By Nick Shook
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The NFL draft is less than two weeks away — April 27-29 in Philadelphia. We’re almost there, folks. I promise.
While I’m a proponent of salad before entree, let’s skip the appetizers and get right into the meat of the piece, the lineman’s true favorite part of the meal (other than dessert). Needy teams, meet available draft prospects. Below are a few teams who should be expected to look at offensive linemen in the early rounds of the league’s annual orderly injection of fresh talent.
The Bengals struggled to protect Andy Dalton last season, even going so far as rotating linemen by series during games in an attempt to fix the problem. Then, things got even worse.
Cincinnati watched its top two linemen leave via free agency in guard Kevin Zeitler (for Cleveland) and tackle Andrew Whitworth (for the Rams), creating massive voids along the line.
Clint Boling will return at left guard (kicking Christian Westerman over to the right guard position to replace Zeitler), but he’s coming off a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve. It was reportedly a separation, which shouldn’t affect him as severely as a tear would have, but is still a mild concern.
The greater concern is what Cincinnati will do at tackle. Whitworth was and has been the franchise’s best offensive lineman for the better part of the last decade, but that reliability now resides in the City of Angels. Left tackle Jake Fisher will be forced to step in but brings just four career starts in two seasons. Cedric Ogubuehi is coming off a season in which he allowed nine sacks and was benched as part of Cincinnati’s late-season shake-up along the line. The point is that no tackle is safe in Cincinnati as we near the draft.
The Bengals are armed with picks to fix this problem, selecting ninth in the first round and also holding the ninth pick in the second round (41st overall). The No. 9 pick is too high to take a tackle in this draft, but that second round is where the Bengals could strike to fix this conundrum.
Los Angeles Rams
Todd Gurley‘s disappointing second season wasn’t just by chance; the Rams really, really struggled to block in 2016, averaging just 1.3 yards gained by Rams running backs before first contact. Jared Goff‘s ability to stand in the pocket under pressure and deliver before being clobbered (49 sacks = not good) was actually one of the stronger points to highlight in his rookie tape. But it’s not how an organization preserves the health and longevity of its franchise quarterback and running back.
Much like a candle that has reached its end, that first-round pick the Rams used on Greg Robinson has officially burned out. Los Angeles nonverbally acknowledged as much, attempting to fix that issue by signing the aforementioned Whitworth. But the free-agent addition isn’t a long-term fix, because at 35 years old, it’s only reasonable to expect Whitworth to block at his established level for two, maybe three more seasons at most (he signed a three-year, $36 million deal).
That leaves another hurdle to clear for the Rams in two or three years, and a perfect opportunity to grab a tackle who might need some seasoning before he can be counted on. This draft seems to be the one to do it in, seeing as there are a couple of potential first-round picks, but a noticeable difference between them and the rest. Don’t be surprised if a second- or third-round pick is spent on a tackle of the future.
While we spent the first part of the offseason pondering the possibility of Tony Romo in a Broncos uniform (before his eventual retirement), we were really overlooking the true issue. The problem in Denver offensively wasn’t Trevor Siemian, but those who are tasked with protecting him.
Cue up tape of the Broncos against most pass rushes — Kansas City’s havoc-wreaking performance in Week 12 comes to mind — and it’s easy to see that Denver needs to invest in its trenches.
So which position do the Broncos aim to improve first? In free agency, they threw dollars at Ronald Leary (smart) to fix the sieve that was the guard position not manned by Max Garcia. Matt Paradis had a stellar season at center, so we can look beyond there, too. Let’s move out to the edge, where Ty Sambrailo and Donald Stephenson spent a good amount of their season pondering a career of fashioning balloon animals while wearing face paint, in front of 65,000-plus people. Yes, they too often donned clown suits.
The Broncos attempted to fix this in free agency, too, signing Menelik Watson away from the division-rival Raiders. But Watson spent 2016 as a backup on the line that drew rave reviews from much of the league, and when it came time for him to step in the spotlight after Donald Penn was too injured to go against Houston in the playoffs, Watson became a turnstile, struggling mightily against Jadeveon Clowney (can’t blame him there) and D.J. Reader in a loss. The difference between Penn and Watson was unsettling. That signing inspires very little confidence in the tackle position for me.
Sitting at pick No. 20, Denver is in prime position to take one of the top two tackles in this draft and attempt to address its most-glaring need.