At Tackle, the Pool Is Not Only Long, but Deep

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Even before the Miami Dolphins signed Jake Long of Michigan to a contract this week to make him the top overall pick in the NFL draft today, this was considered a potentially exceptional group of tackles. The expected run on them could be one of the major story lines of the draft's opening round.

"I think it's a strong class altogether," Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland said. "I think there's some good depth there. I think there could be several first-round picks, and there could be some that play for a long time in this class of tackles."

Some talent evaluators are convinced that a half-dozen tackles could be drafted in the first round. Ryan Clady of Boise State, Jeff Otah of Pittsburgh, Chris Williams of Vanderbilt, Gosder Cherilus of Boston College and Branden Albert of Virginia, a guard in college projected by some NFL teams as a left tackle in the pro ranks, may follow Long.

The draft will open on an anticlimactic note when the Dolphins officially make Long the first offensive lineman drafted No. 1 since Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace was taken by the St. Louis Rams in 1997.

Long signed a five-year, $57.5 million contract with the Dolphins on Tuesday. The deal includes $30 million guaranteed and makes Long a significant building block as Dolphins front-office chief Bill Parcells attempts to reconstruct a team that went 1-15 last season.

Long can play right or left tackle but is projected by the Dolphins as a left tackle. That's a premium position, charged with protecting the blind side of a right-handed quarterback.

"He's very smart," said Dolphins Coach Tony Sparano, the offensive line coach of the Dallas Cowboys before being hired by Parcells and Ireland in Miami. "He's tough. He's disciplined. . . . We see Jake as a left tackle. Left tackle is our need. That's where he's going to be playing for us."

Long was called for only two penalties in his college career -- holding as a redshirt freshman and a false start last season. By his count, he surrendered two sacks, including one last season to Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston, also projected to be an early first-round pick today.

"I take it personally," Long said at the NFL scouting combine in February in Indianapolis. "I wanted to make sure that I was perfect and not let up a sack, but Vernon is a great player, and he had a good move on me, and I let it up."

The Dolphins were thought to have Gholston and fellow defensive end Chris Long of Virginia also under consideration for the top selection. But they decided left tackle was a good place to begin their rebuilding, and they negotiated only with Jake Long's representatives. Parcells, Ireland and Sparano still lack a proven quarterback, having passed on Boston College's Matt Ryan to sign Long, but it's possible they'll get one later in the draft.

They reportedly are shopping veteran defensive end Jason Taylor and are seeking a first-round pick in return if they trade the former NFL defensive player of the year. They perhaps could use a pick they get for Taylor, or their second-round selection, on a member of the draft's second tier of quarterbacks.

Taking a left tackle is considered, comparatively speaking, a relatively low-risk draft proposition, a notion reinforced a year ago when the Cleveland Browns used the third choice on Wisconsin's Joe Thomas, who excelled as a rookie. But there's no such thing as a no-risk proposition on draft day, even for a class of left tackles as well regarded as this one.

"On paper, it is an exceptional group" said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. "You just have to see how it plays out over time. All these guys have their strengths and weaknesses. What you don't know is how much those weaknesses will be exploited over time after they get into the league. We'll just have to see."

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