Left Offensive Tackles
Didja miss me??? Come on, make me feel important – it’s that time of year again when old Long Ball pulls out his “cheaters” (reading glasses for you young ‘uns) and squints at the prospects that really make things happen in a football game: the Big Uglies! As I am extremely fond of saying, my philosophy has always been that I don’t care if you run a pro-style formation, shot-gun, run-and-shoot, Wildcat (single-wing) or the wishbone . . . . if my big guys whip your big guys, I’m gonna win!
Now don’t be surprised if my personal rankings don’t necessarily fall in line with the Big Board (even though I am responsible for the Big Board LOL!) Let’s start with the high-dollar position of offensive tackle – you know the drill, click and read . . . .
Developing NFL offensive linemen is normally a 2-3 year process – many players’ first starting opportunity is at a position they will not remain, i.e. future LT’s may start at RT, future RT’s may start at OG, etc. In some instances, a college offensive tackle may struggle in space in the pros, leading to an inside move.
Left tackles are coveted for their ability to protect a QB’s blind-side (given the limited number of left-handed QB’s in the NFL) and must be able to block the opponent’s best pass-rusher, who normally exhibits both speed and power in their respective pass-rush moves. As these athletes’ values are normally quite high among NFL talent evaluators, Drafttek chose this year to differentiate between Left Offensive Tackles (LOT) and Right Offensive Tackles (ROT) – keep in mind as we go through this evaluation process that many of these prospects would be quite capable of manning either position.
Although the top-end quality of this OL draft class may not equal that of last year, this class more than makes up for it in depth (is that a way of saying this year’s Big Uglies series may be more long-winded than last year???)
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Anthony Castonzo of Boston College could be the best LOT from this year’s draft class 2 years from now. At 6’7” and 311 lbs, he will benefit immensely from an NFL weight training program on his lower body, building up his butt and thighs for more effective utilization of leverage. He may be the most “NFL-Ready” technician with excellent footwork and long arms among the OL prospects, a bit of a mean streak and is beneficiary of superior OL coaching from Boston College as a 4 year starter (the last 2 at LOT).
From the beginning of his career at Boston College, Castonzo was something special – in the 2007 season, he was the first true freshman to start on the Eagles offensive line in over a decade. Castonzo started at right tackle that season and was a big part in Matt Ryan's record setting final season at BC. By his sophomore season, Castonzo moved to the left side to help protect the less experienced quarterbacks that were to follow Ryan. The offensive line was only credited with giving up 21 sacks. In 2009 Castonzo was paving the way for running back Montel Harris to have a breakout year. The Eagles had a rough season in 2010 but not due to Castonzo, who continued to perform.
Castonzo is Italian for “fundamentals” – he is a good run-blocker with the athleticism to get to the next level and may be even more effective at maintaining his leverage on the move (which is rare). He is nimble on his feet, allowing him to pull and trap well, moves laterally and exhibits an excellent kick-step to set up quickly in pass protection. Does a nice job sitting into his stance off the snap and is very comfortable playing from a three-point stance. Although he does an adequate job in sustaining and controlling defenders on his blocks, Castonzo needs to improve his strength and initial hand punch. He will excel in either scheme, but his intelligence makes him a prime candidate for a zone blocking scheme.
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An underclassmen who may have the highest ceiling of any prospect at this position is Tyron Smith of USC. There is no questioning this young man’s athleticism but there were questions about his maturity (20 years old) and lack of size (6’5” 285 lbs at USC); however, he showed up at the Combine a chiseled 307 lbs, 11” hands (“the better to grab you with, my dear”) and 36-3/8” arms that pumped out 29 reps. Yes, there are still many hours in the weight room ahead and I would have liked to see him stay in school one more year – but then again, I don’t pay his bills. USC played Smith at ROT, but he is a natural fit to slide to LOT in the NFL. His athleticism would be perfect for a zone blocking scheme, but he has the upside to play left tackle in most any offense.
Smith’s long arms allow him to effectively control defenders in pass blocking. He has an excellent kick step to his right, but will have to prove he can effectively do this on the left side. His initial punch is not overly dominating at the point of attack, but time in the weight room should cure that. He is also a little inconsistent and a bit wide with his hand placement, which can allow a defender to get into his body. Smith is most effective against speed rushers and uses his athleticism to maintain the edge well. He is a natural bender who dips low in his stance and has great fluidity for a big man. He can be overaggressive at times, but that mainly comes from lack of experience.
In run blocking, Smith is light on his feet and gets to the second level well. He finishes his blocks, gets excellent leg drive, and never quits on a play. His balance allows him to look natural on the edge in lead blocking. He is a little inconsistent in his initial movement off the ball and plays too high in the running game. Smith played in a pro-style zone blocking scheme under respected line coaches Pat Ruel and James Cregg and should be able to adapt to any scheme.
