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NFL Draft > Offensive line

You can book it: Tackles will go high

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By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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In his 2006 book, "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," author Michael Lewis concludes that left tackle - a once-anonymous spot responsible for protecting the blind side of righthanded quarterbacks - has evolved into one of football's most important positions.

Lewis based his premise on football becoming more of a passing game (he credits late 49ers coach Bill Walsh for that), while noting the escalating salaries at the position. He also chronicled the life of Michael Oher, a left tackle prodigy who had a hard-luck life in Memphis and was later highly recruited by college coaches.

The book will soon become a movie, and in the case of Oher, another chapter will be written next weekend during the NFL draft.

Oher, who played at Mississippi, is a projected first-round draft choice, possibly to be selected within the top 10 picks. He is one of the left tackles expected to cash in with a megabucks contract, along with Baylor's Jason Smith, Virginia's Eugene Monroe, and Alabama's Andre Smith.

That he is in such a position is one of the feel-good stories of the draft.

"I grew up poor, and was homeless a lot growing up," he said at the NFL Combine in February. "I just worked hard and came through a lot of adversity. I was taken in by a family that helped me get to college and pushed me and that's why I think I'm here today at this level."

Oher hasn't read Lewis's book, but from talking to people who have, he believes it was an accurate reflection of his life.

From a football standpoint, the 6-foot-4 1/2-inch, 309-pound Oher has been rising of late in the eyes of some talent evaluators. One NFL assistant coach said that Oher showed quick feet and potential on his college film, but the overall grade was not high because his toughness and passion were questioned. Yet as time has passed, those concerns have been answered in the eyes of the coach.

While Oher's story will draw attention, there are intriguing story lines involving Baylor's Smith and Virginia's Monroe.

Either could be selected as high as No. 2 - and one could perhaps be the top pick if the Lions don't select Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Some NFL teams like Smith better, although he's considered a bit less polished than Monroe. The concern is that he hasn't played much with his hand on the ground while firing out to strike defenders; instead, he's played mostly in space as a pass blocker, where he's aided by his quick feet. So there is more of a projection to make with Smith, while Monroe is currently more well-rounded.

Meanwhile, Alabama's Smith was a highly touted prospect whose stock dropped when he left the combine early, saying he wasn't prepared to work out. That led NFL teams to do some extra work on Smith - who visited the Patriots this past Monday - before placing a final grade on him. Prognosticators now wonder how far Smith might fall.

While there figures to be an early run on tackles, the first guard or center is unlikely to be selected until the end of the first round at the earliest.

Oregon's Max Unger, who projects at both center and guard, has the size, toughness, and athleticism that usually rate highly among NFL teams. He started 51 games over his college career, and is a top candidate to be the first interior lineman selected.

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