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Inexperienced RTs will be put to testBy Len Pasquarelli

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; Inexperienced RTs will be put to testBy Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com Archive Despite a dossier that includes 142 starting assignments, and a nicely highlighted 10-year résumé as one of the league's sturdiest, if unheralded, offensive right tackles, Scott Gragg doesn't have ...

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Old 07-17-2005, 09:22 AM   #1
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Inexperienced RTs will be put to testBy Len Pasquarelli

Inexperienced RTs will be put to testBy Len Pasquarelli

Despite a dossier that includes 142 starting assignments, and a nicely highlighted 10-year résumé as one of the league's sturdiest, if unheralded, offensive right tackles, Scott Gragg doesn't have a job yet, nearly a month after the San Francisco 49ers jettisoned him for salary cap and age reasons.

Gragg, 33, might want to hold off, though, on filing his retirement papers. Because in a season of wholesale renovation at the right tackle spot, it's a pretty good bet there are a lot of nervous offensive line coaches who've got Gragg's home number on speed-dial. And at some point, with so many unproven young right tackles currently penciled in as starters around the league, a panicked general manager is going to reach for the phone.

There are at least 15 teams in 2005 with new starters at right tackle -- or at least someone who didn't open the 2004 season as the starter at the position. That number, over the course of training camp and the preseason, could actually grow to 17 or 18 teams.

For many franchises, it should be noted, the right tackle turnover represents an upgrade.

Getting back stalwart Jon Jansen, after a season-ending Achilles injury sidelined him for all of 2004, should make the Washington Redskins' line significantly better. The free-agent acquisition of former New York Jets starter Kareem McKenzie bolsters and solidifies the Giants' blocking unit. By signing Fred Miller, the Chicago Bears are now able to move John Tait to left tackle, a maneuver that should enhance the offense. Oliver Ross will bring toughness and veteran leadership to the young Arizona Cardinals. And in Carolina, Jordan Gross gets back in his comfort zone this year after struggling on the left side for much of the 2004 season.

Those changes, it seems, all represent offensive line exclamation points for the respective teams involved. There are, though, considerably more question marks at right tackle as clubs prepare for training camp. And after years of playing second banana to the more high-profile, weak-side pass protection position, the right tackle spot, because of all the young faces moving in as starters, will grab a bigger piece of the spotlight in '05.

Consider this: There are at least seven teams in 2005 whose projected top player at right tackle has fewer than five starts at the position.

See why Gragg, who has started all 16 games in eight of his 10 NFL seasons (mostly on the right side), might want to stay in shape and stay close to the telephone? At some point, there is going to be an S.O.S. signal, because the odds are not every young right tackle who goes to training camp as a starter will survive long enough to open the regular season.

"You look around, and there are a lot of us [young right tackles] who are going to play right away, who they are immediately putting into the fire," said New Orleans Saints first-round choice Jammal Brown, a tough-minded blocker who should survive the crucible. "There is a lot of responsibility and young guys are going to have to measure up."

Indeed, it won't take very long to assess Brown's worthiness, since he will spend his first regular-season game matched up against Carolina left defensive end Julius Peppers, who is coming off a monster 2004 campaign and is poised to emerge as the league's premier player at the position.

Saints coach Jim Haslett, who surprised a lot of pundits when he grabbed Brown instead of a defensive player in the first round, is fond of comparing the former Oklahoma star to perennial Pro Bowl tackle Willie Roaf. People forget Roaf played right tackle as a rookie in 1993 before moving to the left side. More a road-grader than a finesse blocker, Brown figures to follow the same career course. However, for this season, the Saints will feature more of a power running game in 2005 and need him to cement the right side. And while he remains an unknown at this point, Brown's obvious physical gifts suggest he could be a quick success.

The odds of getting solid play from young right tackles are a little more suspect for some teams, including a few clubs with legitimate Super Bowl chances.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost both starters from the right side of their offensive line, are counting on second-year veteran Max Starks, who played in only 10 games in 2004 and logged but a handful of snaps from scrimmage, to replace the departed Ross. The New York Jets will supplant McKenzie with second-year veteran Adrian Jones, a superb athlete, but a kid with zero regular-season starts.

Kelly Butler, who didn't even get on the field as a rookie in 2004, could be the Detroit Lions' starter at right tackle. Tennessee, which desperately needs to keep oft-injured quarterback Steve McNair perpendicular, might ask rookie Michael Roos to help protect its prized commodity. St. Louis used its first-round selection this year on Alex Barron, and while he struggled mightily in mini-camps, the Rams still want the former Florida State star to win the starting job. Jordan Black, with four career starts, is the new No. 1 right tackle on the vaunted Kansas City unit. Seattle may allow a pair of young but inexperienced veterans (Sean Locklear and Wayne Hunter) to fight it out in camp for the right to start.

There was a time when the right tackle position might not have been so critical. Traditionally, it was the power side, and talent scouts looked more for prospects whose run-blocking skills were more developed than the pass protection techniques. But defenses have countered with left ends -- players such as Peppers, Michael Strahan of the Giants, Atlanta's Patrick Kerney and Adewale Ogunleye of Chicago, to cite a few -- who can rush the passer even better than they anchor against the run. And so the era of the big lug right tackle, the "grunt" who did a lot of the heavy lifting while their left-side counterparts grabbed most of the headlines, seems to have ended.

The prototype at right tackle has undergone an evolution during the past decade. Whether or not the wholesale changeover at right tackle in 2005 can keep pace with that evolution, with so many young players being asked to step into critical roles, remains to be seen. The odds are a few of the projected young starters will falter.

Which is why Gragg almost certainly won't sit idle through the season.

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Old 07-17-2005, 11:26 AM   #2
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RE: Inexperienced RTs will be put to testBy Len Pasquarelli

I like hearing that Brown may be the next Willie Roaf. That would be pretty darn nice huh?
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Old 07-18-2005, 03:12 AM   #3
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RE: Inexperienced RTs will be put to testBy Len Pasquarelli

I'm sure Joe Horn will like that. Is Brown married?
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