Offensive tackle was in a down cycle the past two years, when a total of just four prospects were plucked in the first rounds of the 2004 and 2005 NFL drafts. But the position is poised for a comeback in 2006.
At least that's the indication from the early draft grades for senior prospects from National Football Scouting and Blesto, the two combine services that provide scouting reports for franchises around the league.
Two of the top three prospects overall, according to the spring Blesto grades, are tackles Eric Winston of the University of Miami and Auburn's Marcus McNeill. Notable, though, is that Winston, the highest-rated player in the Blesto rankings, is rehabilitating from left knee surgery after an injury limited him to four games in 2004. National Football Scouting also regards the pair as top-shelf performers, with McNeill as its second-highest prospect overall and Winston among its top six seniors.
"It's good to see [tackles] getting that kind of respect," said McNeill, who practices yoga and meditation, and seriously deliberated about entering the 2005 draft before opting to return to Auburn. "It shows the way the position has grown over the last few years in importance. People understand, especially at the NFL level, because the passing game is so important, how critical it is to have great tackles."
One disclaimer here before moving on: The NFS and Blesto spring grades evaluate just senior prospects and are notorious for being only a modest indicator of how players are graded at the end of the long information-gathering process. At times, in fact, the two combines' grades resemble nothing like the final draft order.
The grades do, however, offer some early insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the following year's draft. And this year, they certainly point to a strong group of offensive tackle prospects, perhaps one of the best contingents in several years. If the two combine services are accurate in their early assessments, the 2006 lottery could snap the recent slump at the tackle position. Only two tackles Jammal Brown (to New Orleans) and Alex Barron (to St. Louis) were chosen in the first round of this year's draft. The '04 draft produced just two first-round tackles, as well: Robert Gallery (to Oakland) and Vernon Carey (to Miami).
The recent first-round fall-off at the position comes after a nine-year stretch in which 34 tackles were selected in the first round. In every one of those drafts (1995-2003), at least three tackles were chosen in the first round. In three of the drafts '95, '96 and '99 there were five first-round tackles. That period included a 1997 draft that brought to the league Orlando Pace (St. Louis) and Walter Jones (Seattle), generally regarded as two of the three premier tackles in the NFL, and the underrated Tarik Glenn (Indianapolis).
With so many well-respected tackle prospects among the top seniors on the early 2006 grades, next year's draft could produce a bumper crop of pass protectors, one that might rival 1997 in quality and 1986 (a record six first-rounders) in quantity.
Some of the top tackles, besides Winston and McNeill, are: D'Brickashaw Ferguson (Virginia), Jeremy Trueblood (Boston College), Jonathan Scott (Texas), Jami Hightower (Texas A&M), Daryn Colledge (Boise State) and Andrew Whitworth (LSU). And that just scratches the surface of an impressive tackle lot, and does not account for underclass prospects, like Winston Justice (Southern California), who likely will enter the '06 draft.
Fact is, the early combine grades seem to point to an '06 draft that will be strong on the offensive line in general. Blesto features two guards among its top-rated players and the NFS grades include two centers and a guard among the top 13 prospects. It could make for a relatively un-sexy, but still productive, first round.
The player many observers feel will be the top overall selection in 2006, Southern Cal quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, is rated second by Blesto and sixth by NFS. The highest grade from NFS went to Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway.
Some of the other players who show up among the top prospects on both NFS and Blesto ratings include tailback Leon Washington (Florida State), guard Max Jean-Gilles (Georgia), linebackers A.J. Hawk (Ohio State) and Roger McIntosh (Miami), defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (Boston College) and corner Jimmy Williams (Virginia Tech).
Around the league
• Negotiations with most high-round draft choices won't commence until next week at the earliest. But at least in terms of total agreements, overall signings have slightly outpaced last year, albeit it not at the top of the draft. As of Thursday at noon, 34 of the 255 draft picks had reached agreement, two more than the number on June 30, 2004. One difference: In 2004, four first-day picks, including one first-rounder (Houston linebacker Jason Babin), already completed deals by the time the calendar flipped to July. So far this year, only two first-day choices, Chicago second-round wide receiver Mark Bradley of Oklahoma and New York Jets third-round defensive tackle Sione Pouha of Utah, have agreed to terms.
