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 Football Outsiders discusses top 4 tackle prospects 
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Post Football Outsiders discusses top 4 tackle prospects
http://www.footballoutsiders.com/walkth ... le-tackles

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Tale of the Tackles
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This is the year of the tackle.

The 2009 draft is deep at several positions, including linebacker and wide receiver, but it's downright flooded with tackle prospects. The top four on most boards -- Eugene Monroe (Virginia), Michael Oher (Ole Miss), Andre Smith (Alabama), and Jason Smith (Baylor) -- could be selected among the top ten picks. According to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com and CBSSportsline.com, six or seven offensive tackles could leave the board in the first round, once scouts for lineman-hungry teams make their final decisions on prospects like Eben Britton of Arizona, Phil Loadholt of Oklahoma, William Beatty of Connecticut, and Jamon Meredith of South Carolina.

A good left tackle seems like a safe first-round selection. In recent years, rookies like Joe Thomas, Ryan Clady, and Jake Long stepped right into the starting lineup, and each made an immediate impact. Despite its depth, though, this year's draft class has only one can't-miss prospect: Monroe. And while Monroe is the safest choice, he doesn't have as much upside as some of his fellow prospects. The other three top tackles, though, come with a transatlantic flight's worth of baggage: character issues, intelligence issues, experience issues, level-of-competition issues, and much more.

You've heard a lot about the Big Four tackles already, and you'll hear much, much more in the next month. In the interest of providing a fresh take, I talked to several scouts and beat writers who watched the top tackles closely throughout their college careers. Here's your Walkthrough primer on four players who could make or break the teams who select them.

Player: Andre Smith.
College: Alabama.
Best Known As: The Combine Catastrophe.
The Good: Exceptional size and strength, experience.
The Bad: Weight issues, immaturity.

It's one thing to run a bad 40, drop a few passes, or get baffled by the Wonderlic at the Combine. It's another thing to show up overweight, go to interviews poorly dressed and unprepared, then go AWOL. No player in Combine history torpedoed himself as thoroughly as Andre Smith did in February. At the end of the college football regular season, he looked like a guaranteed top five selection. In the wake of his Sugar Bowl suspension and his Combine disappearance, Smith may be dropping to the bottom of the first round, perhaps further. One estimate suggests that Smith cost himself $24 million with his Combine escapade.

For those who follow Alabama football closely, Smith's February judgment lapses came as no surprise. No one doubts his raw power or ability to turn it on at the snap. But whispers of Smith's immaturity, ego, and poor work habits became howls after the Combine. Smith could be Jonathan Ogden, or he could be Tony Mandarich.

Ian Rapoport of the Birmingham News covered Smith throughout his college career. He understands why Smith struggled at the Combine: "Smith has always been the best player on the field on every play, going back to high school. He never learned how to sell himself. Having to interview was strange for him." Rapoport believes that some teams took Smith right off the board after he shanked his interviews. "A lot of teams were a little offended. They couldn't tell how seriously he was taking it. He shrugged at the whole process."

For a player who isn't emotionally ready for the demands of NFL life, a good support system is vital. Smith may not have one. "Smith hasn't been getting stellar advice," Rapoport said. Neal McReady, who covered the Crimson Tide for years and now runs the Ole Miss Rivals.com Web site, agreed. "Teams want to know: Who do you surround yourself with? That's all part of the package."

Character isn't Smith's only question mark. He has battled weight problems since high school, and the bigger he gets, the slower he gets. "He's the kind of player who you can tell the level of his play by the weight he's carrying," Rapoport said. Smith's ideal playing weight is around 315 pounds, but he has never been forced to trim down to that level. The extra girth could prevent him from playing left tackle. "He looks like a guard to me," said Mark Murphy of Scout.com. McReady and others feel that Smith fits best inside or at right tackle; few teams want to invest a high first-round pick on a player who can't cut it at left tackle.

Alabama's Pro Day answered some questions but raised others. Smith showed up weighing a reasonable 325 pounds, but he only benched 225 pounds 19 times and gave marginal performances in the 40-yard dash and other drills. Rang reported that one scout saw "some guys were rolling their eyes at how bad he looked with his shirt off," but at the same time, Smith demonstrated good technique and agility in his blocking drills. He also faced the media without wilting.

