We're still plowing through our weekly installments of position by position breakdowns of the NFC West (check out previous stories here) and today we continue our look at the big uglies. This time we jump to the outside of the offensive line and focus on the offensive tackles. The Arizona Cardinals have established veteran starters at tackle and promising depth waiting in the ranks but how do they measure up to the rest of the division?
The Cardinals offensive tackles are one of the more polarizing position groups on the team. Some fans will tell you that the combo of Mike Gandy and Levi Brown are two guards playing out of position who can't handle speed rushers and aren't holding their own in the running game. Other fans will say that the duo is pretty productive considering that they are often left on an island in pass coverage and have a statue for a QB. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the pack, with a slight lean to the latter, although I wouldn't be terribly surprised if both Gandy and Brown performed better at guard.
Overall the combo of Gandy and Brown are dependable starters in my mind. Gandy is the better of the two right now because he's better equipped to handle speed rushers, regardless of how bad he looked in the Super Bowl. He's adequate in the running game although he'll never be mistaken for a mauler, but overall he's a dependable protector of Kurt Warner's blind side. Levi Brown has been a bit of an enigma as he enters his third season and his biggest problem as a professional so far is being consistent. At times he looks like a physical protector worthy of his draft pick status while other times he can't handle speed rushers or move anyone in the running game. Still though, the talent is there and if Brown can manage to perform at a consistent level he'll be solid starter in this league for many years.
The backup situation is hard to explain because two of the three top backups can and likely will play guard at some point in their careers. To start simple, Elliot Vallejo is the primary backup at left tackle and the coaching staff thinks he's got starting potential somewhere in his future. Vallejo's future will likely be tested next off season as Gandy is a free agent and Vallejo would seem to be the first in line to fill the void, unless Brandon Keith gets into the mix. Keith, last year's seventh round pick, has turned heads since his very first practice last summer and he will be a starter somewhere on the line in the very near future. Last year Keith focused on right tackle but so far this off season he's been working at right guard. Some, mainly myself, think he's being prepped to start at right guard this season before stepping into a different starting role in 2010. Herman Johnson, this year's fifth round pick, is currently working out at right tackle but most think it's just a matter of time before he settles in at right guard.
Looking at the group as a whole, I'd say the starters are average or something very close to that and the depth is well above average. With that in mind, my grade is a C.
The 49ers offensive tackles are yet another tough group to call. If everybody stays healthy, this unit could be a very solid strength for the team. If they're beset by a couple of injuries, they could come down like a house of cards.
The projected starters are Joe Staley at left tackle and Marvel Smith at right tackle. Staley is entering his third season in the league and his second season as the left tackle. He struggled at times last year, but over the course of the season developed into a solid guy on the blind side. The 49ers rewarded him this off season with a contract extension that will keep him a 49er through 2017. He is going to be the anchor of this offensive line for a long time to come.
On the other side is Marvel Smith. The 49ers added him this off season in hopes that he could fill the hole on the right side. Smith has dealt with numerous injury issues which left him on the free agent market longer than he probably would have liked. If he can stay healthy, the Oakland native could be a monster on the right side and give the 49ers two great bookends for the OL. Given the recent past I'm not exactly holding my breath, but the upside here is quite tremendous.
If Smith goes down (or if Staley does for that matter), the 49ers primary backups are Adam Snyder and Barry Sims. Sims is running out of time in this league and it showed at times last year. He and Snyder split time at right tackle once Jonas Jennings went down with his annual injury. I personally think Snyder handled himself capably after getting bounced back and forth between tackle and guard. He actually started the first seven games of the season at left guard, before being benched a week and then taking over at right tackle for six weeks. Although it's nice to show versatility, Adam Snyder will benefit by being able to finally concentrate on just on position.
A wild card for the 49ers is undrafted free agent Alex Boone. At one point Boone was projected as a potential top three round tackle. Unfortunately his season was a bust as he had major alcohol issues leading to an arrest and tasering at one point. If Boone can keep sober, he could provide some much needed depth this season. At the same time, I'd imagine he's working with a rather short leash.
In grading this team, I was tempted to go relatively high again. I think by the end of the year, we'll (or at least 49ers will) be looking back at the 49ers tackles as quite the strength for this team. I think a little more consistency on the offensive line, starting at the tackle positions, will be extremely beneficial to the team. At the same time, Joe Staley did struggle at times and will need to show continued improvement (which I am confident we'll see). And of course, Marvel Smith has to prove he can stay healthy. If he goes down, Snyder is a capable backup, but in the end that's all he is for now. If we had minuses or pluses I'd probably go B-/C+, but I'll round down for now and expect to be proven wrong. Grade: C
The Rams enter new territory this season with long time fixture on the offensive line Orlando Pace gone, released and later signed by the Bears. It would be hard for many Rams fans to imagine life without Pace on the offensive line if they hadn't already had a taste of that since Pace has played in less than half of the team's games over the last three seasons.