With no deals completed in the first round, here is the breakdown on where accords have come in the rest of the draft: three in the fourth round, eight each in the fifth and sixth, and 13 in the seventh round. It's worth noting some teams are continuing to stretch the length of their late-round deals. It used to be (and not all that long ago) that virtually every contract for a player chosen after the second round was for three years. But teams are increasingly demanding longer contracts, even for their lowest picks. Of the eight agreements in the fifth round, three are for four seasons and one is actually for five. Three of the eight deals completed in the sixth round so far, and four of the 13 in the seventh round, are for four years.
• Another mechanism to look for this year, as team cap managers struggle to deal with the fact that signing bonuses can only be amortized over five years (as opposed to the six or seven years of the past), is the use of the two-tiered bonus for second-round selections. Normally the province of only first-round choices, there was just one two-tiered bonus a structure that includes the upfront signing bonus and then a second bonus, typically an option bonus due in March of the following year used to accommodate a second-round choice in the 2003 draft. In 2004, the number of second-round deals which included the two-tiered format grew to 11, and could continue to increase this year.
The five-year, $4.28 million contract second-rounder Mark Bradley signed with the Bears features an initial signing bonus of $1.55 million and a $600,000 option bonus next spring. The former Sooners star, who reportedly looked very raw in offseason workouts and mini-camps, will also receive a roster bonus of $150,000 this year. His base salaries over the course of the contract are $230,000 (for 2005), $310,000 (2006), $390,000 (2007), $480,000 (2008) and $570,000 (2009).
By the way, we're still betting on either wide receiver Matt Jones (Jacksonville) or cornerback Fabian Washington (Oakland) to be the initial first-round pick to reach a contract agreement. Agent Brian Mackler, a terrific guy with numbers and never one to wait for the market to be set before jumping into the negotiating fray, is ready to get down to bargaining with both teams.
• One personnel director from an AFC team still seeking to upgrade at the No. 2 wide receiver spot before camp said he will definitely consider Rod Gardner in free agency once the Washington Redskins decide to release the former first-rounder. But he also said he has recently reviewed videotape of a few young wide receivers for whom he would consider trading. At the top of the list of young pass-catchers he might pursue in a deal is two-year veteran Doug Gabriel of the Oakland Raiders. Gabriel, 24, could get lost in the shuffle in Oakland, where the Raiders will deploy Randy Moss, Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry on third-down situations.
A fifth-round pick in the 2003 draft, Gabriel had just one reception in 12 games as a rookie. But the former Central Florida standout, who isn't particularly fast but is notably physical and aggressive in going after the ball, had a nifty 16.7-yard average on 33 catches in 2004. He appeared in all 16 games, got five starts, and at times looked like a youngster who could emerge as a real playmaker.
Another young wide receiver who drew attention was Cincinnati third-year veteran Kelley Washington, who had 31 catches for 378 yards in 2004. As noted in an ESPN.com story earlier this week on young wideouts who could be running out of time with their current clubs this year, Washington might rate no better than No. 4 on the Cincinnati receiver totem pole, especially if Peter Warrick has recovered from the leg woes that limited him to just four games in '04.
• All present and accounted for. That's the word from league officials concerning the annual rookie symposium, which ran Sunday through Wednesday in West Palm Beach, Fla. Hopefully, most of the 255 draft choices attended because of the learning opportunity the symposium presents in dealing with real-word situations like money management, AIDS awareness, identity theft and dealing with the media and not because of the threat of a potential $50,000 fine for an absence.
The symposium is certainly one of the NFL's most admirable undertakings of the past decade, and the league is to be commended for its investment in it. One great quote from league vice president of player and employee development Mike Haynes on what the rookies quickly discovered at the symposium: "You come to realize that common sense is not that common."
• Like several other teams interested in free-agent cornerback Ty Law, the Kansas City Chiefs will wait a few more weeks to determine precisely where the former Patriots star is in his recovery from foot surgery, before moving on. If they don't land Law, it looks like the Chiefs will add either Ashley Ambrose or Dewayne Washington. Or perhaps both.
The two were among four veteran free-agent corners who auditioned for the Chiefs last week, and apparently made a better impression than Aaron Beasley or Terrance Shaw. Chiefs officials, including coach Dick Vermeil, have indicated they won't invest much more than the veteran minimum on Law, and that seems to be the consensus, for now at least, among all the teams interested in him. The four-time Pro Bowl corner has maintained he will not sign a minimum contract. But finding something that pays the $6 million or so per year that he still believes he is worth might be as difficult an undertaking as his long rehabilitation.
