KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Playing on the offensive line is about as unglamorous as it gets in professional football.
Nobody pays much attention to the guys in the trenches until flags are flying. They spend Sunday afternoons getting punched, kicked and thrown to the turf, their fingers smashed and their face masks twisted — not to mention whatever goes on at the bottom of those piles.
The best offensive tackle will never be as valuable as, say, the best quarterback, and rarely does one of the guys up front stoke the passions of a fan base weary of losing.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only twice has an offensive lineman been selected first overall in the draft — Orlando Pace in 1997 and Jake Long in 2008.
The Kansas City Chiefs could make it three on Thursday night.
In a draft without a top-end talent at quarterback and no clear-cut No. 1 prospect regardless of position, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to call out the name of one of two offensive tackles — Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M or Eric Fisher of Central Michigan — after Kansas City hands in its selection at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
“Last year, people picking at the top of the draft were looking for quarterbacks. And fortunately, they were there,” said former NFL coach Jon Gruden, now an analyst with ESPN. “If you’re looking for a left tackle this year, you’re a lucky guy.”
The Chiefs insist that they’re not necessarily looking for a left tackle; they’re looking for the best available player, and Joeckel and Fisher happen to fit the bill.
But it helps the cause of both Joeckel and Fisher — or maybe even Lane Johnson, an offensive tackle from Oklahoma — that Kansas City could be unsettled at the position by draft night.
The Chiefs placed the franchise tag on left tackle Branden Albert, and he’s signed the tender worth about $9.3 million for next season. But they’ve also granted the Dolphins permission to speak with Albert’s representatives, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that a trade will happen.
That would make the selection of left tackle an obvious choice.
“What I have to do is what’s best for the Kansas City Chiefs,” said general manager John Dorsey, who helped put together some of the Green Bay Packers’ best drafts but is calling the shots from the GM chair for the first time after being hired in January.
“I’ll explore every option and available thing,” he said, “and then you’ll being to weigh those decisions, and you have all the way up until that last minute.”
It didn’t come down to the last minute a year ago.
The Colts revealed on Tuesday of draft week that they were selecting quarterback Andrew Luck first overall, and that allowed some of the dominos to start falling. The Redskins traded up to nab quarterback Robert Griffin III, and the draft was off and running.
That won’t be the case this year, partly because there’s no QB worth the No. 1 pick.
Players at the game’s most vital position have been chosen first overall four straight years, and 10 of the last 12. And the Chiefs probably would have made it five straight if there was someone worth the pick. Instead, they traded with San Francisco to acquire Alex Smith this off-season.
So, everything appears to be circling back to a blindside protector.
The St. Louis Rams decided in 1997 that Pace was a better option than anybody in a forgettable quarterback class that included the likes of Jim Druckenmiller, Danny Wuerffel and Pat Barnes. Pace became a three-time All-Pro and made seven straight Pro Bowls in his 13-year career.
Long, who the Dolphins picked first in 2008, also became an All-Pro and has made four Pro Bowls in his five-year career. But betting against the quarterbacks that year didn’t pay off nearly as well for Miami — Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were selected later in the first round.
One of the advantages to choosing an offensive tackle is the relative risk. The position is typically easier to evaluate, and project, than some of the skill positions, and rarely do linemen taken high in the draft completely wash out.
Joeckel won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman after protecting Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel so successfully last season. Fisher was a third-team All-American who shot up draft boards with an eye-opening performance at the NFL’s scouting combine.
“With Joeckel, the floor is extremely high. I can’t imagine him coming in and being a bust,” said ESPN college football analyst Todd McShay. “Fisher is not as technically sound. You also don’t see consistently the tape against top competition. That’s nothing that Fisher has done. He can only play who he can play. But I just think Joeckel to me has the highest floor of the three.
“Who knows what Kansas City thinks,” McShay said, “but to me that seems to be the right pick, because there is very little bust potential when it comes to Joeckel.”
Dorsey and new Chiefs coach Andy Reid have refused to give any indication of who they might pick Thursday night, assuming they still have the No. 1 selection. The only thing they’ve made clear is that they intend to choose whoever they believe is the best player.
“It’s the first pick in the draft,” Dorsey said. “I look at it as a positive because what it is, is you get a shot at the best player in the draft.”