NFL Draft: Offensive tackles always a big dilemma


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Football people hold two distinct philosophies when it comes to stocking teams with offensive tackles. One is to draft them in the first round whenever possible; the other is to ignore them in the first round, find them later and develop them.

For years, the Steelers have favored the latter and, while they have been quite successful as a team on the field, they've had only one Pro Bowl left tackle since the NFL merger in 1970, Marvel Smith -- and he made it once. The only other two to make it were right tackles -- Larry Brown (drafted as a tight end) once and Tunch Ilkin (drafted as a center) twice.

The Steelers have made no pretense about what they think of offensive tackles when it comes to drafting them. They have not drafted one in the first round in the past 15 years. They drafted only one left tackle in the first round since the 1970 NFL merger. They have drafted one tackle of any kind in the first round in the past four decades who turned out any good.

Jamain Stephens (1996) was a bust, and Tom Ricketts (1989) quickly was moved from left tackle to guard and did not last. The only other tackle chosen by the Steelers in the first round in the past 42 years (Chuck Noll never drafted one in that round) was right tackle Leon Searcy (1992). He was their only success, playing four years before leaving as a free agent.

Will next Thursday become only the fourth time since Noll became their coach that the Steelers will use their first-round pick on an offensive tackle? And, if so, will he become only the second one from that round to become a hit with them?

It is an obvious need with their two scheduled 2010 starters both coming off serious surgeries -- Max Starks (neck) and Willie Colon (Achilles). Flozell Adams, who replaced Colon, is 36. Colon, Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott are all free agents of some sort.

It would be a rare draft if no tackle were chosen in the top 15, as is predicted by many, but a run on about five is expected after that and, if one of those five fall far enough, the Steelers could have a crack at drafting Derek Sherrod of Mississippi State.

The problem the Steelers face and have confronted for years is that so many teams place a high value on tackles that, if 30 teams bypass one, it can be a risky pick at No. 31 compared to other positions. You can get the top tight end down there, the top center and maybe even the top running back, but you can never get the best offensive tackle. If a good tackle is available, he usually is snapped up in the top 10 to 15 picks.

"The failure rate there is probably as low as any position in the game with that guy being able to play 10 years," Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said of the top-10 tackle selections. "There's not a big risk in taking an offensive lineman at the top of the draft -- you got him for 10 years, if you can re-sign him."

Two veterans who ran pro drafts for years believe, however, you do not necessarily need to draft a tackle in the first round, that it is sometimes better to draft them later and have a good offensive line coach develop them. That is what Chuck Noll did throughout his career -- the best example being Brown.

Ernie Accorsi (who worked for the Colts, Browns and New York Giants) and Tom Donahoe (who worked for Blesto, the Steelers and Buffalo Bills) said Noll's way was a good one, and it has been one the Steelers have generally followed for more than 40 years.

"If I was going to go teach a course at Harvard on how to build a team, that's the blueprint, look at the Steelers' blueprint," Accorsi said. "You can develop a line as a unit. To me, the left tackles are important because they have to protect that quarterback, but they're well behind the pass-rushers, to me.

"You can't develop a guy who doesn't have feet. But someone who has quick, fast feet like the kid from Maryland the Ravens have now ..."

Baltimore drafted Jared Gaither in the fifth round of a supplemental draft, and he is their starting left tackle.

"No question they're important, but, if you have some raw ability there, these offensive line coaches in our league over the years are the most valuable on your staff," Accorsi said. "These guys are developing players and doing great jobs with these lines."

The Steelers believe they have that kind of line coach in Sean Kugler, who Donahoe admires and considers part of the "mushroom club."

"Those offensive line coaches -- especially those guys in the mushroom club as they call themselves -- take a lot of pride in that: Take a raw guy, a developmental guy and bring him along. There's a lot of pride connected to coaching linemen in the NFL. There's just one coach who coaches five positions -- he coaches [about] half the offense, and it's such an integral part. If you want a successful offense, you have to have a good off[ensive] line.

"Jim McNally didn't want high picks when he worked with the Bills. He said he'd have to break them down, school them and wanted to make sure he had their attention."

It's a blueprint the Steelers generally have followed for more than 40 years. Will it continue next week or will they break tradition and go for a tackle in the first round?


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


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