(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
This is an example of what is known as the cyclical nature of the NFL Draft.
Among the first 26 picks of the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, there were eight offensive tackles taken, including Jake Long as No. 1 overall, and only two defensive ends. So if you were looking for pass protection that year, you were in luck. Looking for a pass rush, well, not so much.
In 2011, there could be as many as 13 defensive linemen picked in the first round, with only a few of the offensive tackle prospects carrying comparable grades. And so, it evens out overall, with a big advantage this time to the teams looking for people who can help them get after the opposing quarterback. Finding that can't-miss offensive tackle prospect to keep that quarterback upright won't be so simple.
One clue about the lack of pizzazz at the position this year is the fact there is no real consensus as to the No. 1 guy. It could be Colorado's Nate Solder, or Boston College's Anthony Castonzo, or USC's Tyron Smith.
Smith (6-foot-5, 305 pounds) is the youngest of the top-tier prospects here, and was a 20-year-old junior starter at right tackle in 2010. After winning the Morris Trophy as the Pac-10's top lineman, Smith had surgery on a torn meniscus on Dec. 17 and did not work out at the Combine at the end of February. While Smith passes the eye test as an NFL left tackle, his only starting experience in college was at right tackle. If a team decides Smith is a left tackle in the NFL, he could end up being the first tackle picked.
After spending 2006 at Fort Union Military Academy to bulk up to 262 pounds from the 225 he weighed in high school, Castonzo (6-7, 311) began his college career in 2007 as a starting right tackle opposite Gosder Cherilus, who would become a No. 1 pick of the Detroit Lions. He moved to left tackle in 2008 and started the next 40 games there. Castonzo also was a team captain and was nominated to be a Rhodes scholar.
Solder (6-8, 320) was voted the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year and then showed himself to be the best pass blocker at the Senior Bowl. That's how Solder ended a college career that began with a redshirt season in 2006 followed by one as a blocking tight end and special teams player in 2007. He then started at left tackle in all 38 games the team played over the next three seasons, and in 2010 he was a finalist for the Outland Trophy. Solder also was a team captain, and according to statistics kept by the school, he only allowed five sacks and 21 pressures in 1,400 career passing plays.
After these three, the next tier of tackles usually includes Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod.
Carimi (6-7, 314) is another of the fifth-year seniors, and his playing career in college began in 2007 as the replacement for Joe Thomas, who had entered the NFL as the third overall pick, by the Cleveland Browns. Carimi missed three starts in 2008 after tearing his right MCL in a game against Ohio State, but other than that he was durable and dependable, with 49 career starts and the 2010 Outland Trophy on his resume.
Sherrod (6-5, 320) played four years at Mississippi State, where he started 34 straight games at left tackle and served as team captain as a senior. A solid college player with plenty of experience, Sherrod's draft status could be impacted by the perception that he's still a work in progress. Of all of the top prospects here, Sherrod might be the one who's least ready to play right away.
THE 2010 NFL DRAFT, OT STATISTICS
Number drafted: 19
Picks by round: 4 in the first; 4 in the second; 1 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 2 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh
Highest pick: Trent Williams, Oklahoma, Round 1, 4th overall, by Washington
Biggest impact: Rodger Saffold, Indiana, Round 2, 33rd overall, started 16 games for the St. Louis Rams