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Originally published Friday, February 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Seahawks | Left tackle is worth the price of a high draft pick

Alabama's Andre Smith or Ole Miss' Michael Oher could replace aging Walter Jones on Seahawks offensive line

Seattle Times staff reporter

INDIANAPOLIS — The lesson wasn't quite elementary, but only because Andre Smith was leaving grade school when he asked his father a fairly simple question.

He wanted to know the position where he could make the most money.

Left tackle, said Dad.

"The ball just got rolling after that," Smith said.

A decade later, Smith is about to see that bottom-line reality.

He entered the NFL draft after being named the nation's top collegiate lineman as a junior at Alabama in 2008. This week, he's in Indianapolis for the league's annual scouting evaluations and is considered one of this year's top tackle prospects. The importance that position now holds in the NFL makes him one of the top draft prospects regardless of position.

Eight offensive tackles were chosen in the first round of last year's draft, including the top overall pick, Jake Long, who went to Miami. Only two offensive tackles were chosen with top-five picks in the 1990s. Already, seven have been selected that high since 2000.

Tackles have become a best-seller. A New York Times best-seller, actually, as Michael Lewis' book "The Blind Side" chronicled Michael Oher's unlikely path from being a homeless Memphis grade-schooler to a prominent high-school recruit who ended up at Ole Miss. Now, he's a potential first-round pick in this year's draft.

Oher said Thursday he hadn't read the book. Of course, he didn't need to. He has lived the reality that elite left tackles are valued like never before. NFL teams covet someone with the size and agility to be placed on the left side of the offensive line and trusted to win a one-on-one matchup against the opponent's right end for three hours at a time. Of all the offensive positions, only quarterbacks make more on average than left tackles.

"Left tackles get paid a lot of money," Lions new head coach Jim Schwartz said. "Not because it looks real pretty on TV or in the media, but because of what that does for an offensive coordinator in protections and things like that.

"You're talking about ability to impact a game."

The very best function like a federal witness-protection program. They erase someone's existence. Smith and Oher comprise half the top quartet of tackle prospects in this year's draft. Baylor's Jason Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe are the other two who want to prove they belong alone on the edge.

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Oher is the prototypical left tackle, who isn't stout or squatty but immensely large and incredibly nimble. Smith is built more like a right tackle, a physical mauler with a barrel-shaped torso perched on two fire-hydrant legs. He's willing to play either side in the NFL, but is more comfortable on the left.

Seahawks president Tim Ruskell has never been enamored with choosing offensive linemen early in the draft, but indicated last month it's an opinion he may have to reevaluate.

"I don't know if that is a correct way to look at it with the increased importance placed on the left tackle," Ruskell said in January. "The reality is there are guys who warrant that pick."

Seattle doesn't have an opening at left tackle, where Walter Jones has been an immovable object for more than a decade. But Jones is also 35 years old and coming back from microfracture surgery on his knee after missing four games last season.

The Seahawks hold the fourth pick in April's draft, the highest pick they've had since 1997. Could Seattle look for an eventual heir to Jones, and have the new addition play elsewhere on the line in the interim?

Ruskell said there's no position to be ruled out, but there's one thing he sounded quite certain of in January.

"You're not going to find a Walter Jones, that's for sure," Ruskell said. "I can say that right now."

Jones has been the gold standard for left tackles, a 325-pound man with a grizzly bear's strength and a ballerina's grace. Something for others to aspire to, said Virginia's Monroe.

"When I study film I watch Walter Jones," Monroe said. "I wouldn't say I compare my game to his, but I would try to learn from him."

And Jones is the kind of player that the top four tackles in this year's draft will be compared to as teams look to find that cornerstone for the left side of their line.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Tackle football
On offense, only the quarterbacks make more on average than left tackles, but it's not just salaries that spell out the bottom line. Tackles have become more coveted at the top of the draft order:
1st-rd picks Top-five picks
2000-present 30 7
1990-1999 37 2
1980-1989 27 4
1970-1979 25 4

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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