Inexperienced RTs will be put to test
Inexperienced RTs will be put to test
By Len Pasquarelli
Despite a dossier that includes 142 starting assignments, and a nicely highlighted 10-year rÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â©sumÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â© 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.
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