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News » Left tackles a safer bet than QBs at top of draft

Left tackles a safer bet than QBs at top of draft

Left tackles a safer bet than QBs at top of draft
INDIANAPOLIS - With the top overall pick in April's draft, Detroit will be tempted by the sizzle of quarterbacks Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez.

The Lions may be better off with the steak.

Among the smorgasbord of positions drafted in the first round this decade, left tackle has proven the most savory entree. This is especially true among early selections. Miami's Jake Long, the No. 1 choice in 2008, and Cleveland's Joe Thomas (No. 3 in 2007) both reached the Pro Bowl as rookies.

The history isn't lost on new Lions head coach Jim Schwartz as he evaluates blue-chip tackle prospects like Alabama's Andre Smith, Baylor's Jason Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe this weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

Detroit has an unsettled quarterback situation, but the left tackle position is just as shaky. Jeff Backus has started every game of his NFL career since being a 2001 first-round choice. But his performance has slipped in recent seasons and he may be moved to guard if the Lions draft a replacement.

"If you ask any offensive coach, they usually say quarterback is the most important position and left tackle is No. 2," Schwartz said Thursday when I interviewed him on Sirius NFL Radio. "If you have a guy who can win one-on-one (blocking matchups) consistently, it allows you to do so much."

Left tackles are usually responsible for stymieing a defense's best pass-rusher and protecting the quarterback's blindside. But a combination of factors both physical and financial has made left tackles increasingly valuable in the draft.

The most important is the high success rate. Eighteen of the 32 starting left tackles last season were first-round draft choices dating to 1997. Six of them (Long, Thomas, Washington's Chris Samuels, Carolina's Jordan Gross, Seattle's Walter Jones and New Orleans' Jammal Brown) were among the nine tackles chosen for the Pro Bowl. No other position — even the quarterbacks — was represented by such a high percentage of first-round talent.

Of the 16 first-round choices specifically projected as NFL left tackles since the 2000 draft, the only bona fide busts were Oakland's Robert Gallery (No. 2 overall pick/2004), Buffalo's Mike Williams (No. 4/2002) and Tampa Bay's Kenyatta Walker (No. 14/2001). Gallery has reinvented himself as a solid left guard; Williams and Walker are out of the league.

As for the remaining 13 left tackles in that group, only Kwame Harris is playing for a different team than the one that drafted him. Harris washed out in San Francisco after five disappointing years and is on the verge of doing the same in Oakland, where he was benched for the final three games last season.

"Think about this: How many (good) left tackles are available in free agency? There aren't any," Schwartz said. "If you have one, you're not letting him go. Your only path is through the draft."

Five franchises that used 2008 first-round picks on left tackles felt the same way. Long, Denver's Ryan Clady, Atlanta's Sam Baker and Houston's Duane Brown started as rookies. Chicago's Chris Williams, who only appeared on special teams last season following back surgery, is expected to replace current starter John Tait in 2009.

"From our end, there's always been a philosophy that you start with the lines and try to get the big people first," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "(Long) was available and left tackle in this league is a premium."

With more colleges running pass-heavy or pro-style offenses than in previous decades, it has become easier for scouts to forecast whether a left tackle prospect can make the transition to the NFL.


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"It used to be that there was an Outland Trophy winner and you needed to know if he could pass protect," said Schwartz, referring to the award annually given to college football's best offensive lineman. "You might not even know that going into the draft. These (college) guys now are a little closer to what you're going to see in the NFL."

That knowledge has made tackles a safer early pick than quarterbacks — especially because of the monstrous contracts being given to the draft's top selections. The money factor places even more pressure on teams to make the right decision at a position that is arguably the most difficult to evaluate.

As last year's No. 3 pick, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan scored an NFL-record contract for a rookie (six years, $72 million with $34.5 million guaranteed). The gamble is paying off, as Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs.

But that kind of risk didn't pay dividends for San Francisco when Alex Smith was chosen with the No. 1 pick in 2005. And the jury is still out on Oakland's JaMarcus Russell, who pocketed $31 million guaranteed as part of the massive contract he signed as the top selection in 2007.

Detroit's ultimate decision will be made even tougher because Stafford and Sanchez turned pro after their junior seasons. Sanchez is particularly challenging to grade because he started only 16 games at Southern Cal compared to Stafford's 34 at Georgia.

Having extra early picks, the Lions could try to address both quarterback and left tackle in the first round like Atlanta did in 2008. The big questions are which position carries a higher priority at No. 1 and whether the Lions would have a realistic shot at landing a quality tackle later in the first round considering the premium at the position.

The answers will determine whether Detroit can rebound from the first 0-16 season in NFL history.

"I've compared it to playing blackjack," Schwartz said of having the draft's top pick. "You can play the $5 table for a couple of hours, make a lot of bad decisions, lose $100 and have some fun. If you play at the $5,000 or $10,000 table and make bad decisions, you're walking — not flying — home. I think you've got to add that into the equation. Not only is this an opportunity to get a great player, you need to make sure."

Two months from the draft, left tackle seems like the surest thing.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: February 20, 2009

Scott Jackson Name: Scott Jackson
Position: OG
Age: 28
Experience: 3 years
College: Brigham Young
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