NFL Draft: Year of the Tackle

Now that the Pittsburgh has won the Super Bowl and Hines Ward has announced his plans to visit Disney World, fans of the National Football League can begin discussing and analyzing the next big date on the NFL calendar. For the next two months, football fans everywhere will channel their inner-Mel Kiper, study combine data, and read and re-read every mock draft on the Internet in preparation for the real deal on April 29th, the 2006 NFL draft.

It is hard to remember a draft in recent memory that has as much star power as this one. Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush (along with Trojan teammate LenDale White) had some of the most high-profile careers in recent college football memory. Texas QB Vince Young is coming off the greatest big-game performance in college football history. Even the defensive players in this draft have a high "Q" rating, as Ohio State LB A.J. Hawk might be the most popular college football linebacker since "The Boz" terrorized Oklahoma's opponents in the mid-'80s.

There is definitely no lack of marquee talent in this year's draft. But, as is often the case, it is the players who are not household names that will make the difference in winning and losing. For this year, there are three offensive tackles that all have the potential to be cornerstones of NFL franchises. The teams that are able to acquire Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Miami's Eric Winston, and USC's Winston Justice will be the teams that are the big winners of this year's NFL draft.

Virginia OL Ferguson is the no-brainer of the three. He is tall, long, strong, and blessed with immaculate footwork and technique. Ferguson is the closest thing to a finished product as a potential franchise lineman since the Jacksonville Jaguars made Tony Boselli the second overall pick of the 1995 draft. He is capable of coming into the league today and being every bit the pass blocker that an Orlando Pace or a Tarik Glenn is, and his run-blocking ability top three passes on one of the big stars of this year's draft (Bush, Leinart, and Young) to tab him to anchor their line. Furthermore, if he is still available at the number four pick, I expect the Jets' phone will be ringing off the hook with offers, and rightfully so.

While not the finished product Ferguson is, Miami OL Eric Winston is yet another player that appears capable of anchoring an NFL line for the better part of a decade. After arriving in Coral Gables as a tight end, the 6'7" Winston was moved to tackle, where he bulked up to 310 pounds and his used his exceptional foot speed and agility to negate some of the best pass-rushers in the country. While a history of injuries and his limited time at the tackle position might turn some teams off, his potential is unlimited. With a frame built to add (at least) 30 more pounds and the speed and agility needed to deal with the new breed of speed pass-rusher in the NFL, Winston's talent far exceeds the questions surrounding him.

The x-factor in the 2006 offensive line class is USC OT Winston Justice. On pure physical talent, he might be the most dominant offensive lineman in this draft, better even than Ferguson and Winston. But, off the field issues, coupled with questions about his practice habits and training regimen, have dogged Justice since he arrived at USC amongst fanfare touting him as the greatest linemen in the country.

If he can consistently play up to his physical abilities, he has a chance to not only be the best linemen in this draft, but the best player in this draft period. As it currently stands, he is simply too physically gifted to be any worse that a top-15 pick. But, if he uses his pre-draft workouts and team meetings to show scouts and personnel men that he taking a more mature approach to the way he prepares himself to play football, he should rocket up draft boards as draft day approaches.

As offensive linemen, these three guys (along with Auburn OT Marcus McNeill, another potential first-round pick) are used to being overshadowed by the guys who they block for and allow to achieve the success that they do. But, as any astute football observer will tell you, NFL games are won and lost in the trenches. The same maxim applies to this year's NFL Draft. The teams that select these three tackles will have a chance to fortify their offensive lines for the next 10 years, and will be the biggest winners of the 2006 NFL draft.

Comments and Conversation

March 14, 2006

Josh Howard:

Hi Mike, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for the past 2 years…. where the hell have you disapeared to? Send me an email.

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