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Rashawn Slater’s journey to the national spotlight

Some draft analysts project the senior as a top-100 draft pick.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin
via USA Today
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the many question marks surrounding Northwestern’s offense, Rashawn Slater’s play isn’t one of them.

With the 2020 football season hopefully just around the corner, Northwestern’s star offensive lineman has already begun racking up the preseason accolades and was named a preseason All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and ESPN college football insider Phil Steele. Slater deserves every honor he has received thus far for his ongoing impact on the Wildcat program.

Since his freshman year, the Sugar Land, Texas, native has started 27 straight games and has been perennially one of the best tackles in the Big Ten. Slater has improved his game every season and is now positioning himself to be a high pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

It didn’t take long for the lineman to establish his presence on NU’s offensive line. Pro Football Focus graded him as the nation’s top freshman offensive lineman, and he was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.

Impressively, Slater has followed up his initial splash with steady improvement.

In his first two seasons, he helped pave the way for Justin Jackson to rush for 1,000 yards and first-year Isaiah Bowser to average 108 rushing yards per game over the last eight games of the 2018 season. He protected All-Big Ten quarterback Clayton Thorson and helped the Wildcats become the fourth-best offense in the Big Ten in 2017. Thorson threw for 3,183 in 2018, the third-highest mark in the Big Ten, behind Slater’s protection.

A year later, he earned third-team All-Big Ten honors as a true sophomore and in 2019 emerged as one of the country’s top tackles after shifting from right to left tackle. Slater allowed only one sack, one QB hit and just five pressures on 355 pass-blocking snaps, earning a PFF pass-blocking grade of 88.2. He also earned All-Big Ten honorable mention for his efforts.

The site ranked him the fourth-best returning tackle in pass protection on straight dropbacks, but he isn’t a one-trick pony. PFF also ranked him the best returning run-blocker in the conference. That aforementioned stellar 2019 earned him an overall PFF grade of 90.1, which ranked second among returning offensive linemen, behind only Oregon’s Penei Sewell, who has been projected to go as high as the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Only four left tackles were graded higher by PFF than Slater in 2019. Two of the three, Tristan Wirfs and Andrew Thomas, were top fifteen picks in 2020.

Slater has nullified opposing pass rushers in the past, but it will be interesting to see how new OC Mike Bajakian will switch up the game plan. Bajakian was very run-heavy as the offensive coordinator at Boston College, so Slater will likely need to have the biggest impact on the ground. If Northwestern does go with a run-first offense, he will have the opportunity to show NFL scouts he can dominate in pass blocking and run blocking.

At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Slater is the perfect size for an NFL offensive lineman. His big frame, impressive athleticism and positional versatility will make him an appealing option for teams with needs along the offensive line. If Slater can stay healthy and continue to excel at consistently protecting the quarterback while opening holes for the run game, he will make a case for a top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.