Draft Analysis: Pick 3.83—Lloyd Cushenberry
Updated: May 10, 2020
When the Broncos selected Lloyd Cushenberry with the 83rd pick of the draft, the CBS broadcast team had high praise for the LSU center: "Some called him the MVP of that team for what he did in the locker room." The MVP of the National Championship-winning, Joe Burrow-having LSU Tigers? Sign me up!
This past season Cushenberry wore the coveted number 18 jersey for LSU, awarded annually to the Tiger that best represents LSU football both on and off the field. By all counts he is a high character, hard-working, quiet leader. Exactly the kind of guy that you want anchoring your offensive line.
But the high praise Cushenberry has earned as a team leader and role model may be covering up sub-par play. In 2019, he allowed an astounding 34 pressures and four sacks. For context, Tyler Biadasz, Cesar Ruiz, and Nick Harris—some of the other top centers in the class—allowed 23 pressures and three sacks combined. Going by those numbers, Cushenberry was one of the worst centers in the country.
Of course, stats are only one piece of the puzzle. So let's turn to the film to see if we can find an explanation.
This article goes through four games from Cushenberry's 2019 season with an eye towards evaluating his performance as a pass protector. It begins with the most compelling matchup of all, which saw Cushenberry line up against the number seven overall pick, Auburn Tiger Derrick Brown.
Game 1: LSU vs. Auburn
This game was intense. The Auburn defensive line, led by DT Derrick Brown, was ferocious, and gave LSU all they could handle. Cushenberry was at the center of it all, often lined up directly across from Brown.
On the very first snap Cushenberry is knocked off his feet—not by Brown, but by a blitzing linebacker.
The Auburn front seven came to play.
The Cushenberry/Brown action really kicks into gear midway through the first quarter when Brown explodes off the snap straight into Cushenberry's chest. It's a forceful attack, but Cushenberry takes three drop steps and then re-stabilizes, holding his ground with a powerful base (and resolute determination).
While Cushenberry gets the W on this play, you can tell Brown is a force to be reckoned with. Later on in the drive, Brown again explodes off the line, grabs Cushenberry's shoulders, and propels himself past the center. Burrow, who's also facing outside pressure, bails on the play. Brown doesn't make it to the QB, but wins the rep despite an admirable recovery effort from Cushenberry.
On the beginning of the next drive Brown again gets the best of Cushenberry, this time powering straight through his chest on the way to the quarterback. Cushenberry is unable to maintain square positioning and opens up his hips. He winds up hanging on for dear life and goes to the ground as Burrow scampers away from the rush.
Now into the second quarter, Brown once more beats Cushenberry off the snap, shoving him to the side and again forcing him to open his hips. But Cushenberry does a fantastic job recovering, and keeps his feet active and works his way back into position.
After this solid play, things take a turn for the worse. Cushenberry loses a rep to a non-Derrick Brown lineman who unbalances him with a bull rush.
He then loses to Brown in even more concerning fashion, getting walked straight backwards without much of a fight. After a strong start to the game that showcased a solid base, it now looks like Cushenberry is having serious trouble anchoring against the powerful Auburn front.
To close out the contest Brown beats Cushenberry again, this time crossing his face and riding him all the way to Burrow, who barely gets the pass away.
Overall, it was a hard fought, intense contest, but Brown clearly got the better of Cushenberry. Brown's success casts doubt on Cushenberry's ability to hold up against explosive, powerful rushers.
Game 2: LSU vs. Alabama
Alabama presented another stiff test for Cushenberry and the LSU offensive line. While Cushenberry executed some quality reps in this game, I noticed that he got beat across the face multiple times in the same way that Brown got him at the end of the Auburn game. In this clip the defensive tackle works from the inside to Cushenberry's outside shoulder with a swim move. Cushenberry opens his hips and never recovers.
It looks a lot like the last play from the Auburn game, with a rusher pushing through Cushenberry's shoulder as the center turns laterally to the line.
On this next play the stand-up rusher works from the outside in, again crossing Cushenberry's face. Cushenberry lunges and whiffs, creating an open lane to the quarterback.
Cushenberry also continued to appear vulnerable to pure power rushes. Here, the defensive tackle pushes Cushenberry all the way back into Burrow's lap even though he had help from the RG.
Reps like these only fuel my concerns about Cushenberry's ability to anchor against bull rushes.
This final play shows Cushenberry doing a great job of finding the blitzer and stopping him in his tracks, initially. Cushenberry fails to reset his hips and allows the rusher to get to the QB on second effort.
Cushenberry took his fair share of losses against both Alabama and Auburn, notably struggling to anchor against powerful bull rushes. He also lost several reps by opening up his hips instead of moving his feet when rushers crossed his face. Let's see if he can clean those things up against slightly easier competition.
