Evolution is not a stepwise process – it hasn’t been throughout the history of life and it hasn’t been throughout the history of football. Rather, evolution vacillates between negligibly slow progress and huge leaps forward. Accounting for the evolution of football is the unwritten task of a football team’s general manager, as he, along with the team owner, team president, and other head-honchos, is responsible for the short and long term vision of the team. If you’ve read some of my articles on drafting last year, you know that I’m a big fan of trying to account for this evolution and trying to become a trend-setter in football – which is ironic because in my other field of study, medicine, I find the trend-setting approach to be a questionable decision at best (would you have wanted to be the guy that got the first heart transplant? The 18 days Louis Washkansky lived after the operation is still considered one of medicine’s great successes).
But this article is about football, and the NFL is a “copy-cat” league. The most recent trends that NFL teams have fawned over include the 3-4 defense, exotic blitz packages (which is at least somewhat related to the 3-4), running quarterbacks, two tight-end sets, and the wide receiver/running back hybrid (eg Percy Harvin, Randall Cobb -types). Some of these trends are getting snapped up like golden retriever puppies at an animal shelter; others haven’t caught on quite as quickly. Of these trends, the 3-4 defense and its associated blitz packages (which have also transformed the modern 4-3 defense) have become all the rage in the NFL. As the NFL has become a pass-happy league, its defenses have compensated by becoming blitz-happy. Countering a blitz in the NFL is no longer as simple as looking for a linebacker shooting the A-gap. It has become an intricate process that often isolates tackles with two or three guys rushing at them, and the pass-rushing personnel of times past – the defensive ends – are now joined by the modern-age pass-rushers – 3-4 outside linebackers, big safeties or cornerbacks, penetrating 4-3 defensive tackles, and even 3-4 defensive ends (ok, maybe JJ Watt is more the exception than the rule). How is a team’s offensive line – and specifically the tackles, since they see the most creative blitz action, supposed to counter this?
One major way a team can counter this is based on the algorithm that makes good football players great – good coaching, extensive preparation, and lots of hard work. Or they could choose the second option – acquiring more talented football players… and I don’t mean that as a snarky comment directed at Gene Smith. I mean that teams, like the Jaguars, could begin shoring up their offensive lines with players that are more adept at pass-protecting, in terms of their footwork, athletic ability and technique. This is about more than grading offensive lineman higher due to positional value. This is about re-constructing the offensive line to fit the mold of the modern NFL offense.
How would this look, you ask? Well, you start by replacing the right tackle with another “left” tackle. That’s right, move over two-tight end sets – the two-“left” tackle set is the next big structural change the offense is going to see. Why would you want this? Because of what blitzing has become in the NFL these days. Protecting the quarterback is no longer solely about protecting his blind side. It’s about being able to deal with the increasingly faster players that are coming at him from all angles. Regardless of whether you’re on board with this, you may be wondering what right tackles have done to me to make me want to phase them out. The answer is nothing – I’m not thinking about phasing them out. I’m thinking, why can’t we try our right tackles inside? While this may be all too reminiscent of the Eben Britton experiment the last couple years for Jaguar fans, the Eben Britton experiment is irrelevant because my suggestion is predicated upon drafting talented offensive lineman (take that Gene Smith). Shoot, you could even start to bring your mobile guards outside and use them as big tight ends – the blocking tight end is kind of a dying breed, but what if they were bigger and stronger on the outside. How fun would it be to see Uche Nwaneri pancake a blitzing safety or maul a nickelback on a running play? Talk about winning the one-on-one battles. Plus, how do we know he can’t be a Guy Whimper-esque goal line threat when we get into the red zone?
Here’s what I do know. Offensive line is a huge need for the Jaguars, and GM Dave Caldwell is going to want to do something about it – whether it be drafting more talented ones or getting our current linemen healthy. While many fans (including myself) could easily argue that left tackle is the one area that’s not a need for the Jaguars and therefore Luke Joeckel shouldn’t even be on Caldwell’s needs-based board at number two, I don’t think it’s quite that cut-and-dry. It would admittedly be extremely ballsy for Caldwell to draft a left tackle at #2 – plenty would question the move. But if Joeckel is Caldwell’s highest graded player available at number 2 and Caldwell believes in a two-“left” tackle offensive line, why shouldn’t he take Joeckel at two?
Left tackle is already one of the most prized possessions in the NFL draft, even if some argue that is shouldn’t be. One of the biggest hindrances to a two “left” tackle offensive line is what it will cost a team, in terms of draft value. A team has to be willing to spend two first round selections to get two “book-end” tackles. As a fan, would you rather your team take two shots at a quarterback with those selections? Or perhaps just go about filling needs?
Furthermore, there’s still the question of what two “left” tackles get you in terms of team production – wins. One Jonathan Ogden helped make Trent Dilfer a Super Bowl winning quarterback – two of him may have made him into an all-star! Texas A&M’s offensive line certainly looked great with two future first round picks on the outside in Joeckel and Jake Matthews (returning to A&M but a projected first round pick) – they gave up just nine sacks on the year as a team. But how much better would the Browns have been with two Joe Thomases (Thomasi?)? How much better would the Jaguars have been last year with two Eugene Monroes?
We’re just beginning our analysis of this draft, but the goal of every general manager, as well as every wanna-be general manager like myself, is to find the best value in this draft for their team. While we have yet to review this draft’s top quarterbacks, I can’t envision that one of them will be the best value for the team when April comes around. Luke Joeckel, on the other hand, could be.
– Zain Gowani