After an ugly stretch, the Syracuse football program has experienced better days the last few years under Doug Marrone. Now, their former head coach, Doug Marrone, was able to improve the talent there and put in a more effective offensive system. One of the key pieces to this improvement was offensive tackle Justin Pugh. Pugh proved to be incredibly reliable at left tackle protecting quarterback and fellow draft prospect Ryan Nassib’s blindside and help open up holes in the running game that helped the Orange reach two bowl games in the previous three years. Pugh opted to declare as a red shirt junior as he had finished his degree. Pugh had the honor of being the first fourth year junior to play in the Senior Bowl under new rules that allowed four year players to participate in the all-star event pending their graduation and the team’s blessing.
Pugh’s best qualities are from the waist down. He has great feet, moves well, and stays balanced. In pass protection, Pugh mirrors opponents well with short choppy steps and never stops moving his feet which makes it so he is rarely out of position or is put in a position where he needs to overextend. This also enables him to respond effectively to counter moves and changes of direction by opponents. His first step out of his stance is impressive and he kick slides effectively and smoothly. Pugh rarely finds himself at a disadvantage and is abler to focus on his technique and leverage to take every advantage of the strength he does have.
As a run blocker, he has the agility and movement skills to get out and block on the move on toss plays to his side. He is good at continuing to use his feet to put him between the ball carrier and the defender as well as being able to get to the second level.
Pugh has experience playing in a pro-style offense under Doug Marrone, who is now the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Pugh’s best position in the NFL is likely at left tackle but he does offer the versatility to play left guard or right tackle.
Pugh needs to improve his strength, especially in his upper body and improve his punch. There are times when he be simply overpowered by stronger defensive linemen. He flashes the ability to use his strength to impose his will against the run, but he is far more accustomed to walling off opponents than using his power which can problematic in short yardage situations. While he is able to get to the second level as a run blocker, he needs to do a better job of consistently landing blocks on linebackers. He stays in control and does not lunge, but he needs to be better job of hitting moving targets.
Pugh has less than ideal arm length but to this point, he has been to use his other assets to make up for it to this point in his career. This could be more of an issue in the NFL and some teams may not be convinced he can play left tackle. And if that attitude were to be prominent in the NFL, it would drop his stock immensely as he would need more strength to play guard or right tackle to contribute early.
Everything about Justin Pugh’s stock is going to be about whether teams believe Pugh can play left tackle. His feet, movement skills, and balance are prototypical for an NFL left tackle and will make him an attractive option. If he can improve his strength, he has the potential to improve substantially in the NFL and be an above average left tackle. Pugh is most well suited for a zone blocking scheme that allows him to take advantage of his natural movement skills and get him out on the move. The team that drafts him will give him every chance to be a left tackle, but he could move to left guard or right tackle. He would still need to improve his strength to avoid being overpowered, but he should be an excellent technician with enough functional strength. For teams that feel Justin Pugh is a good fit and a left tackle, he is a solid second round pick, but his concerns over whether he can play left tackle and the fact he may not appeal to all systems could drop him. If the NFL community as a whole were to deem him not a fit at left tackle or not ready to contribute there immediately, he could find himself going in the third or fourth round. It seems unlikely he will fall far as left tackles are invaluable and someone will take him earlier even if it is not a lock that he can play there. Pugh’s game is similar to that of William Beatty when he came out of Connecticut, though Beatty did not have the concerns over arm length. Beatty had fantastic movement skills and just needed to get stronger in the NFL where he has now become a starting left tackle for the New York Giants.