Leaguewide decline at OT position taking its toll

Dan Arkush
Pro Football Weekly
Leaguewide decline at OT position taking its toll

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s something seriously out of line in the sport of pro football entering Week Two of the regular season.

Specifically, the state of the offensive tackle position is unquestionably shaky.

According to PFW’s tabulations, nearly two-thirds of the teams in the NFL have what could be considered legitimate concerns on their offensive lines at tackle.

One-third of the OT situations, it should be noted, could be considered downright offensive.

An obvious place to start in an in-depth exam of the OT position is an emphasis on the overall talent. Clearly, it isn’t nearly as deep as it used to be. That’s especially the case in the NFC, which will be missing Eagles starting Pro Bowl OLT Jason Peters this season because of the Achilles tendons he ruptured in late March and mid-May.

“You could pick probably 7-8 really good offensive tackles in the league, and then there’s a big drop-off,” said Greg Koch, a fixture at right tackle for the Packers in nine of his 11 pro seasons before becoming the co-host of a Houston-based sports-talk radio show appropriately named “In the Trenches.”

After talking to sources around the league, we were able to identify only seven teams with solid starters at both left tackle and right tackle. In the Pro Football Weekly 2012 Preview player rankings of each position, only two teams had both its starting OTs ranked in the top 20 — the Titans (OLT Michael Roos: 6th; ORT David Stewart: 17th) and the Chiefs (OLT Branden Albert: 14th; ORT Eric Winston: 18th).

Some of the sources around the league that PFW reached out to for enlightenment on the subject of offensive tackles believe the talent evaluation at the position could be falling short.

“I think too many evaluations start and end with the eye test,” said Tom Thayer, a former Bears guard who now serves as an analyst on Bears radio broadcasts. “If you’re big enough and long enough these days, you’re often considered talented enough to play today’s game.

“But sometimes, there is talent that isn’t scouted because it just doesn’t fit the template.

Size has become more of a consideration than athleticism. For example, (former Bears OT) Jimbo Covert, if he was coming out today, he would be considered unfavorable as a first pick. But he’d still be coming out as a major ass-kicker, whether his arms were 33 inches long or 37 inches long.”

Thayer also believes there are a lot of effective pass-heavy systems with top-level QBs that make it easier for their linemen to be successful. 

“The Mannings. Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees. Tom Brady. They all make their O-linemen better players,” Thayer said. “You don’t have to sustain the blocks as long.”

Koch believes another fundamental problem is a decline in properly teaching the fundamentals, in great part because of a lack of the kind of hitting he believes is necessary to survive at the pro level.

“A lot of old-school O-line coaches are rotating out of the league, and I think the lack of hitting (in practices and training camp) really hurts,” said Koch, whose NFL career lasted from 1977-87. “Where are the one-on-one drills?  In our first 30 minutes of practice when I was playing, there were drills where you came off a dummy, stayed low, kept your feet wide and hit the other guy. I just watch these OTs today, and they just concentrate on locking up the guys they’re up against. There’s no real push off the ball.”

Limits on hitting as stipulated in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement are considered part of the problem by many close O-line observers.

“Hey, I’m all for player safety,” Koch said. “The players negotiated into the CBA that they are going to have less time on the practice field, and then (subsequently) less time in full gear when they do practice. While I think it will help safety long-term, I also think it also really hurts the quality of the game.

“I think hitting in training camp is definitely required to play the sport of football. It’s an inherently violent, nasty game. Not only do you have to get your head right in training camp, you also have to get your body acclimated for hitting. There’s this swirling maelstrom of chaos in this game, and the hitting helps you develop an inherent sense of when a guy might be trying to roll you.

“Veteran linemen get that general feel, and I don’t know if the guys today get that. They are going at mostly three-quarters speed in practices, and on Sunday afternoons you’re thrown into a game being played at warp speed with all these big, strong guys.

“I don’t think the bodies today are properly acclimated.”

What follows is a look at the top 10 tenuous OT situations around the league:

1. Arizona Cardinals — Arizona’s O-line was already a mess when starting OLT Levi Brown, a former top five overall draft pick who was serviceable at best, was lost for the season with a torn triceps. It got even messier when veteran No. 3 OT Jeremy Bridges, who for a while was competing for the starting ORT job, suddenly went on injured reserve with a torn thumb ligament.

In Week One, both starting tackles —D’Anthony Batiste on the left and rookie Bobby Massie on the right — made their first starts in a Cardinals uniform The Cardinals have added a few journeymen off the waiver wire (OT Pat McQuistan, OG-C Rich Ohrnberger), but clearly, this is a torn and tattered unit, as well as one that’s paper-thin. Massie is an imposing physical specimen, but most close observers believe he is not really ready for a prime-time role. Batiste, meanwhile, has been OK, but he’s really just a guy.

“Even before Levi Brown got hurt, the Cardinals’ tackles were in bad shape,” one NFL GM told PFW. “They just missed on that kid and won’t admit it.”

Added Koch: “I think Russ Grimm is a good, old-school O-line coach. I don’t get how bad that line in Arizona is.”

Bad enough to make things a lot harder on an offense also hindered by arguably the league’s most tenuous QB situation.

2. Chicago Bears — The Bears went to great lengths to improve the offense with the addition of players like WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and RB Michael Bush. But concerns at offensive tackle, a longstanding problem, threaten to offset the team’s new firepower.

J’Marcus Webb is the starter at left tackle, but he struggled badly at times last season and often needs help sent to his side. The Bears hope ORT Gabe Carimi, a first-round pick last year, can stay healthy. Carimi was arguably their best O-lineman before getting hurt early last season.

How fluid is the Bears’ OT situation?

