Tackle Trio Battles to be Best
Thursday, February 19, 2009
By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s no secret that the Rams are in the market for help on the offensive line, particularly at tackle.

And for the Rams and every team in need of help, the shopping for that tackle begins in earnest this week at the NFL Scouting Combine.

While it can be quite lucrative to be a B.B. tossing quarterback or an acrobatic receiver, there’s a reason that being a top offensive tackle is perhaps the most profitable venture in the NFL.

“Left tackles get paid a lot of money, not because it looks real pretty on TV or in the media, but because of what he does for an offensive coordinator and his protects and things like that,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “You’ve got to have ability to impact the game.”

This week, the job of the assembled coaches and scouts in attendance is to determine which of three collegiate offensive tackles is the player that can most impact the game.

The candidates are Virginia’s Eugene Monroe, Baylor’s Jason Smith (pictured) and Alabama’s Andre Smith. Mississippi’s Michael Oher has also been mentioned in the top group but is likely a notch below the tremendous trio.

Each member of the aforementioned trio has his perceived strengths and weaknesses but it’s up to the teams here to determine which one stands above the rest.

Schwartz’s Lions will get the first chance to crack that code but the Rams are right behind Detroit in the draft and will need to be up on the top tackles to ensure they land the best of the group.

With Orlando Pace closer to the end of his career than the beginning and a potential cap casualty and Alex Barron entering the final year of his contract, the Rams are in the market for a franchise offensive tackle.

In addition, Rams general manager Billy Devaney has made it clear he’d like to see the Rams get bigger up front on both sides of the ball.

“Bigger across the board, our team in general, we need to get bigger,” Devaney said. “Specifically those two areas. It’s a big man’s game. I know there’s other ways to go about it but for me I think the style of play and the personality that I want the team to become, it’s going to reflect on the offensive and defensive line.”

The presence of more pressing needs on the offensive line makes deciphering who among the Smith boys and Monroe is the best future professional even more of an important task.

THE ENIGMATIC PROSPECT

When Andre Smith was preparing to start playing football in sixth grade, he asked his father, Andre Sr., which position in the NFL paid the most money for that was the position he wanted to pursue.

When his father answered left tackle, Smith immediately knew what path he wanted to follow. Of course, it didn’t hurt that between that time and Thursday afternoon at the combine, Smith had grown to 6’4 and 332 pounds.

“The ball got to rolling after that (conversation),” Smith said.

Smith spent the past three years playing tackle for the Crimson Tide, earning a reputation as one of the college game’s most dominant blockers. In 2008, he allowed just one sack and won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman.

Despite those impressive credentials, Smith has more questions surrounding than answers.

At the top of that laundry list of questions is concerns centering on Smith’s weight. Reports surfaced during the year that Smith had weighed as much as 380 pounds at come points in his career.

Smith scoffed at that rumor on Thursday, weighing in at 332 pounds (about 2 pounds over his playing weight) and saying that 345 pounds is as big as he’s ever been.

In fairness, Smith did drop that weight to get down to 332 pounds on Thursday. He says he’s adjusted his eating habits to make better choices and has stopped eating late at night.

Well aware of his need to show he is in shape, Smith said one of the things he must prove to separate himself from the other top tackles is that his weight won’t be an issue.

Of course, those weighty questions won’t compare to the ones he’s sure to hear plenty this week about the suspension that cost him a chance to play in Alabama’s Sugar Bowl game this season.

Speculation had been that Smith had illegal contact with an agent but Smith denied that claim on Thursday though he chose not to detail what the punishment was handed down for.

“(It was) just a bad decision,” Smith said. “It had nothing to do with an agent, just a bad decision. I was hurt. I shed my tears. I had an opportunity to talk to my teammates. They understood.”

Soon after the Sugar Bowl suspension, Smith declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft a year before his eligibility was set to expire. Considered by many to be the top tackle prospect, his stock has dropped some because of the weight issue and the suspension.

Make no mistake; it’s not all bad news with Smith, though. Scouts call Smith the most powerful blocker of this year’s bunch, saying that when he gets his hands on you, it’s all over.

For a Rams team in search of powerful blockers to open holes for running back Steven Jackson, Smith would seem to make a lot of sense.

“My father he always told me be the nicest player off the field but on the field be the meanest, most tenacious type guy that you ever could possibly be,” Smith said. “It's a pride thing to go out there and dominate a guy for four quarters -- set the tone from the first play, let him know how it's going to be the remainder of the game.”

This week, Smith has the opportunity to compete directly with Monroe and Jason Smith but says he hasn’t made up his mind on whether he will participate in the normal combine workout.

“It's good to have great competition,” Smith said. It's only going to bring the best out of you. It's very important to me. I wouldn't want anything else but to have the best opportunity for myself. But I just have to compete.”

For their part, the Rams will likely keep a close eye on Smith though he says he hasn’t talked to the team yet.

When asked about the possibility of being the No. 2 pick and blocking for Jackson, Smith couldn’t help but acknowledge that as something he would enjoy.

“I would love to,” Smith said. “Run blocking, there is nothing better than that. You get to come off the ball and explode on someone, where in pass blocking you have to wait for someone to make a move or anticipate.”

THE POTENTIAL PROSPECT

As recently as 2005, Jason Smith never had really even considered the possibility of being a tackle.

