The Cleveland Browns have other needs – namely, a quarterback. And they already have the best left tackle in football – Joe Thomas, whom they picked third overall in 2007 and who’s been picked for the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven NFL seasons.
Nevertheless, as new Browns general manager Ray Farmer and his staff observed the offensive line drills at the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February, Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews got their attention.
“We were sitting in the suite at the combine when Greg Robinson ran, and [Browns owner] Jimmy [Haslem] turned and was like, ‘How big was he?’” Farmer said as the Browns prepared for this week’s NFL Draft, which begins with the first round on Thursday night. (Cleveland holds the No. 4 overall pick.) “You go back and you start reviewing the number, the size and the movement and then his play, and he’s a very, very interesting prospect as far as to what he could possibly bring to a franchise. It’s the same thing with Jake Matthews. His history and pedigree speak for themselves. The idea of what he can be and what he’s going to be in the National Football League going forward are definitely intriguing.”
Both Robinson and Matthews will hear their names called on Thursday night. The opinion among scouts is that Robinson, a third-year sophomore, has more upside while Matthews, who is the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and was a four-year starter for the Aggies, is as close to a finished product as you’ll find in this draft. He contemplated declaring for the draft a year ago but wanted to stay in school and play with his younger brother, Mike, the team’s starting center.
“I was actually down at Texas A&M on one of my trips this fall,” Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “[Matthews] probably could’ve came out last year and been a high draft pick, but the maturity that he shows and the technique that he shows, the bloodline [he has], he knows how to be a pro already. I don’t have any questions [about that].
“We’re not probably going to take him at the eighth spot if he’s there because we don’t need a tackle, but he’s going to come in and contribute right away. And just how polished he is, I thought Texas A&M and that staff did a great job developing him.”
Asked about the assertion that Robinson has more upside than he does, Matthews laughed.
“Being considered a polished player, someone who’s done a lot and played well in my life, I’ll take that as a (compliment),” Matthews said. “At the same time, I still feel like there’s a lot I can get better at. Definitely wouldn’t say I’m at my peak – a lot more I can learn, a lot more I can get better at. So all those things (are) stuff that’s motivating me, and I’m just trying to come out here and prove I am capable of being the best lineman.”
As good as Robinson and Matthews project to be – Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Notre Dame tackle/guard Zack Martin and UCLA guard Xavier Su’a-Filo may also go in the first round – there is no guarantee that they’ll be able to play right away, or won’t flop.
Last year, nine offensive linemen went in the first round, including four tackles in the first 11 picks. Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher (No. 1 to Kansas City), Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel (No. 2 to Jacksonville), Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson (No. 4 to Philadelphia), North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper (No. 7 to Arizona), Alabama guard Chance Warmack (No. 10 to Tennessee), Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker (No. 11 to San Diego), Syracuse tackle Justin Pugh (No. 19 to the New York Giants), Oregon guard Kyle Long (No. 20 to Chicago), and Wisconsin center Travis Frederick (No. 31 to Dallas).
“The problem is, you don't know what the run is going to be like. Last year, what were there four in the top 11 picks?” Arizona GM Steve Keim said. “And a lot of them struggled to some degree. It doesn't mean if you take one that they are going to have any success either.”
That’s why there might be another reason to take Matthews – his DNA. Not only did his father and uncle, Clay Jr., have long, distinguished NFL careers, but his cousin, and his brother Kevin Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, is a four-time Pro Bowler, and Clay’s brother, Casey, plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. (Jake and Mike’s older brother, Kevin, played 17 game for the Titans from 2010 through 2012.)
“You always have to look at it individually,” said Spielman, whose brother Chris was a second-round pick in 1988 by Detroit and played 12 seasons in the NFL. “Me and brother had bloodlines, but I was a little bit more stiffer than him. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now and he was a great player.
“I know from a background standpoint going into the NFL is not going to be something that’s brand new to [Jake Matthews}. He has family that’s been through the process and probably has a pretty good idea of what he’s walking into as a rookie.”
