The final two installments of the series on potential 2014 draftees at the Cowboys positions of perceived turns to the offensive line. Today we'll look at offensive tackles, focusing on guys who have the disposition to man the nastier right tackle spot; next Monday, we'll wrap things up with a look at the 2014 class' projected top guards.
The top of the most recent draft experienced an unprecedented early dominance by offensive linemen. In terms of tackles, three of the top four and five of the first nineteen choices were OTs. What is fascinating is the fact that, while, it's unrealistic to expect a repeat performance, the 2014 tackle class might well be stronger than its predecessor. This year's "big three" of Jake Matthews, Tyler Lewan and Cyrus Kouandijo are probably better pro prospects than Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson. Because there are strong candidates at other positions - namely the so-called "skill positions" - they aren't likely to be drafted as highly. As a consequence, teams in need of a tackle are likely to get good value.
Any look at offensive linemen in the upcoming draft has to start with the aforementioned threesome. Let's begin with them before moving on to the next tier of candidates, which are the guys who are more likely to be in Dallas' range. All three are top-tier candidates capable of being top-five picks. As a result, I'm not ranking them, but will list them alphabetically. Here goes:
*Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama (6'6", 301): Alabama lost three offensive linemen to the NFL, two of whom, guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker, were taken in the first fifteen picks. Amidst this array of talent, the offensive lineman on the Tide's 2012 title team with the greatest upside is left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo.
Indeed, Kouandjio's potential convinced the Crimson Tide to move its All-SEC and First-Team All-American left tackle Barrett Jones, who was excellent against elite defensive ends in 2011, to center. Kouandjio didn't disappoint in an excellent 2012 season during which he started all thirteen games at left tackle and showed steady improvement, finishing the campaign with impressive outings against Georgia and Notre Dame. He helped pave the way for eight individual 100-yard rushing performances, allowed only 3.5 sacks, and graded out at 90 percent or better in six games. And he did this as a 19-year old.
Kouandjio, who comes in at a lean 310 pounds, is just a natural at the position, with quick feet and the ability to both absorb pass-rushers and simply ride them out of the play, and he has good straight-line power as a run-blocker. He's very fast in his kick slide and also has the power to push linemen around at the point of attack. You can see these traits on the field in ‘Bama's National Championship Game smackdown of Notre Dame:
Kouandijo has a chance to be a top-three pick and the ability to be a perennial Pro Bowl NFL left tackle. As a result, he's not going to get to the Cowboys pick unless their season goes off the rails in some unprecedented fashion. Still, a blogger can dream, right?
Taylor Lewan, Michigan (6'8", 308): Lewan was expected to apply for the 2013 draft, but surprisingly opted to remain in Ann Arbor for another year. Had he come out, he would have been a sure-fire top-ten pick, as he has the entire package teams look for in a left tackle.
Lewan isn't a mauler in the run game, but he has the athleticism to get out in front of backs and he can hit a moving target. At an athletic 6-foot-8, he's best in pass protection, where he does a good job of using the width created by his base and long arms to keep rushers at bay (that includes All-Universe defensive end Jadeveon Clowney for most of the day in the Outback Bowl). In addition, he's an aggressive blocker who fights through the whistle. Here he is facing off against Clowney, the best that college football has to offer:
In three seasons at Michigan, Lewin has appeared in 37 games, making 35 starts at left tackle, playing with increasing dominance: in 2012, he earned a trophy case full of awards, including, but not limited to Walter Camp, AP, ESPN, and All-American honors, as well as being named First Team All-Big Ten, and taking home the Rimington-Pace Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year award. He'll likely have the same trajectory in the NFL.
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6'5", 305): Matthews' Aggie teammate Luke Joeckel went second in the 2013 draft, and if it weren't for the presence of Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater in the upcoming selection meeting, Matthews would go as high - or higher, as he's probably the better player. With Joeckel's departure, Matthews will move from right to left tackle and have the chance to prove that's his future position at the next level.
He certainly seems capable, combining ideal size and length, excellent technique, great instincts and off-the-charts football intelligence. While he's not the foot athlete Joeckel is, Matthews is quick off the snap and uses his long, strong arms and good mobility to control his opponents when pass blocking. As a run blocker, he's strong and physical, at his best when driving defensive ends off the ball.
