem handling counter moves.
James is effective at reaching and scooping on run blocks. He pulls with good explosion and improved his ability to land in space. He adjusts effectively on the move to hit oncoming targets. Unlike most tall offensive tackles, he does not show any hip stiffness, and it is rare to see him struggle to generate lateral movement (not used much on sweeps, but has recorded ten second level blocks in his last thirteen games). With his quick feet, he does show urgency getting out in front and is developing a good feel for angling. With his foot speed, he can do the job when needed to locate and land in space. He pulls with above average body control and keeps his head on a swivel, as this intelligent player has the ability to adjust on the move.
Adjust on Linebacker Downfield
James is still learning angle technique, but can ride into the second level in a hurry to neutralize linebackers. As his senior season progressed, I saw on game films that he was more than capable of getting out in front in order to attack the second level defenders (see 2013 Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky games). He does a nice job of fitting up or cutting while staying in control (earlier in his career, he would over-extend or lunge at times). With his ease of movement in the open field, he is capable of walling off and forcing the chase route of a defender. He stays on his feet better on the move or in the second level than when working in-line, but has improved his overall footwork, as it is rare to see his feet tend to die when having to suddenly get into the second level (still must improve his angle concept). When he makes initial contact with a second-level defender, he will quickly throw his hands into his man and has no problems trying to cut block. I like his awareness and effort to adjusting to oncoming defenders when on the move blocking down field.
Use of Hands/Punch
James has developed above-average power in his punch. He is become a savvy player with each passing starting assignment, evident by his ability of knowing how to grab in attempts to lock out and control without being spotted by the game officials. While he has developed a strong hand punch, he is also very quick to recoil, especially when using his hands to challenge stunts. He is equally effective using his hands to control the defender and executing his punch to put his man on the ground. He also has been very conscious of keeping his hands inside his framework, as he is quick to separate when a defender gets into his chest. He has the strong hand punch to shock and jolt and when he gets his hands inside his frame, but on the rare times when he gets narrow in his base and pushed back by a physical surge, he tries to compensate by trying to out-finesse, as his hand placement skills will then get outside his framework.
James is still learning the "tricks of the trade," but did show as a junior improved awareness to locate threats (as a senior, he seems even faster picking it up at right tackle than he did on the left side in 2011). He is a student of the game and very alert to action around him, as he instantly recognizes stunts, twists and games. He has enough functional speed to get out in front on traps. He might lack much experience as a starting tackle (thirteen games), but with patient coaching to further his development earlier in his NFL career, some team could unearth a quality right tackle for the next decade. When taking on twists and games, he consistently recognizes them quick enough to get into position to challenge (see 2012 Miami and 2011 Northwestern, Maryland and Miami games). He has the nimble feet and agility needed to slide and adjust on the move. He keeps good balance and body control retreating to protect the pocket and has that long reach needed to latch on and neutralize edge rushers.
Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati: Like Whitworth, James is that rare tall offensive tackle that plays low in his pads. His ability to come off the snap with suddenness and utilize his long reach to instantly get into a defender's chest has seen him win a considerable amount of battles since becoming a starter in 2010 as a freshman. I still feel he is more ideally suited for a zone blocking scheme and he could serve as a protector for QB Matt Ryan (Falcons), as their blocking scheme is ideal for the talent base that James displays.
Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.