(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
Look at it as the cycle of life in the NFL. Teams without a franchise quarterback very rarely get into a position to win a championship, and teams that find themselves a franchise quarterback and don't take the necessary steps to protect/preserve him end up wasting an integral and difficult-to-find asset.
Most of the time, it's the crop of tackle prospects that drives the quality of the group of offensive linemen, and as many as a half-dozen college offensive tackles have a chance to enter the NFL as first-round picks on April 28.
A favorite to be the first overall pick until the Titans traded out of the spot with the quarterback-hungry St. Louis Rams, Tunsil is 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, and he has the long arms and athletic ability befitting a guy who was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, and then an instant starter at Mississippi. A third-year junior and a three-year starter, Tunsil is only 21, which means he still can mature some more physically, which could be a frightening possibility for players who go against him. He dislocated an ankle and broke his leg in Mississippi's final game of the 2014 season – a Peach Bowl loss to TCU – and then he was charged with domestic assault against his stepfather, with reports indicating Tunsil was protecting his mother in the dispute. He also was suspended for seven games by the NCAA for accepting impermissible benefits (vehicle loans without payment, free airline ticket and rental car) and failing to be forthcoming with investigators. There also was the revelation at the Combine made by teammate Robert Nkemdiche, who told reporters Tunsil was present on the night Nkemdiche claimed to be drunk but not under the influence of synthetic marijuana when he jumped or fell approximately 15 feet at an Atlanta-area hotel in December. From a talent and technique standpoint, Tunsil is considered the top offensive lineman in the 2016 draft and maybe the top prospect overall.
Stanley, 6-6, 312, had a chance to go pro after his third year at Notre Dame, but he decided to return because he wanted to be part of a national championship contender. That didn't happen, but Stanley started every game at left tackle and was voted second-team All-America. Stanley started every game at right tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2013, and then he became a full-time starter at left tackle in 2014-15. Scouts appreciated the maturity Stanley showed to return to school to continue working on his craft, and as a result he should be ready to come in and start right away for some NFL team. A durable, intelligent player with experience at both tackle spots, Stanley will be in the mix to be the second offensive lineman picked on April 28.
Here are some of the top offensive line prospects in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft according to NFL.com.
Conklin, 6-6, 308, got no scholarship offers coming out of high school and went to Michigan State as a preferred walk-on. He earned a scholarship halfway through his redshirt season of 2012, then started 13 of 14 games in 2013 – 10 at left tackle and three at right tackle. Conklin went from solid in 2014 to very good in 2015, and NFL teams must decide whether his future is at left tackle or at right tackle. He is physical and plays with an attitude, which was displayed in Michigan State's victories over Oregon – when Conklin handled DE DeForest Buckner at the point of attack – and over Ohio State when an NFC scout told NFL.com, "He was busting up Ohio State in the fourth quarter of that game not because he was more talented than those guys but because he just wanted it more." Conklin could become the first Michigan State offensive lineman to be drafted in the first round since Tony Mandarich in 1989.
Clark, 6-5, 316, started 51 straight games for Texas Tech, with his final three years at left tackle, each of which ended with him being All-Big 12. Scouts see Clark as an ascending left tackle prospect with the foot quickness and length that teams covet. Clark will have to improve his strength and hone his technique, but that's said about just nearly every college offensive lineman making the transition to the NFL. Left tackles with his potential in pass protection very rarely last very long once the draft begins.
It's not considered a very good group of guards, and those NFL teams appreciating a guy with a lot of game experience at multiple positions along the offensive line could view Whitehair, 6-4, 309, as the best of that group. Whitehair was Kansas State's strongest and most athletic lineman, and he was moved from right tackle to left guard, back to right tackle, and finally to left tackle for his last two seasons. A four-¬year starter who was voted team captain in 2015, Whitehair is a hard worker in the weight room and in practices. He's a team-oriented guy, who filled in at left tackle when the Wildcats needed him there, and he played well even though he was out of position. His versatility and technique rank him among the top linemen in the draft class.
Kelly, 6-4, 311, was a leader and three-¬year starter for an Alabama offense that emphasizes toughness, and he likely enters this draft as the top prospect at center. Not one to stand out during football-in-shorts, Kelly does play with enough strength and athleticism to handle power and zone-running schemes. Kelly was voted honorable mention All-SEC as a junior, and he won the team's Offensive Player of the Week award twice during that year. He followed that up with a consensus first-team All-SEC senior year, when he was a part of an offensive line that helped running back Derrick Henry win the Heisman Trophy and allowed quarterback Jake Coker to make enough plays on offense in a season that ended with another National Championship for the Tide.
THE 2015 NFL DRAFT, OL STATISTICS
Number drafted: CENTERS: 5; GUARDS: 16; TACKLES: 26
Picks by round: CENTERS: 0 in the first; 1 in the second; 1 in the third; 1 in the fourth; 0 in the fifth; 1 in the sixth; 1 in the seventh; GUARDS: 2 in the first; 0 in the second; 2 in the third; 6 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 2 in the sixth; 2 in the seventh; TACKLES: 5 in the first; 5 in the second; 3 in the third; 4 in the fourth; 0 in the fifth; 3 in the sixth; 6 in the seventh
Highest pick: Brandon Schereff, OT, Iowa, Round 1, 5th overall by the Washington Redskins
Biggest impact: Schereff, who played 752 snaps for a Redskins offense that finished seventh in sacks allowed per pass attempt and 10th in scoring along the way to winning the NFC East Division championship.