As the NFL continues to evolve into a passing league, the presence of a franchise-caliber offensive tackle has become a priority for every team.
Teams are searching for stellar pass protectors on the edges capable of keeping rushers away from the quarterback.
Although there are significant differences between the core traits of left and right tackles, the position requires the player to possess the size, strength, balance, body control, and quickness to handle athletic pass rushers. Run blocking also plays a factor in the evaluation, but teams are willing to sacrifice a little in that area to secure a player capable of holding down the edge on his own.
Left tackles are valued at a premium because they protect the quarterback's blind side (most quarterbacks are right-handed) while being isolated against the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers. The speed, athleticism and agility of the game's top rushers can overwhelm blockers without the quickness and movement skills to shadow. Furthermore, the proliferation of the zone blitz often pits left tackles against slippery defensive backs crashing from the second level.
I've seen first-hand how well a dominant left tackle can transform the fortunes of an offense while working as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks. Walter Jones, a nine-time Pro Bowler, held down the left side to keep Matt Hasselbeck upright in the pocket and paving the way for running back Shaun Alexander. Both enjoyed their best seasons with Jones as an anchor, and their production can be attributed to his domination on the left.
Right tackles are typically strong run blockers without the footwork, athleticism and quickness to handle matchups against elite pass rushers. They are best described as maulers with the sheer strength to blow defenders off the ball. While they might lack some of the movement skills to hold in isolations against elite rushers, they will need help from others to secure those matchups.
This year's class will test those notions due to the unique talents of Boston College's Anthony Castonzo, Colorado's Nate Solder, Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and USC's Tyron Smith. Each is viewed as a potential franchise-caliber left tackle, but some of their skill sets are better suited for the right side.
Let's take a look at the challenges scouts have in projecting their potential:
Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
His extensive experience makes him the most "pro-ready" of all the tackle candidates. He has logged 54 starts during his career, and hails from a school that has a stellar reputation for producing quality offensive lineman.
He is a solid technician with outstanding size, strength and skill. He excels in pass protection by quickly engaging rushers after the snap. He shows a strong initial punch and active hands. He flashes quick feet, balance and body control shadowing rushers but occasionally gets overextended and falls off before finishing blocks. As a run blocker, he is powerful at the point of attack and creates push. His aggressiveness stands out on tape and makes him a viable candidate to play on an offensive line built on toughness.
Scouts struggle properly assessing Castonzo's potential due to his vast experience. Some wonder how much improvement he can make as a pro because his bad habits might be so deeply entrenched. However, that might not be enough to dissuade a team from casting its lot with the gritty player.
Nate Solder, Colorado
He is arguably the most athletic offensive tackle in the draft after blowing up the NFL Scouting Combine. As a former tight end, he possesses the combination of quickness, athleticism and movement skills scouts covet. He easily dances with pass rushers, and his nimble feet allow him to maintain balance and body control while engaged. His movement skills shine when he gets to block on pulls or traps in the running game. He quickly gets out of his stance and has the quickness to engage linebackers and defensive backs in space. He struggles to occasionally create push against power players, but he gives relentless effort upon contact and does enough to win the down. Solder has grown tremendously over his three years at tackle and could quickly adapt to the NFL.
Solder's athleticism and limitless potential intrigue most scouts, but his height and problems anchoring against power rank as concerns. Although it's easy to expect him to adjust and improve with more repetitions, it's not a lock that he will ever reach his potential.
Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
He is a physically imposing prospect with an aggressive demeanor that is endearing. He bullies defenders at the point of attack in the running game. His combination of strength, power and tenacity is impressive, and he is certainly comfortable playing in a power-based rush attack that features man- or zone-blocking schemes. Carimi is not as athletic as of some of his counterparts, but he does a commendable job of holding up against pass rushers. His strong punch and active hands stop defenders in their tracks, and he finishes as well as anyone. Although he doesn't possess the footwork and lateral movement skills of a prototypical left tackle, he doesn't look out of place, and coaches will certainly give him an opportunity to play on the blind side.
Carimi's ability to play left tackle presents the biggest challenge to scouts attempting to forecast his potential. Although he has logged plenty of snaps at the position during his four years as a starter, he looks like a natural right tackle based on his athleticism. He will have to convince scouts otherwise in private workouts. If Carimi is able to make a convincing argument, his value could rise among teams looking for a franchise-caliber tackle.
Tyron Smith, USC
He has been the talk of the pro-day circuit after putting on a sensational showing at his workout on USC's campus. He has impressive physical dimensions, and his workout revealed his outstanding athleticism and movement skills. Those attributes verified the stellar play that stood out on tape.
Smith overpowers defenders at the line of scrimmage, and his strength allows him to create a push in the running game. He seals the edge on perimeter runs with force and ranks as one of the position's top run blockers. As a pass blocker, he shows quick feet, balance and body control. He doesn't dance with rushers but shadows initially before stunning them with powerful blows. He easily handled top rushers in his isolated matchups, which has prompted some to suggest he would excel as an NFL left tackle.
The projection to the left side ranks as one of biggest challenges scouts have in projecting his potential. While Smith's size, strength and athleticism would appear suited for left tackle, he has only played on the right side during his collegiate career, and the switch to the other side could require some time. Further complicating Smith's evaluation has been a few red flags that have appeared in his medical evaluation. If he is able to answer those concerns, he could fly up the charts as an early selection as a right or left tackle prospect.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.