The Pro Day performance may have been enough to move Smith back into the top half of the first round. "All it takes is one team to say that he can play left tackle for them for the next 10 years," Rapoport said. Smith's body of on-field work is impressive enough to make scouts overlook a few judgment lapses, and his game tape will speak louder than his workout statistics. Smith's immaturity and mental makeup will still scare some teams away, but bargain hunters in the middle of the first round might relish the opportunity to turn him around.

Player: Michael Oher.
College: Ole Miss.
Best Known As: The Kid from Blindside.
The Good: Footwork, quickness, potential.
The Bad: Power, consistency, learning ability.

His mother was a drug addict. He attended 11 different elementary schools. Oher lived in cars and bounced around foster homes until he was 16 years old. Oher's remarkable success story is well known, thanks to Michael Lewis' book Blindside: The Evolution of a Game. He may be the best-known offensive line prospect ever.

Oher's Blindside notoriety has been a mixed blessing; it made him a household name in football circles while creating unrealistic expectations. "The hype around the book created a player that really didn't exist until the end of last year," according to Neal McReady.

Oher was inconsistent through much of his college career. The Rebels constantly changed offensive coaches and philosophies, making it difficult for an inexperienced player like Oher (who played almost no high school football) to keep up. Last year, strength coach Don Decker focused on improving Oher's strength and flexibility. Oher responded well. "This is a kid who was not really in a weight room until his senior year of high school," McReady said. "He stepped up and became a leader in the second half of the year. When you watch the Texas Tech (Cotton Bowl) or Mississippi State games, he became a 'come run behind me' type of player." Mark Murphy thinks Oher is starting to live up to his billing. "He might be a little underrated now. Every time I watched him he looked really good."

Blindside goes into great detail about Oher's learning disabilities, leading some analysts to question Oher's intelligence and ability to handle a complex NFL offense. Ian Rapoport thinks that the book's discussion of Oher's difficulties may benefit the prospect in the long run. "The book did him a favor. It explains that different learning style, so coaches know what to expect." Neal McReady doesn't think Oher will have trouble learning an NFL offense. "In learning football, he's ahead of the curve because of the merry-go-round of coaches (at Ole Miss). He's very coachable. He's proven that."

While Andre Smith is ready to play physically but a character risk, Oher is a hard worker with leadership qualities who needs a lot of technical work. And while he's gifted athletically, he's not a world-class specimen. "He's got good feet, but he's not a ballerina. It's not like he runs a 4.9 40," McReady said. "It depends on how much coaching he can get," Rapoport believes. One thing is certain: While Oher will never be a piledriver like Andre Smith, he's far less likely to be an epic bust.

Player: Jason Smith.
College: Baylor.
Best Known As: The Draft Board Rocket.
The Good: Athleticism, potential, character.
The Bad: Experience, level of competition.

When he wasn't playing high school football, Jason Smith was team roping in rodeos near his home in Dallas. "I'd rope the steer's head and another guy would rope the feet," Smith said in a 2008 interview. "But I was little back then -- I only weighed 215 pounds. It's funny that as a Division I athlete playing in big-time games with a lot of pressure that I don't really get worked up. But when you sit on the back of a horse..."

Smith grew from a 215-pound high school tight end into a 298-pound left tackle at Baylor. In the weeks since the college season ended, Smith has kept growing. In December, he was the third or fourth tackle on the draft board. Now, he's a projected Top Five pick.

Smith's Combine performance helped vault him to the top of the tackle heap. He tied Alex Boone of Ohio State for the position lead with 33 bench reps. He ran a competitive 5.22 40. He weighed in at a lean 309 pounds. Most importantly, he didn't do anything stupid: no missed meetings or unexplained absences. Andre Smith and Michael Oher raised questions at the Combine. Jason Smith answered questions. Smith didn't run or lift at Baylor's Pro Day, but he participated in position drills and made another positive impression.

There's a lot to like about Smith as a prospect. He caught six passes as a redshirt freshman at Baylor, and he still possesses some tight end quickness. He's still growing and should be able to add 15 to 20 pounds to his frame without losing speed or agility. But with Andre Smith's maturity in question and so much money at stake, Smith's work ethic and attitude are his best attributes. He already has his degree, and he earned high marks at Baylor as a leader and locker room personality, a jokester who knew when to keep the troops loose and when to get serious.

