Ranking The Tackles
"The ones everyone is talking about," Eric Davis, NFL A.M.
"Three potentially elite prospects," Chris Burke, SI.com
"Those three tackles are all potential all-pros," Mike Mayock, NFL.com
This was the praise being heaped upon the top three offensive tackles in the NFL draft last year. Eric Fisher went first overall, Luke Joeckel second, Lane Johnson fourth. And the fourth tackle on 2013's Mount Crushmore was D.J. Fluker, who fell all the way to 11th.
Clearly, the 2013 NFL Draft was a new high-water mark for tackle prospects. It was, by all metrics, an historic class. Maybe the best we'd ever seen.
Until this year.
The top three tackles on the board this year may all be better than all of last year's Big Three, even if it's unlikely they will all be gone before the Raiders are on the clock at pick No. 5. There's a lot to like about each of the top trio, and there are some intriguing prospects who will be available on Days Two and Three.
1. Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: I've been calling him the safest pick in the draft since the 2013 season started, and it's for good reason. There's nothing not to like about Matthews. Would you prefer that he'd been a four-year starter at left tackle in college? You can pick that nit if you'd like. Still, he started every game his last three seasons, playing at both tackle spots, which gives him versatility on top of everything else he has going for him. He's technically precise, a tackle who can use his hands and feet equally well. He's got good upper and lower body strength. He's aggressive in run blocking and capable of handling speed, power and conversion rushers in pass protection. And just imagine how much he'll improve when protecting a quarterback who will be where he is expected to be. Matthews even has the pedigree. In almost any other year, he'd be in the heart of the conversation of potential No. 1. overall picks -- including last year's draft.
2. Greg Robinson, Auburn: Matthews is the surer bet in Year One. Over the long haul, though, it would surprise no one if Robinson develops into a more dominant tackle at the next level. Matthews has prototype size for a left tackle (6-foot-7, 308, pounds); Robinson is positively monstrous (6-5, 332). He's a bigger Nate Newton. Robinson belongs on a team that wants to run the football, because he's a beast of a blocker -- dating back to his high school days, when he was the No. 2 guard in the country. As a tackle, he's just as powerful a force. It's in the pass protection, though, where he needs a bit of polish. Robinson's impervious to any power rush, and his reach helps him stick his man early and prevent separation. There are two areas where Robinson will need to improve as a rookie. He'll need to recognize schemes designed to set him up on the wrong defender, and he'll need to finish blocks. In the past, any defender Robinson got his mitts on was done; NFL linemen, though, will continue to pursue the play. He'll just have to get used to not having an automatic matchup advantage on every play. Yet.
3. Taylor Lewan, Michigan: Lewan killed it at the Combine, showing he's every bit the athlete teams find ideal for today's left tackle. He's technically sound, with strength and size (6-7, 308). He's more experienced at left tackle than either Matthews or Robinson; he has more starts at the position (48) than the other two combined. Last season, he didn't get a ton of help from his pretty limited offensive line mates. Lewan also has the edginess that so many scouts saw as such a positive in Eric Fisher. Lewan can be as good an NFL tackle as any of the guys who went last year. This year, he's the one who might slip out of the top 10; Lewan would be a huge steal for any one who gets him in the middle of the first round.
4. Zack Martin, Notre Dame: Martin is my No. 4 tackle prospect, but he'd also be my No. 1 prospect at guard -- the position I suspect he's more suited to play. That's primarily due to his one literal shortcoming, his arm length. It may sound like a minor issue, since his wingspan isn't dramatically smaller than, say, Matthews' or Lewan's. Still, it's enough to make coaches wonder whether he'd be better off putting on another 10 pounds, moving inside and never facing the long, elite pass rushers on the edge. Martin has tremendous experience; no one in Notre Dame history ever started more than his 52 games (any time you have a record like that at a place like Notre Dame, it's noteworthy). His technique reflects all that solid playing time. He'll be able to start right away, at whatever position he's asked to play.
5. Antonio Richardson, Tennessee: Prior to the start of the 2013 season, I'd have said there were two more tackles destined to be top-25 prospects: Tiny Richardson and Cyrus Kouandjio. Now, they both appear to be plummeting toward the end of the first round, if not beyond. In Richardson's case, his stock is tied to questions about his knees. At the Combine, Richardson did 36 reps on the bench, but strength was never the concern. All of the tests that measure lower body explosiveness raised red flags about what kind of burst and agility he may have. Certainly, his game film -- especially when he faced Jadeveon Clowey -- will show a tackle often exposed by speed rushers. Richardson's bulk and mobility issues may land him as a right tackle, and as a Day Two pick.
6. Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama: If anyone had a worse week in Indianapolis than Richardson, it was Kouandjio. He measured in with the kind of size and length ideal for the position, but he didn't put up a performance in a single drill that lived up to what was expected of Kouandjio, who started the season as the likely third-best tackle prospect in the country behind Matthews and Lewan. When you run a 5.59-second 40-yard dash and start failing physicals, as has been reported, you're giving teams reasons not to draft you. A good Combine would have mitigated some of the damage to his reputation done during an inconsistent, occasionally sloppy 2013 season; a bad Combine makes those game films even more worrisome.
7. Jack Mewhort, Ohio State: Richardson and Kouandjio slipped from the top tier because of injuries, but here is where the real second tier begins. Like Martin, Mewhort might find he's best suited to move to guard, where he played some in college. More likely, he'll be drafted as a right tackle, which would be a good fit. Mewhort is big (6-6, 309), strong, physical and aggressive, and his versatilty makes him perhaps the most appealing prospect of the next-best group of tackles.
8. Morgan Moses, Virginia: Moses is another prospect who started more than 40 games in his college career, and he has experience on both sides of the line. He's probably a right tackle at the next level, as his best attributes are his size (6-6, 314) and length (nearly 35.5-inch arms). Morgan is a mountain, both in terms of size and mobility. He's not going to get out on the second level, but he is going to hold the edge on the front side.
9. Joel Bitonio, Nevada: Bitonio made the most of his trip to the Combine. He ran well, tested well, drilled well and moved himself squarely into the top 10 of tackle prospects. Then again, he's another candidate for a move inside to guard, as he's just slightly undersized (6-4, 302) to play tackle, particularly on the left side, He's a high energy prospect who needs to become more consistently in his technique, particularly his footwork; he gets happy feet sometimes, which puts him off balance and further compounds his potential size disadvantages.
10. Seantrel Henderson, Miami: Did the first high school lineman ever named USA Today Player of the Year peak too early? Is he a late bloomer? No one's really sure whether Henderson will ever become the kind of tackle he's flashed the promise to be. Still, someone is going to take a mid-round dice roll on a guy with this much natural ability. He's gigantic (6-7, 332) and has the nimble feet of a tackle 25 pounds lighter. A lack of discipline -- on field and off -- will drag down his draft stock. If he interviews well and convinces some NFL line coaches that he's ready to grow up and work his craft, Henderson is going to earn himself a shot to prove that his inconsistent play at Miami was a factor of growing pains and immaturity.