Kicking off our 2023 NFL draft coverage we are starting with a profile of one of the most highly decorated and accomplished linemen to ever play on Montlake, Jaxson Kirkland. As one of the two Huskies to participate in this year’s NFL Combine, Kirkland is one of the most likely candidates to continue UW’s streak of NFL draft picks, but where he lands in the draft is still an open question.
Kirkland’s Career to Date
Despite growing up a Husky fan and having a strong football pedigree, his father Dean Kirkland played at UW under Don James, Jaxson nearly didn’t suit up in the purple and gold. While there was contact with the coaching staff throughout his HS recruitment, Kirkland didn’t receive his scholarship offer until the last month before signing day. Even though he possessed impressive measurables (listed as 6’6.5”, 314 lbs as a HS senior) and showed significant interest in becoming a Husky, he was not considered a sought-after prospect. 247’s composite rating system gave him a score of 0.8640 (approximately equating to a mid-3-star prospect), and the UW staff prioritized other prospects ahead of Kirkland before finally circling back to reel him into their 2017 recruiting class.
Once Kirkland arrived on campus, he immediately made a name for himself. After taking a redshirt during his freshman year in 2017 (pre-dating the 4-game redshirt rule), Kirkland has started nearly every game of the next five seasons with tremendous production on the field. His first career start came at right guard against UW’s 2018 season opener against Auburn, and he went on to start at RG for all 14 games that season while earning Freshman All-American and Academic All-Pac-12 honors. in 2019 he retained his starting RG role through the first 11 games of the season before missing the Apple Cup and bowl game due to injury.
In 2020, after bouncing back from his relatively minor season ending injury the previous year, and with the departure of longtime LT Trey Adams to the NFL, Kirkland slid out to OT, where he started every game of the pandemic-shortened season on his way to the first of his three First Team All-Pac-12 selections. While he was recognized for a strong performance in 2020, it was a small sample size that also left questions about his inconsistency and ceiling on the perimeter. These questions arose again in 2021 amidst a down season for the Huskies where offensive line play was shaky across the board. Much of the OL malaise has been attributed to the overall offensive scheme, but questions about Kirkland’s play persisted. Injury questions also lingered as Kirkland again missed two games later in the season.
After the 2021 season, Kirkland decided to declare for the 2022 draft. However, during routine pre-draft medical exams, it was discovered that Kirkland had a significant lingering ankle injury that would require surgery. He opted to get the surgery, but the recovery timetable would prevent him from participating in pre-draft workouts and scouting events, so Kirkland reversed his decision and petitioned the NCAA to reinstate his final year of eligibility. After a lengthy process, the NCAA reinstated Kirkland on the condition that he sit out the first game of the season. Between the NCAA suspension and his on-going recovery, Kirkland made his 2022 season debut back at LT in the fourth game of the season. However, by that point, Troy Fautanu, UW’s backup LT who had started in Kirkland’s place, had made such a big impact at LT that Kirkland moved back to the interior and started the rest of the season at LG. There was a lot of speculation about Kirkland’s move back to the interior, and while the question was never directly addressed, the consensus opinion is that it was a move to improve the line as a whole and to minimize shuffling across the line when he returned to the starting lineup mid-season. Fautanu was on his way to an All-Pac-12 caliber season, and with Kirkland still rounding into form after missing most of camp, reinserting him at the interior was a means of getting the most of his talents.
Athletic Profile & On-Field Production.
Looking strictly at basic measurables, Kirkland is a prototypical NFL OT. At the 2023 NFL Combine, Kirkland measured in at 6’7” and 321 lbs, but there’s always more nuance than that. Despite being the upper percentile range for height, Kirkland only measured in at 33 1/2” in arm length where 34” is generally considered the minimum threshold for arm length for NFL OTs. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and when it comes to OT play, arm length is just one advantage that an OT can use to beat pass rushers. Arm length is the easiest trait to quantify, but there are so many other traits and techniques that go into effective pass protection. Hand fighting technique is an area of OL coaching that has been evolving over the last few years, and Coach Huff has implemented some of these new techniques that can compensate for lack of reach. One fundamental shift in technique that Coach Huff is teach that is also becoming more of a focus in the NFL is working hands independently. For years, linemen were taught to keep their hands at chest level at all times and to engage defenders with both hands for the most pop. Keeping hands independent of each other allows long arm techniques, similar to what DEs use when edge rushing from a wide technique, as well as allowing the OL to engage defenders while staying square to the LOS and keeping the second hand free for a recovery move after the DL counter. Kirkland’s learned these techniques, and he’s used them to great effect, but he’s still inconsistent.
Another issue for Kirkland is his overall agility. OTs need a combination of reach/hand technique, agility, and core strength, and one can compensate for the other. Unfortunately for Kirkland, he does not have the elite footspeed/agility or core strength to consistently compensate for his shorter arms and inconsistent hand technique. He didn’t participate in the agility drills to put a number to his agility, but having watched him play for five years, his movement skills are not on par with high end OT draft prospects, and too often he gets caught leaning for power and gets caught off balance due to his lack of core strength. All of this is to say that his ceiling in the NFL is limited at OT by his athletic profile.
However, Kirkland’s athletic profile does afford him a much higher ceiling on the interior in the right scheme. As a big frame and borderline OT agility gives him a good starting point as an interior pass protector at guard, but where speed kills on the perimeter, power is the bigger concern on the interior. Very few college DTs were able to over power Kirkland, but the NFL is another story, and despite his size, his body type doesn’t do him a lot of favors. Kirkland would be an unusually tall iOL for the NFL, and there’s a reason for that. The taller the OL, the harder it is for them to win leverage on shorter/stockier DTs, and if everything else is equal, the player with better leverage will win on bull rushes and in the run game. There are ways of improving leverage, but there’s only so much you can do about it when you’re 6’7”. Kirkland’s build further exacerbates his leverage disadvantage. He is barrel-chested and carries a lot of his weight in his torso with comparatively thin legs. On its own, this isn’t an issue, but its indicative of poor lower body power that is key to drive blocks and anchoring against bull rushes. This shows up on tape where Kirkland can get movement in the run game when he can take advantage of an angled down block or gets a jump on the DL, but when it’s 1v1 head up, he struggles to get movement on bigger DTs.
Draft & NFL Career Projection
In summary, Jaxson Kirkland is an interesting ‘tweener who was a high-performer at the college level but doesn’t fit perfectly at OT or iOL at the NFL. He’s just a bit too inconsistent with his technique and lacks the elite athletic traits that NFL teams look for in OT prospects, and his build and power don’t do him any favors projecting to the interior. That likely takes Days 1 & 2 of the draft off the table for Kirkland, as those are the rounds where teams are looking for potential starters. That being said, he has a long track record of success playing at three different positions along the OL, and the NFL values offensive line versatility when building their roster. If an NFL team thinks Kirkland can improve his technique to the point where he is a serviceable back up OT or swing OL, then I could see him getting picked up on Day 3 of the draft (likely rounds 5-7).
His long-term NFL career success will revolve around team fit (as is the case for most NFL players). Wide zone offenses in the Shanahan coaching tree would not be a good fit, but Kirkland may find success in an offense that focuses on gap schemes, RPOs, and quick passing. Offenses that mix in a lot of quick passing play action that allow him to jump set and get on defenders quickly would highlight his skill set.