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The Surest Thing

Thanks to the rise of the college passing game, NFL-ready tackles are going early

After inheriting a team that went 1--15 in 2007, Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland knew that his choice with the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft would be critical to restoring the team's respectability. So he and executive vice president Bill Parcells spent months studying not only the top prospects' physical skills and mental makeup but also the historical performance of players taken in the first round. Then they drafted Michigan tackle Jake Long.

"If you look at [linemen] in the first two rounds since 2000, roughly seven out of 80 are not in the league anymore," Ireland says. "Over time, tackle has been the safest pick in the first and second rounds." Indeed, of the 23 tackles selected in the top 10 since 1990, only four can be considered flops: Charles McRae (Bucs, 1991), Antone Davis (Eagles, 1991), Mike Williams (Bills, 2002) and Robert Gallery (Raiders, 2004). And Gallery has proved to be serviceable at guard.

A league-record eight tackles were taken in the first round last year, and seven of them—including Long, who ended up making the Pro Bowl—cracked the starting lineup in the first month of the season. That came on the heels of the rookie success enjoyed by 2007 first- and second-rounders Joe Thomas, Levi Brown, Joe Staley and Tony Ugoh. The run on tackles will continue this weekend, when as many as six could go in the first round, possibly including an unprecedented four in the top 10. Some mock drafts have Baylor's Jason Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe going one-two, which would also be a first for the position. "There's more quantity and quality," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert says of tackles coming out of college in recent years.

Conventional wisdom had been that top 10 picks—and the big money given to them—were better spent on skill-position players and that tackles could be taken in later rounds and groomed over time. (Last year marked the first time this decade that more than four were taken in the first round.) But because of the recent proliferation of spread offenses in college, tackles are entering the league better prepared to play immediately. The reliance on three-, four- and five-receiver sets has forced collegiate tackles to develop more quickly as pass blockers. Says Colbert, "We're finding that tackles are better players [nowadays], especially in protection."

The premium being placed on tackles hasn't been lost on the players. Baylor's Smith says the recent draft classes have raised the performance bar each year, creating a higher standard for the next class. "It's a lot of pressure," he says, "which is good, because without pressure you'd have no diamonds. We have a lot to live up to, and I think we can."



BLOCK PARTY Monroe (right, with Nebraska's Lydon Murtha) is pegged for the top 10.