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Draft Time: Evaluating the Offensive Tackles

Time was, a man that was bigger, stronger, and meaner than a defensive end could get a job as an Offensive Tackle in the NFL. 3-4 defenses, sophisticated blitz packages, and Zone-Blitz style defenses now demand Offensive Tackles that are big, strong, mean, AND quick.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When I reviewed tape and measurables on the Offensive Tackles in the top 50 for this draft, what jumped out at me was the athleticism. That is the theme for the Tackles available in this year's draft, which is composed of elite athletes with the only real differences between the top 3 and the others tier being experience and better technique, which projects to immediate starter status in the League.

The Top Three

These players are projected to be starters as rookies.

Eric Fisher, Central Michigan (Projected:Top 5)

6'7, 302 pounds – Showing great footwork, patience, and strength, this late bloomer rocketed up the draft boards after the Senior Bowl and Combine. He has the same issues as other tall tackles; his height will often result in too high of a pad level and loss of leverage. He has added 70 pounds since his freshman year and many scouts believe he needs to get into the 320 pound range to reach his potential. His athletic skills served him well in the MAC, but he may have a problem with power rushers in the NFL until he fills out. He will not make it to pick 11. Watch this tape and wonder what might have been if Lewan Taylor and Jake Matthews had declared for the draft:

2013 NFL Draft Profile: Eric Fisher - Central Michigan (via Erick Ward)

Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M (Projected: Top 5)

6'6, 306 pounds – Thought of as the best pass blocker in the draft. His quickness, hand work, ability to finish a pass block, and initial burst from the stance earned him both the Outland Trophy (best Tackle in the Country) and the Jacobs Award (best blocker in the SEC). He does have a tendency to come out high from a two point stance. Every now and then, he can get flatfooted in pass pro, and showed some difficulty in adjusting on spin moves to the inside once he got his hips turned to deal with speed rushers outside. With that said, he is the best technician among the Tackles in this draft. Get used to him in a Chiefs uniform. Here is a preview of what Liuget and Ingram will be dealing with twice next season:

Luke Joeckel - 2013 NFL Draft Profile (via Erick Ward)

Lane Johnson, Oklahoma (Projected: Top 10)

6’5", 305 pounds - Johnson is intelligent, a fast learner, and has seen the football field from many different spots. Johnson is a well-rounded athlete, moves well, and has long (35") arms. He is being compared to Joe Staley by some scouts and this is a good thing. With one year at LT, he is still viewed as "raw" and inexperienced at the position. Tests at average strength and plays like it sometimes. Scouts have noted that his footwork and technique get "sloppy" at times, as does his hand placement (exposure to holding calls). Here is his draft preview:

Lane Johnson - 2013 NFL Draft Profile (via Erick Ward)

With proper coaching and some weight training, he could turn into a handful for defenses. I believe he will be a starter this year for whichever team drafts him and possible All-Pro in 3-5 years. He should be a solid starter for as long as his body holds up. If he is still there at 11, this should be our pick. He may not make it past the Eagles or Cardinals.

The Next Tier

Terron Armstead, Ark-Pine Bluff (Projected: 2nd Rd)

6’5", 305 pounds - I’ll refer you to our editor in chief’s post that extol the virtues of Armstead. To reiterate, the man is a freakish athlete, repping better than Johnson on the bench press, while running the fastest 40 time for a tackle at the combine "ever. Through out time." He is smart, due to graduate this spring with a degree in Industrial Technology. The combination of speed, strength, and smarts make him an ideal tackle in a zone blocking scheme. Armstead is also compared to Joe Staley.

The criticism on Armstead (and I believe it is accurate) is that he is a better athlete right now than he is a football player. This is born out in the tape from the senior bowl (Armstead is #71):

Terron Armstead (LT Arkansas-Pine Bluff) Senior Bowl (via footballmixtapes)

I watch the tape and see a tackle with decent technique, but very uneven in run blocking, adjusting to moving defenders on run blocking, and maintaining good separation and/or balance on occasion in pass blocking. Some flashes of good to solid and some flashes of Mike Harris. Probably not a starter this year, but should develop quickly with NFL talent to practice against and has a very high upside.

Menelik Watson, FSU (Projected: 1st Rd)

6’5", 310 Pounds – Watson may have benefited from using his one remaining year of NCAA eligibility at Florida State. The English born Watson, another freak of an athlete has only been playing American Football for 3 years. He played basketball at Marist College in NY and then turned his focus to boxing briefly before deciding to give football a go. Playing on the same team as Kyle Long at Saddlebrook JC, Watson attracted more attention from recruiters than Long. He signed with FSU and became a starter in 2012 which was exactly his third year playing american football.

The man’s balance and footwork can be dazzling. A natural knee bender, he will sink to absorb contact and retain leverage. His straight line speed is a major plus, as he regularly delivered blocks 20 yards down the field. His deficiencies though, are many. Watson is as raw as they come, being the last lineman to fire out if his stance as often as he is the first. He has trouble recognizing stunts and blitzes and properly reacting to them. And as impressive as his downfield blocking is, there is a problem with recognizing which defender to block once he gets downfield.

This pick would no doubt be a gamble, especially in the first round. Some have questioned his focus and dedication, but I believe that incentives in the modern game (HUGE money) make that a red herring. I would be more concerned about what he does after getting a large contract rather than his development before, but that is a concern I have with a lot of players. A second round pick is closer to his real value than the 1st round rating, but I would not be suprised to see a team reach for him at the 15th-30th overall pick. Here is the good, the bad, and the ugly; judge for yourself:

Menelik Watson - 2013 NFL Draft Profile (via Erick Ward)

Kyle Long, Oregon (Projected: 2nd Rd)

6’6", 313 pounds – Given that Kyle is the spawn of Howie Long, I would not be surprised if at some point in this draft, if the Bolts have not drafted a tackle and Kyle is still on the board, Howie channels his inner Archie Manning. Long is a huge man with good weight distribution, balance, and flexibility. His primary skills are great burst, strong leg drive, and short area quickness. He is even rawer then Watson, with only four starts (at Guard) at the FCS level in college. As a result, he also struggles against stunts and blitzes, lunges at opponents instead of latching on and sustaining a block, and also has issues with hand placement. Long also had a DUI while pitching for the FSU baseball team in 2009.

Long is not yet the sum of his parts. He has a brother (Chris) in the NFL and a HOF defensive lineman father. Both Howie and Chris have stated that Kyle is the most athletic in the family. While I usually love blood lines in the NFL, when the blood is silver and black my bias emerges and I say no. Of course the irony of watching dear old Dad rooting for the Bolts, 25 years after breaking Dan Fouts nose on typical satan’s team dirty hit, (not that I’m bitter or carry grudges) may be worth the 2nd or 3rd round pick on Long. Long will probably need to be a back – up or practice squad player for a year. He is a gifted athlete that has big potential for a team willing to be patient with him.

Many believe that Long will be an NFL guard, but his height and athleticism suggest Left Tackle as a viable option. No doubt he is a project and I believe that his 2nd round grade is too high. 3rd Round is a fair grade for Long. You may think he is worth more, though:

Kyle Long - 2013 NFL Draft Profile (via Erick Ward)

The Outside-the-Box Option

There is another alternative that I believe is viable for Left Tackle in this draft, and at this point, all of you should know my opinion about him.