OL: Tackles Are Deep, the Plot Thickens

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This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position stories on the NFL Draft by newyorkjets.com:    

Rex Ryan has called the Jets' offensive line "probably the strength of our football team."

There's Alan Faneca at left guard and Nick Mangold at center — Pro Bowlers both. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson continued his growth in his third year as a pro by gaining all-star alternate status. Damien Woody played solidly at right tackle. And Brandon Moore, the "geezer" of the group, re-signed after being an unrestricted free agent for a few hours.

Together, they return as a starting unit, something rare in the NFL and even rarer for the Green & White, who last returned all five O-line starters intact from 2000 to '01.

But there's no rule that strength can't get stronger. As OL boss Bill Callahan has said: "Now that you've had a little taste of success, you want to go back and get more. We know we can improve where we're at."

Often, improvement comes from an infusion of draft talent. It doesn't appear likely the Jets will mine one of the top tackles in this year's first round, but with Faneca entering his 12th NFL season and Woody his 11th and with Robert Turner and Wayne Hunter as the line's experienced depth, perhaps Rex and Co. secretly covet one of the players mentioned below.

No. 1 Fits Monroe, Jason Smith to a T

Joey Clinkscales, the Jets vice president of college scouting, says this year's offensive line is a deep position. Safe call, considering three positions get funneled into one on the OL. But the 2009 tackle class is indeed a rich group, and one with some dynamic storylines to go along with it.

Will the Detroit Lions hold onto their top overall pick and go with QB Matthew Stafford or LB Aaron Curry, or do they secretly covet one of the top tackles, Eugene Monroeof Virginia or Jason Smith of Baylor? And where will once highly regarded *Andre Smith of Alabama wind up after his strange decision to pull out of the combine workouts?

Monroe and Smith, both of whom have been mentioned as the apple of Detroit's eye, share some similarities — in size (6'5¼", 309 to 6'5", 309), speed (5.25 seconds in the 40) and knees (creaky according to several sources). And each seems prepared to accept the No. 1 mantle if it's bestowed on him.

"I've been working for four years, so this is the easy part," Monroe said at the UVa pro day last month. About possibly being the first pick of the draft, he told the Charlottesville, Va., dailyprogress.com, "You hear it and you hear that information, but with me I just keep working out and keep appearing where I have to and hope it will bring me closer to that day."

Jason Smith exudes confidence as big as Big D, where he went to school.

"I show up every day willing to work, and I'm productive," he told the Dallas Morning News. "I have 12 games that show it, and I have 12 weeks of practice that also show it. So if you want to see a guy who practices hard, plays hard, look at my practice or look at my games — you won't be able to tell the difference. I'll be going full-speed. And every day you walk in there I'll have a smile on my face, ready to go to work."

Where Will Andre Wind Up?

Andre Smith, on the other hand, seems to be, if not in free-fall, at least on the predraft wheel of fortune, which he gave a huge spin to when he walked out of the February combine workouts, something he later called "a bad decision."

A. Smith's a big man — 6'4" and anywhere from the 325 he showed up at for his pro day to the 345 he played at last season. He didn't improve his speed much at the pro day, getting it down to 5.28 in the 40 from 5.34. And he had a low 19 reps in the bench press. But there are his nimble feet, not to mention the game video showing him enjoying a fine senior season for 'Bama.

"Not many people have the opportunity to get drafted by the NFL," said Smith, who may be on the way back up some team's boards. "This is the chance of a lifetime. You've got grab life by the horns."

Two other tackles we want to honk about a little both could start out at right tackle in the NFL before shifting to blind-side protector a few years down the road.

Michael Oher(6'4½", 309) of Ole Miss improved nicely at his pro day from his combine numbers (especially going from 5.32 to 5.16 in the 40), displaying noteworthy footwork that will come in handy at the next level. And Eben Britton (6'6", 309) of Arizona has fine size and wingspan but some pass-blocking deficiencies that were disguised by the Wildcats' spread offense and QB athleticism.

Guards and Centers

It's not a spotlight draft for interior linemen, but a few of them are threatening to move in on the tackles at the low end of Round 1 or high in Round 2.

The charge is led by Alex Mackof Cal and Max Unger of Oregon. Mack is tall, athletic and intelligent. He'll need to work on his leverage, but the Ourlads people offer high praise in sending him to Pittsburgh with the 32nd pick of their mock draft, saying he "fits in the tradition of great Steeler centers Webster and Dawson."

The Hawaii-born Unger is, like the Jets' Woody, a potential four-position O-lineman in the pros after starting at all-conference levels or higher at LT in 2005-06 and C in 2007-08. He's not fast or a big drive blocker but he's a team leader.

Louisville C Eric Woodis a hard worker and a tough guy who may be bumped out to guard as a pro. Penn State C A.Q. Shipley had 33 reps on the 225 bench at the combine, top number among interior linemen.

Other Notables

William Beatty, T, Connecticut; Phil Loadholt, T, Oklahoma; Jamon Meredith, T-G, South Carolina; Duke Robinson, G, Oklahoma; Andy Levitre, G, Oregon State, C Antoine Caldwell, Alabama.

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