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Draft preview: Best of offensive line prospects

by | NFLDraftScout.com
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Offensive tackle won't soon be a position where supply exceeds demand.

Pass attempts per game were up yet again in 2010 and there's no return to a "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense on the horizon. The game belongs to franchise quarterbacks, and thereby the men charged with protecting them are close to invaluable.

Multiple evaluators have praised the talent and depth in the 2011 offensive tackle group. Oddly, there is no single standout in a collectively tall, long-limbed and athletic crew that could produce six first-round picks.

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"I think the tackle group is better," said Kevin Colbert, director of football operations for the Steelers and a team with a glaring need at tackle after scoring a coup with 2010 first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey, the team's starting center. "It's actually been good the last couple years, it all relates to the spread offenses in college football, because these guys are good pass protectors from their freshman year on as they develop."

NFLDraftScout.com's top four tackle prospects -- Boston College's Anthony Castonzo, Tyron Smith of Southern Cal plus Nate Solder (Colorado) and Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin) -- played in pro-style offenses that used some spread principles. Only Smith stands shorter than 6-feet-7 and weighs less than 310 pounds, but he also has the smooth natural athleticism to become a franchise left tackle despite playing on the right side for the Trojans.

The top-ranked guard according to NFLDraftScout.com, Baylor's Danny Watkins, played left tackle in the Bears' spread offense. His dominant performance at the Senior Bowl and showing in private workouts make him a first-round target with potential to play any position on the line.

Versatility is the calling card of Florida's Mike Pouncey -- twin brother of Maurkice -- the most likely pure interior lineman to be drafted in the top half of the first round. He played guard for three seasons and replaced his brother at center as a senior, gradually progressing into All-SEC form. Where he fits in the NFL depends largely on needs of the team that drafts him. Like Maurkice, he could be drafted as a guard -- understanding his learning curve won't be as minimal -- with an eye on moving him to center with experience.

A closer look at the top offensive linemen in this draft:

Centers

Player, position, college, height, weight, projected round

1. Rodney Hudson, Florida State, 6-2, 299, 2
Hudson became the 11th player in ACC history to repeat as the Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner -- given to the league's best offensive lineman -- as a senior. He has All-American credentials and dominated in the Seminoles' wide-open offense because of his athleticism and quickness. He's not tall or broad enough to play tackle long-term in the NFL and his experience at center might attract teams that operate a zone-based blocking scheme. He can play any of the three inside spots, where his shorter arms might give scouts pause despite consistent technique and much better power than most players his size.

2. Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State, 6-3, 313, 2
There are expectations, and then there's the Wisniewski family tree. No pressure, kid. Stefen is the nephew of Raiders O-line coach Steve Wisniewski, former Penn State All-American and Raiders All-Pro guard who was known for his demeanor and habit of ... not hearing the whistle. "He taught me a lot about what it takes to be a pro football player," Stefen Wisniewski said. "... he was known for finishing blocks and being a nasty guy and that's what I always try to." Music to Al Davis' ears. Offensive line coaches will tout Wisniewski in pre-draft meetings and not just for his bloodlines -- his father, Leo, also played on the Nittany Lions' line. Stefen Wisniewski is NFL-ready with intelligence, strength, durability and the prototype makeup to start immediately.

3. Kristofer O'Dowd, Southern Cal, 6-4, 304, 3
O'Dowd was the first center in the history of the program to start as a true freshman, but it was a history of injury over the next four seasons that defined his USC career. O'Dowd logged several hours in his medical evaluation at the combine and surely faced repeated queries about his durability and longevity from potential employers. They won't soon go away until he proves his twice-dislocated right knee, surgically repaired shoulder and other minor dings and dents aren't long-term issues. Shoulder problems, especially for offensive and defensive linemen, can be neon warning flags. Still, O'Dowd could go in the third or fourth round. He showed at the Senior Bowl he can anchor against NFL-caliber size -- Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor, for example -- which was invaluable considering he had been praised mostly for his mobility.

