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    Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    By Nick Wagoner

    The key decision makers of the St. Louis Rams circa 2009 have long since departed but when it comes to the thought of taking a shot on an unfinished product at offensive tackle with the No. 2 overall pick, the bad memories are still fresh enough to make at least some Rams fans cringe.

    That was the year the Rams used the No. 2 choice on Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith, a converted tight end coming from a spread offense with a reputation as a ferocious run blocker but a work in progress as a pass protector. Sound familiar?

    At least on paper, one can look at Auburn tackle Greg Robinson's scouting report and see a similar description save for the tight end part. The comparison surely won't play in the minds of the Rams' current brain trust, a group that had nothing to do with Smith's selection but it's fair to at least consider the flip side to Robinson's upside.

    "To me, if you look at Robinson and having Jason Smith not that long ago come to St. Louis as the second overall pick out of Baylor, is that something that factors in here?" ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "I don’t necessarily think so because I think Robinson comes out as the much better prospect, he’s the consensus No. 2, No. 3 guy in this draft. But does he need a little work before he settles in and becomes a great left tackle? Yes. But that could happen, that light could go on immediately, he’s that good a football player."

    Smith lasted three injury-plagued seasons in St. Louis and bounced between the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints before his release left him without a team last August. Many of his problems were tied to an apparent lack of love for the game, a problem scouts say Robinson doesn't have.

    As the Rams continue vetting the top three offensive tackles -- a group that includes Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan in addition to Robinson -- they'll have to weigh the downside of each prospect in addition to the potential.

    Robinson probably has the highest ceiling of any of the trio but he also might have the lowest floor. In Auburn's offense, Robinson was the most feared run blocker in the college game but rarely had to pass protect. That isn't to say he can't do it, just that he hasn't done it much.

    “Robinson, obviously, (is) very athletic," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He’s got a tremendous upside, probably has not taken as many snaps in a pro-style offense as Lewan, but very athletic, there’s flexibility, think he could move in and play guard or other tackle as well. It’s going to take him a little more time.’’

    Matthews, in many ways, is the opposite. A polished pass protector with experience at both tackle spots, Matthews also comes with the famous bloodlines (he's the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce) that would seem to limit any potential downside he might have. It's unfair to say Matthews has reached his ceiling but he doesn't carry the same size and athleticism combination of Robinson, either.

    Fisher coached the elder Matthews in his time with the Oilers/Titans and can see the similarities between the father and son.

    "Bruce having played all the positions and having been selected to the Pro Bowl at all the positions, probably one of the more flexible offensive linemen to ever come out," Fisher said. "I think (Jake) has got some similar traits, we haven’t seen Jake play center yet, or guard, but athletically could do both I’m sure.’’

    Like Matthews, Lewan also projects as a ready-made tackle capable of stepping in and limiting the risk in terms of his on-field projection. But Lewan will also have to answer some questions about some off-field red flags before the draft.

    “(He's) just very well coached, very consistent, finishes plays, he’s what I think, what you see on tape is what I think everybody would look for in that type of tackle,’’ Fisher said.

    Since the arrival of Fisher and general manager Les Snead in 2012, the Rams have had no problem choosing players who aren't as polished as other options. Much of that stems from their belief in a veteran coaching staff, but so far that has yielded mixed results. For every Michael Brockers who seems to be trending in the right direction there's a Brian Quick, who the team is still waiting on to produce consistently.

    As with all draft prospects, there's no guarantee any of the tackles will pan out.

    "Matthews isn’t the talent that Robinson is," Kiper said. "Matthews did have a couple of games in pass protection where he showed he needed a little work at left tackle. Remember he had come over from right tackle. Robinson the same thing. From that offense, he’s going to need a little bit of work but all of the skills are there. You look at Lewan, he’s probably the most ready to be a pure left tackle."

    Should the Rams decide to choose one, they'll have to decide whether most ready is more valuable than long-term upside.
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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    In Auburn's offense, Robinson was the most feared run blocker in the college game but rarely had to pass protect
    My first thought was that this is over-blown. Surely, the ratio is more even than this sentence alludes. But I would be wrong. Auburn ran the ball 72% of the time! Yowsers!
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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Quote Originally Posted by HUbison View Post
    My first thought was that this is over-blown. Surely, the ratio is more even than this sentence alludes. But I would be wrong. Auburn ran the ball 72% of the time! Yowsers!
    Yeah, with that in mind, I've become less and less confident about him starting his career at LT. I personally believe that if he does start at LT, he could get victimized by the speed rushers early on. I think he belongs at guard until he can refine his technique and gain some quality snaps in the NFL.

