The often overlooked men in the trenches took center stage in the first round of a NFL Draft bereft of glamor quarterbacks and lacking star power at Radio City Music Hall in New York on Thursday.
Three of the top four picks, headed by Kansas City’s No. 1 choice Eric Fisher of Central Michigan, were offensive tackles and a massive eight of the first 20 players will be manning offensive lines in their new professional careers.
Only one quarterback was taken in the first round at the art deco palace and even that pick was a surprise, as Buffalo took E.J. Manuel of Florida State at No. 16, rather than West Virginia’s Geno Smith, who was considered the best of the signal callers in the draft.
The first offensive skills position player taken was Smith’s collegiate teammate, wide receiver Tavon Austin, who was also selected by the Bills with the eighth pick.
Austin and Manuel were the only featured offensive players chosen through the top 20, before a pair of wide receivers and a tight end joined them. Not a single running back managed to break into the first round.
Another potential shining light of the draft, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, whose stock dropped after a fake girlfriend hoax and disappointing workout performances, was a no-show as he slid all the way out of the first round.
The Chiefs, selecting first by dint of having the worst record in the league last year at 2-14, made the 2.01m, 139kg Fisher just the fourth offensive tackle ever tabbed as top overall pick of the draft.
Fisher added his name to a select list that included Jake Long (2008, Miami), Orlando Pace (1999, St Louis) and Ron Yary (1968, Minnesota).
“This is so surreal. This is a dream come true,” Fisher said from the stage after being congratulated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Picking second in the worst-to-first order of the draft, which is the primary way NFL teams build their rosters, the Jacksonville Jaguars made it back-to-back tackles at the top by taking Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M.
Joeckel, winner of the Outland Trophy awarded to the best college football interior lineman by the Football Writers Association of America, was followed two picks later by tackle Lane Johnson of Oklahoma, taken by the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Three tackles in four picks. That’s a lot of love for the big boys up front, which we usually don’t get,” said Fisher, who rocketed up draft charts with his late season performances and eye-catching workouts.
When tackles were not tabbed, teams looked to pass rushers at the start of the draft.
Miami traded their first-round pick (No. 12) and second-round pick to Oakland for the third choice, which they used to snare defensive end Dion Jordan of Oregon.
The fifth and sixth picks were also on the defensive side, with Detroit taking defensive end Ezekiel Ansah of Brigham Young, a native of Accra, Ghana, followed by Cleveland’s selection of defensive end/linebacker Barkevious Mingo of LSU.
Ansah, who began playing the sport just three years ago after coming from Ghana to attend college, was flabbergasted at how far he had come.
“I can’t be any more humble than I am today,” he told reporters. “I never envisioned myself five years ago being here talking to everybody here.”
While offensive players floundered, two other international players also received first-round notice.
Star Lotulelei, a native of Tonga and a defensive tackle from Utah, was taken 14th by Carolina, while German defensive end Bjoern Werner was the 24th selection by Indianapolis.
By the end, nine offensive linemen and nine defensive linemen had been taken, and just five offensive skills players.
Manuel was emotional after his surprise selection as the first quarterback taken.
“That’s something I can always tell my grandkids years from now,” he said.
Asked about those that described it as a weak draft for quarterbacks, who had been made the top overall pick the previous four years and in 12 of the last 15, Manuel said: “I think we’ll all definitely carry that chip on our shoulder.”
Rounds two and three were scheduled for yesterday, with the final four rounds today.