In 1982, Mike Munchak was Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper. Back then, just as it is now, taking an interior offensive lineman high in the NFL Draft was uncommon. But the Houston Oilers liked what they saw in the Penn State product and used the No. 8 overall pick on him.
It turned out to be a sound investment. Munchak started as a rookie at left guard and played 12 seasons there, earning nine Pro Bowl selections, 10 All-Pro selections and a spot on the NFL’s all-decade team for the 1980s. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Now, a dozen years later, Munchak is entering his third season as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans (nee Houston Oilers). And with his team in the market for interior offensive line help, he’s well aware of the old adage about picking a guard in the top 10.
But he also knows all about the exceptions.
“If you have someone that is special, someone that is really good, that kind of gets thrown out the window,” said Munchak, whose Titans are set to pick 10th overall when the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft kicks off next Thursday night. “So you have to decide where you want to pick a guy like that.”
If the Titans – or any of the another top-10 teams – want to take a guard that high, Alabama’s Warmack and North Carolina’s Cooper are both worthy.
“When you really look at the guard position, there's some real good ones this year. This is a strong year for guards,” ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “There's some great evaluators that tell you don't take a guard in the first round, let alone the top 10. Some teams won't be interested in guards. Some will. I know (Pro Football Hall of Famer) John Hanna went fourth overall in 1973. It's been rare, but it's happened. It's been a rare scenario to see two guards going this high.
“But Cooper, he's as athletic a guard as you'll ever find. You can see him 30 yards down the field making a key block. (And) Chance Warmack from Alabama is a great player as well. So you have some elite guards and I think Cooper could come off the board in the top 10.”
Both Cooper and Warmack understand that going early as a guard is unlikely. The last true guard to be taken in the top 10 was Colorado’s Chris Naeole, who went 10th to the New Orleans Saints that year.
“It’s widely known that guards aren’t drafted that high,” Warmack said. “If that did happen, that would be an honor as a player that plays guard.”
Added Cooper: “I think I’m very blessed to be playing at guard and to be as highly regarded as I am, so I’m thankful for that. But it’s not a glamour position. They like guys who run power and run it consecutive times, just smash people until they can’t hardly think. So it is not a glamour position and it is hard to be scouted, but I’m grateful because I have been blessed with the opportunity.”
As good as the guards may be, three tackles – Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson – could go in the top 10, with Joeckel expected to go No. 1 overall to the Kansas City Chiefs. While the quarterback class is uninspiring and there are some risky, boom-or-bust possibilities on the defensive side of the ball early, the offensive linemen appear to be safe, almost can’t-miss picks, led by Joeckel.
“He's very, very good at what he does. He's going to be a very, very good football player,” Munchak said. “He's a guy that's going be able to come right in to the NFL and play immediately.”
During his time in Houston, Munchak teamed with another Hall of Fame offensive lineman, Bruce Matthews, who’s now the Titans’ offensive line coach. Matthews’ son Jake played right tackle opposite Joeckel last year, and the tandem reminded Munchak of what he and the elder Matthews used to be.
“You watch (Joeckel) on tape and you watch him on TV, and he's a special guy. I know he went against a lot of good defensive ends in college and you see he is up to the challenge, with Jake Matthews being the right tackle,” Munchak said. “I think those guys helped each other similar to how Bruce and I did all those years of watching each other and competing. I think they're very competitive and I think it's helped both of their developments. I think Luke is going to be a very special player.”
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Luke Joeckel, T, Texas A&M (6-foot-6, 306 pounds, 5.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Started 13 games at left tackle as a true freshman in 2010 and never surrendered the job, winning the Outland Trophy last year as a junior while protecting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. … Not an off-the-charts athlete but has very good football IQ and is only going to get better as he matures.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Chance Warmack, G, Alabama (6-2, 317, 5.49): started 13 games in 2010, 13 games in 2011 and 14 games last season, all at left guard. … Was a first-team All-American last year. … Powerful, strong blocker with strong competitive streak and explosive blocking ability. … Excellent in pass protection, extremely difficult to move.