• New England owner Bob Kraft voluntarily surrendered his Super Bowl XXXIX ring to Russian president Vladimir Putin this week. Or so was the claim by Kraft, who might not win an international public relations war as easily as his Patriots capture championships. But New Orleans Saints safety Dwight Smith lost a lot more than Kraft did in pricey hardware this week about $100,000 in jewelry, according to police reports and not voluntarily.
The four-year veteran, who in March signed a five-year, $15 million contract with the Saints as an unrestricted free agent, was robbed at gunpoint in his hometown of Detroit Sunday night. Upon returning from a trip to a local market, Smith, who was visiting with relatives, was confronted by a man wielding an assault rifle. Smith was then forced to surrender two chains, a watch and a bracelet, valued at more than $100,000. He also lost about $4,000 in cash. Detroit police continue to investigate the incident. About the only saving grace: Smith, who played the first four seasons of his career with the Bucs, was not wearing the Super Bowl XXXVII ring he earned by intercepting two passes and returning both for touchdowns in the rout of the Raiders.
• Call it a wakeup call, both literally and figuratively, for Tennessee Titans second-year defensive end Antwan Odom. Prompted by the death of Reggie White last December, and fearing the potential consequences for his own health, Odom this week underwent surgery to treat a sleep apnea disorder. Odom, 23, has suffered from sleep apnea for several years and has worn a nasal mask at night to help him breathe.
Sleep apnea, which contributed to White's death at age 43, is characterized by multiple interruptions in breathing while a person sleeps. The interruptions, in which the airway collapses and prevents air from reaching the lungs, can last for as long as 10 seconds and may occur five or more times an hour.
"I think it scared me straight," Odom said of White's death. "Once I heard that it [contributed] to Reggie dying, I knew I had to do something. It was always a nuisance, but Reggie [dying] took it to another level for me. It became more serious then and it definitely hit close to home."
A physical exam revealed Odom had abnormal tonsils, which were removed as part of the surgery. Studies have suggested that men between the ages of 20-29 who suffer from severe sleep apnea have 10 times the risk of dying from heart-related ailments than similarly aged men who don't.
Titans officials hope the surgery will also give Odom, a second-round choice in the 2004 draft, an increased energy level this season. Their rationale is that the former Alabama star, who played in all 16 games and started seven in 2004, will be considerably fresher now with the benefit of improved sleep. Odom posted 45 tackles, two sacks and 11 hurries last season.
• On the subject of Tennessee defensive ends, the early returns are positive for the Titans and Kyle Vanden Bosch, who signed as an unrestricted free agent after four star-crossed seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. At least to this point, the Titans have received the kind of leadership and high-motor hustle they anticipated when they signed Vanden Bosch to a minimum deal, with a base salary of $540,000 and a modest $25,000 signing bonus.
The coaches have been impressed by Vanden Bosch, who, despite being just 26, is the elder statesman of the Tennessee defensive line. Impressed enough, in fact, that Vanden Bosch, the 34th player chosen overall in the 2001 draft, has been running with the first unit at times. Recommended by linebackers coach Dave McGinnis, the former Nebraska star has twice come back from anterior cruciate ligament tears and is attempting to salvage a once-bright career. Vanden Bosch tore his right ACL three games into his rookie season then missed the entire 2003 campaign after blowing out his left knee. In all, he has appeared in only six more games than he's missed. But his 35 appearances are only one fewer than the combined regular-season games of the nine other ends on the roster, and his 20 starts are nine more than the group has accumulated.
Vanden Bosch has just four career sacks, but that doesn't reflect the kind of off-the-edge quickness he exhibited early in his career. Whether he can get back to that form remains to be seen. But with such a young corps of ends none, beyond Vanden Bosch, has more than one season of NFL experience he is going to get every opportunity to win a job.
• One reason the Bears felt comfortable in releasing cornerback R.W. McQuarters three weeks ago, beyond the fact Chicago officials weren't going to shell out a salary of more than $3 million for a player who hadn't bought into coach Lovie Smith's program, was the coaching staff's confidence second-year veteran Nathan Vasher will improve on his rookie season. And Vasher, a fourth-round choice from Texas whose draft stock slipped because of pedestrian 40-yard times, was very good in 2004.
There were 13 cornerbacks chosen ahead of Vasher, who didn't go off the board until the 110th selection overall. Only two of them (first-rounders Dunta Robinson of Houston and Chris Gamble of Carolina), had more interceptions than Vasher's five. In fact, there were just a half-dozen cornerbacks league-wide with more interceptions.
