Even in the Draft, There’s No Safe Way to Tackle
A cautionary tale for what used to be far more of a sure thing: picking an offensive tackle high in the NFL draft.
Look at this list of tackles picked in the top 10 of NFL drafts between 1995 and 2000:
• Tony Boselli, 1995, Jacksonville.
• Jonathan Ogden, 1996, Baltimore.
• Orlando Pace, 1997, St. Louis.
• Walter Jones, 1997, Seattle.
• Kyle Turley, 1998, New Orleans.
• Chris Samuels, 2000, Washington.
Three Hall of Famers (Ogden, Jones, Pace), a fourth (Boselli) who may one day be a Hall of Famer, and two former first-team all-pros (Samuels, Turley). Six for six. Every one was a top player at his position. That is a stunning run of success at any position.
But now, at a time when the tackle position is under such scrutiny, you can’t say the same thing about the men picked to be edge defenders in the past 10 years. In fact, it’s scary how bad teams have been at trying to forecast players to keep the quarterback clean, as Tennessee GM Jon Robinson is trying to do entering this year’s draft. There’s a prospect at tackle worthy of No. 1 consideration—Mississippi tackle Laremy Tunsil—and he’ll be considered because he’s the only stud tackle in the draft and because the Titans gave up more sacks than any team in football last year.
Buyer beware. That’s about all I can say to Robinson. And here are three things the Titans rookie GM will have to consider about picking a tackle high this year:
1. Recent history is very ugly. In the past 10 years, there have been five tackles chosen either first or second overall. Above-average starting tackles today among those five: zero. Jake Long (2008) is a backup in Atlanta now after two major knee surgeries. Jason Smith (2009) failed with the Rams, in part because of a severe concussion, and is out of football. Eric Fisher (2013) is improving, but was Pro Football Focus’ 39th-rated tackle last year; Luke Joeckel (2013) continued to struggle in Jacksonville and was rated 52nd. Greg Robinson of the Rams (2014) was 73rd of PFF’s 76 rated tackles last fall.
2. The odds of picking even a good tackle very high are long. Of the 17 tackles picked in the top 10 since 2005, only three were ever first-team all-pro. Cleveland’s Joe Thomas and Dallas’ Tyron Smith are the only current starters who have been so honored, while Jake Long earned one first-team nod in Miami. Now, obviously only one left tackle per year can be named first-team all-pro, and when you draft one of these players high you expect him to be a blind-side protector on the left side. But only four of the 17 ranked in PFF’s top 20 of tackles for the 2015 season play on that side: Smith, Thomas, Trent Williams of Washington and Jake Matthews of Atlanta. Lane Johnson in Philadelphia is a good player. D’Brickashaw Ferguson was very good in mid-career but has fallen off some now. Russell Okung likely will be allowed to walk in free agency by Seattle after a mediocre run.
3. The modern top-pick tackles can’t match the quickness of the perimeter rushers, from the looks of this post-season. I watched some Tunsil tape on YouTube the other day. He’s powerful and fairly athletic. I am not sure he’ll be able to keep the elite edge rushers at bay. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for those judging him.
A couple of points to consider about judging tackles. Because most colleges are playing pretty simplistic spread schemes in which the linemen don’t have to do much adjusting or reading, the tackles entering the NFL have an adjustment period that’s longer than it used to be. One team studying tackles last year said the top tackle on their board had, essentially, one man to block on every passing snap—unless that man stunted to a spot two gaps away. Basically, this tackle had the wide guy on every pass-rush. Sometimes in the NFL, obviously, it’s not that simple.
The other point: Endurance and fast-paced play-calling have become staples of the top college tackle; that’s been prioritized in many programs over technique and strength and how to adjust on the fly against a varied rush. What you saw Wade Phillips and the Broncos do in the post-season was key on the matchups he felt were huge edges for his defense. Can there be any argument that Von Miller versus Carolina right tackle Mike Remmers was the downfall of Carolina in the Super Bowl—and Miller using speed mostly but also power and inside moves? And can there be any argument that Phillips found more than just Miller to wreak havoc on the Patriots in the AFC title game, when the most plodding New England tackles (such as Marcus Cannon) were continually exposed by speed?
In the NFL today, the pass-rushers are ahead of the edge protectors. Teams will be trying to turn that around in the draft this year. My advice: Look for power-forward tackles, the Jonathan Ogden types, instead of the mashers. Because the game has turned into stopping the speed on the defensive edge. That’s how Denver won the Super Bowl. Problem is, the draft hasn’t stopped this edge speed yet, and as the combine kicks off in Indianapolis, the most important factor for the Tunsil-led tackle prospects is whether they can keep the speed on the edge and out of the backfield.
Now for your email.
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ON PATRIOTS DRAFT PICKS
Peter, happy you wrote this, but what took you so long? The balls simply were not deflated. We've known that for months. NFL was all lies.
I always felt that we were going to find out whether the story was true or false based on the NFL’s testing of the footballs this year. I, like most people, assumed the NFL was doing PSI tests to see if it was reasonable to infer that the average amount of air pressure lost in Patriots footballs during the AFC title game (1.2 pounds per square inch, on average) would be normal or abnormal. There was certainly enough science out there to suggest that that amount of lost pressure could be explained. Then the NFL decided not to test to get those results; either that or the league did those tests and simply did not release them and then said afterward that the tests were never intended for any sort of scientific data collection. That’s when I determined the NFL deserved to be criticized for its approach in this case and that the Patriots deserved to get back their picks. My column was written two-and-a-half weeks after we found out about why the league did those tests. And until I was sure about that aspect of the story, I didn’t think there was enough damning proof to write that the Patriots should definitely get their draft choices back.