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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Quote Originally Posted by FestusRam View Post
    Yeah, with that in mind, I've become less and less confident about him starting his career at LT. I personally believe that if he does start at LT, he could get victimized by the speed rushers early on. I think he belongs at guard until he can refine his technique and gain some quality snaps in the NFL.
    I can see that happening, moving in to LG and learning the pass protection game from Jake. Unless we intend to take a actual guard and use the pick for something else that might be ideal. If he doesn't pan out he would be a hell of a guard, money-wise though that would hurt being one expensive LG.

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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Best of the Beasts

    By Greg A. Bedard

    One of the toughest factors for NFL talent evaluators to nail down is a draft prospect’s projection.

    Players are not snapshots in time. Once they turn pro, most prospects will get physically stronger, improve their technique with better coaching and devote more time to what has become a full-time job. On the flip side, players react in different ways to being thrust into the life of a pay-for-play athlete and the freedom that comes with it.

    Identifying how each player will progress physically and mentally from when they enter the league is a skill on par with gauging football character—the internal, unmeasurable love and passion the player has for the game and competition—as far as anticipating a player’s ultimate fate. Anyone can figure out who can run, block, tackle, throw and catch. Projecting the improvement and ultimate ceiling of a player in a given scheme? That’s the talent in player evaluations.

    One of the key projections in this year’s draft is at the offensive tackle position. The top two players—Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews of Texas A&M—are completely different case studies. Robinson has all the physical tools, and has shown promising aptitude, to become one of the all-time greats at the position. But he only started 25 games in college at left tackle in a funky offense that was predominantly based on the running game. Matthews, who hails from one of the premier football families, is without question more ready to play in the NFL right now. He has 46 games worth of experience all over the line (13 at left tackle) in a pass-first scheme. In the technical aspects of playing the position, Matthews is far advanced for a rising rookie. But his physical tools are limited, which makes his ceiling likely a little lower than Robinson’s.

    Who’s the better prospect? Who should be drafted first in May? After viewing six games for each player, here’s how I judge Robinson vs. Matthews:

    Background and intangibles

    Robinson, who will turn 22 in late October, didn’t make the transition to offensive line until his junior season at Thibodaux (La.) High School and redshirted his first season with the Tigers. His formative years were rough at times. The family had to leave their home for Houston because of Hurricane Katrina. His father, Greg Blackledge, died in April 2013. Dan Pompei of SportsOnEarth.com reported at the combine that his mother couldn’t watch her son play in the BCS Championship Game because money was short. Robinson has two brothers who have served time for dealing drugs. From all reports, Robinson is a terrific kid who took his brothers’ actions and learned what not to do.

    Matthews, who turned 22 in February, has been preparing for the NFL his entire life as the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Bruce Matthews and nephew of former Browns standout linebacker Clay Matthews Jr.; Jake’s brother, Kevin, is a center for the Titans. His younger brother, Mike, plays for the Aggies. Cousin Clay Matthews III is the star outside linebacker for the Packers. Matthews was a heralded prospect out of Elkins High School in Missouri City, Texas. He started the final seven games as a true freshman and never looked back.

    Both Robinson and Matthews are intense competitors who play to the whistle with a nasty edge. They also don’t linger on mistakes and appear to play with mental toughness. Robinson does struggle at times processing blitzes and other odd pressures a defense might throw at him. Matthews has extremely high football intelligence and easily adjusts to the wrinkles being thrown at him.

    EDGE: Matthews

    Physical attributes
    You’d be hard-pressed to draw up a potential franchise left tackle better than Robinson. He looks like he was born for it at 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds, with 35-inch arms (tied for fifth among all offensive linemen at the combine) and big 10-inch hands. Robinson’s 40-yard dash time of 4.92 was second only to Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, who isn’t far behind these two as the third-best tackle prospect. Robinson tested through the roof in just about every category (including 32 reps on the bench made more impressive by his long arms), and it shows on film. Robinson is the proverbial dancing bear—a mammoth man with light feet and agility. He’s probably the most physical blocker in the draft, with the ability to dominate opponents.

    Matthews is taller (6-5 ˝ ) and lighter (308 pounds) than Robinson. He’s also slower (5.07) and weaker (24 reps) with shorter arms (33 5/8), but he’s a nifty athlete who showed eye-popping speed and agility in the three-cone drill (7.34 seconds). Matthews’ measurables line up with the film. He’s extremely light on his feet—he looks like a tight end at times—but his lack of strength can be an issue.