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The most “ambidextrous” LOT could be Derek Sherrod of Mississippi State – his lower body is a tad more developed at this point than Castonzo (6’5”, 321 lbs) and what he may lack in technique (compared to Castonzo), he makes up for in pure athleticism. Depending on what team drafts him, he might start at ROT initially as he was the key to a Mississippi State rushing attack that has been near the top of the SEC in the last two years. He was extremely impressive during Senior Bowl week.
Of all the tackles during Senior Bowl week, Sherrod seemed to stay (and play) most within himself. He stands with a wide base, adjusts well to the blocker in front of him, down-blocks well, and does a great job of getting upfield to take on linebackers -- this may be his best trait. He's outstanding in space and has a specific anatomical advantage (being able to stay low). Although he has the long arms you want in an NFL tackle, his height also allows him to play with a lower base and gain the "explosion advantage" (getting under the defender's pads before he gets under yours) on a regular basis.
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Many talent evaluators have Nate Solder of Colorado ranked higher than old Long Ball – but maybe they haven’t watched and graded as many of the Buffalos games as I have. Even though Solder is taller than other LOT prospects (6’8”, 319 lbs), his arms are a full inch shorter – but that doesn’t keep him from holding. Colorado ran a spread offense which allowed him to utilize his mass in “shielding” type blocks – Solder is a “waist-bender” and plays too tall, which limits his leverage and balance.
Solder did his high school work at tight end and linebacker, gaining 30 pounds in 2008 and moving from tight end to tackle in spring practice for the Buffaloes. Of all the draft-eligible tackles I've studied this season, Solder has the furthest to go from a technique standpoint. With his frame, he engulfed defenders at the college level without utilizing proper footwork and that won’t cut it at the NFL level. While Solder's footwork puts him in place to succeed -- especially at the second level -- he lurches and chases during pass protection, especially in the back half of a pass rush. He loses the battle to inside moves by edge rushers due to a pronounced outside step. He doesn't always stay engaged while run blocking, as he will slide off defenders when he's trying to get a push inside. He's also going to have a problem with quicker and more talented NFL ends getting under his pads (if it happened in college, it will happen at the next level).
Solder does exhibit agility moving forward – he will probably be more successful in a zone blocking scheme due to his quickness and ability to get to the next level. However, a team that requires pure power (not defined as 21 Combine reps) and advanced technique will find that he needs to be “coached up” and will be a work in progress. (Update: Solder weighed 307 at Colorado's Pro Day, 12 lbs down from his Combine weight - this may concern teams wondering if he could add or maintain his weight during the season.)
Gabe Carimi of Wisconsin and Jason Pinkston of Pittsburgh can play LOT and be long-time pros; however, I will discuss their specifics at ROT and OG, respectively, positions where I think they could become Pro Bowl players.
Those are the top-line, no-brainer prospects that you have all heard of – let’s dig a little deeper and see what pearls we can pull out of the oyster patch.
James Carpenter of Alabama (6’4”, 321 lbs) displayed better footwork than I expected at the Senior Bowl practices, but DeMarcus Love of Arkansas (6’4” 315 lbs) seemed overwhelmed – both may have to go to the right side or inside to OG. But let’s explore a couple of prospects that actually may play LOT in the NFL . . .
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I want to see more of Chris Hairston of Clemson (6’6”, 326 lbs) . . . maybe not the greatest body, but only allowed 1 sack his senior season and graded out over 89% for the season (with multiple “pancakes”). The two-time All-ACC left tackle has the frame and quick feet to develop, but is in need of a quality personal trainer who can redistribute his body mass to help him play lower and with better technique. Without better knee-bend, Hairston may struggle at the next level. A three-year starter at left tackle for the Tigers, Hairston has a massive frame with quick feet, is agile for his size, and exhibits good lateral agility. Can run and hit second-level targets. Extends his arms, has a good initial punch (power is no problem with 33 Combine reps) with excellent hand placement and can slide his feet in pass protection. Yep, he may end up at ROT, but old Long Ball hasn’t given up on him yet!
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But my dark horse from a small school is Curt Porter of Jacksonville State (6’7”, 315 lbs) – an ungodly wingspan and one of the best kick-steps in pass protection I have seen on tape. Porter has started at LOT since his sophomore season, graded out at 91% for last season and recorded 93 knockdowns and 55 “pancakes”.
Whew!!! Are ya ready to line up opposite Dwight Freeney and try to keep from rocking back on your heels??? That takes care of this first post covering LOT prospects . . . on my next segment, we’ll go over to the other side of the line and analyze the ROT prospects.