Smith's biggest downsides are his lack of experience and Baylor's spread offense. Smith shifted from tight end to right tackle, starting one season there before moving to left tackle. He started just seven games at left tackle as a junior because of an MCL tear. He stayed healthy in 2008, but he rarely lined up in a three-point stance in Baylor's offense. He'll have to improve his mechanics in the pros. That makes him a dangerous gamble as a Day One starter; the team that drafts Smith will have to plant him on the bench for at least part of a season.

Still, Smith has the work habits to make a quick adjustment. Just ask him. "I show up every day willing to work," Smith told Rich Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, "and I'm productive. I have 12 games that show it -- and I have 12 weeks of practice that also show it. So if you want to see a guy who practices hard, plays hard, look at my practice or look at my games -- you won't be able to tell the difference. I'll be going full speed. And every day you walk in there I'll have a smile on my face, ready to go to work."

Player: Eugene Monroe.
College: Virginia.
Best Known As: Chris Long's sparring partner.
The Good: Technique, quickness, experience.
The Bad: Lack of power and mean streak.

Monroe battled Chris Long (now with the Rams) every day in practice. He competed alongside Brandon Albert (now with the Chiefs) for two seasons. He patterned his game on D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the Virginia tackle whose college career ended the year Monroe arrived. It's the kind of environment that galvanizes a young man into an NFL-ready left tackle, and Monroe is the most polished of the Big Four prospects.

"The aspect about Monroe that stands out is the relative safety that comes with his selection," according to Rob Rang. "He has a rare combination of size, strength and lateral agility for pass protection. He has good leg drive for run blocking at the line of scrimmage and can get to the second level quickly." Monroe's college credentials are stellar: He allowed only two career sacks, and he was so effective that Albert was forced to play left guard, even though he had the skills of a tackle.

Monroe's college performance must speak for itself, because Monroe doesn't always speak for himself. His quiet demeanor has some scouts wondering whether he is tough and aggressive enough to be a superstar at the NFL level. Ferguson, whom Monroe idolized, also had a quiet, soft-spoken personality; he has become an average NFL starter, not the player the Jets expected to get with the fourth pick in the 2006 draft.

Such comparisons can be overblown, and complaints about a too-quiet player may amount to predraft nitpicking. "Eugene's inquisitive about everything," Virginia head coach Al Groh told Pro Football Weekly. "He's not a real chatty guy, but he's always interested in learning new things. He works hard and studies hard." The PFW scouts (who rank Monroe as the top tackle in the draft) believe he has a bettor anchor than Ferguson, while noting that he "uses too much finesse" and could improve as a run blocker.

If nothing else, this draft class offers variety at left tackle. A team looking for a reliable Day One starter can select Monroe and enjoy Ryan Clady-/Jake Long-style results. Teams in search of a road grader to spark the running game are better off taking a chance on Andre Smith. Given a year or two of development, Jason Smith and Oher might be better than either of them, so teams without a short term need at left tackle could have the last laugh in four years.

Of course, a team could avoid the whole situation by drafting Aaron Curry. But that's a different article.


March 19th, 2009, 10:19 pm
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I still think Oher is going to be the best of the bunch and if he is on the board at #20 we have to grab him. A first round of Curry and Oher would be awesome.


March 19th, 2009, 11:30 pm
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This is interesting because I can see the Lions taking the Falcons approach from last years draft. They drafted Matt Ryan and then Sam Baker with their second first rounder. While the Lions need help at QB, LT, and D, I wonder if they are using this as a model. I think that the Falcons had a much better defense then the Lions have. They also got a stud back in Turner in FA.

I really think that while the Lions could benefit from this sort of strategy, but we need more than just warm bodies on D. I'm afraid that we won't come out with a playmaker on D if we take QB, LT in round 1.

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March 20th, 2009, 10:50 am
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I'm starting to think they might address the offense as well with the way they have been going in FA. LBs and DL also tend to adjust to the NFL quicker than some other positions so they may go defense next year. Allowing them to add a QB and LT this season in the 1st round then try and get a steal in the 2nd round and get some depth or maybe a starter or two from the day two picks on defense.


March 20th, 2009, 4:57 pm
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I really hope we go Curry and LT at 20.

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March 20th, 2009, 5:41 pm
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steensn wrote:
I really hope we go Curry and LT at 20.


Which LT at 20? The top four will be gone. Would you prefer Britton or Beatty? Experts seem to be split between which one is better.


March 20th, 2009, 6:50 pm
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I figured one of the four would drop to us... I have been known to be wrong once or twice... but no more.

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March 20th, 2009, 8:22 pm
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