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Building blocks: Turnaround teams usually turn tackles

Paul Jasienski / Associated Press
The Dolphins' selection of Jake Long in 2008 helped the team pull off the worst-to-first turnaround.


When general managers are quizzed about rebuilding a franchise most respond in terms that refer to the construction of a house. They frequently cite the need to "build a strong foundation" to steady the project and that adage often follows them into the war room when it is time to select the players to orchestrate a dramatic turnaround.

Whereas most observers would point to the quarterback as the key to a franchise's revival, recent history is showing that the offensive tackle position is playing a prominent role in the restoration process.

While many credited the sudden turnarounds of Miami, Baltimore and Atlanta to their installation of new quarterbacks, it is not a coincidence that the trio also featured three young offensive tackles (Jared Gaither, Ravens; Sam Baker, Falcons and Jake Long, Dolphins) excelling as first-time starters. In addition, the Carolina Panthers' 12-4 season was keyed by the stellar play of Jeff Otah on the edges.

Given the instant success of those players, and the fact that 12 offensive tackles have been taken in the first round of the past two drafts, scouts are beating the bushes to find another dominant edge blocker on the horizon. Fortunately, this year's draft class features a host of talented offensive tackles that scouts project to make immediate impacts as pros.

Oklahoma State's Russell Okung and Oklahoma's Trent Williams are currently viewed as the gems of the class, but they are joined by Southern California's Charles Brown, Notre Dame's Sam Young and LSU's Ciron Black as potential first-round picks in a draft that could produce as many as six first-round offensive tackles when all is said and done.

With several franchises on the verge of being blown up in the offseason, general managers may opt to grab a hard hat and an offensive tackle to start the rebuilding.

Must-see college games for NFL scouts this week
Cincinnati at South Florida, 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday
This contest between Big East foes is generating a strong buzz in scouting circles due to the emergence of Bearcats quarterback Tony Pike, who has shot up draft boards after enjoying a stellar senior season. Pike has completed more than 66 percent of his passes while tossing 13 touchdowns against only three interceptions. Although his numbers are outstanding, some scouts still have reservations about his game and they will use this contest against South Florida as a barometer of his pro potential. South Florida has a secondary with two highly regarded prospects (FS Nate Allen and CB Jerome Murphy), and they will test Pike's ability to throw the ball in tight windows. Additionally, George Selvie's persistent pressure off the edge will give scouts an opportunity to see Pike's poise under duress. With the field littered with pro prospects, this intriguing battle ranks as must-see TV in the scouting community.

Oklahoma vs. Texas, 12 p.m. ET Saturday
The NFL is littered with alums from the Red River Shootout, and this year's version will serve as a showcase for more than a dozen pro hopefuls. Although the duel between Sam Bradford (2011) and Colt McCoy could settle the debate about which quarterback ranks as the top prospect at the position next spring, scouts will also focus on the host of other matchups between top prospects. One battle sure to draw a lot of attention is the battle in the trenches between the Sooners' Trent Williams and Texas' Sergio Kindle. Williams has earned high marks for his skills as run blocker, but scouts will use his performance against the ultra-athletic Kindle to see if he has the footwork and lateral quickness to function as a franchise-caliber offensive tackle. While Kindle will garner some spotlight due to his prowess as a pass rusher, scouts will also closely study his teammate, Roderick Muckelroy, to assess his potential as an impact linebacker. On the flip side, scouts will closely scrutinize the play of the Longhorns OT Adam Ulatoski against a Sooners' front line that features two studs in Gerald McCoy (2011) and Auston English. Additionally, scouts will keep an eye on the Longhorns' Jordan Shipley to see if the dynamic playmaker can continue to torment opponents as a receiver/returner.

Southern Cal at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
The scouting community will pay close attention to several intriguing matchups set to take place in South Bend. The rapid development of Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen (2011) has led to speculation regarding his early entry into next spring's draft, and scouts will pay close attention to how well he performs against the Trojans' pro-style defense. Astute evaluators will check out how he well he reads coverages and how he manipulates the safeties with his eyes. With the Trojans' Taylor Mays roaming the middle of the field, this chess match is undoubtedly the one to watch. Another player scouts will focus on while Notre Dame has the ball is Sam Young. The highly regarded offensive tackle prospect faces a Trojans' front line that is loaded with speed, and his play against their talented defensive end rotation will help scouts assess his skills as a potential left tackle on the next level. When Southern California has the ball, the spotlight will shine directly on the Trojans' Charles Brown. The former tight end turned tackle is soaring up draft boards due to his outstanding athleticism, but scouts want to see if the standout has the toughness to dominate at the point of attack as a run blocker. If he can convince the scouting community that he has a stellar overall game, he may continue to ascend into first-round consideration.