    EDGE: Robinson

    Run blocking
    Robinson is an elite run blocker, regardless of position. In Auburn’s offense, he was often asked to block head up against an opponent, or down block against a tackle before getting to the next level. Robinson is proficient and devastating at this part of the game, so it’s no wonder he was a focal point for the running backs. It’s easy to see that he loves to run block, and he takes great joy in caving an entire side of the line while maintaining the ability to block on the second (linebackers) and sometimes third (secondary) level of the defense. Robinson is not without issues in this part of the game, however. He can get caught bending at the waist, instead of maintaining a good knee bend, which can cause his pads to get out over his feet. That leaves him off balance and with less leverage against a counter move. Sometimes Robinson is too aggressive, and that can be used against him. Robinson also takes too long to gather himself to deliver a big blow. Smart defenders will recognize this, shorten the distance and get under his pads.

    In the Aggies’ offense, Matthews wasn’t asked to run block as much as Robinson. But Matthews is a very good run blocker. While not as powerful as Robinson, Matthews is nearly as effective because of his superior pad level and overall technique. Matthews’ terrific feet were on display when he was asked to pull around right end—yes, from left tackle—to be a lead blocker on some sweeps. Matthews is terrific working the angles on the second level, but isn’t seen as often on the third level as Robinson. Matthews’ lack of ideal strength will show up more in the NFL. He’s going to need to get stronger to be a more complete player.

    Edge: Robinson

    Pass blocking
    This is where the projection comes in for Robinson. Because the Tigers run such a unique offense, the sample size for Robinson’s pass blocking is limited. But there’s no question he can do it, especially with a lot more work on the fundamentals. Robinson does not exhibit a classic kick slide in pass blocking; it’s more of a shuffle. He’s such a good athlete that it’s still very effective. Robinson does a good job mirroring the rusher, and his arm length is a big weapon especially when you consider that his punch at the point of attack is underdeveloped. Smaller, quicker edge rushers can get under him, but he never gets overpowered. Robinson’s bad habit in pass protection is that his hands can get outside and he can get grabby and draw holding penalties. But these limited flaws can be cleaned up with good coaching. Once Robinson becomes a cleaner player in pass blocking, he could be unstoppable.

    Outside of a kick slide that is more like a kick and a few stutter steps, Matthews is technically sound in his drops and execution. He “sits in the chair” nicely and is always in control against an opponent. Matthews mirrors the rusher with rare ability thanks to his agility. Against most college opponents, that’s enough to dominate. However, Matthews showed some difficulty dealing with power, especially in the Auburn game, which will give some NFL teams pause. That is where his less-than-ideal arm length and strength shows up. Matthews certainly looks the part, but he plays light on film, meaning he can be pushed around some and that could lead to problems at the next level. His arm length of 33 5/8 is above the preferred minimum threshold of 33 inches for a left tackle, so perhaps a few years in an NFL weight room could shore up these weaknesses.

    Edge: Even

    Overall
    This is not quite a classic case of potential (Robinson) vs. polish (Matthews). There is enough evidence on film for evaluators to feel comfortable making a projection on both players. Robinson has all the tools and has shown the potential in the pass game; if teams feel he can learn and work at his craft, then Robinson could be an all-time great. It’s a question of how long that will take, and where do you play him in the interim (Robinson would be a devastating left guard for a year or two). Former Rams left tackle Orlando Pace, who likely will be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, is the player whom Robinson is most often compared with in league circles because of his physicality in the run game.

    Matthews also has much to like, including technique, a mind for the game, his temperament and athletic ability. He really only lacks strength, and that should come in time. There’s little question he could play left tackle quickly in the NFL. You can make a convincing argument that Matthews is a better prospect than former Aggie teammate Luke Joeckel, who was taken second overall last year. (The next prospect at Left Tackle U, Cedric Ogbuehi, could be even better than Matthews and Joeckel; he pops off the film.) But like Joeckel, Matthews will have initial struggles. His best fit might be on a team that has a left tackle, and perhaps Matthews can play guard in the interim until he gets stronger. Remember, the Ravens drafted Jonathan Ogden fourth overall in 1996 to play left guard for a year next to an established left tackle in Tony Jones. Matthews has great positional versatility going for him; he could play any position on the line, including center (not to mention he has long-snapping experience).

    Matthews is better today, but Robinson’s vast potential shouldn’t be hard to unlock. That makes Robinson my pick as the top tackle prospect in this draft.

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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    G-Rob's been my guy since day one! The guy is so physically abusing and powerful he surely has to be dominant. I am so excited to see where we go.

    This is kind of similar to the DT situation we had just a few years ago. When we slid from #2 to #6, we could have stayed put or even dropped down another 2 or 3 spots and landed what was the consensus top DT in the draft, Fletcher Cox. Instead Fisher lobbied and believed in his and Mike Waufle's abilities to bring in a "rawer" prospect who is a mammoth of a man and has developed into an excellent player, Michael Brockers.