Here we can see Matthews in action against LSU's terrific defensive front, featuring three players who were drafted last April:
With a year at left tackle (and against SEC pass rushers) in the books, Matthews should answer any questions about his ability to succeed against NFL edge rushers and will almost certainly be drafted in the top ten picks.
After the big three, who is likely to round out the first two days at the position? Here is the next tier of candidates. Before we proceed, I should note that there are several bigger named buys not on the list. That's because they project solely as left tackle - players like Tennessee's JuWuan James and Chaz Green of Florida fall into this category - or because they project to play guard in the NFL, due to athletic limitations or the dreaded Phil Costa syndrome, with short arms. Baylor's Cyril Richardson, the Gators' Tyler Moore and Notre Dame's Zack Martin number among the movers. Okay, here goes:
David Yankey, Stanford (6'5", 311): After starting 13 games at left guard during Andrew Luck's final season at Stanford, Yankey moved to left tackle in 2012 and established himself as the premier offensive lineman in the Pac-12. He started all 14 games at left tackle, but he also saw time at three other positions along the offensive line, even lining up as a tight end.
That was enough to earn him consensus All-American nods as well as Morris Trophy, given to the Pac-12's Outstanding Offensive Lineman (and voted on by the conference's defensive linemen). As these awards and his history suggest, Yankey is not only dominant but also highly versatile, with the potential of offer a balanced game as a solid run-blocker and a reliable pass-protector. Here he is facing off against Wisconsin in Stanford's recent Rose Bowl victory:
At Stanford, Yankey has received superb coaching, which will benefit him come draft time and help to ease his transition into a successful NFL player.
*Antonio Richardson, Tennessee (6-6, 332): As the Alabama coaches did with Kouandijo, the Tennessee coaching staff was enamored enough with Richardson's upside that they moved a quality left tackle prospect, recent third-round draftee Dallas Thomas, inside to guard to integrate Richardson into the starting lineup.
Its easy to see why: Richardson moves extremely fluidly for a 6-6, 335-pound man (he played some at fullback as a freshman in 2011), neutralizing speed rushers with his long arms and surprisingly quick feet. And some of Richardsn's biggest successes came against top competition. He nearly shut out Georgia's Jarvis Jones (no sacks and only half a tackle), who became extremely frustrated as the game wore on. Like Lewan, Richardson also held his own going against South Carolina's Clowney.
Here he is in SEC action against Florida:
Richardson is still a work in progress, but if he can use his junior campaign to hone his impressive physical tools, he'll hear his name called early next
James Hurst, North Carolina (6-7, 305): Hurst came to Chapel Hill as a five-star recruit, and was a freshman sensation in 2010, starting twelve games at left tackle and earning Freshman All-American honors. He added thirteen starts the following campaign and, in 2012, he and top-ten pick Jonathan Cooper formed a formidable left side of the Tar Heels' offensive line. For his work, Hurst was awarded First Team All-Atlantic Coast Conference laurels.
Hurst excellent length to go along with good athleticism. He has the size and natural athleticism to hold his own on an island but, because he's not an elite athlete, needs to continue and develop his footwork and technique. Its likely he will succeed, as he is said to be extremely intelligent; Hurst is the kind of player who always knows his and other players' assignments, and shows leadership by directing his teammates accordingly. Indeed, Cooper has said that Hurst was instrumental to his collegiate success.
Want some tape? How about the Heels' tilt against Virginia Tech?
Seantrel Henderson, Miami, FL (6'8", 345): Three years ago, Henderson was a five-star high school recruit and widely believed to be one of the best offensive linemen to enter the college ranks in recent years. Henderson chose to play at Southern Cal, but changed his mind once the Trojans were slapped with a two-year postseason ban, deciding instead to enroll at Miami. He started nine games as a true freshman at right tackle for the Hurricanes, earning Freshman All-American honors.
After being suspended for the season opener in 2011 for violation of team rules and missing several other games because of offseason back surgery, Henderson started only a pair of games, both at right tackle. His 2012 season was similarly fraught; in August, Henderson was involved in a car accident in which two children were injured; he was cited for driving with an expired license and running a red light. Henderson missed the first twelve Miami Hurricane practices while recovering from the concussion. Eventually, he started seven games at right tackle and received an All-ACC honorable mention nod.
