NFL Draft: Top OTs took different path to same destination
By Frank Cooney |
April 23, 2014 11:00 am ET

Offensive tackles Greg Robinson of Auburn and Jake Matthews of Texas A&M took conspicuously different paths to arrive at approximately the same place when the NFL draft begins May 8 in New York.

They are both expected to be among the top 10 players, if not the top five, selected in the 2014 NFL Draft. Robinson, although only a redshirt sophomore, is rated No. 2 overall by Matthews played out his full college career and is rated No. 5.

They are very good players. And that is pretty much where the similarity ends.

Matthews is steeped in NFL history, part of a rich, glorious family heritage that goes back three generations and is still expanding across the country.

Robinson is stepping into NFL history as a brave pioneer from a family that has no rich or glorious football history and, in fact, his mother could not afford to attend his final game at Auburn -- the 2014 BCS Championship game.

Matthews is soon to become one of six family members drafted in the NFL, including his Hall of Fame father. On the field, he is obviously the result of nature and nurture, performing with clinical precision and technique and he is expected to move gracefully into the NFL as a young star.

St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead noted all this at the player's pro day workout.

"Just in the workout today, you can tell that the guy probably was in the crib doing this stuff and did it at the dinner table, it comes so natural to him," Snead said. "He knows what to expect at the next level, because his dad's played in it, coached in it, so he'll be able to handle all the weather that comes with the high-pressure job on the offensive line."

Robinson, whose father died in 2012, is trying to be the savior for a family in which his mom has seven children, including three in deep trouble with the law.

This family is still seeking stability after being rousted from its Houma, La. home when Robinson was 11, when they were evacuated to Houston. Two years later they returned to salvage what they could.

"When we got back, some of our things had been destroyed," he said. "But we packed just about everything we had. I didn't have much."

One byproduct of the Katrina drama was that Robinson says he began to eat a lot, and grow a lot.

Now, against all odds, Robinson also has scouts mentioning Hall of Fame players in trying to find a comparison to his superhuman skill set. However, their names are whispered only because Robinson sometimes shows rare, but raw, abilities that are reminiscent of the best ever to play. He startles, even scares, defenders and shocks scouts with brute strength and surprising athleticism.

Perhaps more scary is that his game is far from refined and he knows it. But because college football can't even help pay for his mother to see his games, Robinson opted to go pro this year.

"I'm not at full potential right now, I still have a lot to go," Robinson admits. "I started last year as my first season starting. The guys they have ahead of me like Jake Matthews, he started since he was a freshman. That's just something I feel I need to prove.

"It's basically the financial situation back home, I didn't come from much. I told my mom I was going to go back and get my degree, but when the NFL draft board advisory committee came back with a good grade, it made my decision easier."

Matthews is part of a genealogical phenomenon featuring family bloodlines in the NFL that date back to his grandfather, offensive tackle/linebacker William Clay Sr., a 27th round draft pick of the San Francisco ***** (1949), who wrapped a four-year pro football career around a stint in the Korean War.

Grandad's various football-playing descendants include, from Jake's familial perspective (very deep breath):

--Uncles William Clay Matthews Jr., a linebacker and former first round pick of the Cleveland Browns (First round, No. 12 overall, 1978) who spent 19 years in the NFL.

--Cousins Clay Matthews III, linebacker for the Green Bay Packers (First round, No. 26 overall, 2009), linebacker Casey Matthews of the Philadelphia Eagles (A mere fourth round pick, 116th overall, 2011); Austin Niklas, s 2012 graduate undrafted, unsigned linebacker from the Air Force and his brother Troy Niklas, a tight end at Notre Dame and underclassman projected as a second-round prospect in this draft.

--Siblings are brothers Kevin, a center undrafted in 2010 but played for the Tennessee Titans until 2012 and returned to them as a coach last year after missing the Washington Redskins final cut, and Mike, current starting center for Texas A&M (and already rated by those prophets at as the No. 1 of 79 centers scheduled to be eligible for the 2016 draft if they wait that long).

--Finally, there is Bruce Matthews, son of the original William Clay, brother of William Clay Jr. and father to Kevin, Mike and Jake -- remember him?

Bruce, a dominant and versatile offensive lineman, set the Matthews' bar highest, first being drafted No. 9 overall by the Houston Oilers in 1978, then with ten selections as an All-Pro, a record-tying 14 times on the Pro Bowl roster and, ultimately, induction into to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

So Jake is fully expected to be the sixth Matthews family member drafted, possibly the fourth first-rounder and perhaps the highest of them all, including dad. Cousin Troy Niklas could follow as the seventh Matthews offspring drafted, possibly in the second round, and assuming they both sign, that would bring the family total to eight Matthews getting into the NFL.

Jake is 6-foot-6, 308 pounds and maximizes his physical ability with a display of well-honed techniques reminiscent of those used by his Hall of Fame father, who could and did play every positions along the offensive line. Jake can do that and is even impressive as a snapper.

"I'd like to think I wasn't grandfathered in," he offered as a pun against his high expectations. "I hope I earned my way here. It is special the family I came from and the relationships I have with my dad and cousins and brothers who have gone through this process. So that's really special and something."

For Robinson, refined technique is something for the future. He literally runs roughshod over opponents with sheer strength that almost humiliates even the best defenders.

"He just totally dominates people like a man against children and he is only 21 years old himself," observed teammate Dee Ford, an Auburn defensive end expected to be a first-round pick in this draft.

Robinson took his responsibility for his family even more seriously after his father, Greg Blackledge, died two years ago. In an interview with Chicago reporter Dan Pompei, Robinson said his mother, who works multiple jobs as a nurse's assistant, asked him for money and he needed to borrow it from teammates.

So he is going to work to pay back debts, help fix up his mother's home, pay for the college educations of his two younger siblings and help four others, including Jamaha Robinson, who is expected to be released soon from his 15-year prison term, and Joshua Robinson, who also spent time for selling drugs.

"That's the norm where I come from," Greg Robinson said.

He wants to overcome that norm with his own abilities, which are anything but normal.

His startling game performances were quantified at the Indianapolis combine where, at 6-foot-5, 332 pounds his announced time in 40 yards was 4.92 seconds, but his best time was 4.85 seconds, which is astounding for a huge offensive lineman. Only two years ago, at 315 pounds, he was still doing backflips.

But now, as a big strong offensive linemen, it is also important that he can hoist 225 pounds 32 times on the bench.

He was just as impressive during interviews at the combine, where scouts and coaches admittedly tried to rattle him by showing some of his worst plays of the season.

But he was just as impressive performance during interviews interviews at the combine, where scouts and coaches admittedly tried to rattle him by showing some of his worst plays of the season.

"He didn't make excuses," offered one scout. "He said, 'those were bad plays, but they were early in the game, early in the season and if you look further you will see I learned and didn't repeat them. I don't know what my potential is, but I know I haven't reached it.'"

"He is totally right," said Ford, his teammate. "And that should make NFL opponents scared. Very scared."