    Fisher has been coaching for 20+ years. To me he is the type of coach who will bank on his experience and the experience of his veteran coaching staffs in the development of players. IMO he'd rather take a guy who is physically imposing but doesn't have the technique or fine points of the game down over a well polished player who is near his ceiling and is more of a football intelligence type of guy, not a physical specimen.

    With all that being said, I think we will take Greg Robinson, and I'll be damn happy about it.


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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Quote Originally Posted by HUbison View Post
    My first thought was that this is over-blown. Surely, the ratio is more even than this sentence alludes. But I would be wrong. Auburn ran the ball 72% of the time! Yowsers!
    In his entire life, Robinson has pass blocked at the tackle position something like 460x and it was in a weird passing offense with quick slants featured a lot (not much pass blocking on a 2 second route). He only played guard in high school for 2 years. Matthews did almost that much pass blocking this past year alone.

    Being a dominant LT isn't just about strength, it's about footwork, using leverage and your hands. Until Robinson proves he has that, he's a project. I'd rather have Lewan. 5 months ago I said it when Matthews was the obvious #1 OT on all rankings, still saying it.
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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Not sure how he can say pass locking is even. Robinson is all potential there with very little experience.
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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Quote Originally Posted by Mikey View Post
    Not sure how he can say pass locking is even. Robinson is all potential there with very little experience.
    I wondered this too. That's the first time I've seen anything suggest that Robinson and Matthews are currently equal pass blockers. If they both had the same pass block ability, and Robinson was a much better run blocker, than you wouldn't even consider Matthews against Robinson. That little bit undermined the whole article for me.
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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    The knock on Matthews is that he doesn't have elite feet.
    He's played at a high level against high level competition in plays you would like to see in the NFL.

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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    What I find lacking in the article is a discussion of versatility at other spots on the line. There's a bit of it in the final section, but I feel if we would draft either of these players I would like to know what their prospects look like at guard and which side L or R they might excel at or have problems. We know Matthews has played both sides, but what about Robinson. Also can they play in the confining areas of guard? Whole different can of beans.

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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Quote Originally Posted by mde8352gorams View Post
    What I find lacking in the article is a discussion of versatility at other spots on the line. There's a bit of it in the final section, but I feel if we would draft either of these players I would like to know what their prospects look like at guard and which side L or R they might excel at or have problems. We know Matthews has played both sides, but what about Robinson. Also can they play in the confining areas of guard? Whole different can of beans.

    Go Rams!
    It's safe to assume that Robinson would flourish at the guard and RT spot seeing that requires more athleticism than technical work. The thought of plugging Robinson at LT week 1 will make me pray for Bradford's well-being, I don't care if Paul Boudreau's the one coaching him. He's gonna need time to refine his pass protection techniques.

    I'd also like to get insight on his football IQ seeing that Auburn's run-first offense seems to be vague at the extent of pass protection schemes. I'd rather have reliable technicians giving Bradford a clean pocket than freakish athletes with upside. O-line chemistry will have a smooth transition if we have players who have more knowledge on how to function an O-line.

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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Quote Originally Posted by Greg A. Bedard
    Pass blocking

    Edge: Even
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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    I'd ask myself this question: in the 4th Q of a playoff game when everyone is exhausted, who is going to win their battles; the guy with better technique or the guy with greater strength?
    I'll take technique every time.
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    Re: Weighing the upside of draft's top tackles

    Quote Originally Posted by Flippin' Ram View Post
    It's safe to assume that Robinson would flourish at the guard and RT spot seeing that requires more athleticism than technical work. The thought of plugging Robinson at LT week 1 will make me pray for Bradford's well-being, I don't care if Paul Boudreau's the one coaching him. He's gonna need time to refine his pass protection techniques.

    I'd also like to get insight on his football IQ seeing that Auburn's run-first offense seems to be vague at the extent of pass protection schemes. I'd rather have reliable technicians giving Bradford a clean pocket than freakish athletes with upside. O-line chemistry will have a smooth transition if we have players who have more knowledge on how to function an O-line.
    Safe assumptions aside, lets take a example of a guy who played LT for his career then tried to switch to RT and how did it turn out for... wait for it! Oh! Lets say some guy named Roger Saffold? Not to dang well as his foot work was even more exposed and he just could not get his head around it! Then put the lad at Guard and he excelled where he did not need to count on being a twinkle toes in his footwork! So saying it is safe to assume such a thing as making that switch can be iffy at best! Not the shoe in you suggested matey...

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