Good protection is hard to find

Hard to believe, but since 2000, when the Washington Redskins selected Chris Samuels with the third-overall pick in the draft and then the Pittsburgh Steelers tabbed Marvel Smith in the second round, NFL teams have drafted only three other Pro Bowl offensive tackles.

There have been 19 different Pro Bowl tackles since 2000, but the only members of that elite fraternity who entered the league this millennium are Samuels, Smith, Matt Light of New England, New Orleans' Jammal Brown and Marcus McNeill of San Diego.

Of that group, only McNeill, the Chargers' second-round steal (more like a heist) in the '06 draft, earned an all expenses paid trip to Honolulu in his rookie season. And just Samuels, who is a very solid player but has never quite lived up to all of the predraft hype that surrounded him in 2000, has been to more than one Pro Bowl.

Between 2001-06, teams invested 127 draft picks in tackles, including 15 in the first round and six highly regarded prospects in the top 10. But such an emphasis on tackles in that six-draft stretch -- in particular on the left tackle position, certainly the highest profile blocking spot, given the inherent pass-protection responsibilities -- produced just three Pro Bowl performers.

That startling success rate won't stop teams from considering the offensive tackle spot a premium position.

That was evidenced again two weeks ago, when 23 tackles were drafted through the course of seven rounds. The bottom line on the O-line: Franchises haven't experienced much luck lately in finding Pro Bowl offensive tackles but, given the position's newfound prominence in a game that has skewed heavily toward the pass, they aren't apt to quit trying. Because having a top-shelf pass protector allows a lot of people, like quarterbacks and offensive line coaches, to sleep much better at night.

"Having a (quality pass protector), it's kind of like your favorite blanket, you know?" said Washington Redskins assistant head coach Joe Bugel, arguably one of the premier offensive line mentors of all-time. "When you know [a productive tackle is] there, there's a sense of security that comes with it, like everything's OK. Things are fine. And when it's not, well, you spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling. It makes for a lot of restless nights."

There haven't been many sleepless nights in Seattle since Walter Jones, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, arrived in 1997. Or in St. Louis, where Orlando Pace set up shop in 1997, or with the Baltimore Ravens, for which Jonathan Ogden has held down the left side since 1996. Ogden, Pace and Jones, who essentially represent a Golden Age of left-tackle play, have combined for a remarkable 23 Pro Bowl appearances.

Ogden, however, has begun to contemplate retirement, in part because of a nagging toe injury. He recently announced he will return for 2007, but is clearly closing in on the end of his sterling career. Pace is coming off a torn triceps that truncated his 2006 campaign. All three of those premier left tackles are on the wrong side of 30. The fourth most notable left tackle from the late '90s, Tony Boselli, was forced from the game three years ago because of injuries.

So, where will the new set of elite pass protection bodyguards emerge from? Well, despite the uneven results of the past six years in terms of producing Pro Bowl tackles capable of supplanting the current cast of perennial all-stars, almost certainly from the draft. There have been a lot of first-round flops in recent years -- guys like Leonard Davis, Mike Williams, Kenyatta Walker and Robert Gallery, who was the second overall pick in the 2004 draft and was supposed to represent the second coming of Boselli -- but the strong trend around the league is to home grow your tackles.

And that means drafting them, playing them early in their careers, nurturing them and then developing them into good players. Even, sometimes, Pro Bowl-caliber players.

Consider this: Of the 32 projected starters at the primary pass-protection tackle position in 2007 (left tackles for teams with right-handed quarterbacks and right tackles for the three clubs that have left-handed passers), all but four are with the franchise that originally drafted them. That number could be reduced by one if Houston Texans second-year left tackle Charles Spencer successfully rehabilitates from the broken leg he suffered last season and is ready for training camp.

Of the 19 Pro Bowl tackles this millennium, all but three went to the annual all-star game wearing the helmet of the franchise that originally drafted them.

The fact that only four teams feature a blind-side protector who was acquired via either trade or free agency is not only significant, but also very impressive. By comparison, 10 franchises figure to start quarterbacks who were brought in from an outside source in 2007.

