Ravens perusing offensive tackle class

OWINGS MILLS -- Immortalized on YouTube, shirtless Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith jiggled his way through the 40-yard dash this spring as his beefy upper body and midsection shook in every direction of the compass during his audition for NFL scouts. It was yet another in a series of missteps for Smith, who bolted out of the combine without informing officials that he was leaving early.

Smith was also suspended from the Sugar Bowl for improper contact with an agent and has reportedly fired one agent and hired another one.

What do the bad workout, the undesirable girth and rumors about Smith's immaturity following some shaky interviews at the combine mean to NFL decision-makers who are pondering whether to invest millions of dollars=2 0in this hulking blocker?

For the Baltimore Ravens, it means doing even more homework on the Outland Trophy award winner as they ponder the respective merits of the offensive tackle draft class heading into the first round of Saturday's draft.

And that due diligence included inviting Smith to their training complex for an official visit. The Ravens could potentially be in the market for an offensive tackle with the 26th overall pick due to Adam Terry's injury history and inconsistency and Willie Anderson's age and conditioning issues, so a potentially sliding Smith could be an attractive option for them.

For the most part, the Ravens look at the tape and they like what they see from the 6-foot-4, 330-pound All-American selection. Watching him play, it's obvious that Smith has the capacity to dominate as he brutally slams linebackers and defensive ends to the ground and gets to the second level with surprisingly nimble feet.

"Andre Smith's a big guy with good feet who can really push in the run game," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said at a draft luncheon this month. "He's a sometimes dominant player. Some of that other stuff can be overblown, the workouts and thing like that.

"If you really watch the tape, he's a fine football player. We always watch the tape. I think teams make a mistake when they don't watch enough tape."

During a high school coaches clinic on the Alabama campus last month, Ravens general ma nager Ozzie Newsome, a former Crimson Tide star, defended Smith and predicted he would be successful in the NFL. With Newsome's deep Alabama ties, he probably has as much information on Smith as anyone.

"I don't think that's a bad reflection on Andre," Newsome told a group of high school coaches, according to published reports. "He made a bad decision leaving the combine. Can you recover from a bad decision? Yes, because at the end of the day, we've got to put the tape on. And when you put the tape on, you see Andre Smith."

Although Smith has hurt his stock and reputation at least a little, he has been projected to go as high as the Cincinnati Bengals' sixth overall pick or as low as the bottom of the first round.

"I'm convinced and I think the most of the NFL is convinced that what we saw from Andre Smith at the combine was more about immaturity than about him being a bad kid," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call. "And he needs to grow up a little bit and take things a little bit more seriously and stay in shape. But he's a talented kid that can play left tackle and certainly could kick inside and be an All-Pro guard."

Beside Smith, there are several other physically gifted offensive tackle prospects. After top-rated offensive tackles like Baylor's Jason Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe are gobbled up by teams during the first few picks of the draft, there are plenty of other tackles worth consideration.

Mayock forecasted that eight tackles will be picked in the first two rounds.

"The problem with this year is that after those eight, there's a drop-off," Mayock said. "I think they're going to go earlier than they should, and then the other guys will get artificially pushed up."

Ole Miss offensive tackle Michael Oher hasn't had sterling workouts, but is blessed with optimum size and natural ability.

Profiled in Michael Lewis' book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, Oher had an extremely tough background growing up in Memphis, Tenn., before being adopted by a wealthy family and attending an exclusive private school. Unfamiliar with football initially in high school, Oher, which is pronounced oar, developed into a top recruit who started for four seasons at Ole Miss.

A three-time All-Southeastern Conference selection, Oher's intensity and motivation have drawn scrutiny.

"A big guy, physical, had a good Senior Bowl week," DeCosta said. "He's probably another guy that gets picked in the first round, would be my guess."

The Ravens have a fairly high opinion of Arizona offensive tackle Eben Britton, displaying steady interest in him throughout the draft process.

A mobile 6-6, 310-pound All-Pac 10 Conference junior lineman with 5.16 speed in the 40-yard dash, Britton is known for his technique and pass protection skills.

"Good feet, tall guy, has some toughness, plays pretty well," DeCosta said of Britton. "Very, very comparable player to play ers who got picked in the first round last year at his position."

The Ravens also had gigantic University of Oklahoma offensive tackle Phil Loadholt in for an official visit. The All-Big 12 lineman is 6-8, 332 pounds.

Following his visit, Loadholt, whose name fits his size and mauling approach, expressed confidence that the Ravens are serious about him. Loadholt is a projected second-round draft pick.

"I felt a very good vibe and strong interest from the Ravens," Loadholt told the Times in a telephone interview after returning home to Colorado. "It felt like it was a place I would love to play at with such a great atmosphere. Their facility is amazing.

"I met John Harbaugh and we talked for a long time. The Ravens said they like my film, they they like the way I play, the way I finish blocks. They told me some things I can work on, too, but it's all correctable."

Loadholt has 36-inch long arms to lock out pass rushers, but tends to coast at times on his ability and has trouble with speed rushers.

"Loadholt is probably one of the fastest risers in this draft," Mayock said. "And to be honest with you, I'm in disagreement with most of the people. I gave him a third-round grade off tape and off his Senior Bowl performance.

"He's probably going to go in the second round and maybe late in the first. I mean he's long, he competes and he's a pretty tough kid. I think he's a right tackle only. When he faces a late20speed rush, and has to redirect his feet, I think he struggles."

Connecticut offensive tackle William Beatty is an intriguing pass protector who needs to gain strength and weight. Gritty Illinois offensive tackle Xavier Fulton has been rising on draft boards, but needs polish. Penn State's Gerald Cadogan is another offensive tackle worth keeping an eye on.

And South Carolina offensive tackle Jamon Meredith is regarded fairly highly for his versatility.

"Difficult to evaluate because he played both guard and tackle," Mayock said. "Some different opinions of him off the field as far as work ethic. He's one of the eight guys I have in the tackle class that will go in the first two rounds. I would expect him to somewhere middle to late second round."

The Ravens also had Eastern Michigan offensive tackle T.J. Lang in for an official visit, but he probably fits in better as an offensive guard in the NFL due to a lack of ideal size.

"I'd kick him inside to guard," Mayock said. "I think he projects better. I've got him in the fourth round. Because it's a bad guard class, I think he'll benefit."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens fo the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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