When you get married, for better or worse, you get your spouse’s family as part of the package deal. Same goes for your fantasy quarterback or running back and his offensive line; no matter how attractive one might be—think Jessica Simpson or Larry Johnson—the rest of the package (Jess’s overbearing dad, LJ’s work-in-progress line) might put a huge damper on your fantasy hopes.
That’s why eight offensive linemen went off the board in the first 26 picks of last year’s draft, and it’s why astute fantasy owners will be paying attention to where this year’s fat guys end up. After all, if a running back can’t get to the line of scrimmage without fighting off a defender, it’ll be tough for him to pile up fantasy points for you.
Day One Candidates
This year’s crop of blockers isn’t quite as deep as last year’s… but that doesn’t mean teams in the bottom of the first round won’t reach a little bit to address needs up front. And in a draft that’s not particularly talent-laden, the top two selections could both be on the beefy side. Alabama’s Andre Smith likely garnered more attention for his Sugar Bowl suspension than his Outland Award, but that transgression shouldn’t prevent him from hearing his name very early on Draft Day. Smith is a dominant run blocker, though of late some scouts have expressed mild concerns about his footwork in pass protection and dropped him a spot or two in their tackle rankings.
Those who don’t have Smith first tend to prefer Eugene Monroe of Virginia, who’s a bit taller than Smith and has the long arms and quick feet scouts have in mind when dreaming of the prototypical left tackle. Monroe was good enough at that position in college that Branden Albert, the 15th overall selection last year and the Chiefs’ starting LT in 2008, remained at guard throughout his college career. A handful of mocks have Monroe going off the board with the first overall selection, which is certainly conceivable; at worst, Monroe will leave the green room before the picks hit double digits.
One of the few offensive linemen casual fans may have actually heard of is Mississippi’s Michael Oher—the subject of The Blind Side, by Moneyball author Michael Lewis. Oher would likely have joined the first-round feeding frenzy had he come out last year, and another year of seasoning hasn’t hurt. While his lack of experience—just two years of high school football—and a perceived passivity may prevent him from being the first overall selection, with so many teams looking to upgrade their offensive line it’s difficult to see Oher lasting past the midpoint of the first round.
Quickly climbing on many draft boards is Jason Smith of Baylor, a converted tight end in the mold of Buffalo’s Jason Peters. Smith brings plenty of athleticism to the table but has some work to do on his technique; nonetheless, his stellar play in 2008 all but guaranteed he’ll be a first-rounder and if he shows well at the Combine he could crack the top 10.
Last season tackles with second-round grades like Duane Brown and Sam Baker not only went in the first round, they played well enough to erase most notions that the Texans and Falcons, respectively, “reached” for them. Arizona’s Eben Britton and Will Beatty of Connecticut find themselves in a similar situation this year. The Wildcats’ spread formation masked some of Britton’s shortcomings in pass protection, but his size and run-blocking acumen have some scouts believing he could be an elite right tackle—and it’s not as if he’s a total loss in pass protection on the left side, just a little lacking in the footwork department. Beatty came out of nowhere with an outstanding senior season opening holes for Donald Brown at UConn. He demonstrated quick feet at the Senior Bowl and could join Britton in crashing the first-round party on Draft Day; worst-case, they’ll be solid options early in the second frame.
No interior linemen stood out enough this season to warrant early first-round consideration, but one or two could still sneak in a handshake with Roger Goodell before Gene Washington takes over in Round Two. Centers Alex Mack of California and Max Unger of Oregon both showed well at the Senior Bowl; Mack is a shade bigger and will likely be the first of the two selected, but both offer enough athleticism to move to guard in the NFL. Oklahoma’s Duke Robinson is the top pure guard on most draft boards, a run-blocking force at 6-5, 335 with decent pass protection skills but some concerns about whether he’ll be quick enough to deal with NFL-caliber defenders.
Be Very Afraid
Phil Loadholt teamed with Robinson at Oklahoma to help Sam Bradford put up Heisman-worthy numbers while keeping his jersey remarkably clean. At 6-8 and 343 pounds, Loadholt was a dominant presence at the collegiate level; however, he was exposed by quicker defensive ends—especially in one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl—and is no longer a viable left tackle candidate in the NFL. He has the size and reach to potentially play right tackle, but his footwork will need to improve dramatically. Loadholt may wind up as a guard, following a career arc similar to that of the Cowboys’ Leonard Davis. Depending on where Loadholt’s drafting team opts to use him, he could become a powerful run-blocking interior lineman… or an oversized pilon on the outside.
Take A Chance On…
While Loadholt’s draft stock was taking a hit at the Senior Bowl, Wisconsin’s Kraig Urbik was making himself some money. Not only did the 6-6, 323-pounder show well during drills, he also sports a resume that includes quality time at both guard and tackle. Urbik is most likely slotted for an interior position in the NFL, but he has the size, strength, and feet to fill in where necessary and make an immediate impact for the offense that drafts him.
Who Needs One?
Who doesn’t? After watching eight tackles go in Round One last year the league is on notice that quality linemen are a hot commodity. The Lions and Rams could go back-to-back with tackles to kick off the 2009 draft, while the Chiefs, Seahawks, Bengals, Raiders, Jaguars, Packers, and 49ers all have needs along the line and a top-10 pick they wouldn’t hesitate to use on one of the elite tackles should they slide that far.
Assuming the position hasn’t been picked clean and at least a few of the aforementioned clubs go a different route with their first selection, the Redskins and Chargers both hold mid-round picks they could use to upgrade their front line. The Lions will have a second shot at a blocker with the 20th selection, while the Eagles, Vikings, and Patriots could wind up dipping into the next tier of tackles later in the round—a la the Texans and Falcons a year ago. And just about every mock draft has the Steelers closing out Round One with someone to help keep Ben Roethlisberger’s ribs together.