Tackles Become Skill Position

Green Bay isn't the only team that has invested heavily into offensive tackle in recent drafts. The draft over the weekend certainly offered the latest evidence of the importance of a position not all that long ago regarded as a grunt-type spot.

At some point in the next few months, Peyton Manning will sign a new contract that figures to pay the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback something akin to the money that is squirreled away in Fort Knox. And at some point, too, provided there is football in 2011, Colts rookie Anthony Castonzo will be officially appointed the sentry posted at the front door.

"Unbelievable," said Castonzo on Friday, less than a full day after he had been all but assigned the task of serving as the four-time most valuable player's bodyguard.

It's likewise incredible, too, the speed at which the offensive tackle position in the NFL, particularly the left tackle spot, has risen to near skill-position status. But the draft over the weekend certainly offered the latest evidence of the importance of a position not all that long ago regarded as a grunt-type spot.

There were six tackles selected in the first round — Tyron Smith (Dallas, No. 9), Nate Solder (New England, 17th), Castonzo (No. 22), James Carpenter (Seattle, No. 25), Gabe Carimi (Chicago, 29th), and Derek Sherrod (Green Bay, 32nd) — the most since 2008 but the fourth year in a row there have been four or more first-rounders. Teams are always willing to invest, it seems, big-time in quarterbacks. Now, it sure appears, that clubs are more than willing to expend first-round choices to help protect their priciest investments.

Said Smith, the initial offensive lineman tabbed in the first round by the Cowboys since 1981, a drought of 29 straight lotteries: "People have come around to the idea that (tackles) are pretty important, I guess."

There is no guesswork involved.

The 2011 draft marked the second year in a row that Seattle and Green Bay used first-round choices for tackles. Taking Carimi marked the second time in only four years that the Bears drafted a tackle in the first round. New England has selected a tackle in either the first or second round in two of three years. Castonzo was the first tackle in the first round for the Colts since 1997 (Tarik Glenn) and the first time team president Bill Polian chose a tackle in the first round since 1995 (Blake Brockermeyer in Carolina).

"Happy about it," was Packers general manager Ted Thompson's reaction. "We think it's a really good value to get a big man that late in the first round that we feel like can come in and help us. Where he's going to play I don't know but I know this: You can never have too many big men. And the more run blockers, the more pass blockers we have, the better off we do."

In all, 18 of the league's 32 franchises drafted at least one tackle last weekend. Ten clubs chose tackle in the first three rounds.

The upshot of all the tackle-mania: If you've drafted a first-round tackle recently, you doubtless know first-hand the value of the position. And if you haven't, well, then maybe it's time you get with the program.

Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who had never drafted a blocker in the first round during his stewardship of the team, did the latter.

Jones said Dallas fans are "sophisticated enough" to understand the importance of the offensive tackle spot. If so, they're more understanding of the importance than Jones had been since buying the team in 1989.

"We don't need to make a big splash," Jones insisted.

Increasingly, though, teams require big bodies, even if those guys don't always make more than a modest ripple in the stream of public consciousness. The only position with more first-round calls on Thursday night was defensive end, guys who are paid to chase quarterbacks.

Getting after the passer has become an obsession in the NFL anymore. Going after the escorts who keep rushers from doing so hasn't quite reached that point yet. But it's getting closer.

"It's not such a no-name position anymore," acknowledged Castonzo.

The first round on Thursday erased another layer of anonymity.

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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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