The offensive tackles took center stage at the top of the board in the 2013 NFL draft last spring. Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson were all taken before the Detroit Lions were on the clock at five. With the presence of some quarterback needy clubs at the top of the draft this year ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper doesn't expect the top three tackles this year to come off the board quite as soon, but he is convinced that their player grades from NFL clubs will be better.
"The three left tackles this year with where they are, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan and Jake Matthews, all three will have a higher grade than the three we talked about from last year that went at the top of the board," said Kiper on a national conference call this week. "These three will have a higher grade than those three and one was the number one pick overall in Fisher so that tells you that this draft is certainly much stronger than last year's."
Jake Matthews certainly has the most football pedigree. The son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and nephew of Clay Matthews Jr., the Texas A&M tackle has perhaps the strongest NFL bloodlines in the entire draft class. After manning the right tackle position for three seasons, he replaced 2013 number two overall pick Luke Joeckel at left tackle this past season.
All Texas A&M did was lead the country in total offense, scoring offense and passing offense. At the outset of the pre-draft process Matthews was widely seen as the most NFL ready left tackle prospect, and Kiper had him ranked as the third overall prospect with Auburn's Greg Robinson right behind him at four in his first Big Board of 2014. Lewan was ranked eighth.
Kiper has since changed the lineup after talking to some NFL clubs and finding teams giving him different answers on who they think is the top left tackle in the class.
"I don't know if there is a consensus there," he said. "Right now it's Robinson slightly (ahead). I think Lewan is pushing. Matthews might be slipping just a little bit because some who I've talked to think more right tackle than left tackle. He played right tackle as a junior and left tackle as a senior. All three of those guys are going to go somewhere in the top 11, maybe in the top nine overall. There's still a long way to go, but right now the way the majority of teams have it, it would be Robinson, Lewan, Matthews. That's how those three could come off the board."
The reason Robinson, apparently in the eyes of some NFL personnel people, has moved to the top of the tackle list is because it's believed he has the highest upside. Much like Matthews, Robinson performed well on a weekly basis in the SEC against some of the best defensive units in the nation.
That's why in his latest mock draft Kiper had Robinson going second overall to St. Louis.
"I think once the combine is over, the consensus will be that he's the player with the highest ceiling at the position," wrote Kiper. "An absolute mauler in the run game, he has plenty of length and athleticism to also become dominant in protection."
At Michigan Lewan came under fire for some of the poor offensive line play that the Wolverines put on display this past season, but the issues were not on the edges for Michigan's front five.
"People who were questioning Lewan during the season I didn't understand them," said Kiper. "It wasn't him it was the interior of the line. It was the center and guard spots that were changing by the week and there were inexperienced players. Taylor Lewan has outstanding feet, balance and pass protection. Technically sound and has that nasty streak you love to see in a left tackle."
Right now Kiper projects Matthews to the Bills with the ninth pick before giving Lewan to Tennessee at 11th overall.
"I put Matthews in at Buffalo because he can play right or left tackle effectively," said Kiper. "Lewan is a true left tackle. Within the first nine to 11 spots they're all going to go, and right now I'd say it's Robinson and either Lewan or Matthews battling for that second spot."
By no means however, does Kiper think that pecking order is locked in.
"You'll have Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and you Lewan battling between now and May 8th to be the first one taken," he said.
In 2013 five offensive tackles came off the board with San Diego taking D.J. Fluker at 11 and the Giants grabbing Justin Pugh at 19th overall. Kiper believes this year's class could surpass that number.
"There could be as many as six offensive tackles that could go in round one," he said.
Among the other possible first round prospects, as he sees it, are Notre Dame's Zack Martin, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio and Tennessee's Antonio Richardson. There's even one fringe prospect who could make it a total of seven in round one come May.
"If you talk about Morgan Moses from Virginia, who projects as a right tackle at the pro level," said Kiper. "He's a late first, early second rounder. Antonio Richardson from Tennessee played left tackle, but could be a right tackle. Whether it's Moses or Richardson there are players in the mix."