Henderson is a tough prospect to project right now. On one hand, he is extremely talented for a player of his size and strength. He's a mountain of a man (he may well be the largest player in all of football) and has enough foot quickness to hold his own on the edge. On the other, that potential hasn't necessarily translated to the field. So, he must become much more football-focused before NFL scouts will consider him to be a first-round player.
Morgan Moses, Virginia (6'6", 325): Moses was regarded as one of the top offensive tackle recruits out of high school and committed to Virginia, but didn't qualify academically. After honing his grades at a prep academy, he recommitted to the Cavaliers in 2010, starting seven games as a true freshman (six at right tackle, one at right guard). He moved to right tackle full-time in 2011 as a sophomore, starting all 13 games. In 2012, he earned All-ACC accolades for his work.
Similar to Matthews' situation at Texas A&M, Moses spent the last two seasons as the bookend tackle to Oday Aboushi, who was selected by the Jets in April. In 2013, Moses will slide over to left tackle, where he'll get to showcase his pass blocking skills against his conference's top edge rushers.
Moses has impressive size and is a very solid run blocker, but will need to improve his overall game, particularly his pass protection. Moses likes to use his limbs to get his hands on defenders and take them wherever he wants, but needs to continue and refine his technique. If he continues to develop while staying in shape, Moses will be an attractive blocker for the next level. The nagging question is whether or not he has quick enough feet to play NFL left tackle in the NFL? My guess is that he doesn't and that he'll project to right tackle or have to move inside to guard.
*Cameron Erving, Florida State (6'6", 301): In the Spring of 2012, the Florida State coaching staff converted Erving to offensive tackle after a couple of undistinguished years on the defensive line. He had missed the 2010 season with a back injury, backed up recent draftee (and Cowboys favorite) Everett Dawkins in 2011 and, suddenly, in 2012, was forming a nice one-two punch with Menelik Watson.
As might be imagined, Erving needs to continue to work on his kick slide and blocking fundamentals. But he is extremely athletic for his size, and moves his feet to deal with rushers easily. You can see technique flaws, but also a game-to-game improvement. Erving could develop into a top-five pick if he keeps progressing like this -although that would probably necessitate his staying through his final season of eligibility in 2014.
Other names to watch:
Cornelius Lucas, Kansas State (6'8", 325): After redshirting in 2009 with the Wildcats and playing in 12 games as a reserve lineman in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Lucas took over as Kansas State's left tackle in 2012 and flourished, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors. Another season like that will earn him scouts' close attention come draft season.
Austin Wentworth, Fresno State (6'5", 299): Wentworth has started 26 straight games for the Bulldogs and, in 2012 was the cornerstone of an offensive line that protected a 4,000-yard passer and opened holes for a running back who had nine 100-yard games, earning First Team All-Mountain West Conference honors. Moreover, he's schooled in a fast-paced, no huddle, spread offense.
Jack Mewhort, Ohio State (6'7", 308): After starting at right guard in 2011, Mewhort took over Mike Adams as the left tackle for Ohio State last year and had a quality season, protecting Braxton Miller and opening up holes in the ground game. Mewhort has nice power and length, but could be a better fit as a right tackle in the NFL. And he's an RKG: Urban Meyer announced this Spring that Mewhort will be one of the team's captains in 2013.
Ryan Groy, Wisconsin (6'5", 318): Call this the "Longball special." Drafttek's resident O-line guru told me to watch out for the latest in the strong lineage of Badgers offensive lineman. The versatile Groy has started at center, guard and even at fullback and is the likely candidate to replace departed LT Ricky Wagner. If he can be as productive at the left tackle spot as he has been for the Badgers all along the line, Groy has a shot at becoming another high-round draft pick for Wisconsin.
Jake Olson, Central Michigan (6-8, 305): Recent NFL offensive line draftees from Central Michigan include Joe Staley and Eric Fisher, so Olsen is following in some big footsteps. By all indications, however, he's up for the challenge...if he can stay healthy. Olson's most notable statistic is 23 - the number of games he's lost to injury the past three years.
There you go, folks - a heapin' helpin' of Big Uglies. Any names (aside from the "big three") strike your fancy? Any you'd want the Cowboys to avoid at all costs? Hit the comments section and be heard!