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New generation of left tackles poised to make sizable impact

An NFL-record eight offensive tackles were taken in the first round of the 2008 draft. It was the continuation of a trend that might ultimately reshape the league's power structure.

Six of the eight tackles taken in the first 26 selections play on the vital left side of the offensive line -- the side that protects the blind side of a right-handed quarterback. Looking even closer, 10 of the top 29 picks involved tackles because the 49ers and Colts made trades in last year's draft that put them in position to grab left tackles Joe Staley and Tony Ugoh. Throw in the fifth-round supplemental pick used by the Ravens last year for the massive Jared Gaither, and a third of the league made significant tackle decisions.

How important is getting a Pro Bowl left tackle? Ask the Browns. Joe Thomas helped the Browns win 10 games last season, and his steady play allowed QB Derek Anderson to have a Pro Bowl season and enabled the Browns' offense to evolve into one of the most exciting units in football. For years, Browns quarterbacks had no chance as they dodged defender after defender in the backfield.

What will be fascinating to study over the next several years is how the tackles in the 2008 draft class impact their teams. Even though it cost them what would have been the seventh pick in this year's draft, the 49ers still believe they came out ahead with Staley, who moves from right to left tackle this season. The 49ers believe Staley ranks behind only Jake Long among the tackles who were drafted this year.

The Colts believe they found a gem in Ugoh. It's hard to play left tackle for the Colts. With Peyton Manning at quarterback, the Colts send tight end Dallas Clark out on most pass plays. A tight end might line up to Ugoh's left to help with blocking assignments maybe one or two times per game. Ugoh, as Tarik Glenn was before him, is on an island blocking alone.

Making the job even tougher are Indianapolis' run-blocking assignments for a left tackle. Manning runs a balanced attack. The Colts run right and they run left. So the left tackle has to be athletic because he'll be asked to pull more than most left tackles. Believe it or not, Ugoh, taken in the second round of the 2007 draft, would have rated higher on the Colts' draft board than Long, the top pick in this year's draft.

In the Colts' eyes, Ugoh was one of the rare athletes who can handle their left tackle job. And they got him cheap, relatively speaking.

No one is going to confuse the current left tackle crop with the left tackle crops of the mid-1990s that literally changed the face of offensive football. Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), the fourth pick in the 1996 draft, has gone to 11 Pro Bowls. Orlando Pace (Rams), Walter Jones (Seahawks) and Glenn -- members of the 1997 draft class -- have combined for 18 Pro Bowls.

That quartet gave their teams the freedom to send out extra receivers because they would handle an opponent's best pass-rusher without additional blocking help. With their success, those four franchises emerged as annual playoff contenders and ranked among the top offenses once the right quarterbacks were behind him.

Ogden, Jones, Pace and Glenn were the complete left tackles, able to handle solo pass-blocking assignments and perform the athletic moves to help running plays. It will be hard for the tackles drafted in 2007 and 2008 to aspire to their levels because Ogden, Jones and maybe Pace will be discussed as possible members of the Hall of Fame. Glenn, with three trips to the Pro Bowl, will fall short of Hall of Fame consideration, but he clearly had a great career.

Most of the current group fits into either one of the two categories for left tackles. Ryan Clady of the Broncos, Branden Albert of the Chiefs, Duane Brown of the Texans and maybe Chris Williams of the Bears fit the pass-blocking mold. Long of the Dolphins and Sam Baker of the Falcons are better fits for run-oriented systems. They will thrive in two tight-end power offenses in which they can maul defensive ends with some help on their side.

Thanks to this draft, half of the league has undergone major changes at left tackle over the past two years. A year ago, the Giants gambled on David Diehl, a guard, being able to replace the oft-injured Luke Petitgout at left tackle, and Diehl helped the Giants win a Super Bowl. On Tuesday, the Giants rewarded him with a new contract. Marcus McNeill, a second-round pick in 2006, has put together two Pro Bowl-caliber seasons for the San Diego Chargers.

D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the fourth player taken in the 2006 draft, struggled during his first two seasons with the Jets, but Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca is now at his side. The Jets expect big things from their highly paid offensive line.

With as many as six rookie left tackles poised to become starters this fall, things should be interesting. Rookie tackles are prone to mental mistakes, which could lead to sacks. Thomas was the rare exception. He allowed only 4½ sacks as a rookie. Staley, playing on the right side, allowed nine, but the quarterback situation in San Francisco was less stable than in Cleveland.

Ferguson has allowed 23½ sacks during his first two years, but his number likely will drop because of Faneca being the left guard. Long, Clady, Albert, Williams, Baker and Brown could be among the league leaders in sacks allowed as they adapt as first-year starters.

Finally, this infusion of tackles ultimately could help the AFC more than the NFC. If these first-round tackles work out, the Broncos, Texans, Chiefs and Dolphins could resolve their left tackle issues for the next decade. The Colts believe Ugoh is their perfect left tackle. The Chargers found theirs in McNeill.

This may not be the golden era of tackles that started in the mid-1990s, but it should be a pretty good stretch.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.