Today we begin our look at offensive line prospects by measuring the offensive tackle crop.
"Tremendous size. Huge wingspan (his arms are almost 37 inches long) and big, strong hands. Getting around this man when he extends his arms and plays with technique is like circumventing the globe. Has good feet and remarkable athleticism for a big man. Is so fluid and flexible that he does things effortlessly at times. Powerful and can be a road grader-type blocker at times. Shut out Illinois' Simeon Rice in a sophomore season game...showed he has courage and will play hurt."
-- Joel Buchsbaum, 1998 Draft Preview, review of Flozell Adams
He's a Cowboy many fans love to hate. No, that's not right. He's the Cowboy whose penalties fans love to hate. His writeup also lays out some of the prototype qualities of a left tackle. The team wants a lineman with power on the edge, to anchor against bull rushes, to generate pop in the run game and to cut off speed rushers.
A LT also requires quickness, to mirror the speedy left tackles. Just as important, left tackle requires intelligence and mental toughness. This player often blocks on the proverbial island and he must be able to read stunts and adjust. Mental errors at this spot can get the team's quarterback splattered. The player must also have a short memory. If he's beaten, and he'll lose some battles going against the league's best edge rushers, he has to shake off the bad play and reset mentally -- and quickly.
For all the abuse Adams takes, he's ticked off every one of these qualities when healthy. He has erased most of the elite rushers he's faced in recent years. Name one NFC East end who has had his number. Osi Umenyiora can't make that claim. Nor can Trent Cole. Brian Orakpo didn't make much noise last year. Yet, Adams' game has frayed. The Saints Will Smith beat him in the Superdome this year. Adams' deficient hearing in his right ear has always made his road play suspect.
Many Dallas fans appear ready to move to the post-Flozell world, but I wonder if this year's OT crop will provide a high-round replacement? A closer look suggests Adams' heir may already be in house.
Third year OT Doug Free finally answered some big questions with his right tackle play in November and December. Free looked like a fourth-round steal in '07, working with then OL coach Tony Sparano. He had smooth feet and would glide through his pass set drills. He lacked upper both strength, but it seemed only a matter of time before Joe Juraszek got Free into playing shape.
Free looked ragged at Oxnard last summer and failed to instill confidence in the coaches. He was inactive for every Cowboys '08 game. Last year, however, he made a push during camp, though he struggled a bit in the preseason finale at left tackle. When Marc Colombo broke his leg in Green Bay, Free entered and provided solid protection for Tony Romo. He made a highlight block on a Felix Jones toss play in the season finale against the Eagles, running far across the field to take out a Philly secondary player.
Free has the feet to play left tackle. He lacks the point of attack pop Adams possesses, and which Cowboys fans have come to take for granted, but Free has definitely improved his strength. He has added eight pounds of muscle since he was drafted and looks far more defined in his arms. He's 313 lbs now and appears far more prepared physically to step in on the blind side.
The Cowboys may also have another right tackle backup in second year player Robert Brewster. Brewster played right tackle spots on Ball State's top 25 '08 squad and started his Cowboys career there. He was being moved to left guard when he tore a pectoral muscle. He spent the year on the physically unable to perform list. Recently, Jerry Jones complemented his dedication and his conditioning. He dropped a lot of weight at Ball State, after starting his career at 360 lbs. He weighed 311 at last year's combine but is now up to 320 lbs. We can assume it's a much more muscular 320. (Weight are from the team's roster, and I've been informed that the team's weights are accurate.)
Brewster's development and future projections will determine where this team looks, in fact if it looks for a tackle this year. If he's projected as a competitor for the LG starting spot, a young RT may be in Dallas' early draft weekend plans.
I know what you're thinking -- what about left tackle? There are several names on the short lists, mostly Maryland OT Bruce Campbell and U. Mass prospect Vladimir Ducasse.
Both are possibilites, but I don't see them as likely ones, and the reason has more to do with the sudden value the NFL puts on OTs than on any lack of value the Cowboys place there.
Understand that Dallas looks at its first and second round picks as potential starters -- as rookies. Look at the list of top OTs and tell me, which ones would you feel comfortable playing from game one? We saw the Cowboys try this out of necessity with 7th rounder Rob Petitti in 2005 and the results were not pretty. This might explain why Dallas does not draft OTs in the first. The last high tackle pick it took who started at least ten games his rookie campaign -- and played well -- was Adams, back in '98.
Next, take that OT short list and then consider, which ones will still be on the board at pick 27 or late in the 2nd? Offensive tackle has become a glamour position lately. Between 2000 and 2007, 19 OTs were drafted in the first round. That's an average of just under 2.5 per year. Nearly all the prospects who could play LT immediately, the Chris Samuels, the Bryant McKinnies, the Joe Thomases, the Jake Longs, the Ryan Cladys, didn't past the first dozen or so selections.
There are a few you see in the late first and even the 2nd, who could play right tackle right away -- Colombo for the Bears in '02, Michael Oher for the Ravens and Phil Loadholt for the Vikings last year, but they are rare. The only 2nd round LTs to play right away were the Colts Tony Ugoh, who ultimately lost his starting job, and the Chargers Marcus McNeill, who dropped way down team boards because of concerns that he had a congenital back problem.
The last two years, twelve OTs have been taken in the first round. Eight were picked in '08. I have seen predictions that another five or six could go in the top 25 this year. One reason may be a better understanding of bust factors. WR, as I pointed out, is the riskiest offensive position to draft in the 1st. OT, as I will show later this week, has been the safest. With the demand for OTs remaining high, it seems teams are now forcing tackle picks. This in turn, may result in a drop in OT effectiveness in upcoming years. Two of the '08 1st rounders, Gosder Cherilus and Duane Brown, had 2nd or 3rd round grades on some boards.
A source I spoke to over the weekend, who has viewed tape on half of the top OT prospects this year told me that while he rated one of them much higher than the others, none of the three he viewed deserved first round grades. He was certain, nonetheless, that they would go high, because the position is now being over valued.
Given these factors, can you see an OT in Dallas' plans the first two rounds? Maybe if a Bruce Campbell falls to 27, and maybe if the Cowboys project him to RT very early in his career. Maybe if Ducasse is on the board in the 2nd, and the team projects him in a similar fashion, as an early adopter at RT.
Otherwise, I don't see fits. I can see lots of other players at other positions fitting the play-now profile, and I see the overall OT group rising again this year. Dallas may indeed go for offensive linemen in the 2nd or 3rd, but I see better odds of that happening at the interior line spots.
Tomorrow: OT bust factors and a look at the guard position.