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Tackling Expectations

The ends of the offensive line aren't easy to find


Tackle Brandon Keith takes on Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware during a game last season.

INDIANAPOLIS – Brandon Keith was lying in the training room one day alongside teammate Calais Campbell, and took note of Campbell's 6-foot-8 frame.

"Gain another 30 pounds," Keith joked with the defensive end, "you could be a legendary left tackle."

Campbell waved it off – "I'm a defensive-minded guy," he told the Cards' right tackle – but Keith might have had a point.

"You can't just put a big guy out there," said Keith, no small man himself at 6-5, 335. "He better be able to move."

Move and block, and do it consistently enough in an era where NFL teams are more likely to throw than to run. Add in the fact that many of the big athletic freaks are often slotted as defensive pass rushers, and it makes the job of tackle often difficult.

As the Cardinals search to solve their tackle issues for 2012 – Keith is an unrestricted free agent, left tackle Levi Brown will be one if the Cards can't find a way to restructure his current contract – the reality is this: Good tackles are hard to find, and even the best teams sometimes just have to manage.

"There are probably only a handful that most would agree that can do most of what you would require from a tackle," Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. "It gets back to schematically, what teams are willing to do to compensate for the weaknesses their tackles might have.  Lots of teams get the protections they need to have, but only getting it because they are doing things to help the tackles."

The position is easily the most scrutinized on the line. Interior players can have ups and downs hidden – and get help much easier. On the outside, isolation is going to happen. Besides, the most dangerous pass rushers, and often the most dynamic defensive front seven players, play out there.

"If you miss a block, you have failed," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said of the instant analysis many tackles face. "Over the course of 66 or 70 plays in a game, you're not going to win every play. The way the coaches judge it, it's on the whole body of work. It's a tough position, but that's why those guys get paid a lot of money, the ones that do it well."

With the futures of Keith and Brown murky for now, many have linked tackles to the Cards with their first round pick. USC's Matt Kalil figures to be long drafted by the time the Cardinals choose at No. 13, but candidates like Iowa's Riley Reiff and Stanford's Jonathan Martin could still be available.

Drafting a good tackle usually is the only way to get one. The best tackles seemingly never reach free agency. Teams understand how crucial it is to keep them, especially the left tackles that are the blind-side protectors of right-handed quarterbacks.

"Left tackle is a very important position," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "I think the fact that there have been movies and books written on it now validates that."

There are no sure things. The Raiders made Robert Gallery the No. 2 overall pick in 2004, a slot in front of Larry Fitzgerald, in part because Pro Bowl-types can last more than a decade. Gallery has turned out to be a solid pro, but only as a guard because he just didn't work as a tackle.

The Cardinals are going through the same thing with Brown, the fifth pick overall in 2007 and second tackle in the draft behind Cleveland's Joe Thomas. Brown has started for four straight years, the last two on the left side, although he hasn't been the star his draft position suggested.

The website Pro Football Focus did note Brown’s dramatic uptick over the last eight games of the season, grading him higher than the first half of the year. The Cards want to bring Brown back with a new deal because they too believe his play improved in 2011. It also could speak to the potential free-agent market of tackles, because again, teams just don't let good ones leave.

"As a tackle, you are vulnerable to so much stuff," Keith said. "People don't know about the play all the time, like that it takes five seconds, or you knocked a guy down three times and he still got up to get a sack. People just see if you got beat or a guy ran over you.

"You are definitely open for more criticism. The position comes with a lot of good and a lot of bad."

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