One of prized left tackles might be Steelers' target


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Many NFL coaches and scouts believe the second-most vital position on a pro football offense is left tackle. So essential is it that Michael Lewis devoted much of his best-selling book to the position in "The Blind Side." The Steelers, though, have ignored left tackles with their most-coveted draft choices seemingly forever.

They last drafted an offensive tackle in the first round 14 years ago. They last successfully drafted an offensive tackle in the first round 17 years ago. And the last time they drafted a left tackle in the first round, they moved him to guard within weeks at training camp.

The names in order of the above are Jamain Stephens (1996), Leon Searcy (1992) and Tom Ricketts (1989).

Ricketts, despite his failings, remains a footnote for the franchise because since the NFL merger with the AFL in 1970 -- and going back one more year to the arrival of coach Chuck Noll and his first draft in 1969 -- he has been the only left tackle drafted by them in the first round.

After calling Ricketts a "natural left tackle" when drafting him, he is the one they quickly moved to guard and bade goodbye after three frustrating seasons.

Therefore, in what might be called their modern era, the Steelers are 0-for-41 years in successfully drafting a left tackle in the first round.

Might that change Thursday night?

This draft is regarded among the best for quality and quantity at offensive tackle, especially left tackle. As many as five or six tackles could be drafted in the first round, all left tackles. Among them are Russell Okung, Trent Williams, Bryan Bulaga and Anthony Davis.

"I think it all goes back to the evolution of the passing game in college football, which trickles into the NFL," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "I would say people are developing more offensive linemen, particularly pass-protectors which are usually left-tackle types."

The left tackle protects the "blind side" of a right-handed quarterback and almost always must block the best and most athletic pass rusher the defense can throw at him. The theory goes, if you have a great quarterback, you better protect him or he will not last long, and protecting him starts from his left.

"If your left tackle can handle their best guy one-on-one, you don't have to slide your protection, you don't have to chip him and you can get your back out on a release," explained Gene Smith, general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

A weak left tackle needs help -- from a tight end, from a back, from the left guard -- and that can take away from protection elsewhere or keep potential receivers from running routes.

One reason the Steelers might not have selected a good left tackle in the first round is their position in the draft. When a team drafts in the second half or bottom third of the first round, they rarely get a chance at an elite left tackle because the NFL puts such a high priority on such players. Often, they are gone in the top 10 picks. Even drafting at No. 18 this year, the Steelers might not get a chance at the top four left-tackle prospects.

"If you have a good one, you better stay with him," said Tom Marino, a pro scout for 35 years. "The most important thing on a team is quarterback. Beyond that, most teams would say the next thing you better have is a top left tackle."

It's not that the Steelers do not value the left-tackle position. Marvel Smith, drafted by them in the second round in 2000, started there for most of the decade before back problems forced his retirement.

Smith holds the distinction as the only Steelers left tackle to make a Pro Bowl since Noll arrived in 1969, and even before that. Smith made one, after the 2004 season. Noll has said he thought his left tackle during the team's 1970s Super Bowl era, Jon Kolb, did not get the credit he deserved and should be in the Hall of Fame. The fact remains, though, that Kolb did not make a Pro Bowl.

The Steelers have paid attention to the other positions along the line. They drafted two guards in the first round since 1998, Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons. And they have had a string of great centers through the years, from Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson to Jeff Hartings.

But their starting offensive line includes no one drafted in either of the first two rounds: left tackle Max Starks (third round), left guard Chris Kemoeatu (sixth), center Hartwig (sixth, by Tennessee), right guard Trai Essex (third) or Ramon Foster (undrafted) and right tackle Willie Colon (fourth).

"But we won with that group,'' Colbert noted.

"Sure, you want high picks if you could have them at every group, but that's not going to happen, especially when you're picking lower as we have over the years."

They might get their chance Thursday with the 18th pick or higher if they decide to trade to move up in the first round. If so, drafting a left tackle at No. 1 would be an historic event for the Steelers.


NOTES -- All four restricted free agents signed their one-year contract tenders Friday: Willie Colon, William Gay and Matt Spaeth and Daniel Sepulveda, who signed his Friday night. The Steelers have exclusive rights to all four now that the restricted free agency period has ended.


For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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