4. Tim Barnes, Missouri, 6-4, 298, 4-5
One of the top players not invited to the combine, Barnes got his chance to work out for 12 teams before the March 17 Missouri pro day. He's tough and intelligent, with better movement skills than some have given him credit for in the wide splits of the spread offense. The All-Big 12 first-team center was a three-year starter. He consistently won battles against current and future NFL defensive linemen, tested by Ndamukong Suh, Taylor and the talented Iowa defensive line crew in the 2010 Insight Bowl. He left high school in Hughesville, Mo., as one of the top-ranked interior line prospects in the country and passed up Michigan, Miami and Iowa to stay in-state.

Guards

1. Mike Pouncey, Florida, 6-5, 303, 1
When Pouncey requested an evaluation from the draft advisory committee in 2010, he wasn't satisfied with a late first-round grade. Immediately, he realized that would mean he and his twin brother, Maurkice, would be separated for the first time. "We would have got drafted last year and been on different teams anyway," said Mike, whose twin was set on entering the draft and justified that decision with an All-Pro season in Pittsburgh as the 18th overall pick in the '10 draft. Mike Pouncey's senior season began with a thud. He slid from left guard after 28 consecutive starts to replace his brother, and the position was anything but a natural fit at first. He snapped the ball over the head of the quarterback and had several that were charted as "bad" snaps in the season opener. "I felt like crap," he said. "I told myself when I left the locker room I'd never play like that again." Mike Pouncey went on to have an All-SEC season and NFLDraftScout.com projects him to be drafted in the first 25 picks. He said he's being told he'll go in the top half of the round -- perhaps ahead of where his twin was picked. "Everything he accomplished I want to do the same thing and even better," Pouncey said.

2. Danny Watkins, Baylor, 6-3, 310, 1-2
Watkins, 26, spent four years as a firefighter in his native British Columbia and then enrolled at Butte College in California in the fire sciences program. He first played organized football at Butte and two years later landed at Baylor, replacing 2009 No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith. He's as good on ice skates as he is in ¾-inch cleats thanks to his background in hockey. Before he considered the NFL an option, Watkins realized an NHL career wasn't feasible. "When you're 270 pounds in 12th grade," he said, "there weren't many players in the NHL that size." Watkins has impressed since working out at guard at the Senior Bowl, and NFLDraftScout.com has projected him at the bottom of the first round for months. His age and limited football experience will be a hindrance, and he doesn't have ideal size. But his technique is exceptional for a raw prospect with agility and strength.

3. Benjamin Ijalana, Villanova, 6-4, 320, 2-3
The only NFL prospects in the stadium on most Saturdays at Villanova games were former pros turned talent evaluators eager to gauge Ijalana's football competence against elite talent. They're still waiting. Ironically, Ijalana's draft stock has been dragged down by durability questions. He started all 53 games of his career at Villanova on an offense that played at a fast pace and put up plenty of points. But playing offensive tackle at the FCS level raised questions with scouts eager to see him work at the Senior Bowl and combine position drills in direct competition with FBS talent. Ijalana was unable to take the field at either event because of a sports hernia, and his final draft grade might be incomplete for many teams. He's a better athlete than 2010 second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse (Jets, via Massachusetts) but he'll have to grow to be considered a pro tackle prospect.

4. Clint Boling, Georgia, 6-5, 310, 2-3
A four-year starter -- logging time at both tackle spots and right guard -- who said he feels more comfortable at tackle, Boling is determined to prove himself capable of staying outside in the NFL. It'll be a hard sell. He might eventually be capable of sliding to tackle in a pinch. He isn't a stiff athletically and started for his high school basketball team and played some tight end in Chattahoochee, Ga. But his agility and mobility are considered average for a pro offensive tackle. He's a bit of a 'tweener because he hasn't proven the knee-bend or heavy anchor to excel at guard.

5. Will Rackley, Lehigh, 6-4, 307, 3
It didn't take long for Rackley to prove he belonged with the big boys at the East-West Shrine Game. A dominant force for Lehigh, he looked not like an FCS offensive lineman but a future NFL starter. Rackley made 40 consecutive starts to end his four-year career, the final three at left tackle after starting at right guard as a freshman. Given his textbook technique, the success of small-school linemen such as Saints guard Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg) and the versatility he has displayed in recent months, Rackley has a chance to play right away.

