No-Names Move To The front Of The Line March 28, 2005 Dan Pompei Sporting News There might not be an offensive tackle worth taking in the first round of the draft, including Florida State's Alex Barron. And now, there isn't a reason to reach for one, either. NFL teams can pass-block, run-block and win games without premium talent at the offensive line position. The Patriots proved this lesson. They won the Super Bowl with a second-round pick, a fifth-round pick and three scrapheap pickups. The Falcons reinforced it. They led the league in rushing with three seventh-round picks, a fourth-round pick and a 2002 veteran free-agent pickup. The lesson was driven home by the Chargers, who were third in the NFL in points per game playing two rookies, a journeyman with his fourth team, a guard who had been considered a bust until last year and a 2004 veteran free-agent signee. Just because Walter Jones and Orlando Pace, the NFL's best left tackles, recently signed long-term deals with the Seahawks and Rams is not a reason for teams to panic and overpay free-agent tackles with Frankenstein feet. One of the most questionable signings of the free-agent period was the 49ers' giving $36 million to Jonas Jennings. The left tackle will make the 49ers better, but they could have used their money more prudently. Falcons offensive line consultant Alex Gibbs prefers lower-round picks and undrafted free agents because he believes offensive linemen need to be developed and that high-round draft choices aren't afforded time or patience for development. It's an efficient philosophy on more than one front, enabling teams such as the Falcons to appropriate more salary cap space and cash to skill position players such as quarterback Michael Vick and tight end Alge Crumpler, both of whom recently signed lucrative extensions. Now, some teams are emphasizing offensive line coaches more than linemen. The Dolphins were happy to recently sign line coach Hudson Houck, who coached the Chargers' line last season, to a deal worth $850,000 per year. "The offensive line might be the position where coaching is more of a significant factor than any position," Bills general manager Tom Donahoe says. "I think you need a premium offensive line coach, the guy who can take down-the-line guys and free agents and develop them into pretty good pros." A superior offensive line coach certainly can improve players' techniques. But the way he can help his team most is by implementing a blocker-friendly scheme. "You can take pressure off the blocker by running the ball, using the play-action pass," Falcons general manager Rich McKay says. "If you are a team that has to throw 65 percent of the time and you're a dropback team, you're putting a lot of stress on your tackles. You better be able to protect." In part because of how the Patriots' offense is set up, the team got away with using Brandon Gorin at right tackle this season after Tom Ashworth was injured. It's not that difficult to block for the Patriots' skill position players. "Corey Dillon is a back who sees the holes and gets into those holes quickly," Patriots line coach Dante Scarnecchia says. "Tom Brady gets the ball out on rhythm, and we have receivers who can get in a pattern fast. That demands a lot less of your offensive line and makes it easier for them." Continuity and understanding also allow offensive linemen to play more effectively than their skills might suggest. "The ability of the players to react in a coordinated manner is what makes a good offensive line," Browns line coach Jeff Davidson says. Scarnecchia and the Patriots are able to live with a tough offensive lineman who lacks ideal foot quickness, or one whose arms aren't quite long enough, or one who doesn't have as solid a base as they'd prefer. It is a lesson other teams would be wise to absorb.