Offensive linemen now in the spotlight

FlemFile: NFL Draft Is A Bust (2:23)

ESPN The Magazine senior writer David Fleming says that for all the measurements and metrics thrown around, the NFL draft remains at best a pseudoscience. (2:23)

When the lights go up on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday for the NFL draft, things will quickly turn into a party for the offensive linemen.

Central Michigan's Eric Fisher, Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson could all go in the top five, which would mark only the second time, and the first time in 45 years, that so many offensive linemen were picked so soon.

From Pop Warner on up, it seems like players always wanted to be the quarterback, running back or wide receiver. After all, it's those guys who get all the attention and get their names in the paper. But if you're athletic and want to make the big bucks, it now actually pays to embrace anonymity in the name of eventual fame.

It can be argued that some of the willingness for players to change positions, and coaches to encourage them, comes from Michael Lewis' book "The Blind Side." Lewis used Ole Miss left tackle Michael Oher to demonstrate that as the price of the quarterback has gone up, the guy who protects him is more valuable than ever.

"'The Blind Side' made it cool to play tackle," said Peter Schaffer, who represents Joe Thomas and Russell Okung, two of the four Pro Bowl starters at left tackle this past season. "It increased the talent pool at the position because the best athletes were willing to play it."

"The Blind Side" hit bookshelves in September 2006. The first "Blind Side" draft in 2007? Two offensive linemen were taken in the top five. At the time, picking an offensive lineman in a top spot wasn't fully accepted by fans. Phil Savage, who was then the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, picked Schaffer's client Thomas as the third overall pick that year.

"When we drafted him, there were shrugs in the room and people said, 'Oh well, he'll be a solid player,'" Savage said.

Savage said there's no question that "The Blind Side" helped players understand that the left tackle was now a skill position. Although many insiders in the business deny that Lewis' book -- and subsequently the movie that became the fourth-highest grossing sports movie of all time -- affected how they think about offensive linemen, "The Blind Side" certainly helped fans understand the most marketable star isn't always the right one.

In the years that followed, the number of offensive linemen taken in the first round grew.

In the six years before "The Blind Side" hit bookstores (2001 to 2006), a total of 23 offensive linemen were taken in the first round. In the six years after the book came out, 36 offensive linemen were taken in the first round, an increase of 57 percent.

The first pick in the 2008 draft was Michigan left tackle Jake Long, only the third offensive lineman taken first overall since the common era draft began in 1967. The Dolphins were so excited to get Long, they signed him five days before the draft. And it wasn't only Long. That year, eight offensive linemen went in the first round, the most since 10 offensive linemen were drafted in 40 years.

Savage also argues that offensive linemen are a much safer bet than picking someone in a traditional skill position in a top spot in the draft.

"If you are a new general manager or a coach, and five out of the first 11 picks are being made by teams that changed both a GM and a coach this year, you want to hit a double your first time out," Savage said. "You don't need to swing for the fences."

Savage reasons that even if an offensive lineman doesn't live up to his billing, he can be moved around on the line and be serviceable for a decade in the league. The same can't be said for guys like quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who was drafted No. 1 in 2007 but hasn't played in the NFL since the 2009 season.

Although Thursday night likely will be all about the left tackle, Savage says it's possible that this will be the last year the position gets so much attention. He reasons that the spread offenses coming to the league have somewhat diminished the responsibility on the left tackle alone, which means that it's more important to have five good players on the line instead of a star and four others to fill up the holes.

Schaffer disagrees.

"Whether you are a spread offense or not, you're still going to want to have your best player protecting your $20 million-a-year quarterback," Schaffer said.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is for certain: Offensive linemen are anything but an afterthought today.