This was a great year for NFL teams with salary-cap room to find an offensive tackle in free agency, or for those with a high pick to find one in the draft.
But the Carolina Panthers, whose biggest need going into Thursday night’s NFL draft is offensive tackle, didn’t have the cash for a free-agent tackle and don’t have a high pick to secure a top tackle prospect.
The consensus among draft experts is there are four first-round tackles in this year’s draft class. Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews are in an elite class, and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Notre Dame’s Zack Martin fall in the “very good” category.
Most mock drafts have all four going among the top 20, well before Carolina’s selection at No. 28 late Thursday. After the top four, the best tackles are Virginia’s Morgan Moses, Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio and Nevada’s Joel Bitonio.
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According to multiple team sources, the Panthers, who need a tackle following Jordan Gross’ retirement, view the remaining tackles as flawed projects, who might never be NFL starters at left tackle.
General manager Dave Gettleman, who has repeated he is committed to picking the best available player, said last week he views a combination of nine to 10 receivers and tackles as first-rounders, but he declined to reveal how many in each group.
Moses is the trendy mock draft pick for Carolina. He played three years at right tackle before switching to left tackle full-time in 2013. At 6-foot-6, 314 pounds, Moses was named second-team All-ACC by league coaches in 2013.
And he comes from a program rich with talented tackles: Dolphins tackle Branden Albert, Ravens tackle Eugene Monroe and Jets tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson all played at Virginia.
But the school’s long history of pro-style offenses got a new look this past season, implementing more spread and read-option. Because of that familiarity, Moses said he’d be a great fit with the Panthers, whom he has talked to “numerous” times during the past several months.
“Obviously, they need a left tackle; their left tackle just retired,” Moses said during a Monday conference call, “but also I’ve been in school with (Virginia offensive coordinator) Steve Fairchild this past year with the read-option and things like that. It’s similar offense, it’s just different terminology. But I played in that system and am real familiar with it.”
Ideal arm length for offensive tackles is 34 inches, and Moses exceeds that at 35 3/8. But he doesn’t have great bend, lacks consistency, and there are doubts he will be able to play left tackle in the NFL.
“One of the things that’s helped me is being ambidextrous,” Moses said, “so being able to play both sides is something I’ve been able to do all my life.”
The Bayesian draft analysis used by Advanced NFL Analytics estimates the probability of Robinson or Matthews falling to No. 28 as infinitesimal. Lewan and Martin are less than 1 percent.
But Moses, ranked as the 26th-best player by Advanced NFL Analytics, has a 34 percent chance of being there at No. 28. Kouandjio is at 81 percent, and Bitonio at 92 percent.
Kouandjio was an Associated Press All-America selection after his junior season with the Crimson Tide despite struggling at times – most notably in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma’s Eric Striker, who finished with three sacks and a forced fumble.
There also are worries around the league about the long-term health of Kouandjio’s knee. He suffered a torn ACL during 2011 and was flagged at the combine after a physical. Dr. James Andrews, a well-known orthopedic surgeon, sent a memo to all 32 NFL teams two months ago stating the ACL surgery to Kouandjio’s knee was performed appropriately and there were no inconsistencies with the “wear pattern” of the 322-pounder’s knee.
“Cyrus is really a good player and I think his best football is certainly ahead of him,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told the Observer recently. “He played extremely well for us. I know some people are thinking he didn’t play so well in the bowl game. I think we put him in some tough situations against a very good pass rusher, which, looking back on it, wasn’t fair to him in some respects.
“He’s got a lot of upside as a player, and I think somebody’s going to get a really, really good football player. I think he’ll do a good job for a long time for whatever team gets him.”