You've heard the cliché a hundred times before – Offensive Linemen are not sexy draft picks. However, from this point on, let's abstain from using "sexy" as a descriptor of any professional football player. A more precise term to describe players like Joe Thomas and Alex Mack could be "essential." Arguably, Thomas and Mack have proven to be the best first round draft picks to arrive during the Browns' expansion era.
And while the Browns' offensive line as a whole struggled in 2011, it's worth asking just how dire the situation would be without the team's two Pro Bowlers. After veteran Eric Steinbach was lost to injury, rookie tackle Jason Pinkston was shifted to guard and showed signs of improvement as the season progressed. Along the right side of the line, virtual rookie Shawn Lauvao was inconsistent while free agent Tony Pashos struggled to stay healthy.
Heading into 2012, the hope is that Thomas and Mack can again anchor the line, while Pinkston and Lauvao continue to improve. However, there is a gaping hole at right tackle that has basically gone unfilled since the days of Kevin Schaffer. The current assumption is that since Browns' GM Tom Heckert did not find a veteran free agent fix for the position, April's draft should deliver a new right tackle candidate. If recent history has shown anything, it is that Heckert has devoted mid-round picks to offensive linemen in each of his first two Cleveland drafts.
In compiling some scouting sketches of the draft's top offensive line prospects, I sought out former OBR contributor and current ESPN Rumor Central reporter Brent Sobleski. As many readers of the site already know, Sobleski's specialty is in evaluating offensive line talent.
To expel another draft cliché, USC's Kalil is probably the "safest" pick in the draft and should be the first player off the board after quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are chosen by the Colts and Redskins. Kalil is physically huge, yet incredibly mobile and played in a college system that emulated many NFL schemes. Kalil is an expert pass protector, but still proved to be an effective run blocker – especially when USC called traps and sweeps.
According to Sobleski, Kalil is more than just a safe pick. "If this wasn't the Andrew Luck draft, it would have been the Matt Kalil draft," Sobleski said. "He's every bit the prospect Joe Thomas was coming out."
"He's very smooth in his pass set and can mirror any defender," Sobleski said. "He keeps his shoulders square until he has to bail at the last second. And he's a little stronger run blocker than he's given credit. Remember, he was good enough to keep Tyron Smith at right tackle last year, and I thought Smith had franchise left tackle skills."
While it's intriguing to think of a Thomas-Kalil combination in Cleveland, it's likely the USC tackle will be gone by the time the Browns pick at either 4 or lower in the round. Iowa's Reiff and Stanford's Martin could be more realistic mid to late first round prospects for the Browns. Reiff is the latest product of Kirk Ferentz's offensive line factory in Iowa. Similar to Robert Gallery and Bryan Bulaga before him, Reiff converted from high school tight end to left tackle – eventually finding success with 33 consecutive starts. Martin enters the NFL with a resume highlighted by protecting projected top overall pick Luck.
When asked if there was a drop-off in terms of talent between Kalil and the other top tackle prospects, Sobleski noted the disparity.
"It's significant," Sobleski said. "Some question if either can be a blindside protector. I believe both can after late review of their games. Reiff is very similar to Bryan Bulaga a couple years ago. Martin is a little better athlete but isn't quite as polished in the run game."
Considering that Pinkston was originally drafted as a tackle last April, there is a buzz coming out of Berea that suggests the Pitt product could begin 2012 at right tackle. If such a scenario occurs, then Heckert could be looking for another guard prospect rather than a pure tackle. Typically, guards rarely are drafted until the middle of the first round, which is where Stanford's DeCastro is projected to be taken.
The 6'5 DeCastro was known for his efficiency at Stanford, as he consistently excelled at both run and pass blocking. However, according to Sobleski, the Stanford guard may be a bit overhyped heading into this month's draft.
"I'm one of the few that doesn't believe DeCastro is in that top ten range," Sobleski said. "I believe he's a very, very good prospect. But he's not the pile driver Steve Hutchinson was coming into the league. He's not the freakish athlete that Mike Iupati was. Neither of those players went in the top fifteen. I do have slight concerns about his tendency to lower his head especially when blocking on the move. DeCastro is a very good player, but no one is infallible."
Overshadowed by DeCastro is Georgia's mammoth Cordy Glenn, a 6'6, 350 pounder who started 50 collegiate games at both guard spots and left tackle. Glenn is a physically dominant run blocker who has surprising quickness for his size. However, Glenn's versatility is equally surprising, as he was named a first team All-SEC left tackle in 2011 – despite never playing the position before.
According to Sobleski, Glenn could be a fit for the Browns later in the first round.
"If he makes it past Cincinnati and neither Martin or Reiff are still available, Cordy Glenn is a carbon made Tom Heckert offensive lineman," Sobleski said.
History would point to such a move, as Heckert's involvement with the Eagles produced several similar draft picks. From 2001-2009, the Eagles selected four hefty SEC offensive linemen, a list that includes Shawn Andrews and Max Jean-Giles.
Much of what the Browns will end up doing in the middle rounds of the draft will be established with the team's first selection. If the Browns take a gamble on Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill early, then finding offensive weapons would seemingly become a priority. In this scenario, improving the offensive line could wait until the third or fourth rounds.
"I honestly believe the Browns will look strongly at a right tackle at 22 with names like Reiff, Martin, Georgia's Cordy Glenn and Ohio State's Mike Adams," Sobleski said. "If the team waits until the third round, then you're discussing Cal's Mitchell Schwartz or Auburn's Brandon Mosley as solid targets."
Schwartz and Mosley have ideal size – each stands taller than 6'5 and played in competitive college conferences. Mosley is another example of a high school tight end converting to tackle, while Schwartz is among the more experienced tackle prospects in this year's draft. The rest of the second day list features big school talent, including OSU's Adams, who is gifted but was inconsistent throughout his college career.
According to Sobleski, there is a rich supply of middle round guard talent. Miami (Ohio)'s Brooks could be a classic example of a big time prospect hidden on a small team's roster.
"Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler and Pitt's Lucas Nix may be the two best players in the draft that very few outside of NFL circles are talking about," Sobleski said. "Miami (Ohio)'s Brandon Brooks and Midwestern State's Amini Silatolu have tremendous physical tools. Miami (Florida)'s Brandon Washington might be a first rounder if his team didn't need him at left tackle this year."
Considering that Heckert is armed with 13 picks this year and that the fifth-round selection of Pinkston in 2011 cost the Browns two sixth-round picks, it's likely that one of the following names could be called in a few weeks.
A precise term to describe players like Joe Thomas and Alex Mack could be "essential." Arguably, Thomas and Mack have proven to be the best first round draft picks to arrive during the Browns' expansion era.
NFL Draft Outlook: Tackles and Guards
You've heard the cliché: O-linemen are not sexy draft picks.
My biggest question for training camp and the start of the season: how effective will Mike Pettine and his staff be this year? Can they add value and if so how much? In the old football vernacular: can they coach this team up?