When he arrived at Baylor, Smith was tight end hoping to catch on. As a redshirt freshman that year, he caught six passes for 70 yards with a touchdown.

As he grew bigger and gained weight, his coaches saw it different. The next year, he switched to left tackle and he never looked back as he started every game in 2006.

In 2007, he missed five games because of a knee injury but he came back to have a dominant 2008.

Not once in that time did Smith regret or miss catching the ball. He was having too much fun doing what offensive tackles do.

“When I'm on the field, I take a lot of pride in physically assaulting somebody,” Jason Smith said. “As far as finishing them off, that's just a part of the block, so you don't really think too much of it because that's what you go on the field to do. So it's just something I practice real hard at, and I practice real hard at practicing, and when its game time it just happens natural.”

In just a few years, Smith became one of the country’s most dominant blockers. Of course, Smith was able to get by on his athleticism and burgeoning size. He started out at 230 pounds but when he was measured on Thursday, he checked in at a rock solid 6’5, 309 pounds.

Unlike Andre Smith, Jason has every intention of showing what he can do this week in Indianapolis. Smith will go through the entire workout where there’s no doubt he will impress the scouts and coaches in attendance with his balletic feet and smooth pass blocking techniques.

Much like Andre Smith, though, Jason Smith has some questions about how well and how fast his skills will translate to the NFL level. While Smith is known as a dominant pass blocker (he did not allow a sack in 2008 and has the nickname J-Smooth), scouts question his ability to be a physical run blocker.

And, of course, there are questions about his technique considering the short period of time he’s been playing the position.

Smith prefers to look at his lack of tackle experience as a positive, though, saying he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.

“In the game of football, there's always something to work on,” Jason Smith said. “If you're an offensive lineman and you think you're great, retire. I'm still learning. And I honestly believe I'll still be learning till the day I retire.”

Smith has not yet talked to the Rams though the only interview opportunity was Wednesday night’s informal setting. He did speak with Seattle, which owns the No. 4 pick. It’s a safe bet that Smith will get the chance to speak with the Rams and the rest of the teams picking near the top of the draft.

Although Smith is hoping to prove himself this draft’s top offensive tackle this week and in the next couple of months, he has set the bar even higher for himself.

“Anything's realistic. … I haven't talked to the Lions, but I do believe it’s realistic that they will take a tackle and I do believe it’s realistic that I can be the no. 1 overall pick,” Smith said.

THE POLISHED PROSPECT

As the youngest of 16 brothers and sisters, Eugene Monroe learned at an early age how to stand out. When all was said and done, the spotlight found him for his exploits on a football field.

Monroe’s football ability eventually landed him at the University of Virginia, a place that has become a factory for talented linemen on both sides of the ball in recent years.

When Monroe arrived at Virginia in 2005, he worked at left tackle and right guard but spent valuable time watching teammate D’Brickashaw Ferguson develop into the top tackle and the No. 4 pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.

Thus was born a legacy of top Cavaliers linemen who became notorious for pushing each other in practice and eventually hearing their names called early on draft day.

In his sophomore season, Monroe was slowed by a dislocated kneecap but he rebounded well in 2007. That year, Monroe enjoyed a breakout season as he played so well that Virginia elected to keep Branden Albert inside at guard so Monroe could handle tackle duties.

In practice every day, Monroe went up against burgeoning Virginia defensive end Chris Long. With daily encounters of Long’s relentless practice habits, Monroe couldn’t help but improve.

“I still haven't played against a player as good as him who works as hard as him every play,” Monroe said. “He never takes a play off. Practicing against someone like that every day just forces you to play better."

It also didn’t hurt to have the talented Albert next to him on the line, pushing him to get better on every snap.

By the time the 2008 season had come, Monroe had already said goodbye to Long (the No. 2 overall pick of the Rams) and Albert (who went 15th to the Chiefs).

As a senior, the spotlight was left only for Monroe who openly embraced his opportunity to take center stage. With his college career at a close, Monroe has emerged as the most refined of the top offensive tackle prospects.

“I think over my career at Virginia I've proven I can block anybody,” Monroe said. “I have the determination to improve my game and the ambition to succeed and I never stop. I continue to set goals. When one step is completed, I set another goal. I make sure I do everything in my power to achieve that. If I can't, I'll re-set everything and I'll go back to the drawing board and just continue to grind.”

Monroe has already spoken with the Rams, the Chiefs and many of the teams in an informal setting but expects to have more contact with the teams at the top of the draft in the coming days.

And, like Jason Smith, Monroe will participate in all of the workouts, saying he has nothing to hide.

“You don't want to miss out on an opportunity to show you have the ability to do as well or better than if you decide not to do the drills,” Monroe said.

The scouting report on Monroe is that he has no real weaknesses though he says he’d like to be a more consistent run blocker.

What happens this week is only the beginning of the evaluation of this year’s tremendous tackle trio.

If the draft happened today, perhaps Monroe would go first because he’s believed to be the surest thing of the three. Perhaps it would be Andre Smith because of his ability to dominate in the run game. Or maybe potential would win out in the form of Jason Smith.

“Who is going to be the first one picked? We'll see in April,” Monroe said. “I can't predict that.”

As it stands, nobody can make a surefire prediction. Only time will tell who emerges as the best.