INDIANAPOLIS -- The fascinating part of the 2008 scouting combine is the abundance of offensive tackles. As many as seven tackles -- even those that might need to be converted to the left side -- could be candidates for first-round consideration.
Jake Long of Michigan got the proceedings started Thursday by checking in at 6-foot-7 and 313 pounds. The long arms of Long, plus his 11-inch hands, make him a candidate for the Miami Dolphins' pick at No. 1. Left tackles often are on an island solo blocking an opponent's best pass-rushing defender.
Long arms and great footwork allow the great left tackles to handle those duties without the help of a tight end or a blocking back. For a decade, NFL offenses had the luxury of spreading the field with an extra receiver because left tackles such as Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, William (Tra) Thomas and others sealed off the right-handed quarterbacks' blind side with blocks.
If the prospect ratings hold up come the April 26-27 draft, offenses could replenish one of the most important -- and expensive -- positions.
"It's the best group I've seen in 24 years collectively," said Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh Steelers' director of football operations. "It was a good group before the juniors were added to it. Those guys enhanced what we really think is a strong group. The majority of them can play on the left side or play both sides. It's unusual to have that many guys that big and that athletic and that productive."
Long, Chris Williams from Vanderbilt,
Jeff Otah of Pitt, Sam Baker of Southern Cal and Gosder Cherilus of Boston College comprised an already impressive class of senior tackles. Each stands between 6-5 and 6-7. Each weighs in excess of 308 pounds.
Then Ryan Clady of Boise State and Anthony Collins of Kansas were added to the mix when the underclassmen declared. Offensive line coaches drooled at the prospects. Clady played left and right tackle in Boise State's creative passing offense. He also seems to have a sense of where he fits in as an NFL tackle.
"We were primarily a zone team, and I'm kind of like a Denver Broncos-type offensive lineman,'' Clady said. "We cut a lot and position block and stuff like that."
Let's see Broncos left tackle Matt Lepsis retired. You get the picture.
Collins is the sleeper, a bonus tackle in the group. He played basketball in high school and stumbled onto the football team for only his senior year, just to be with his friends. Coming out of high school, he was 6-4, 220 pounds, but Kansas headed a list of colleges interested in him. He ended up playing left and right tackle there.
After checking with an NFL draft advisory committee, Collins learned he had second- and third-round grades. With only 15 hours of classes left for graduation and coming off a 12-1 season, Collins decided to turn pro even though this might be one of the richest tackles classes in NFL history.
"There are a lot of great tackles here, but I feel like I'm one of the best ones," Collins said. "I just have to show it at this combine."
Had NFL teams known there would be this many quality tackles available in 2008, that knowledge might have affected some of the moves in the 2007 draft.
The Indianapolis Colts traded away a 2008 first-round choice for left tackle Tony Ugoh, but they won't look back on that move. To their surprise, Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn retired before camp opened. Despite some injuries that held him out of five games, Ugoh played the left tackle position without the help of a tight end, allowing Peyton Manning to run his normal offense.
Niners general manager Scot McCloughan doesn't look back on the move, even though he might have plucked a higher-graded tackle with what's become the seventh pick in this draft, a selection now owned by the New England Patriots. Staley (the third tackle selected overall in the 2007 draft) and the Colts' Ugoh (the fourth tackle picked) have proven to be wise investments so far for their respective teams.
"When you look at both of those guys and how it played out this year, they were good players and you got bang for the buck where you took them," McCloughan said. "I think this year at tackle, it's one of the better years I've seen probably in 10 years. It will be interesting to see how many of them go in the first and second rounds, but it will be a handful."
That's a Jake Long-sized handful.
What will be interesting to see this week is where Long lands in the draft. New executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells cleaned house on the Dolphins' offensive line. He hired a head coach, Tony Sparano, who worked his offensive line in Dallas. You see where this is heading.
Long considered turning pro a year ago, but elected to stay at Michigan for his senior season.
"It has helped me a lot," Long said. "Last year, I didn't feel I was good enough to come out. I wanted to improve on things and those things I improved on. I feel I'm a smarter and better player than I was last year. I'm smarter in identifying the defenses. I worked on the little things in my game and I've gotten a lot better."
The Cleveland Browns turned their fortunes around after drafting left tackle Joe Thomas third overall last spring and signing left guard Eric Steinbach last season. Thomas went to the Pro Bowl and Steinbach was a first alternate. Long, who followed Thomas' career after leaving Wisconsin, knows the impact of a good left tackle.
"He's a great player and represents his school in the Big Ten very well," Long said. "He had a great rookie season. I'm going to have to follow in his footsteps and represent the Big Ten. He showed me and all the other rookies that you can come in and make a huge impact."
If you've watched the headlines over the past few days, you've seen the price of
tackles escalate. Travelle Wharton of the Carolina Panthers re-signed for $6 million a year. Seattle Seahawks right tackle Sean Locklear signed a five-year, $32 million contract. Over the past two years, six guards received close to $7 million a year, and future star left tackles will go for $8 million to $9 million a year.
Drafting a tackle might not be as exciting as grabbing a top running back or smooth wide receiver. But again, look at Thomas' influence on the Browns in just one season. Clearly the Dolphins, who need everything, will be trying to trade down from the first pick in the draft to acquire more draft choices or veterans.
But in a tackle-rich draft, it's not out of the question for Long to grab top billing. Meanwhile, other offenses will be getting bargains at the position. Good tackles will be available even in the third round.
It's a Long list.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.