Moving Alex Barron from the right to the left side was the first move of the post-Pace era. Barron has always been a solid blocker in both facets of the offense, but many within the organization felt they could get the most out of his talents on the left side given his wing span and athletic ability. Barron has to overcome his penalty problem to be effective and reach his potential, and some have questioned Barron's passion for the game. Nevertheless, he has been on the field, sometimes playing through injuries, for every game in the last three seasons. The new coaching staff seems to like what Barron has to offer and has made getting the most out of him a top priority, including bringing a ref to practice to drive home the point and help players learn snap counts in the new offense. Barron's hardly a bust, but can he reach his full potential?
On the other side, is the second pick from this year's draft, Jason Smith. Smith comes to the league with a reputation as an already solid pass blocker. Those too quick to discount his run blocking should know that 65% of Baylor's rushing yards came on his side of the field last season. There's no question this kid can play. The only questions Smith faces are: how high is his ceiling and how quickly can he reach it? The Rams can afford to let him develop, but they need for him to be a solid contributor in his rookie year. Fortunately, it's not unusual for top rookie OTs to play well in their first season.
The primary backup at OT is University of Wyoming product Adam Goldberg, a versatile lineman who has played well filling in for the numerous injured Rams starters in recent seasons. Goldberg's a reliable backup and the team doesn't lose much when he's playing.
Behind Goldberg, the depth chart has what you'd expect: some guys with nice potential plucked from the undrafted free agent ranks. Most notable among them is former Florida LT Phil Trautwein, a first team All-SEC player in 2008. Not bad for a guy who missed his entire '07 season with a fractured foot. Plenty of people will be watching when he puts the pads on at camp this summer to see if Devaney plucked another useful player from obscurity.
I'm cautiously optimistic about this group. For now, they get a C+, but if Barron cuts down on the penalties. Looking at the group as a whole, I'd say the starters are average or something very close to that and the depth is well above average. It's tough to assign them a grade. I want to go higher since they're a young, healthy group with a solid backup right behind the starters. However, Barron's in a new position and Smith's a rookie. Given the unknowns, I have to assign them a C.
I'm in a tough spot. There was a time I would guess about Walter Jones. I would guess if he's healthy enough to play and if healthy enough to play, at what level. I won't do that. Because of that, Seattle's tackle ranking is incomplete. Jones is one of the five best offensive tackles to ever play in the NFL. Even as late as last year, he played at a high level. He turned 35 this January. He ended last season on IR and underwent some kind of microfracture surgery. The success rate for players of his age, weight and who play a line position is not good, but that's for all microfracture surgeries. The team insists this was a "minor" surgery and that Jones will be ready by training camp.
Primary right tackle Sean Locklear is Seattle's immediate depth behind Jones. Locklear started two games at left tackle last season. His first, against New England, matched him opposite future Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Seymour. Seymour is a matchup nightmare for Locklear. Locklear has a few above average skills. He mirror slides very well and is rarely beat around the edge. His overall footwork allows him to play well in space or when isolated, and he does a great job of keeping himself between the quarterback and the defender. He has decent blocking technique and can get under defenders, but isn't a mauler and isn't overpowering. Seymour is powerhouse end that's made a career out of overwhelming, overpowering and outlasting opposing tackles. He targets Locklear's greatest weakness: The ability to sustain blocks especially against a bull rush. Yet Locklear held his own. He played strong against Seymour and looked capable of becoming a competent left tackle.
Seattle didn't get many chances to test Locklear's aptitude. He was lost for the season one week later. Kyle Williams started the next two games. It took a lot of game-planning, but Seattle survived. Should Williams start, Seattle would almost certainly have one of the worst regulars at left tackle in the NFL, but he's starter capable. The Seahawks are legitimately three-deep at left tackle. There's good if not substantial proof that Jones, Locklear or Williams at left tackle and field a capable offense.
The other big body in the tackle mix is Ray Willis. Tim Ruskell drafted him in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. Willis is a huge body, hugely powerful and surprisingly athletic. He doesn't handle the edge rush well and is a confirmed right tackle, but given tight end help or a chip when needed and he's a good enough overall pass blocker. He is a very good run blocker and capable of being great. With a healthy Jones, Willis probably starts at right guard or works as a super-sub. Locklear starts at right and is a potential league-best pass-blocking right tackle. It was Seattle's pass blocking that made its 2007 passing offensive possible.
The Seahawks could toy with Max Unger at tackle, but probably won't. For deep depth there's Na'Shan Goddard, who's more size than athlete, and William Robinson, who's more athlete than size. (He's built like basketball player.) The grade flexes on Jones. Without him it's an average unit that could collapse. Greater exposure may prove Locklear incapable of playing left tackle. Neither Locklear nor Willis are consistently healthy. There's "A" potential and there's "F" potential. I'll put my faith in Walter and call it a "B".
The rankings were tough because I don't think any of these four teams is overwhelmed with the talent at offensive tackle but three of the four have young developing talent who were high first round picks. In the we defaulted to the grades and decided that the bottom three were all very close:
In the end we could have fought for a higher ranking but it's really just Seattle on top (thanks to their grade of B) and everyone else very closely knotted at second. I do think that with Levi Brown's youth and promising backups Elliot Vallejo and Brandon Keith, we could be sitting atop these rankings in a year's time. Thoughts? How would you rank the teams?