6. Stephen Schilling, Michigan, 6-4, 302, 3-4
A top-40 overall prospect by USA Today in 2005, Schilling surprised the locals in Bellevue, Wash., when he bolted for Ann Arbor rather than playing for the hometown Huskies -- or almost any other Pac-10 school of his choosing. A two-year starter on the varsity basketball team, he averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds but chose a football future after being tabbed a five-star prospect by Scout.com. A shoulder injury suffered as a high school senior and a clingy bout of mononucleosis that shaved 20 pounds off of his frame kept him out of action in 2006. He missed only one game -- in 2008 vs. Ohio State -- the rest of his college career, starting 49 games toggling from right tackle to right guard and finishing as a two-year starter (2009, '10) at left guard.

7. John Moffitt, Wisconsin, 6-4, 314, 4
Maybe you can find a well-spoken offensive lineman or two in every NFL locker room, but a loquacious one is as rare as a balmy January in Madison. Moffitt might be a walking sound bite, but the 42-game starter can play a little bit, too. He was a first-team All-American and consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection as a senior who has started more than 30 games at left guard and a handful at center. The 314-pounder won't outrun many of his teammates at the next level, but his phone-booth quickness, mobility and footwork paint the picture of a longtime NFL starter. He's better than expected on the move and against behemoth nose tackles and if he can quicken his step against three-technique pass rushers, Moffitt could be a Pro Bowl steal in the middle rounds.

8. Zach Hurd, Connecticut, 6-7, 325, 4-5
First-round pick Donald Brown (Colts, 2009) and junior Jordan Todman, NFLDraftScout.com's sixth-ranked running back in this draft, should keep Hurd's name at the top of scouts' list when they pause to consider why they've made it to the NFL. Hurd has been the most consistently dominant blocker for the Huskies' front five since first starting at right guard in 2008, when Brown led the nation in rushing with 2,083 yards. A drive blocker with a mean streak, Hurd started all 13 games at left guard in 2009 and was an All-Big East pick the past two seasons. He has good feet and the reach and strong hands to hold up in pass protection.

Tackles

1. Tyron Smith, USC, 6-5, 310, 1
Back in 2006, scouts were enamored with a workout warrior offensive tackle coming out of USC -- Winston Justice. That year, Justice was bigger and faster than his peers, and while short on bulk, he was long on potential with the athletic upside to be mentioned as a top-10 pick. He was Matt Leinart's blind-side protector at right tackle, and he fell in the draft mostly because of character issues to the 39th overall pick and became a starter for the Eagles. Smith is also the top athlete in his class. While he has no such character concerns, he isn't a sure thing. A top-shelf athlete, some have projected him as a top-10 pick based largely on that rare athletic potential, but Smith has never played left tackle. He played most of his college career at or just below 283 pounds, but has put on close to 30 pounds. A knee injury kept Smith out of combine workouts, but he had a strong workout in front of representatives from every NFL team on March 30.

2. Anthony Castonzo, Boston College, 6-7, 311, 1
Before landing at Boston College, Castonzo was a passed-over, string-bean high school tight end who had visions of catching passes from Matt Ryan as a 260-pound true freshman. After a year at prep school, the self-described 6-7, 220-pound drink of water was growing into the frame of an offensive lineman. But at 260, it was still a surprise he played so well at right tackle protecting Ryan as a freshman. Castonzo logged three years at left tackle and after showing well at the Senior Bowl and combine, many teams view him as the best of a strong tackle crop. If he's not the first tackle drafted, Castonzo, who confessed an "obsession with being the best," said he'll be fine. It's not like that's his top career goal. The Academic All-American and "straight-A" student who scored the second-highest Wonderlic test score (41) among players tested at the combine, majored in biochemistry and 10 or 12 years down the road hopes to be working toward a cure for cancer.

3. Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin, 6-7, 314, 1
No need for a promotions team here. Carimi handled it himself three questions into his interview session at the combine. "Because of the players I've gone against, four potential first-round players [Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Jordan and teammate J.J. Watt] this year, I have a better résumé of going against better talent than anyone else, so that makes me more [pro-]ready," Carimi said. "I'm physically stronger and have more career starts and better knowledge of the game than any other tackle out there. That's why I'm the No. 1 tackle out there." A few teams might agree. Carimi worked out at guard at the Senior Bowl. He has since been told, at the combine and his pro day, that he would be a tackle. Based on his performance against top competition, scouts believe in his upside. His height can be used against him and he too often is off-balance because he leans and lunges to recover rather than sliding or shifting. If he doesn't correct this technique flaw, he'll be a right tackle in the NFL.

4. Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State, 6-5, 321, 1-2
Given the chance to write his own ticket out of high school as the Mississippi High School Player of the Year in 2006, Sherrod shunned Miami, Michigan, Notre Dame and three-fourths of the SEC to be a Bulldog. He started for three seasons at left tackle, flashing very good athleticism to go with prototypical size and the wingspan of a 747. He runs well, can redirect and hit targets gliding into the second level. His experience (50 games) and ability to play immediately at the NFL level should keep him in the first round. He would be the first Mississippi State player drafted in the first round since Walt Harris and Eric Moulds in 1996.

5. Nate Solder, Colorado, 6-8, 319, 1
Delete the vision of the perfect tackle you've banked in your mind. Solder is the sleek, super-charged version of the old-school model. On appearances alone, Seahawks GM John Schneider offered head-shaking admiration. Getting around Solder requires either elite raw power or a forklift. There's no looping around his 81-inch wingspan and he's agile enough to limit mistakes. When stacking himself against the top blockers in this class, Solder said "I think I'm more athletic than they are, I can move a little better in space." He was a tight end as a freshman at Colorado, but he's still getting accustomed to some of the position intricacies -- hand placement, knee bend, anchoring at 6-8 against small, quick defenders -- and his limited strength (21 reps of 225 pounds) stood out at the combine. The easy-going Californian said he doesn't play soft. If teams are willing to live with a year of development under pro coaching and strength training, the payoff could be big. Just don't go looking for Solder in the offseason without an orange vest. "I have shot an elk," he said. "That was the biggest animal I've ever shot."

6. Marcus Cannon, TCU, 6-5, 358, 2
Cannon doesn't have the physique of a player TCU teammates would quickly identify as one of the best athletes on the team, but he can scoot once he gets moving. If draft grades were assigned based on weight-room numbers, Cannon would be first in line. He owns several program records for power lifts and his natural strength is evident when he gets his hands on defenders. Cannon's weight gives some potential investors pause, but he has been durable and has the frame and game to warrant a first-round pick if a team gives him a year to grow within the structure of an NFL offense. Scouts have said he must become more assignment-sound, but he's naturally athletic for his incredible size and won't be easy to overlook. His future is likely at right tackle. At worst, he's a candidate to be the next Leonard Davis, a college tackle who converts to guard and dominates with his sheer size, mass and overwhelming strength.

7. Orlando Franklin, Miami, 6-6, 316, 2
Jamaican-born, Canadian-raised, Franklin found his way to Miami when his family moved to Florida for his senior year of high school. By the time he left school, he had produced quite a résumé tape with outstanding efforts against first-round picks Chris Long (2007) and Jason Pierre-Paul (2009). A guard who moved to left tackle as a senior, Franklin looked like he was built for the position. He has broad shoulders, long, 35-inch arms and 11 1/8-inch hand width to camouflage his still-developing technique, adequate athleticism and average instincts for the position. Even if he winds up at guard or right tackle, scouts are lauding his toughness and lineman's mentality. He played the entire 2010 season with a torn meniscus in his left knee, an injury that occurred in 2009. Franklin said he opted to delay surgery because he felt the Hurricanes had "something special going" in 2010. He had surgery at the end of the season but deemed himself "98 percent" at the combine and chose to participate in all workouts.

