Underappreciated Neufeld ready to become full-time tackle

Canadian offensive tackles are a rare commodity in the CFL — so rare, in fact, that virtually any draft-eligible player projected to become a starting tackle is selected in the first round of his draft year.

The fact that Patrick Neufeld wasn’t drafted by his hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders until the fifth round of the 2010 draft says a lot about what personnel guys around the league thought of his pro potential.

Neufeld, 27, signed with the ‘Riders in 2011 after finishing his CIS eligibility with the Saskatchewan Huskies in 2010. Appearing in 34 games over his first two seasons in Saskatchewan, Neufeld — known simply as ‘Paddy’ to his teammates — broke his leg in 2013 and subsequently fell behind 2012 first overall pick Ben Heenan on Saskatchewan’s depth chart.

This led to a trade ahead of the 2013 deadline that saw Neufeld shipped to Winnipeg along with a 2015 fourth round selection (FB Christophe Normand) in exchange for international defensive end Alex Hall and a 2014 second round selection (DE Dylan Ainsworth).

Neufeld played almost exclusively at guard with the Bombers until international right tackle Jace Daniels suffered a season-ending leg injury this past August. Neufeld started a handful of games at right tackle before Selvish Capers, another American, succeeded him after being acquired in September’s Chris Greaves trade. It wasn’t long before Neufeld re-earned the right tackle job, however — by October, Neufeld was again starting at right tackle with Capers making the move to left guard.

While I am hardly an authority on offensive line play, I do have a few years of experience playing along the offensive line and am relatively well-read on various protection schemes. I watch the line of scrimmage a lot during live games and spend the long months of the off-season watching game film in order to analyze blitz schemes and the resulting offensive adjustments.

Re-watching last season’s Bomber games, Patrick Neufeld — a popular scapegoat during his time in Saskatchewan — impressed me with his play at right tackle down the stretch. The Bombers allowed 27 sacks in the eight games Neufeld started at right tackle, a number that was consistent with the Bombers’ season-long average of 3.3 sacks allowed per game. It’s also worth noting that Neufeld started both of Winnipeg’s games versus Ottawa — the CFL’s best pass rushing team in 2015 — and that all of his starts came following Drew Willy’s mid-August season-ending knee injury.

Looking for other (and more authoritative) opinions on Neufeld’s play, I turned to the two best Canadian offensive tackles the Bombers have fielded over the past thirty years.

Steve Morley, who started eighteen games at left tackle for a 2009 Blue Bomber team that allowed the fewest sacks league-wide, complimented Neufeld’s cognitive understanding of the game.

“[Paddy]’s a smart player,” said Morley, who played with Neufeld in 2013 and 2014. “You have to be smart to play the CFL game [at tackle]. You can’t just be athletic and big. That’s why Paddy is successful — he’s one of the smarter guys on the team. He knows what to do with angles when he kick-steps and he’s got a really good punch.”

Morley also spoke highly of Neufeld’s footwork, the skill he identifies as most important for offensive tackles to find success against the CFL’s ultra-quick defensive ends.

“It’s about the foot speed and the footwork. You can teach the punch but without those feet you can’t play against those fast guys. You need that quick foot speed and to take the proper kick-step. For a big guy, Paddy is pretty agile out there. He’s got the perfect kick-step to get away with a lot of stuff wide … Paddy can get the job done out there [at right tackle]. I think he showed that last year.”

Chris Walby, the greatest offensive lineman ever to play the Canadian game, also spoke highly of Neufeld.

“Paddy’s a heck of a football player,” said Walby. “He’s got great feet … I know the coaching staff really likes him.”

When asked about the belief that playing tackle is more difficult than playing guard, Walby was quick to dispel the common misconception.

“No. Each position has its own advantages and disadvantages. At guard you get involved with a lot of stunts with the centre and the other guard. There are twists, there are guys picking you, and linebackers blitzing late. There’s a lot of reading and you really have to keep your head on a swivel. As a tackle, you just know you have the guy outside. So sometimes it’s really a simpler game at tackle as opposed to the craziness that can happen at guard.”

“It depends what kind of system you’re in,” said Morley on the same topic. “If you’re in Marcel Bellefeuille’s offence where you’re throwing the ball the majority of the time … and the defence knows what you’re doing on every play, [playing tackle] is going to be a challenge. But if you’re on a team that has Anthony Calvillo back there throwing off three-step drops and getting the ball away quick then the tackle spot is more fun … You still need to be a good offensive lineman to play guard.”

With Neufeld lining up as the first-string right tackle throughout the club’s recent mini-camp, it appears he is, for the first time in his career, his team’s undisputed starting right tackle heading into the season.

Considering the rave reviews he’s earned from the likes of Walby and Morley, it’s safe to say he’s ready.