Iowa at Wisconsin, 12 p.m. ET Saturday
Scouts will pay close attention to the battle between the Badgers' Garrett Graham and the Hawkeyes' terrific linebacker tandem of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds. Graham is one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the game, and his ability to effectively work over the middle of the field has scouts projecting him as an early-round selection in the draft. Given his outstanding hands and superb route-running ability, it is not surprising that many are comparing Graham to former Badgers standout Owen Daniels. However, Graham faces one of the better cover linebackers in Edds, and their intense battle will give evaluators a chance to get a sneak peek at a potential Sunday matchup.

Central Michigan at Western Michigan, 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
This matchup will garner little attention on the national scene, but scouts are anxiously awaiting this MAC battle between a pair of underrated signal callers. The Chippewas' Dan LeFevour ranks as the conference's all-time leader in total offense, and is the prototypical pocket passer that scouts covet. As a strong-armed thrower with deadly accuracy, he efficiently operates out of the spread and has put up gaudy numbers throughout his career. Though scouts are still assessing whether his game translates to the pros, LeFevour can solidify his status as an early-round selection with another strong performance against Western Michigan. Tim Hiller has also generated a strong buzz in scouting circles after putting together an impressive four-year run as the Broncos' starting quarterback. Like his counterpart, Hiller is another classic pocket passer with requisite size and ability to shine on the next level. Although his three-interception performance against Northern Illinois a few weeks ago has raised concerns about his accuracy and decision-making, Hiller can alleviate scouts' fears by performing well in this offensive shootout.
 
Sleeper to watch
Mike Iutati

Mike Iupati, guard, Idaho
Scouts have been flocking to Moscow to see the top offensive guard prospect in the 2010 draft class. Iupati has earned rave reviews in scouting circles due to his tenacious attitude and outstanding movement skills. Throw in the fact that the fifth-year senior possesses exceptional size for the position (6-foot-6, 325 pounds) and is a top-notch road grader in the run game, and it is not a surprise that he is creeping up draft board around the league.
The Sweet 16
Bucky Brooks' latest list of the top 16 senior NFL prospects for the 2010 draft class, in order of when they might get drafted:

Russell Okung 1. Russell Okung, OT, Oklahoma State: Okung is a dominating lineman with exceptional size and nimble feet. He continues to impress scouts with his superior skills as a run and pass blocker, and is undoubtedly a franchise-caliber left tackle prospect.

2. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska: Scouts continue to marvel at Suh's exceptional strength, power and athleticism. He is a dominant interior player with the skills to terrorize opponents as a run stuffer or pass rusher, and his unique skill set makes him the top defensive prospect in the draft.

3. Taylor Mays, FS, USC: Some scouts rate this hard-hitting safety as the top defensive player in the 2010 draft. An exceptional athlete with outstanding instincts and awareness, Mays is the prototypical enforcer defensive coordinators covet in the middle of the field.

Terrence Cody 4. Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama: The mammoth run stuffer is immovable at the point and gobbles up double teams with ease. Cody's ability to clog the middle is invaluable in the pro game, but concerns about his weight may cause his stock to drop prior to the draft. Nevertheless, few defensive tackles have the potential to impact a defense like Cody.

5. Colt McCoy, QB, Texas: McCoy has not put up impressive numbers this season but remains a highly regarded quarterback prospect due to his superior intangibles. McCoy shows good accuracy, awareness and anticipation as a pocket passer, and continues to surprise scouts with his athleticism on the perimeter. McCoy's overall package makes him the top choice among senior quarterbacks.

6. Trent Williams, OT, Oklahoma: Williams made the move to left tackle this year and has shown some promise while manning the position. He excels as a run blocker and shows solid skills in pass protection. While his struggles with speed and quickness off the edge lead some to question his ability to play left tackle in the NFL, Williams remains one of the top tackle prospects in the draft.
Complete "Sweet 16" ...


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