Game 3: LSU vs. Ole Miss
On the whole, Cushenberry performed much better against Ole Miss than against Auburn and Alabama. He can thank DT Benito Jones for that, as he spent most of the game matched up against—and cooly dominating—the interior lineman. Should we be impressed by that? Jones had a solid season, racking up 10 TFLs and 5.5 sacks on his way to earning second team All-SEC honors and a senior bowl invite. But he went undrafted for a reason—he looks sluggish on tape. Ultimately, Jones doesn't present an NFL-caliber test for Cushenberry.
Is Cushenberry an unyielding wall? Or is Jones' swim move a weak mess?
Despite spending the majority of the game battling Jones, Cushenberry still took a few Ls to other players. On this snap he can't keep his base centered in front of the DT and loses to a bull rush, again presenting concerns about his ability to anchor.
Here he again loses a one on one rep, opening up to a strong initial punch and failing in his attempt to reset. Cushenberry needs to do a better job of moving his feet to stay square in front of his man and prevent him from getting outside leverage.
Understanding that the Ole Miss D-line isn't the most talented bunch, the defensive coordinator dialed up some twists and stunts in an attempt to generate pressure. And, unfortunately, it worked. Cushenberry locks in on the stunting DT and completely misses the DE and OLB that loop into his gap.
He needs to pass the DT off and pick up the late rushers. And it happens again later on. This time he notices the twist, but is too late to fill the block lane to the quarterback.
Despite looking dominant for stretches of this game, Cushenberry still lost several reps. The twist/stunt action was a wrinkle that didn't show up much in the Auburn and Alabama contests, and Cushenberry's performance on those plays was shaky.
Game 4: LSU vs. Florida
On the first drive of this game Cushenberry gets absolutely taken by Kyree Campbell, who crosses his face and then hits him with a beautiful rip move. Campbell is nothing special (he recorded only one sack in 2019), but Cushenberry's weak punch allows him to look like a star on this play.
Campbell attempts a similar rush later on in the game. This time Cushenberry does a much better job of moving his feet to stay in front of the DT. But Campbell counters by changing his angle of attack, lunging inside and forcing Burrow to pull the ball down and scramble. Another L for Cushenberry.
To Cushenberry's credit, he's able to stop the rush the third time around.
It was a mostly positive game for Cushenberry, although he does appear to get beat far too often by DTs that attack laterally (across his face). He needs to either do a better job of moving his feet to avoid opening his hips up, or develop a strong punch to interrupt the initial attack. If I were an NFL defensive coordinator that was preparing to face the Broncos, I'd be licking my chops at the prospect of testing Cushenberry with these sorts of lateral attacks—especially because they pair so well with the twisting action that he handled inconsistently in these four games.
As noted at the outset, this article focuses on Cushenberry as a pass blocker. This is primarily because the amount of pressures and sacks he allowed placed him among the worst-performing centers in the country, and that demands investigation. Beyond that, both my own film study and other analysts' reports suggest that Cushenberry is a solid run blocker. He may have some limitations if you put him in a system that requires him to block while on the move, but Shurmur primarily runs the sort of gap scheme that Cushenberry is well suited for. Essentially, Cushenberry is solid in the run game; that is not where my concerns lie.
The pass game, however, presents a different story. I went into my tape study hoping to find an explanation for how such a highly touted player could allow 34 pressures and four sacks in a single season. I did find some mitigating factors. LSU frequently snapped the ball with only five players in pass protection, which meant Cushenberry found himself in one on one matchups more often than other centers. Further, Joe Burrow's play style lends itself to elevated pressure numbers. He likes to hold on to the ball, which forced the LSU line to maintain their blocks for a long time.
But the fact remains that Cushenberry was highly beatable in pass protection. He certainly put some quality reps on tape, but when it comes to offensive line play the thing that matters most is not how impressively you win—it's how infrequently you lose. And Cushenberry simply lost far too frequently for my taste, even when taking the above circumstances into account.
Moreover, he got beat in a variety of ways. He had issues moving his feet to stop rushers attacking the A gap. He had issues anchoring against bull rushes. And while a lot has been made of his intelligence and ability to call out protections, he missed a number of blitzers and stunting rushers.
Apparently the Broncos tried to trade up for Temple center Matt Hennessy, but the Falcons wound up taking him with the 78th overall selection—just one pick ahead of the pick the Broncos had planned to trade into for him. I would have been much more comfortable with Hennessy, who allowed only a single sack and 15 pressures in over 1,350 pass plays at Temple (admittedly against worse competition).
By all counts Cushenberry is a hard worker and excellent person. He is an above average athlete (59th percentile adjusted sparq score). He will be flanked by excellent players in Graham Glasgow and Dalton Risner, and will be working with the best offensive line coach in the league. All of that points to him finding success as a Bronco. I'll certainly be rooting hard for him, and despite my concerns I actually really like the guy—it's hard not to like a player whose teammates love him like Cushenberry's do. But the bottom line is that Cushenberry was not very good at protecting the quarterback last season. I may be outside the consensus on this, but Cushenberry's shaky college performance leaves me nervous about how he'll fare in the big leagues.