In the 2010 NFL draft, there were two standout tackles selected in the first six picks: Trent Williams(notes) and Russell Okung(notes). This year features a tackle class that isn't quite as high in upper-level talent, but is much deeper in first-round talent .Players like Anthony Castonzo, Derek Sherrod and Gabe Carimi may be pro-ready players with lower ceilings than those of Williams and Okung, while developmental projects like Nate Solder and Tyron Smith have bigger risk/reward factors.
Smith and Sherrod provide especially intriguing skill sets; while Smith has rare athleticism, much of his draft value is based on what he might do as opposed to what he has done. Sherrod, on the other hand, may have the best command of the intricacies of the position in this class.
Do you need a tackle now, or are you willing to take the time to develop a higher-upside player? These are the questions this tackle class has NFL teams asking.
(* all measurements for Tyron Smith are from USC's pro day. He did not do full combine workout due to injury.)
Tyron Smith, USC *
Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State
Pass-blocking: Very athletic player who quickly gets into his kick step and dropback when establishing an arc against speed rushers. Quick enough to mirror the fastest edge pressure. Played on the right side at USC, so he'll have to learn the intricacies of blind-side protection (unless he goes to a team with a left-handed quarterback) and playing against a higher percentage of elite defenders. Defends loops and stunts very well with his strength, foot agility, and hand movement. Good at redirecting when defenders move off the initial block.
Pass-blocking: Impressive overall in his technique; Sherrod gets off the snap quickly and keeps a wide base when engaging defenders and turning the corner to block edge rushers. Smooth with his kick step and drop into pass coverage; he's quick enough to mirror ends and generally strong enough to box them out through the back of the pocket. Very good at handing off an initial defender and heading upfield – he's an ideal zone blocker because he recognizes his own assignments and those of others on the line.
Run-blocking: Gets inside quickly to engage and pop defenders; strong enough to seal off ends and outside linebackers. Will get bulled back in power situations, specifically when asked to take tackles inside. Smith gets upfield very quickly; runs more like a tight end at the second level. Plays out of a two-point stance, which may affect his power base against stronger NFL opponents. Not a good cut-blocker. Tends to wrestle and dance with defenders more than he really pops them and establishes the leverage advantage.
Run-blocking: Ability to climb the ladder and get to the second level quickly and decisively helps him here, but he needs to come off his stance lower and win more leverage battles. Can pinch inside and seal to either end to create gaps. Would benefit from more authoritative hand use; he has the power to deliver a better punch and get defenders off balance more than he does; he showed this in the Senior Bowl.
Pull/trapping: Agile enough to get out into space and knock some people around, though he'll need more root strength to excel in slide protection. In general, he needs to work on his ability to stick blocks after running to them.
Pull/trapping: Could stand to be more agile side-to-side; while he's very solid head-on, he tends to lose optimal balance going side to side and doesn't always have the strength to redirect. Can trap and loop well due to his agility in small spaces.
Intangibles: Smith doesn't have any real dings on his record, aside from the one-game academic suspension he served in 2009. He's far from a finished product, and though maturity and intelligence aren't specific concerns, it may take some time for him to get up to speed with the more complex NFL.
Intangibles: Very intelligent player who got a business degree with a 3.54 GPA. Earned the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Award, which includes a post-graduate scholarship. Very involved in community service in Mississippi, promoting nutrition for kids, literacy, and food-drive initiatives.
Conclusion: Smith is still growing in a lot of ways – still growing into the 307-pound frame he has now (he played at around 280 at USC), still growing up (he turned 20 last December), and still growing into the role he'll no doubt play at the NFL level as a highly drafted left tackle prospect. In some ways, he could be seen as a "future" pick – the team taking him most likely in the first half of the 2011 draft will have to work with him on playing with the extra weight, adjusting to left tackle, and presenting the kind of functional strength demanded of his position, no matter how athletic he may be. In the right system, Smith could very well have multiple Pro Bowls in his future, but he's not yet the scheme-transcendent player some might imagine him to be.
Conclusion: More than any other tackle during Senior Bowl week, Sherrod put his talents on display in a positive sense – by displaying his grasp of the little things, by playing most consistently from snap to snap, by kicking seamlessly over to right tackle during one practice day, and by playing in the actual game with a serious nasty streak. That stood in stark contrast to the evaluations of those who believe that Sherrod isn't mean enough on the field. It was once said of Orlando Pace(notes) that he wasn't "mean" enough to be an elite NFL tackle, but some players manage to make the tough things look easy when people are looking for grasping and groaning to impress them. Sherrod isn't in Pace's class (and may never be; Pace is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer), but his potential for NFL success is based more on the things he does right than on any overwhelming physical attribute or glass-chewing temperament. He's a football player, pure and simple.
Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo's Shutdown Corner blog, and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.