8. James Carpenter, Alabama, 6-4, 321, 2-3
A four-star recruit who failed to qualify at Iowa State, Carpenter was a standout at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College for two seasons and signed with Alabama in January 2009. Citing top-level coaching, Carpenter moved into the starting left tackle spot immediately, earning the team's most improved player honor that spring before leading the way for Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram's 127.6 yards per game. He earned first-team All-SEC honors last season, starting 13 games and showing the athleticism, technique, hand placement and power to contribute in the NFL immediately. He's not quick enough to be a full-time left tackle, but he would be an exceptional right tackle in a run-first offense.

9. James Brewer, Indiana, 6-6, 323, 3
Hoosiers are just born with hoops in their blood. Basketball was Brewer's first love, and he didn't give up the round ball for shoulder pads and a helmet until his senior season at Arlington High School in Indianapolis. Brewer went two years at IU before he got on the field -- he redshirted in 2006 and missed the '07 season with a foot injury -- and his sophomore season in '08 ended in anguish when he went down with an ankle injury at midseason. Brewer didn't completely escape injuries the rest of his career, missing three games in 2010 with an ankle injury, and enters the NFL with just 21 career starts. His size and potential pique the interest of scouts who might be inclined to gamble on his upside in the middle rounds if they're convinced he won't spend more time in the trainer's room than film room and practice field.

10. Marcus Gilbert, Florida, 6-6, 330, 3-4
What does Gilbert know about protection? Quite a lot, thanks to Secret Service-agent father Jeff, who was on the security detail for presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and flanked Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008. In Gainesville, Gilbert's job was equally important -- he worked as the blind-side guardian of Gators demigod Tim Tebow in '09 before John Brantley took over last season. Gilbert has been trained to set and explode quickly in Florida's spread-read offense and has the footwork, strength and size to be a fit at right tackle. He's described as highly coachable and a leader. If there's one concern to address, Gilbert has to improve picking up edge defenders in the 3-4 front he'll see regularly in the NFL.

11. Jason Pinkston, Pittsburgh, 6-3, 317, 3-4
The recruiting pitch from coach Dave Wannstedt was pretty simplistic. A defensive line guru with Super Bowl rings and extensive NFL experience, Wannstedt had another wild card to play -- he graduated from the same Pennsylvania high school, Baldwin, 35 years before Pinkston came out of the prep ranks as an elite defensive tackle prospect. Converted from the defensive line, Pinkston was a two-time All-Big East left tackle in three years as a starter for the run-heavy Panthers. He'll move to the right side in the NFL, where his strength is a greater asset and lack of ideal size won't be exposed.

12. DeMarcus Love, Arkansas, 6-4, 315, 4
He now admits to perspiring slightly when Houston Nutt and his power offense left Fayetteville in 2009. Love had just started and excelled as a right guard in the run-oriented system and wasn't sure where or how he fit in the passing clinic of an offense new boss Bobby Petrino was bringing in along with statuesque pocket passer Ryan Mallett. Love moved to tackle, playing both sides in Petrino's complex system which calls for the line to "flip" based on the play call. Short on speed, flexibility and agility, Love more than held his own, earning first-team All-SEC recognition as a senior. He'll fit best at guard in the NFL unless a coach is able to polish his technical skills as a right tackle.

13. Joseph Barksdale, LSU, 6-5, 325, 4
LSU lost to Syracuse in the Hall of Fame Bowl on Jan. 1, 1989, the day Joseph Brennen Barksdale was born in Detroit. The Tigers would win only two other SEC titles before Barksdale came to Baton Rouge in 2007 as the top defensive tackle prospect in the Midwest and a five-star recruit thought to be the second coming of Haloti Ngata, another U.S. Army All-American. Barksdale was immediately shifted to offensive tackle by Les Miles, who had a logjam at DT -- Glenn Dorsey, Marlon Favorite, Al Woods, Drake Nevis. He started in 2008 and '09 on the right side and moved to left tackle in 2010, when he was the lone senior on the Tigers' offensive line. A second-team All-SEC pick, Barksdale has to shake the reputation for playing to the level of his competition and keep the throttle open if he wants to win a starting job in the NFL.

Jeff Reynolds is Senior Editor of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.

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