During the exhaustive NFL Draft process, Eric Fisher didn’t see the need to be buddy-buddy with fellow tackle Luke Joeckel.
Usually, the weeks leading up the draft can be a time for top college prospects to compare notes, foster friendships and develop life-long relationships. Players at the same position go through tedious testing and interviews at the annual scouting combine and make visits to NFL teams together.
But when it became apparent that Fisher, of low-profile Central Michigan, and Joeckel, of big-time Texas A&M, were going to be among the top picks in the draft, if not the first two choices overall, it was game on.
The Chiefs owned the first pick, a spot ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and it didn’t take long for one of the biggest questions of the draft to emerge.
Fisher or Joeckel? Joeckel or Fisher?
So why would either share a tip or tidbit with the other when it came to improving technique as a blocker, understanding a defensive scheme or impressing a coach or general manager in an interview?
“We really didn’t talk much at all,” said Fisher, who visited Jacksonville with Joeckel on April 3 — 22 days before the draft.
As it turned out, the Chiefs selected Fisher, the fourth offensive tackle to go No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. Jacksonville took Joeckel.
And on Sunday, when the Chiefs open the 2013 season at Everbank Field, the game will mark only the second time since the NFL common draft began in 1967 that the top two overall picks will be on opposing sides on opening day. It also happened in 1982 when New England, which took defensive tackle Kenneth Sims first overall, faced Baltimore, who took linebacker Johnie Cooks second.
Don’t expect a warm pre-game hug between Fisher and Joeckel, who were moved from the more demanding left tackle spot to the safer right side, at least for their rookie seasons.
“We don’t really have any relationship other than the fact that we’re the first and second pick,” Fisher said. “There’s not really that much there. It’s always been competition between me and him. We’re competitive people and doing our best at this thing.”
Joeckel’s competitive fire burned after the Chiefs selected Fisher.
“I never prepared myself to be a Chief,” Joeckel said last week. “That was my ultimate goal, but that was the ultimate goal for any guy who was in New York for the draft … We all wanted to be picked No. 1 because we’re all competitors and all want to be the best.
“Not being picked No. 1, there wasn’t necessarily anger about it or anything, but it was, ‘Man, I thought I was going to get it.’ … There’s a little bit of a chip.…”
Fisher, 6 feet 7 and 306 pounds, was not highly recruited out of high school in Rochester, Mich., and ended up at Central Michigan, a member of the Mid-America Conference that plays in a 32,885-seat stadium.
Joeckel, 6-6 and 306, was a highly sought high school star in Arlington, Texas, and went to Texas A&M, a Southeastern Conference program that plays in an 82,600-seat stadium.
But Fisher, who had made college starts at guard, right tackle and left tackle before settling in at left tackle as a senior, held his own in games against Big Ten schools Michigan and Iowa before standing out at the Senior Bowl and combine.
Joeckel, a unanimous all-America selection at Texas A&M, started 39 games at Texas A&M, won the Outland Trophy, allowed just two sacks blocking for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and declared for the draft after his junior season.
Fisher’s smaller-school background may have worried some teams, but Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s fears were somewhat allayed at Fisher’s Pro Day when he saw a photo in the Central Michigan football offices of tackle Joe Staley, a first-round pick by San Francisco in 2007 and a two-time Pro Bowler.
“I can’t tell you that didn’t hurt,” Reid said of seeing the picture of Staley.
Fisher’s workout for the Chiefs’ brass was even more convincing.
“He had an exceptional individual workout, as good of an individual workout that I have seen in a couple years from an offensive lineman,” Reid said after the draft. “He’s a no-nonsense, let’s get to work.… There were a couple of things that I wanted to see going into that from a coaching standpoint. You want to go in and see if he can handle your coaching.
“He’s a tough kid, and he doesn’t mind a challenge. He’s not going to shy away. He knows that he has things to work on, but he has enough confidence in his ability to know that he can play against anybody.”
More than two weeks before the draft, the Chiefs decided on Fisher.
“I just think it was a better fit for us,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. “(Fisher) has a capability of playing a left tackle, a right tackle and can actually play guard inside. When you match that with a guy who exclusively might play left tackle … I just felt very comfortable and secure with this player. I think there was a very big ceiling with him and that’s why we went in that direction.”
Jacksonville, meanwhile, had Joeckel at the top of its draft board. Had the Chiefs taken Joeckel, however, the Jaguars would have grabbed Fisher.
“We really liked them both,” Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley said. “If Fisher would have fell to us, believe me, we would have been excited, too. But it just felt like Luke, in talking to him, his play on the team and just the conversations we had, we had him rated higher, but it wasn’t a significant difference.”
Fisher and Joeckel took their lumps in the preseason and had to deal with injuries. Fisher had issues with a broken finger and shoulder bruise; Joeckel suffered a hip flexor injury that kept him out of a preseason game.
But both appear ready for their debuts. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith watched Staley, the Central Michigan product selected in 2007, progress from small-school question mark to Super Bowl starter in San Francisco, and sees similarities. Like Fisher, Staley played right tackle as a rookie before taking over at left tackle and protecting Smith’s blind side.
“They’re both athletic guys … similar builds … guys who can really run,” Smith said. “Both guys got recruited as tight ends and switched to tackle. At tackle, you’re on an island. You’re going against some (elite) guys now … they’re going to take their lumps and learn, and Joe did. It will be an adjustment, but you continue to perfect your craft, and that’s what Eric is doing right now.”
Both young tackles will get some double-team help from tight ends or fullbacks. But eventually, Fisher and Joeckel will have to win the confidence of their coaches and be on their own.
“In this day and age, you have to be comfortable with your rookies playing right away,” said former NFL coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy. “Both coaches will have some trepidation. They know what they’ve seen in practice, but you just hope they do well. You don’t want to get off to a bad start with that No. 1 draft choice.
“Unfortunately, at that position, it can only look bad to the fans. You give up a sack, you have a false start, they don’t see the 80 plays where he does his job and blocks his guy. They only notice the negative plays … You want to see that rookie tackle play well, because hopefully that’s a guy who’s going to be there for 10 years for you.”
Three other tackles were selected in April’s first round, including the fourth pick, Lane Johnson, by Philadelphia. But however long Fisher and Joeckel play, they will be forever linked.
The comparisons will be inevitable.
“With offensive linemen, who really knows who’s going to keep track of us like that?” Joeckel said. “I want to go out there and compete against whoever. There is definitely going to be competition for all of the offensive linemen in this draft class because so many guys were taken in the first round.”
Fisher is trying to put the rivalry behind him.
“At first I kind of paid attention to that a little too much,” Fisher said. “As the preseason went on, I realized you can’t really concentrate on that. Now it’s just trying to play ball like I know how to play ball.”