Vasher doesn't have great long speed, but his quickness and burst to the ball are exceptional, and he possesses a big-play mentality. One pro personnel man for another NFC team opined that Vasher, who enjoyed an excellent offseason, already is one of the NFL's top 10 "nickel" corners.
• It isn't known yet if former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, recently released by the Kansas City Chiefs after he spent the spring in NFL Europe trying to learn to play safety, wants to continue his pursuit of a professional football career. After all, the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner has retired once, and after reconsidering that move, been released three times. What is clear, though, is that the Toronto Argonauts, who hold his CFL negotiating rights, would like Crouch to think about coming north. They would also like him to consider reviving his career as a quarterback. "I'd like to get a look at him," Toronto director of personnel Greg Mohns said. "And specifically as a quarterback. I know he's said that he is finished playing quarterback, and that he considers himself a safety now, but we still feel like he could go back (to quarterback)."
A third-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in '02, Crouch went to camp as a wide receiver. He hasn't played much quarterback since a stint in Green Bay's training camp in 2003. The Argonauts are looking down the road, though, and admit they can offer Crouch the luxury of relocating his comfort zone at the position, and of eventually playing in a league perhaps better suited to his skill set. The incumbent quarterback for the Argos is the legendary Damon Allen, now 42 years old, but not yet ready to leave the game. Their backup is Michael Bishop.
"We know it might take some time for (Crouch) to get back in the (quarterback) groove, but we've got the time to allow him to do that, if he wants," Mohns said.
• It wasn't many days into his New York Jets tenure that teammates bestowed a nickname on free safety Jon McGraw, the team's second-round choice in 2002. "The Natural," they dubbed him, and with good reason. At least from a physical standpoint, the former Kansas State star was certainly the football embodiment of the baseball movie's fictional Roy Hobbs and easily passed the "eyeball test." Long and rangy, and with prototype size and movement skills, it appeared McGraw was destined for stardom.
But in three seasons, McGraw has logged only eight starts, has missed 15 games to injury, posted only three interceptions and is rehabilitating from offseason groin surgery. The upshot: With a lot of young safeties on the roster, and even after the recent release of Reggie Tongue, team officials privately concede that it's time now for McGraw to step up.
For now, McGraw is listed No. 1 at free safety, teamed with second-year pro Erik Coleman, the fifth-round pick who was one of the steals of the 2004 draft. But the New York coaches also like second-year veteran Rashad Washington and a pair or rookies, fourth-round pick Kerry Rhodes of Louisville and fifth-rounder Andre Maddox from North Carolina State. McGraw needs to first prove he can stay healthy then demonstrate he can make plays.
• Last week in this space, we noted the number of older, veteran quarterbacks who still don't have jobs lined up for training camp, and who might have to wait until an injury creates an opening. This week, the focus is on veteran free agent tailbacks in the same predicament. There is a quartet of older backs Eddie George (31), Tyrone Wheatley (33), Garrison Hearst (34) and Dorsey Levens (35) still looking for work.
Led by George's 10,441 career yards, the four have rushed for an aggregate 16.1 miles, and scored 174 touchdowns. None is capable of being a lead tailback anymore, but all offer great leadership and tutoring skills and the opportunity to add a guy who knows the ropes for a minimum salary. Levens rushed for 410 yards on 94 carries to bail out the Philadelphia Eagles last season, when injuries decimated the tailback depth chart.
It's all but a given, by the way, that George will not return to Tennessee to finish his career with the franchise that brought him into the league. The Titans will either go with a very inexperienced corps of tailbacks behind starter Chris Brown or trade for Buffalo's Travis Henry.
• Among the first items Dave Wannstedt addressed when he took over at the University of Pittsburgh four months ago was the need to re-establish a recruiting connection between the Panthers and the top Western Pennsylvania prospects. If this week was an indication, the former Miami Dolphins coach is going to mine plenty of backyard talent for his alma mater.
Unlike predecessor Walt Harris, who embraced a more global but fundamentally flawed recruiting philosophy that alienated many of the area's top prep coaches and sometimes ignored viable local prospects, Wannstedt is selling the Pitt program at home first.
His pitch, it appears, is a solid one. This week alone, Wannstedt received verbal commitments from six western Pennsylvania prospects. That raised to 11 the number of commitments for the 2006 recruiting class (eight from western Pennsylvania). No matter what his critics thought of Wannstedt as an NFL head coach, the one universal in assessing him was that he is a terrific guy, a down-to-earth person who connects with people. That trait has been obvious so far in his brief tenure at Pitt and it will serve the Panthers well.