DON’T FORGET ‘98 BRONCOS DEFENSE
John Elway should know how important a great defense is to winning a title. The 1998 Broncos defense is an oft-forgotten group that had a postseason to rival many on your list and helped Elway win his second title. The defense only gave up 25 points (two TDs and four FGs) over three games during their playoff run. They went up against Dan Marino, Vinny Testaverde and Chris Chandler with the latter two guiding Top-5 offenses that season. Do you think Atwater, Romanowski, Pryce, and Neil Smith deserve similar kudos as some of the defensive squads on your list?
—Josh, Rochester, N.Y.
That was an outstanding defense that postseason. I could have included several other defenses on that list, and I don’t believe necessarily that those are the best six defenses of the past 30 years. I simply was making an example of two things. One: Denver might have faced the best trio of quarterbacks of any team in the past 30 years in the postseason. And two: When you are in the moment, it’s easy to say that this defense belongs in the discussion with the greatest in postseason history. I don’t necessarily think it’s a mistake to do that. But understand that it is almost impossible to suggest that this defense is on par with the 1985 Bears or the 2000 Ravens. You can compare them, but I don’t know anyone who would say that this Denver defense is equivalent to those.
GOODELL’S CEO SALARY
I'm sure this food for thought will be heavily discounted regarding Roger Goodell's $34 million salary. But consider that Goodell is in essence the CEO of the NFL. Let's call the team owners pseudo-presidents or VPs of the league, and the Tom Bradys are the employees. Knowing today's corporate structure, a CEO making $34M wouldn't faze anyone, especially considering the size of the NFL's revenue/budget.
—Dave, Boise, Idaho
Roger Goodell has presided over a time of tremendous growth in the NFL. Whether the league pays him $10 million, $34 million, or $100 million, you certainly could justify that based on the runaway success of the league. If the average revenue per team in the NFL is somewhere in the neighborhood of $275-300 million, no one would say that the leader of the overall business didn’t deserve to make a small percentage of that per team. My point basically was about the optics of it. In a year when the NFL was under attack from all sides—women's groups, the medical community, politicians, its own players—in the wake of the Ray Rice ordeal and other major gaffes, paying Roger Goodell two-and-a-half times the compensation of the game’s best player, seems tone deaf to me. There’s a very good chance that we will never agree on what is fair compensation for any business executive in our society. I just think that Goodell and the compensation committee responsible for what he makes, aren’t doing themselves any favors by having such a huge compensation package in this day and age.
ON PATS DRAFT PICK SANCTIONS
Is Goodell the only one with the power to restore the picks? And why did Kraft fold so quickly on that issue last year? If he truly stood by his players and staff, then he should have fought the battle to keep his draft picks as well. And if the second hearing regarding Brady's involvement with Deflategate results in a judgment in Brady's favor and therefore no suspension, shouldn't the commissioner be forced to give the picks back? It makes no sense otherwise.
—Thomas S, Atlanta
The answer to your questions: A) Yes, Goodell is the only one who could make this decision. B) Kraft is a conciliator. He is a deal-maker. He thought for the good of the league that by dropping any claim for appeal, he would be showing the league that he is a good team player. And perhaps, it would be taken into account in either the appeal by Brady or by the league simply realizing that it may have erred with the severity of the penalties. C) One would think that two court rulings both in favor of Brady and the Patriots would result in the league dropping the punishment. But there is nothing in the NFL’s bylaws that says if they lose in a U.S. courtroom that the commissioner must overturn the sanctions. Judge Richard Berman, who issued the original pro-Brady ruling last September, has had his decisions overturned by this appeals court only eight percent of the time, according to SI.com’s Michael McCann. But even if Brady’s suspension continues to be overturned and he misses no games, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the league will give back the picks and the $1 million fine.
IS THERE A SILVER LINING?
I agree that the NFL over-reached in taking away the picks. However, is there a silver lining here? A first-round pick is more expensive and always a risk. Does this free up money that the Pats can use in free agency on known talent? Maybe I’m just hoping against hope, but what do you think?
The Patriots don’t generally spend very much money in high-priced free agency, preferring to build their roster through the draft and low-cost free agency. The 29th pick in any draft should be a cornerstone player for your team for the next several years and at a reasonable cost. I understand that Patriots fans have come to expect that Belichick and the scouting staff will find players regardless of the obstacles. Still, as I wrote Monday, New England over two years is being penalized the equivalent of two starters out of 22 on a consistent premier NFL team. That is a humongous price to pay for any scandal, never mind a very minor league one such as this.
FACTOID OF THE WEEK: REGGIE WHITE ADDITION
When comparing Allen, Taylor, and Smith in sacks, all great players, don’t forget that in at least one five-year stretch Reggie White had 82 sacks, 1986-90.
Thanks for pointing that out. My note was simply to say that Jared Allen was not simply a meteor across the NFL sky who had one or two great years. He was a consistently dangerous edge rusher, comparable to the best who have ever done that.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED: MARIOTA EDITION
Any chance you end up doing a piece on Mariota, similar to the Winston one?
It’s possible. I would enjoy doing it, and I definitely will consider it. Thanks for suggestion.
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