PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. – If he had wanted to, University of Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan could’ve been preparing for Week 17 of the NFL season this weekend instead of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
The NFL predicted he’d be a first-round pick after evaluating his junior season. Instead of taking the riches and spoils of professional football, Lewan, a Scottsdale, Ariz., native, returned to Ann Arbor for his senior season.
And it might have been the best decision he’s ever made. Three of the first four picks in the first round of last April’s NFL draft were tackles, proving how high of a premium NFL teams put on the position. After a senior season in which he didn’t allow a sack, Lewan is projected to go anywhere between fifth and 15th in the 2014 draft. And if the right team needs a tackle, maybe higher.
As of now, if they don’t make the playoffs, the Arizona Cardinals won’t draft lower than 20th in the first round and Lewan, who is ranked as the second-best offensive tackle and 10th-best player overall by ESPN, will most likely be long gone.
Arizona will explore options at left tackle, currently occupied by second-year man Bradley Sowell, whether through free agency or the draft. But tackles coming out understand how critical their jobs are.
“When you have a franchise quarterback, you need to keep him healthy,” Lewan said. “And that’s one of my goals. I’ve given up one sack in three years being at Michigan [as a] four-year starter. That’s huge. I take that kind of stuff personally, protecting a quarterback and treating him as if he’s my own son. That’s huge to me.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke knew Lewan had NFL potential the second he met him in 2011 as a sophomore and made sure the tackle knew it, too.
This week, Hoke declared Lewan the best tackle in the country and it might be tough to argue against him.
“I think staying the year, it was always a help,” Hoke said. “It helps maturity-wise and all those things, and some perseverance. I think he’s ready.”
After the bowl, Lewan will train at IMG Academy in Florida and then after the NFL scouting combine in February, he’ll start training for the draft in Arizona.
What if he landed in Glendale, playing for his hometown team?
“Playing for the Cardinals would be something crazy,” Lewan said.