• As first reported by the Sports Business Journal, the NFL has awarded the Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys a total of $110.5 million in so-called "G-3" funding for their respective new stadiums. The Cowboys received $76.5 million toward the $650 million stadium in Arlington, Texas, that is expected to be ready for the 2009 season. The Colts got $34 million for the $450 million facility just south of the downtown RCA Dome. The awards mean a total of $773.5 million has been doled out in G-3 funding to 10 clubs since the program was created in 1999.
League owners, with only Cincinnati dissenting, approved the funding at an NFL meeting nearly three weeks ago. But the awards, which come from the visitors' share of club-seat revenue and from a $1 million-per-team annual assessment from national television revenues, could be among the last doled out. The G-3 program is under scrutiny as part of the battle over a new revenue-sharing model for the league, one that would address the widening disparity between the eight highest-revenue franchises and the rest of the clubs. The next in a series of five meetings on revenue sharing will take place Aug. 10-11 in Chicago, with commissioner Paul Tagliabue dividing owners into four groups, based on divisions, in an effort to create some momentum in what has been a stalled process.
• Talk about a statistical oddity: With the release of Tongue two weeks ago, the Jets' roster is now without any of the players who scored points for the team in its two 2004 playoff contests. In a wild card victory over San Diego and then the divisional-round loss at Pittsburgh, the Jets scored four touchdowns: two by wideout Santana Moss (on a reception and punt return) and one each by tight end Anthony Becht (reception) and Tongue (interception return). Kicker Doug Brien had three field goals and four extra points in the two overtime games. In addition to Tongue, the scorned Brien was released after the Jets invested a second-round choice on Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent. Moss was dealt to Washington for wide receiver Laveranues Coles. And Becht exited as an unrestricted free agent, signing with Tampa Bay.
• Punts: San Francisco coaches have moved seventh-round draft pick Patrick Estes, a tight end his entire career at Virginia, to offensive tackle. It isn't chiseled in granite yet, but it's looking more like the 49ers will switch cornerback Mike Rumph, a first-round pick in 2002, to free safety. The Titans are discussing a long-term contract with three-year veteran safety Lamont Thompson, who played well in 2004 after replacing the injured Lance Schulters in the starting lineup. Thompson earlier in the offseason signed the one-year restricted free agent qualifying offer of $656,000, but there is mutual interest in extending the deal beyond 2005. Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer has increased his stake in the Manchester United soccer club to beyond 98 percent and, according to British law, can now compel the remaining shareholders to sell him their stock. It was bound to happen: The Donruss card people inadvertently switched the teams and logos on the two Alex Smiths from this year's draft. Top overall pick Alex Smith of San Francisco is pictured in his Utah uniform on a card that bears the Tampa Bay Bucs' logo. Stanford tight end Alex Smith, the Bucs' third-round choice, is shown on his card with a 49ers logo. Buffalo offensive right tackle Mike Williams and New York Giants defensive tackle Fred Robbins both recently restructured their contracts to provide some salary cap relief to their respective teams. Williams, by the way, has followed up his strong finish to the 2004 season with a terrific spring. Seems the former first-rounder, the fourth overall choice in the '02 draft, is poised to become the dominant strong-side blocker everyone projected the former University of Texas star to be. In case anyone's counting: There are 15 new No. 2 quarterbacks on depth charts around the league. That includes seven newcomers and eight players who were already on teams but elevated into the primary backup roles this spring. It does not account for the possibility of Doug Flutie bumping Rohan Davie from the No. 2 spot in New England or of Dave Ragone, who played very well in NFL Europe this spring, knocking Tony Banks down a peg in Houston. In an effort to get versatile defensive lineman Kenny King on the field more, the Arizona Cardinals might use more five-man fronts in 2005. The defense, employed mostly as a gimmick in '04, was very effective at times and King is a very active player whose snaps need to be increased.
• The last word: "Anybody can say, 'OK, he had a great year (in 2004), so let's see if he can do it again.' That's like trying to tell a person to go to war in Iraq, but let me see if you can go to war again and come back, and then we'll give you the Medal of Honor. You don't send a soldier out to a battlefield twice for him to (prove he is) consistent." Green Bay wide receiver Javon Walker, who has two seasons remaining on his current contract, on whether he should have to repeat a stellar '04 performance before seeking an increase.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.