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Jake Matthews, T, Texas A&M (6-5 1/2, 308, 5.03): Started 26 games at right tackle in 2011 and 2012 behind last year’s No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel, then slid to left tackle as a senior last season, starting all 13 games there. … Son of Pro Football Hall of Famer offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and cousin of Green Bay Packers outside linebackers Clay Matthews. … Strong, athletic, durable, versatile tackle who’ll play right away and won’t give up his starting job for at least a decade.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Greg Robinson, T, Auburn (6-foot-5, 332 pounds, 4.92 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Started all 14 games, including the BCS title game, at left tackle as a third-year sophomore last season. … Powerful run blocker with long arms and very good quickness in pass protection. … Must improve technique after just two years as a starter but has franchise tackle written all over him. … Has greater upside than Matthews because of inexperience, but still has some rawness to his game as of now.
3. Taylor Lewan, T, Michigan (6-7 1/8, 309, 4.84): Started 39 games the past three seasons at left tackle for the Wolverines after redshirting in 2009 and starting nine games at the position as a redshirt freshman in 2010. … Plays with more finesse than nastiness but also has very good intensity and durability. … Helped his cause with a strong showing at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
4. Zack Martin, T, Notre Dame (6-4 1/4, 311, N/A): Started 13 games (two at right tackle, 11 at left tackle) as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and then held the left tackle job for the next three seasons, starting 13 games in 2011, 13 games in 2012 and 13 in 2013. … Short arms (32 7/8) likely mean shift inside to guard at NFL level. … .Athletic, consistent, reliable player who figures to start from Day 1 and is a safe pick no matter what position he ends up playing.
5. Xavier Su’a-Filo, G, UCLA (6-4 1/8, 307, 5.04): Started 13 games at left tackle in 2009 as a true freshman, then left on a two-year Mormon mission before returning to Bruins in 2012. … Started 14 games in 2012 at left guard, then split time in 13 starts between left guard (seven) and left tackle (six) in 2013. 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
Cyrus Kouandjio, T, Alabama; Antonio Richardson, T, Tennessee; Morgan Moses, T, Virginia; Jack Mewhort, T, Ohio State; Ja’Wuan James, T, Tennessee; Billy Turner, G, North Dakota State; Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State; Dakota Dozier, G, Furman; Marcus Martin, C, USC; Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State.
“It’s basically the financial situation back home, I didn’t come from much. It’s something I considered and I talked a lot with them. And I just told my mom I was going to go back and get my degree. … My mom has seven kids. I really have only two younger siblings. And it would be a blessing if I could help my mom put them through college. That would just be something in my heart that I would love to do. As far as my older brothers and sisters, I’m going to help them as much as I can because they have kids. I learned a lot from them, but I don’t feel that’s my responsibility. But I’m going to help my family as much as I can.” – Robinson, whose father died a year ago and whose mother has struggled financially.
Position analysis: In 2010 and 2011, the Packers used their first-round pick on an offensive tackle. After deciding not to pick up the fifth-year option on 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod on Saturday, the Packers will see both 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga and Sherrod head into unrestricted free agency after this season. The Packers have gotten next to nothing out of Sherrod, who finally was activated to the 53-man roster late last year from the physically unable to perform list after a horrific 2011 broken leg that sidelined him for nearly two full years. Bulaga, meanwhile, is coming off of back-to-back seasons that ended prematurely for him, landing on injured reserve with a hip injury midway through the 2012 season and on IR a week into training camp last year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Bulaga has been informed that he’ll work at his old spot at right tackle after David Bakhtiari came through at left tackle with a solid season as a rookie fourth-round pick last year. With Marshall Newhouse, a former starter at left tackle, leaving via free agency, Don Barclay is the only other tackle on the roster with experience.
Inside, while guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang each have long-term deals and are entrenched as starters, the center spot is in flux after Evan Dietrich-Smith was allowed to walk in unrestricted free agency. That means the team will have its fourth starting center in four opening days when they kick it off on Sept. 4 at Seattle. The odds-on favorite is JC Tretter, who essentially took a medical redshirt last year after breaking his ankle in the first organized team activity practice of the spring after being drafted in the fourth round from Cornell.
Draft strategy: Packers general manager Ted Thompson has a spotty history on offensive linemen, but he’s always drafted in bulk. Of his nine drafts, only twice has he failed to take at least two offensive linemen. In 2007, he took only Allen Barbre in the fourth round; in 2012, 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. Last year, he took two in the fourth round – Bakhtiari, who was a godsend after Bulaga’s injury, and Tretter, who is in line to start at a vital position.
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.