There’s no mistaking an offensive tackle.
In a game populated by ginormous men, they are the most ginormous.
Defensive backs and receivers can be similar in stature. Tight ends and defensive ends can be cut from the same cloth. Heck, there are even some quarterbacks built like linebackers (remember Jim Kelly and Steve McNair?).
But there’s no mistaking offensive tackles.
Resembling mini-skyscrapers, they possess impressive height, width, and responsibility. While quarterbacks are the face of the franchise, offensive tackles are charged with keeping those faces pretty. And by any ugly means necessary.
Finding solid, reliable, and consistent tackles can be as difficult as finding game-changing quarterbacks. Perhaps even doubly so, because where once you needed a great wall of a protector to have your quarterback’s blind side, now you need two — or more.
“You always used to have that elite left tackle spot, but now the right tackle spot is really as important as the left tackle spot because of the way teams have multiple pass rushers coming after you from all different angles,’’ said ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.
“The game has changed from the way it was 5-10 years ago, so you have to have quality bookends, but you can develop those.’’
With the importance placed on the position, teams have a tendency to overvalue it and reach for players who aren’t ready to make the jump from college to the NFL, where blocking schemes and responsibilities are more sophisticated.
“Once you have the guy in that [quarterback] position, your whole goal in life is to find guys to protect him and guys to go after the other guy’s quarterback,’’ said ESPN draft expert Todd McShay. “It’s hard to find guys who are 6-5, 6-6, 310 pounds, with their length, that move the way they move.’’
In many college schemes — even the big programs — the tackle is asked to mark the rusher off the edge. In the NFL, the guy that appears to be coming off the edge on a presnap read can end up switching and stunting to an inside gap (think Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard). If the tackle doesn’t recognize this and adjust in a flash, it’s the quarterback who pays the price.
Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio touched on the subject when asked this week about evaluating draft targets.
“Some offensive linemen have never been in a three-point stance, so the number of times that they’re actually going to be in a three-point stance and have to run-block is going to be infinitely more [in the NFL] than they did in college,’’ he said.
“There are some programs, honest to God, that throw the ball 75 times per game. They’ve never run-blocked in their entire life, so they’re making a transition and they’re going to be asked to do things that they haven’t been asked to do before.’’
There are no guarantees at any position in the draft; there is an untold number of stories of surefire stars who flame out at every spot on the field. That’s been especially true of tackles — once considered the “safe pick” position in the draft — in recent years.
It used to be that when you drafted a tackle with a top 10 pick, he was a guaranteed cornerstone. Players such as Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, and Walter Jones were plugged in as rookies in the 1990s and served as rocks for years.
In the past 10 drafts, five tackles have gone either No. 1 or No. 2 overall, and with the exception of Jake Long in 2008, it’s been an underwhelming lot. And even Long, a mainstay with the Dolphins for several seasons, is now a reserve.
In 2009, the Rams selected Jason Smith, who was struggling even before concussion issues forced him out of the game. In 2013, the Chiefs took Eric Fisher at No. 1 and the Jaguars tapped Luke Joeckel with the next pick. In 2014, the Rams took Greg Robinson second overall. None of them are considered upper-echelon players, though they are young enough to change that opinion.
The uncertainty of a hit at the position may be one of the reasons the Titans traded this year’s top overall pick — long thought to be either Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil or Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley. The Tennessee brass just wasn’t convinced either was worth the No. 1 pick, despite the fact that team needs a tackle to protect franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota.
“Laremy Tunsil is probably the most physically gifted individual in this draft, but he has some things that scare you a little bit,’’ said McShay. “The durability issues and his infractions off the field are minor, but you start to wonder, ‘OK are we drafting a guy No. 1 overall or certainly in the top 10 that has never played an entire college season and now he’s got to go to the NFL, where there’s preseason games and 16 games in the regular season in a 17-week span and then maybe the playoffs. Is he going to be able to do that?’
“So that’s kind of what you study. Or do you take a guy like Ronnie Stanley, who’s been more consistent and isn’t quite as athletic?’’
With a quarterback now expected to be selected first overall, Tunsil and Stanley will have to battle it out to see who is the top tackle taken. They’re likely to be linked their entire careers – similar to the way quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz will be.
“Everybody wants to be the No. 1 pick,’’ said Tunsil. “Being the No. 1 pick would be great. I’d love to play for any team. That’s been my goal since I was a little kid, man, just to accomplish one of them goals, it would be great.’’
TRENT WILLIAMS, Oklahoma, No. 4 by Redskins
Comment: Four-time Pro Bowler is among the best in the business.
RUSSELL OKUNG, Oklahoma State, No. 6 by Seahawks
Comment: Super Bowl XLVIII champ just landed a controversial five-year megadeal with Denver — for zero guaranteed money.
TYRON SMITH, Southern Cal, No. 9 by Cowboys
Comment: Perennial Pro Bowler has started 79 of a possible 80 games in his five seasons.
MATT KALIL, Southern Cal, No. 4 by Vikings
Comment: Durable performer hasn’t missed a game as a pro and has earned one Pro Bowl invite.
ERIC FISHER, Iowa, No. 1 by Chiefs
Comment: Not an overly physical, dominant presence. And that’s not easy when you’re 6 feet 7 inches and 310 pounds.
LUKE JOECKEL, Texas A&M, No. 2 by Jaguars
Comment: Another underwhelming performer who has trouble with consistency and protecting his quarterback.
LANE JOHNSON, Oklahoma, No. 4 by Eagles
Comment: Strong and athletic, he’s among the best right tackles in the game. Just signed a six-year extension.
GREG ROBINSON, Auburn, No. 2 by Rams
Comment: Has yet to display the dominance he showed in the SEC. He’s powerful but lacks athleticism.
JAKE MATTHEWS, Texas A&M, No. 6 by Falcons
Comment: Son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, he’s proven to be quick, athletic, and durable.
BRANDON SCHERFF, Iowa, No. 5 by Redskins
Comment: A strong and sturdy building block, he started all 16 games last season.
ERECK FLOWERS, Miami, No. 9 by Giants
Comment: Athletic and quick, he was solid as a rookie and will be protecting Eli’s back for years to come.
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org