It’s the left tackle. You know, the big guy two positions over from the center. You may not know the tackle's name, but there’s no reason to because he doesn’t figure into your fantasy league. As for his speed, you can time his 40-yard-dash with a calendar.
Yet that monstrous galoot whose name gets called only when he screws up is what makes a football team go. On average, left tackles earn the second-highest salaries in football, more than receivers, more than pass-rushers, more than running backs, more than anybody other than the quarterback — the man whose existence is owed to the left tackle.
I thought I’d mention that before you get your jock in a knot over Bill Parcells’ decision to take Michigan tackle Jake Long with the first pick in the 2008 draft instead of somebody more exciting, such as Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. I can understand if you want to argue that Parcells should have taken Ryan. Quarterbacks are the easy choice with the first overall pick.
But I won’t fault the pick. Unlike some NFL personnel gurus, Parcells knows that good running backs don't always come from the first round and that quarterbacks take years of development before you find out if they’re going to be any good. He also knows a little bit about building football teams. When he won two Super Bowls and had one of the NFL's best teams when he was coaching the Giants, he built his teams around two exceptional left tackles — Brad Benson and “Jumbo” Elliot.
Parcells' new project, the Dolphins, needs help everywhere. But they particularly need it on the offensive line. And when you’re pretty much building a team from scratch, you start with the foundation. And that’s the left tackle.
Long was a dominant college lineman for Michigan in the Big Ten, a conference known for great offensive linemen. In his entire college career, he was called for two penalties and gave up two sacks, and everybody says he’s the goods.
He could flop. Tony Mandarich once was the hottest lineman in college football, so highly regarded that the Packers made him the second pick overall in 1989. Mandarich never made it in the pros, and some say it was because in the NFL they tested for drugs. When people want to talk about the hazards of picking linemen high in the draft, Mandarich is exhibit A.
But there was another Big Ten lineman, Orlando Pace, who was the first pick overall in the 1997 draft. Pace became the anchor of a Rams line that took St. Louis to two Super Bowls, beating the Titans and losing to the Patriots. In return for his services, Pace’s highest salary was around $18 million a year.
So don’t beat up the Tuna on this pick. If Long plays to his potential, he’s going to be a Miami fixture for the next decade, the foundation of a rebuilt offense. He’ll be there week after week, giving his quarterback that little bit of extra time to find a receiver, opening holes for the running backs, giving the team a chance to win. Whatever quarterback the team fields will play better because of Long, and every running back who lines up behind him will run better.
Pacells didn’t really want the first overall pick, and I don’t blame him. It’s too easy to screw up with you get first dibs on the new college crop. But when he couldn’t find a suitable trade, he did the smart thing. He’s never liked taking quarterbacks high and he knows that top picks are wasted on running backs. Instead of drafting for the most glamorous position, he drafted for the most vital.
But that’s not true. Great talents at left tackle are pretty much as rare as great talents at quarterback. If there’s one you think is going to be an all-timer at the top of the draft, you go and get him and let the critics squawk.
You draft for the most important positions and the biggest needs. Long fills both of those criteria.
Good pick, Tuna.
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