3. Eric Fisher, T, Central Michigan (6-7 1/4, 306, 5.06): Started two games as a true freshman in 2009, then started nine games at right tackle, right guard and left tackle in 2010 before finding a home at left tackle in 2011 (10 starts) and 2012 (13 starts). … Moved up draft boards after top-notch performances at Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. … Athletic, confident player who needs to add some strength but should be an immediate starter and high first-round pick..
4. Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina (6-2 1/8, 311, 5.07): Started nine games at left guard as a redshirt freshman in 2009, then started 13 games in 2010 (12 at left guard, one at center), 13 games in 2011 (all at left guard) and 12 in 2012 (all at left guard) en route to first-team all-America honors as a senior. … Excellent pulling guard who figures to start immediately.
5. D.J. Fluker, T, Alabama (6-4 5/8, 339, 5.31): Started nine games at right tackle in 2010 as a redshirt freshman, then started all 13 games in 2011 and all 14 games last season as a junior. … Incredible size, great physical strength but looks like an NFL right tackle or guard, not a left tackle..
OTHERS TO WATCH
Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin; Lane Johnson, T, Oklahoma; Barrett Jones, C, Alabama; Menelik Watson, T, Florida State; Kyle Long, G, Oregon; Justin Pugh, G, Syracuse; Larry Warford, G, Kentucky; Jeff Allen, G, Illinois; Mitchell Schwartz, T, California.
“We are an extremely competitive family. I grew up probably fighting multiple times a day with my twin brother. When we were little, we were closer in size, only about five or 10 pounds apart. Now we are about 70, 80 pounds, so he doesn’t really mess with me much anymore. Actually, I’ve got a pretty good story about (blocking for him in high school). My junior year I was pancaking this guy. I’m pancaking him, and Matt bounces out of the pocket, and I pancake the guy right into Matt’s legs. I get up and instead of him yelling at me, I started yelling at him, saying, ‘You gave me a sack. You’ve got to be a better athlete than that.’ He never chewed me out for giving up sacks. I chewed him out once for making me give up a sack. That’s kind of like how our relationship is.” – Joeckel, on his twin brother Matt, whom he blocked for in high school and who is now a backup to Manziel at Texas A&M.
Position analysis: It’s incredible that a team that devoted its first-round draft pick to offensive tackle in back-to-back years (2010, 2011) could go that direction at No. 26 overall, but it’s a distinct possibility. Not only did the unit allow quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be sacked a league-high 51 times last season – although the line wasn’t to blame on all of those – and the running game ranked No. 20 in yards per game and No. 22 in yards per rush. The group lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga, the team’s 2010 first-round pick, to a hip injury on Nov. 4, and 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod never got on the field after the horrific broken leg he suffered on Dec. 18, 2011, spending the entire year on the physically unable to perform list. While Marshall Newhouse has been OK at left tackle and undrafted rookie free agent Don Barclay was a pleasant surprise after Bulaga’s injury, Sherrod’s uncertain future is a concern.
Inside, center Evan Dietrich-Smith signed his restricted free-agent tender this week, and after assuming the starting job from now-retired veteran Jeff Saturday with two games left in the regular season, there’s no guarantee he’s the long-term answer, even though the coaches like him. While guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang each have long-term deals and are entrenched as starters, the depth behind them is also an issue. The only player of note is Greg Van Roten, another undrafted rookie free agent who began on the practice squad before being promoted to the 53-man roster.
Draft strategy: Packers general manager Ted Thompson has a spotty history on offensive linemen, but he’s always drafted in bulk. Of his eight drafts, only twice has he failed to take at least two offensive linemen. In 2007, he took only Allen Barbre in the fourth round; last year, he took only Andrew Datko in the seventh. Otherwise, it’s been at least two linemen each year: Sherrod (first round, No. 32) and guard Caleb Schlauderaff (sixth round) in 2011; Bulaga (first round. No. 23) and Newhouse (fifth round) in 2010; Lang (fourth round) and Jamon Meredith (fifth round) in 2009; Sitton (fourth round) and Breno Giacomini (fifth round) in 2008; Daryn Colledge (second round), Jason Spitz (third round) and Tony Moll (fifth round) in 2006; and Junius Coston (fifth round) and Will Whitticker (seventh round) in 2005. With only eight picks – unless he trades back to accumulate more – and other needs to fill, Thompson may only take one lineman. But the safe bet is that he adds a pair.
Next: Defensive line.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.