Emery reaches in the first round … again

With the first-round selection of offensive lineman Kyle Long, the question must be asked: Is Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery the smartest man in the room, or does he just think he is?

In the NFL, the best offensive tackles, particularly left tackles, have long arms. Those longs branches allow edge blockers to keep defenders at a distance when pass protecting out on an island. It's that type of "reach" that helps left tackles be effective at the pro level.

If Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery was a football player, he'd be a left tackle, because no GM in the league, save Buffalo's Buddy Nix, reaches farther in the first round. With the selection of former Oregon offensive lineman Kyle Long during Day 1 of the 2013 NFL Draft, Emery has, for the second season in a row, selected a player that many assumed would be available in the second round.

But don't tell Emery that.

"Kyle was the player that we targeted," Emery said after the selection. "We've targeted him for the last couple of weeks. He had to be gone for us to [trade] back. We were not going to move off that spot (20th overall) if Kyle Long was still available."

Offensive linemen dominated the first round of this year's draft. Three of the first four picks were offensive tackles. Two guards were taken in the Top 10, after only one had been taken in the Top 10 the past 12 years. In all, seven blockers came off the board before Chicago picked at 20. Yet according to Emery, those seven teams got it wrong, as the Bears believe Long is the most athletic guard in this draft. In fact, according to Emery, he's the most athletic guard of any draft in more than a decade.

"We do a lot of research on the athletic end of it," Emery said. "Jim Arthur, one of our assistant strength coaches, does a tremendous job of correlating information and pulling all the history of that position together, where they were as athletes. It started with Rusty (Jones), Bill Polian, it's called our athletic index score, or A-Score. [Long] is the highest. This guy is the number one offensive guard in the last 12 draft classes and that's as far back as we go. He rates as rare. In our scale, nine is rare. He rates as rare."

Rare could also describe Long's path to the first round, a round in which he never thought he'd be drafted.

"I didn't expect to go this high in the draft," Long said.

The son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long, and brother of St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, the second overall pick in 2008, Kyle has great bloodlines. Yet he struggled to find his way early in his collegiate career.

Long played baseball, not football, in high school and was drafted by the Chicago White Sox as a pitcher in 2008. He chose instead to play baseball at Florida State but lasted just one semester in Tallahassee before flunking out and eventually being cited with a DUI.

"I was a young kid and I was just dealing with some stuff off the field that I had to work through," said Long. "I'm past it now. I am four-and-a-half years removed from the spoken issues, so I feel like my best ball and all of that is ahead of me."

He was forced to transfer to Saddleback Junior College in 2010, where he decided to give football a try. Like both his father and brother, Long played defensive end his first season at Saddleback – picking up 16 tackles, two for loss, and one sack. In 2011, he moved to the offensive line, where he immediately began earning the attention of Division I schools. He transferred to Oregon in 2012 and started just four games, all at left guard. In an attempt to further his experience as a football player, Long applied for a sixth year of eligibility but was denied by the NCAA and was forced to enter the NFL Draft.

"My inexperience can be looked at in two ways," Long said. "It can be looked at in the light of I feel like I can get a lot better with coaching and with the right guys around me and I feel like I have that opportunity in Chicago."

Long has the body type for an offensive lineman (6-6, 316) and some have projected him as a better fit at right tackle. For now though, he's going to compete for one of Chicago's two starting guard spots.

"That's part of the reason why we are extremely excited to have him here, is his versatility," Emery said. "He's going to start out at guard. We feel like he can be a starting right tackle. We feel like he can be a good left tackle in this league. So that's part of what attracted us to him, to Kyle."

Emery believes Long to be a Day 1 starter, one that, despite his inexperience, is just too talented to pass up.

"Obviously, he's got to earn his way just like all the players do, but we see a player that's going to contribute right away," said Emery. "Despite his limited time at Oregon, he was a starter at the end of the season. He did very well. His Senior Bowl was excellent. I thought he was the best offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl so we expect him to contribute right away."

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Long was one of the fastest offensive linemen (4.94 40-yard dash) but he wasn't a top performer at his position in any of the other tests. He was reportedly very impressive at his pro day.

It's not surprising that Emery went with an offensive player in the first round – as almost every personnel move he's made the past two years has been to upgrade the offense, including the hiring of head coach Marc Trestman – but this selection, like Shea McClellin last year, is a head scratcher.

Many believed Long to be a second-round prospect. There was some buzz around him heading into the draft, as teams were intrigued by his combination of athleticism and size, but very few experts believe him to be a Top 20 player. Considering seven other offensive linemen were drafted before him, it's safe to assume the rest of the league doesn't either.

Yet Emery appears to have fallen in love with Long's potential. He has played just four games against high-level competition in his career. You don't get anymore raw than that. But he does fit two major criteria for the Bears: he fills the club's biggest position of need and his skill set is highly suited for the new zone-blocking system being installed by offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer.

Emery said the thing that stood out the most about Long is his "agility, his lateral agility. He has very good feet. There isn't a movement playing where this guy doesn't impress you."

While that may be true, Emery passed on a gaggle of players with much more experience, production and upside. He passed on two potential franchise linebackers (Alec Ogletree and Manti Te'o), a defensive tackle most felt would be a Top 5 pick (Shariff Floyd) and the best shut-down corner in the draft (Xavier Rhodes) to select a player with four Division I games under his belt.

Long is obviously a great athlete. Only the highly talented get drafted into two different professional leagues. His ability to move fits very well with what Trestman is trying to do on offense. He may turn into a great player. But the fact is, no one but the Bears would have made that pick at 20th overall.

In fact, how can any player project so highly based on athleticism alone? Four games of experience and he's one of the top 20 players in the entire country? That's a tough one to wrap your head around.

In the NFL, first-round picks can make or break a franchise for years, if not decades. First rounders are the guys around whom you build a roster. Until now, not one single NFL team has demonstrated that taking huge risks in the first round is an effective way of building championship rosters. Teams that treat first rounders like cubic zarconia, instead of the precious diamonds they are, tend to be bottom feeders.

From what we saw of him as a rookie, Emery missed by reaching for McClellin in 2012. Instead of learning his lesson, he reached again with Long.

Both players may turn out to be Pro Bowlers. With Long, we really have no idea how good he'll be, as four games isn't enough of a sample size to accurately project his future production. If he turns into an All Pro, Emery will look like a genius and we'll all praise him for his skill as a talent evaluator.

But by taking such blatant and obvious risks in the first round, as well as with his choice of a head coach, Emery has set himself up for a short career in Chicago if the team struggles the next few seasons.


Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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