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February 25, 2017

NFL Combine preview: Offensive tackle prospects who could interest the Eagles

Eagles NFL

The NFL Combine will kick off in Indianapolis next week, so we'll begin taking a look at some participants at each positional group every day. In case you missed our previous positional previews:

Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends

Today, we'll look at offensive tackles.

Is offensive tackle a need?

In the short term, no. In the long term, absolutely. 

A couple weeks ago, it was reported by Adam Caplan of ESPN that the Eagles approached long-time starting left tackle Jason Peters about taking a pay cut. However, there was never any real consideration given to trading or releasing Peters if he did not. With so many holes on the roster, if the Eagles released Peters, offensive tackle would instantaneously become every bit as big a need as wide receiver or cornerback, perhaps even more so.

The Eagles had almost no leverage. If Peters were to take a pay cut, he would have been doing so out of the kindness of his own heart. That didn't happen. Instead, the Eagles will have to settle for having one of the better offensive tackle tandems in the NFL for at least one more season.

Peters' time in the NFL is rapidly coming to an end though. He turned 35 in January in a league where it is very rare that offensive tackles make it into their mid-30's. Whenever he decides to retire (or can't play at a high level anymore), Lane Johnson will slide over to left tackle from right tackle. The Eagles will then have to decide how to fill Johnson's vacated spot. The odds-on favorite is probably Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who struggled as a rookie, but the team is high on.

If the Eagles believe Vaitai is the future starter at RT, then they will likely not aggressively pursue an offensive tackle early in what is a weak OT class this year. They may, however, look to add depth.

If they have concerns about Vaitai, being able to protect the edges is, you know, a pretty big deal.

Here are five offensive tackles that we think make sense for the Eagles:

Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin (6'5, 314)

When it comes to athleticism, there may not be an offensive tackle in this draft who does what Ramczyk can do. He looks very natural in his pass protection sets and does an excellent job pulling and/or getting to the second level in the run game. But unlike many other offensive linemen who are blessed with athleticism, Ramczyk is also powerful, and he moves defensive linemen off the ball against their will. As such, he is projected as a first round pick, with many who believe he could go in the teens, which happens to be where the Eagles' first-round pick resides.

Ramczyk is a very special case. He went to four schools before landing at Wisconsin, as he was unsure about his love of the game, even pondering becoming a welder, according to Jesse Temple of ESPN. While that is a nice, folksy story, it is also an enormous concern. Substitute "welder" with "firefighter" and you have Danny Watkins.

Garett Bolles, Utah (6'5, 296)

Bolles has become one of my favorite prospects to watch in this draft class, for his tenacity and demeanor. In watching his games, I have literally laughed out loud at how far through the whistle he'll play, and how far he'll drive defenders down the field on run plays. He's probably the best run-blocking offensive tackle in this class.

Bolles is very athletic and has the tools to become an equally good pass protector, but his game needs a little refinement there, as his over-aggressiveness can work against him at times. As a prospect, however, it's a lot easier to get a guy to dial it back a bit than to try to make him more aggressive.

Bolles had a rough childhood, but seems to have worked through it. The biggest knock on Bolles could be his age. He's only a junior and he's already 24 years old. He'll turn 25 in May. In other words, if you draft him in the first round, there's a good chance he won't get his second contract until the offseason he'll turn 30. We'll take this opportunity to note Danny Watkins once again.

Because of his age, there's no way the Eagles will take him at 14/15, but if he's there in round two? Hell yes. 

Adam Bisnowaty, Pittsburgh (6'6, 307)

Bisnowaty started in 43 games in his college career, all at left tackle, however, he'll likely move to right tackle in the pros. The words you'll often see to describe Bisnowaty are physical, scrappy, tough, etc. That's often a kind way of saying a guy isn't athletic, but he tries hard.

In Bisnowaty's case, he has decent athleticism and he excels in the run game. Doug Pederson likes the scrappy types. When asked what he looks for in offensive linemen, Pederson once said, "Guys that are athletic who can get out on the perimeter and run, aggressive up front, have a little, as they say, 'piss and vinegar' in their neck are guys that you look for." That's Bisnowaty.

If the Eagles think Bisnowaty can make the transition from left tackle to right, he could be an intriguing potential starter at RT with the versatility to play LT in a pinch.

Chad Wheeler, USC (6'6, 310)

Wheeler has a long and lean build, and has shown good footwork, technique, and the ability to get to the second level. On the downside, Wheeler has had to add weight during his career at USC, and his ability to hold his ground against power rushers must improve. 

Wheeler has off-the-field baggage. He missed USC's bowl game after the 2015 season because of an incident with Los Angeles police, as reported by Andrew Blankstein on NBC News:

Los Angeles officers responded to a man at around 8:45 a.m. PT (11:45 a.m. ET) who was possibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol, punching walls and windows, and injuring his hands inside an apartment in South Los Angeles near the USC campus, said the law enforcement sources close to the investigation.

The man was identified as Chad Wheeler, a junior and an offensive lineman at USC. He ran out of the apartment after hitting at the walls and windows, the sources said.

Wheeler was confronted by officers, got into an altercation with them, and was hit with bean bag rounds. The sources did not go into detail about the exact nature of what led police to use bean bag rounds, a less lethal form of force.

He was not arrested, but was transported to a local hospital and is being held under protective custody for psychiatric evaluation.

Yikes. That's some Lattimer stuff right there.

Still, in the post-Chip era, the Eagles showed last year that they are willing to take chances in the draft on character concern players when they drafted Wendell Smallwood, Jalen Mills, and Alex McCalister. To be determined if that will change with Joe Douglas setting the draft board.

Zach Banner, USC (6'8, 361)

Banner is one of the biggest human beings on the planet, and he is athletic for his size (emphasis on "for his size"). As you might expect of a 361-pound tackle, Banner moves defenders off the ball against their will in the run game but can struggle with speedier edge rushers, although he's a wide man to try to run around.

In the pros, Banner's best fit is probably at RT. The Eagles could also find ways to get Banner on the field as road-grading presence in the run game in jumbo packages, which they used quite a bit when they had leads in the fourth quarter of games in 2016.

On the downside (and this is a significant red flag), Banner allowed three sacks in 2016 and was flagged for a whopping 12 penalties.

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