(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, set for April 26-28.)
It has been true of every great quarterback in the history of the National Football League, that they cannot be great if they are stretched out on the turf. So that's why just about every NFL Draft includes two things – quarterbacks being picked high in the first round and offensive tackles being picked high in the first round.
This year will be no different. The first two players off the board once the draft begins on Thursday, April 26, are going to be quarterbacks. The next guy picked is expected to be an offensive tackle.
That guy is USC's Matt Kalil (6-foot-7, 305 pounds).
Kalil is so good, so athletic and technically sound, that he could have been the first overall pick in the draft were in not for the presence of a couple of elite quarterback prospects. Kalil is seen as a better pro prospect than a couple of other Trojans tackles who went in the first round of recent drafts – Tyron Smith and Sam Baker. The younger brother of Carolina Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, Matt was the 2011 winner of the Pac-12's Morris Trophy, which is given to the conference's top offensive lineman as voted upon by the league's defensive linemen.
The next level below Kalil, but still first-round material, include Iowa's Riley Reiff (6-6, 315), Ohio State's Mike Adams (6-7, 325), and Stanford's Jonathan Martin (6-5, 310), with Mississippi's Bobby Massie (6-6, 315) a possibility to sneak into the first round as well.
Reiff generally is regarded as the tackle who will follow Kalil off the board, and it would surprise no one if he ends up being a top 10 pick as well. After redshirting in 2008, Reiff started 11 games in 2009 – three at left tackle, seven at left guard and one at right tackle – before becoming a full-time starter at left tackle in both 2010 and 2011. Reiff has been compared to Titans' Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos, and even if his arms aren't as long as some scouts would prefer he has managed to find ways to get the job done throughout his college career.
Adams is something of a curiosity as this draft draws near, and the only reason he even was able to elevate himself to that status was because of a fine week at the Senior Bowl. He is big and athletic and has the kind of ability that allowed him to neutralize J.J. Watt when Ohio State played Wisconsin in 2010, but he will come into the NFL with some baggage. In 2009 he was demoted to the scout team and suspended for two games following an incident involving drug paraphernalia, and then he was one of five Buckeyes players suspended for the first five games of 2011 for selling his 2008 Big Ten Championship ring. He has been criticized for being soft, and Adams seemed to validate that by putting up only 19 repetitions in the bench press at the combine. Does he have the mental makeup and toughness to be a great pro?
Martin certainly understands the pressure of protecting a great quarterback's blind side, because he started 37 games at left tackle over the last three seasons for a Stanford team that was totally dependent upon Andrew Luck. Martin turned down the opportunity to be the first fourth-generation African-American Harvard student, and now not all scouts agree that he has the strength to be successful in the NFL. Some of the doubters contend that Stanford's zone blocking scheme helped Martin maximize his results and their concern was amplified when he managed only 20 repetitions on the bench at Stanford's pro day.
Massie came out of high school weighing 335, but after choosing Mississippi he lost 20 pounds and instantly became a starter on an offensive line that ranked second in the SEC for fewest sacks allowed (17). In 2011, despite playing on a 2-10 team that ranked 114th in the nation in total offense, Massie was credited with the key block in all 12 of the team's touchdown runs. He has been a right tackle throughout his college career.
THE 2011 NFL DRAFT, OT STATISTICS
Number drafted: 19
Picks by round: 6 in the first; 3 in the second; 2 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 1 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh
Highest pick: Tyron Smith, USC, Round 1, 9th overall, by Dallas
Biggest impact: Tyron Smith started all 16 games for the Cowboys