“Every position with (head coach) Lovie (Smith) is subject to change,” Thayer told PFW. “When I watch both Gabe and J'Marcus, I see both of them having a huge upside. Gabe is the best lineman Lovie has, but J'Marcus physically has as many tools as anybody in the league.”

Other sources PFW talked to beg to differ.

“Carimi struggled in the preseason,” one NFL personnel executive said. “You want to believe that Webb could turn the corner — but he just has not done it yet and I don’t know if he ever will.”

3. Oakland  Raiders — “(GM) Reggie (McKenzie) has to fix the line,” one GM told PFW. "Neither of their tackles (OLT Jared Veldheer and ORT Khalif Barnes) would make our roster.”

The considerable lack of depth behind the Raiders’ starting tackles makes matters worse for Carson Palmer & Co.

Veldheer is considered a promising young left tackle by some, but Barnes, who is in the final year of his contract, is strictly so-so.

With the AFC West considered to be the tightest division this season by many league observers, Oakland’s O-line concerns could be the key in determining whether the Raiders will be contenders or pretenders.

4. St. Louis Rams —Both OTs Rodger Saffold (left) and Jason Smith (right) were eaten alive in training camp by Rams DEs Chris Long and Robert Quinn, which triggered the trade of Smith, who must be considered one of the all-time first-round busts, to the Jets for Wayne Hunter, a well-documented whipping boy in the Big Apple who played under Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer with the Jets.

The line’s condition worsened when Saffold, who was good as a rookie, was carted off the field after suffering a scary neck injury in the Rams’ season opener in Detroit. While it does not appear Saffold was hurt as badly as it looked Sunday, it could be a while before he’s healthy enough to play again. At right tackle, ex-Chief Barry Richardson, a journeyman, started the season ahead of Hunter.

“Health has been the biggest issue in St. Louis,” one top GM said. “Jason Smith has undisputable feet and athletic ability, but the concussions obviously were a very real issue. Saffold (already had) a back condition. I would not want to be (Rams QB) Sam Bradford.”

5. Jacksonville Jaguars — “It’s going to be a long year for (starting second-year QB) Blaine Gabbert — let’s put it that way,” one top NFL personnel director said. “I thought (OLT Eugene) Monroe regressed last year. (Ex-ORT Eben) Britton has to be a guard.”

Monroe, previously drafted eighth overall, is a terrific athlete, with great feet and quickness, but he has a tendency to get overpowered.

The Jags love Britton's tenacity and versatility, but close team observers agree that it’s imperative he proves he can stay on the field and be counted on. He started at left guard in Week One, with second-year player Cameron Bradfield starting at the ORT spot. Both players were in walking boots with ankle issues following the OT loss to the Vikings.

6. Buffalo Bills — Much like the Bears in the NFC, concerns at the tackle position threaten to offset a lot of good moves that appear to have been made by the Bills this offseason, especially up front on the other side of the ball.

Start with second-round rookie Cordy Glenn, who started the season on QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s blind side.

“The rookie is stiff as a board,” one NFL personnel man said. “He can’t bend. You've got to be able to bend to play tackle.”

At right tackle, Erik Pears played well last season, but he has been banged up. His backup is second-year OT Chris Hairston, another relatively unproven commodity.

7. San Diego Chargers — The consensus among our leaguewide OT sources is that Chargers GM A.J. Smith has not done a good job building depth at tackle.

“When (normal starting OLT Jared) Gaither is on the bench, that is a bad group of tackles, easily in the top five worst in the league,” one league GM said.

Gaither has been experiencing back spasms, and the Chargers started the season with undrafted rookie Mike Harris protecting QB Philip Rivers' blind side. Reserve Brandyn Dombrowski is currently on the non-football illness list because of a cyst on his foot.

Jeromey Clary is considered to be OK at right tackle, but taking into account San Diego’s scary manpower shortage, a post-Week One addition at tackle seems very likely.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers — The ill-timed torn MCL suffered by first-round draft pick David DeCastro, who was projected as the starter at right guard before going down, makes the Steelers’ suspect OT situation look even shakier.

Veteran Max Starks is back at left tackle. Coming off a January knee injury, he started the season as the Steelers’ best OT option, since second-round draft pick Mike Adams is not yet considered ready for prime time and allowed a sack and some pressures to Broncos OLB Von Miller Sunday night.

ORT Marcus Gilbert got a lot of experience as a rookie and might have some upside but he left the Week One loss to the Broncos with an apparent knee injury in the first half and didn't return.

Then again … “I don’t think either tackle can play,” one top league personnel man said.

9. Washington Redskins — Injuries on the line are a major issue.

Said one GM: “With both tackles (OLT Trent Williams and ORT Jammal Brown) hurt, it looks a lot like Philadelphia’s situation last year when (OLT Jason) Peters and (ORT Winston) Justice were dealing with injuries, and Ryan Harris never worked out. The offense was a mess.”

Williams is Washington’s most talented lineman, but he was slowed a little in preseason with a bad foot and was not as dominant as he normally is early in camp. He still started Week One. Brown is recovering from preseason hip surgery.

With OLG Kory Lichtensteiger coming back from a torn MCL and ACL in his right knee without much practice, it's imperative for rookie QB Robert Griffin III's well-being that Williams performs well.

Both Tyler Polumbus, the current starter at right tackle, and third tackle Jordan Black are journeymen.

10. New York Giants — The shaky performance of the Giants’ tackles in the season-opening loss to the Cowboys does not bode well for the defending Super Bowl champions.

“(Starting OLT Sean) Locklear was abused in the opener,” one top NFL executive said. “DeMarcus Ware ate his lunch. (Starting ORT David) Diehl is too old. (2011 starting OLT Will) Beatty had six good games last season — and that was it.”

Beatty, who suffered a season-ending eye injury last season, is currently out with a back ailment.