The point is that, if you're going to have a standout pass protector in your lineup, he likely will come from the draft.

"Last year, when Eric (Mangini, head coach) and I studied the teams in the league that had enjoyed what we felt was sustainable success, one of the common denominators was that they all had a left tackle they had drafted, they had developed, and who had been with them for a while," said New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who used the fourth overall choice in the 2006 draft on top-rated left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. "It's just better, we decided, to take your own guy. The price in free agency is so high, and anymore, tackles don't become available on the market anyway. It's a supply and demand thing.

"Most of the tackles we studied got into their second contract with the team that drafted them, so we're talking 8-10 years with the same franchise. So taking a guy like (Ferguson), our own guy and one who should be here for a long time, seemed like the way to go."

Although he wasn't quite as good in 2006 as advertised, Ferguson will probably be a fixture in the Jets' lineup for 10 more seasons. And Tannenbaum and Mangini shouldn't have to go trolling in the free-agent waters for a stop-gap at the left-tackle position.

Indeed, going the free-agency route to find a pass protector is just as problematic, it seems, as drafting one. The "bust rate" on free-agent tackles in recent seasons is, in fact, deplorable. Plus, good tackles rarely make it onto the market anymore. The veterans who are projected as starting blind-side tackles for 2007 still have an average of more than four seasons remaining on their current contracts.

And such long-term contracts for tackles, at least in the past five years, have become pricey. That's another reason -- the ability to fix a team's costs at the premium tackle slot for five or six seasons -- why the preferred route for getting a top tackle now is to draft one.

The 2007 tackle haul included three college left tackles in the opening round, two of whom, Joe Thomas of Wisconsin (to Cleveland) and Penn State's Levi Brown (Arizona), were among the first five names off the board. Brown will move to right tackle in Arizona, to protect the blind side of Cardinals' southpaw quarterback Matt Leinart. He, along with Thomas and Joe Staley of Central Michigan, the first-round choice of the San Francisco 49ers, all figure to start as rookies.

But those three tackles were chosen, at least in part, because their respective teams failed miserably in their attempts to fill the pass-protector spot in free agency.

Cleveland has used 10 different starters at left tackle since the Browns were reincarnated as an expansion team in 1999, the latest being Kevin Shaffer, who cost the team a $36 million contract as an unrestricted free agent last spring. The five-year veteran, however, is just an ordinary player. And although coach Romeo Crennel recently apprised Shaffer that the left-tackle job is his to lose, everyone expects Thomas to win the spot. The Browns, in fact, attempted to trade Shaffer during the draft, after using the third overall choice on Thomas.

San Francisco snatched Staley, who might have the best upside of any of the three tackles taken in the first-round this year, because Jonas Jennings, a free-agent addition in 2005, has suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness. And the Cardinals took Brown to replace former free agent Oliver Ross, who will move to left tackle in 2007.

Next year's draft could feature several first-round tackles. Southern California star Sam Baker is regarded by most scouts as a certain top-five player, perhaps even a long-shot candidate for the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft. Among the other top-flight tackles who will probably be in the 2008 draft are Jake Long (Michigan), Gosder Cherilus (Boston College), Kirk Barton (Ohio State), Tony Hills (Texas), Jake Gaither (Maryland) and Ryan Clady (Boise State).

All of them, and possibly a few more tackle prospects, could be off the board in the first two rounds next April.

Said one AFC general manager who had hoped to land a left tackle in the first two rounds this year, but missed out on the prospects he had targeted in both stanzas: "Let's face it, you simply can't play the game, at least the way we play it now, without one of those guys. And you're not going to get one in free agency or a trade.

"The teams that have premier guys hold onto them like they're 'skill position' players now," the GM said. "Guys die in those (tackle) jobs now. They play 12-14 teams and it's one of the few positions left where a guy might spend his entire career with the same team. So you don't have a whole lot of choice but to get one through the draft.

"You pick 'em and grow 'em up. That's the way to do it."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.