Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Friday, April 5, 2013
Left behind

By David Fleming
ESPN The Magazine

Joe Thomas
Since Cleveland drafted Joe Thomas in 2007, its scoring offense has ranked above 24th only once.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 15 Photo Issue. Subscribe today!

IN APRIL 2008, the Dolphins were so eager to make Michigan left tackle Jake Long the No. 1 pick overall and the cornerstone of their franchise that they signed him to a $57.5 million contract four days before the draft. Long more than lived up to that deal, becoming only the fourth tackle in 50 years to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons -- before a triceps injury sent him to injured reserve last December.

Yet almost five years after the '08 draft, the Dolphins let Long -- who at 27 is entering his prime -- hit the open market without even offering him his $15.4 million franchise tag salary. Long ultimately became the 11th free agent offensive tackle to sign this offseason, inking a four-year deal with the Rams that could be worth as much as $36 million. But the contract came after he lingered on the market for a week, with his old team as the only other real suitor.

So why the dramatic drop in urgency and currency for such a productive player? Actually, it's not Long who has lost so much value -- it's his position. The left tackle, once considered an essential building block for every franchise, has seen its importance erode in this era of read-option spread offenses. That's something NFL teams with high draft picks need to consider on April 25, when two left tackles, Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan's Eric Fisher, are expected to be top-five picks.

Sled
The left tackle was once thought of as a high-paid, building-block player.

Times have changed dramatically since 2006, when the Ravens' Michael Oher was the inspiration for The Blind Side. That best-selling book and eventual blockbuster movie helped mythologize the left tackle's role in protecting the quarterback's back. But in '06, the ideal QB still stood in the pocket and worked through his progressions before delivering the ball downfield. Today, QB drops are shorter, the ball comes out quicker, the passers are far more elusive and the pressure is coming from all over, not just the right defensive end. As a result, Oher doesn't even protect the blind side anymore. In Super Bowl XLVII, he started at right tackle.

Who would have ever predicted that when the Ravens made Oher their first-round pick in 2009? "If there's a great left tackle available, sure, people are still gonna take him," says Phil Savage, executive director of the Senior Bowl and former GM of the Browns. "But I absolutely think you're going to see more and more people rethink the idea of the left tackle as this top-notch, highest-paid, building block kind of player."

Savage's reversal on the position is telling. In 1996 he was the director of player personnel in Baltimore when the Ravens drafted left tackle Jonathan Ogden with the fourth pick overall. In 2007, while running the Browns' draft, Savage selected LT Joe Thomas third overall. It's hard to dispute the impact of either guy; Ogden, in fact, was just elected to the Hall of Fame. But there's no disputing this either: Of the 12 left tackles drafted in the top 10 since 2004 -- at a collective price of more than $500 million -- only three have a postseason victory, and not one has an NFL title to his credit (Ogden won a ring in 2000). And although Thomas and Long have been to 10 Pro Bowls between them, neither has won even a single playoff game.

Consider this also: In the first round of the 2007 draft, Savage bypassed Adrian Peterson, who last year had one of the greatest seasons by a running back in NFL history. To take Long in 2008, Miami passed over QB Matt Ryan, who has led the Falcons to the playoffs four times and took them to last season's NFC championship game. "I do not regret taking Jake Long," former Dolphins executive Bill Parcells told ESPN.com in April 2011. "But you always wonder if you should have taken a quarterback."

For decades, old-school thinkers like Parcells and former Colts president Bill Polian considered quarterback, left tackle and pass rusher to be the "holy trinity" of team building. Now the argument can be made that the correlation between victories and elite left tackles no longer exists. "When coaches talk about position hierarchy, left tackle isn't among the top few anymore," an AFC team exec says. "Now it's QB, pass rusher, cornerback, wide receiver. A guy like Joe Thomas shows that a great left tackle isn't nearly sufficient."

Nor is he necessary. After all, Eli Manning won two Super Bowl MVPs with former fifth-round pick and converted guard David Diehl protecting his backside. Aaron Rodgers sets up behind fifth-round pick Marshall Newhouse. And who can name Tom Brady's left tackle? How about Peyton Manning's? Considering that those two legendary QBs had the quickest releases in the league last season -- 3.03 and 3.04 seconds, compared with the league average of 3.46 -- do the names really matter? Linemen simply don't have to hold their blocks as long as they used to.

Meanwhile, to counter quick-strike passing attacks, defenses like the Giants' and Ravens' have started to take a shorter, more direct path to the quarterback by overloading pressure up the middle, which places more value on guards and centers. That's why Alabama's Chance Warmack could become just the seventh guard taken in the top 10 of the draft since 1988. And because running backs and especially tight ends are too valuable in the passing game to stay in and block -- catches by tight ends are up 16 percent since 2008 -- even the right tackle position is on the rise.

In the end, the importance of protecting the quarterback hasn't diminished; it's just that the responsibility and rewards are now more evenly distributed across all five O-linemen. "It used to be you found a great left tackle and built the rest of it from there," Savage says. "Now, because of defenses, you'd better be solid across the entire line. Instead of the super-elite left tackle, it's about five men who block well in a system. You could write a whole book about how the spread offense has impacted the NFL game."

In that book, the chapter about left tackles could be titled Blindsided.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.