Several teams expected to pursue Gallery
The importance of having a great left tackle makes Robert Gallery a more coveted prospect than Eli Manning.
With the news this week that New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi phoned San Diego Chargers counterpart A.J. Smith to discuss a deal involving the top spot in the 2004 draft and likely acquisition of Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, the NFL world was at least temporarily nudged back onto its axis.
Accorsi earned his stripes in the NFL watching guys like Johnny Unitas play the game's most demanding role and, in a league where it has become suddenly chic to diminish the quarterback position, he remains an old-guard true believer in the axiom that you need a great signal-caller to win championships.
Evidence to the contrary -- a former sixth-round pick, Tom Brady of New England, won two of the last three Super Bowl games and Brad Johnson, who came into the NFL as a ninth-round selection, claimed the other -- we agree. And so now the latest member of the most prolific quarterback family tree in NFL history figures to be the main focus of draft chatter for the ensuing two weeks.
Still, there is evidence supporting the notion that, if Manning is the highest profile player in the draft pool, Iowa offensive tackle Robert Gallery remains the safest choice. Just as the Giants organization is scrambling to divine the formula for securing Manning, whose surname alone would be magic in The Big Apple, it appears even more franchises covet a shot at Gallery, who could be the second overall prospect off the board.
But beyond Gallery's estimable talents, and his Eagle Scout character, there is this factor: The left tackle position, in retrospect, has risen dramatically in importance over the past few years. And those teams that have solidified the tackle position in general over the last decade have realized handsome dividends.
Since 1995, there have been 15 offensive tackles chosen in the top half of the first round, and all 15 are currently starters in the league. In the last 10 lotteries, a dozen tackles were selected in the top 10, and one could argue that all have carved out notable NFL tenures to this juncture of their respective careers.
Of the eight tackles chosen in the top 10 of the draft 1995-2000, all but Kyle Turley have been to at least one Pro Bowl game. Tony Boselli, whose career was cut short by a series of shoulder injuries, will be a Hall of Fame candidate. Ditto Ogden, Pace and Jones once their careers conclude. Houston Texans tailback Domanick Davis won rookie of the year honors for last season, but most league observers acknowledge the most accomplished first-year player in 2003 was Carolina tackle Jordan Gross, who will switch from the right side to the left side in 2004.
Once an afterthought, the tackle position is now a priority, and left tackle has risen to near-skill position status. All one needs to do is review the upward spiral of contract averages for offensive tackles over the last seven seasons.
"Nothing is ever going to replace (the quarterback position) as the most critical one on the field," allowed St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz at last month's league meetings. "But if you don't have a left tackle, well, you'd better get one, because you're in trouble. It really is one of the biggest building blocks. You can't function without a big-time left tackle."
The importance of the left tackle spot certainly has been reflected in what has transpired, or, more accurately, hasn't transpired, during the current free agency period. Just three left tackles of note -- Todd Steussie (of Carolina), Derrick Deese (San Francisco) and Ephraim Salaam (Denver) -- switched teams this spring. And all three did so only after they were released.
The top young left tackle who was to have been available, Green Bay's Chad Clifton, was re-signed by the Packers before he ever hit the open market. That is in lockstep with the current mindset in the NFL, which strongly suggests that teams do whatever it takes to hold onto quality left tackles. The current 32 starting left tackles in the NFL are under contract, at this point, for an average of more than three more years.
And that, in typically convoluted fashion, brings us full-circle back to Robert Gallery.
The franchise that lands the Iowa star figures to secure his services, and thus ensure some degree of bodily safety for its starting quarterback, for the next six or seven seasons. Little wonder, then, that so many teams covet him and are plotting potential scenarios for trying to get into position to snatch him. Little wonder, too, that the Oakland Raiders are getting a lot of phone calls about the second overall spot in the draft, and what it might take to pry that slot away from them.
Cleveland, which flirted briefly with the idea of trading for Pace, has made no pretense of its interest in Gallery, who would be the centerpiece of a revamped blocking unit. But the team that is perhaps most ardent in its pursuit of Gallery is Washington, which would like to slide up three rungs in the draft, to the Oakland spot, to choose him. The Redskins, to this point, have demonstrated stealth in their efforts, but now they have been outed.
Yeah, we know, the Redskins already have a top-flight left tackle in Chris Samuels. And we just noted, only a few paragraphs ago, that teams with proven left tackles (Samuels has made a pair of Pro Bowl appearances), don't discard them.
Both points are well-taken, but this is the Redskins we're discussing, and owner Daniel Snyder doesn't always adhere to league convention. More important, Snyder does not deal well with players who don't play according to his rules. Samuels, in rejecting all overtures toward the kind of contract extension linebacker LaVar Arrington bit on, is seen by the Redskins now in a different light.
The Snyder rationale: If you're not with me, and not going to provide me the kind of salary cap relief I need, well, you can go the way of Champ Bailey. Samuels has a salary cap charge of $8.749 million for 2004 and, after twice previously reworking his contract to help Snyder out of jams, is balking at another re-do. Plus having played two seasons in the flawed pass protection scheme drawn up by the deposed Steve Spurrier, the left tackle wants a shot to rehabilitate himself.
What the Redskins would prefer to do is cut a deal, perhaps using wide receiver Rod Gardner as trade bait, that allows them to choose Gallery. And then they could either deal Samuels to a tackle-needy team, like Cleveland, or release him at some point.
While it doesn't have the marquee status of the Giants' pursuit of Manning, the chase for Gallery is almost as intriguing, and certainly magnifies the importance of left tackles.
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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