Offensive tackles take on more prominent role in NFL
April 9, 2009
By Greg Cosell

There is no question that left tackle has become a premium position in the NFL. Its emergence as a cornerstone was a direct consequence of the NFL's transition, proceeding rapidly through the 1990s and the first decade of the new century, to a quarterback-driven passing league, and the resulting response of defensive coordinators to break down the finely-tuned coordination of pass protection schemes, quarterback drops (3, 5 and 7 steps) and receiver route combinations.

We have seen how successful Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been in recent years (actually going back more than 20), with the conception of a simple idea, brilliantly executed: pressure the quarterback with as few rushers as possible so that you do not compromise coverage on the back end.

Of course, LeBeau is not the only one formulating such sophisticated pass-rush concepts. The general principle, although implemented differently throughout the league, has become the norm.

For the passing game to remain aggressive and proactive, rather than reactive to defensive pressure, it was imperative that offenses counter with as few blockers as possible.

A critical component to this was the left tackle.

The left tackle had to be able to work on an island, singularly neutralizing the opponent's best pass rusher. If he could not do that, then the offense would be forced to assign too many bodies to pass protection, limiting the options in the passing game. It would eventually have a domino effect, severely limiting the choices available to offensive play callers.

The impact of this evolution has been that left tackle is a pass-protection position, first and foremost. They are, with rare exceptions, drafted for that reason, and that reason alone.

One exception is Jake Long, who was drafted No. 1 overall by the Miami Dolphins last year. Long, although physical and nasty as a run blocker, was not prototypical as a pass protector. He was not a top athlete for the position. He was more mechanical and robotic than smooth and fluid. He was not naturally quick with his feet. He could not have survived in Denver, for instance, where fellow first-round pick Ryan Clady was asked to pass block play after play in a high percentage passing offense that featured 5 and 7 step drops.

Long would have been exposed in that system. Yet, he fit the tough, ornery profile Bill Parcells desired. And Long's value was enhanced, and his limitations minimized, when Chad Pennington became the quarterback.

The passing game accentuated short drops, and play action, both of which reduced the pass blocking responsibilities of Long. It was the perfect storm. It will be interesting to monitor's Long's growth and development as the Dolphins make the eventual transition from Pennington to Chad Henne, a strong armed passer whose skill set is a better match for an intermediate and vertical passing game with 5 and 7 step drops.

The point is that college left tackles must be evaluated with an understanding of how they best fit in the NFL, what kind of offensive system maximizes their strengths, while camouflaging their limitations. But to achieve long-term success at a high level, there are certain attributes NFL left tackles must possess regardless of system and offensive concept.

At the top of that list is the lateral quickness and change of direction demanded to block elite pass rushers one-on-one.

There are three offensive tackles in the 2009 draft that consistently showcased these traits on their college tape: Virginia's Eugene Monroe, Baylor's Jason Smith and Connecticut's William Beatty.

Monroe was a very comfortable looking player. He rarely looked like he was exerting himself in pass protection. He was patient, under control, never reactive or defensive. He dictated the terms of engagement. In that regard, he reminded me of Joe Thomas when I evaluated him a few years ago at Wisconsin; and remember, Thomas was the third overall pick to the Browns. No player is a finished product entering the NFL, but Monroe has no flaws or limitations. He fits every offensive scheme.

Smith is a better body athlete than Monroe, but not quite as polished and consistent with his technique and footwork. While the smoothness and fluidity of movement were clearly present on tape, there were games in which Smith was a little choppy, and thus slower with his pass sets. That will need to be refined in the NFL, so that he's not vulnerable to speed pass rushers like Dwight Freeney, DeMarcus Ware and John Abraham who can really push the edge.

From an athletic standpoint, Beatty is an NFL left tackle. He jumps out on film with his quick feet, and natural and easy movement skills. Beatty, however, was very raw and inconsistent with his footwork, with a recurring problem of widening his base too much in pass protection. With his feet wider than his shoulders, he could not maintain his core balance and body control. That negated his excellent athleticism. This can be coached, but Beatty has a longer stretch of road to navigate than Monroe and Smith.

A quick word about Andre Smith of Alabama: Overall, he is not a top athlete for the position. He does not have naturally quick feet, and he consistently struggled with his balance and change of direction skills. He pass protects with a run-blocking mentality, engaging with, and leaning into pass rushers rather than striking, sliding and mirroring. Smith, a road grader in the run game, is clearly a scheme-specific left tackle, more like Jake Long, although Long was much further advanced both fundamentally and mentally. Ultimately, I believe Smith is better suited to play right tackle in the NFL.

One thing is certain: On the first day of the draft, offensive tackles will come off the board quickly, whether they deserve to or not. It's one of the NFL's glamour positions, one teams reach for more than they should.

Greg Cosell of NFL Films analyzes coaching tape and is executive producer of State Farm NFL Matchup. He is a frequent contributor to Sporting News.