|Kalil, along with other offensive linemen, goes through flexibility testing at the combine. (US Presswire)|
With literally hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown at NFL quarterbacks and receivers, there is a corresponding need for support casts that allow the expensive, big-name stars to dazzle fans with their video-game-like performances.
That task falls largely on offensive linemen, whose successful work in the trenches is a prerequisite to ever-increasing offensive statistics in the NFL, despite the fact they tally few stats themselves and most of those are bad, such as the number of sacks they give up.
This year's draft has a good but not great group of these huge athletes quietly ready to help those NFL offensive numbers continue bloating.
According to NFLDraftScout.com ratings, as many as seven offensive linemen could be taken in the first round, including four among the first 20 players.
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The best of the bunch are offensive tackles Matt Kalil of Southern California and Riley Reiff of Iowa, whose names could be among the first 10 called.
The top guard in this class is David DeCastro, whose training in Stanford's pro-style offense should help him transition to the NFL with ease. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, the best of the centers, is expected to be a second-round pick.
Here is a closer look at the offensive linemen in this year's NFL Draft. They are listed with school, height, weight and projected round of selection (*denotes underclassman).
1. *Matt Kalil, Southern California, 6-7, 306, 1
Matt's brother, Ryan, last year received the biggest contract ever paid to an NFL center, worth $49 million over six years from the Carolina Panthers. Now Matt can turn this into a friendly sibling rivalry by seeing what he can make as a tackle, a position that pays more than center. He won't wait long to be drafted, but he may need to prove himself and wait for that second contract to top his brother. Genetics and hard work molded Kalil into perhaps the best offensive tackle in college football, and with normal improvement he can be one of the best in the NFL. He plays with a nasty edge and obviously paid attention to his elders while growing up. His father, Frank, was drafted by the Buffalo Bills and played with the USFL's Arizona Wranglers. Brother Ryan was an anchor at center for USC (2003-2006) before being draft in the second round in 2007. Scouts temper their enthusiasm on Matt Kalil a bit because he has had the luxury of being surrounded by excellent talent, but he still managed to stand out and looks like a prized left tackle candidate. His bloodlines may even have influenced his selection as 2011 preseason All-American by Playboy. After all, his mother, formerly Cheryl Van Cleave, was Miss California in 1981.
2. *Riley Reiff, Iowa, 6-6, 313, 1
A diverse athletic background helped Reiff develop various physical abilities that all come into play at the important LT position. It began at Parkston High in South Dakota, where he was an outstanding tight end (27 catches, 321 yards, nine touchdowns as a senior), defensive end (23 career sacks), wrestler (121-1, three-time state champion), track and field athlete and, surprise, a golfer. At Iowa he began as a defensive end in 2008, was scheduled to move to TE in 2009, but when he grew from 250 to 280 pounds moved to guard. When All-American Bryan Bulaga was injured in 2009, Reiff played some at left tackle and had early challenges against top rushers. Reiff worked hard in the offseason and after Buluga was drafted in the first round by Green Bay in 2010, the Hawkeyes barely missed him. Reiff's arms (33¼ inches) are shorter than scouts like, but he maximizes his big frame, strong hand punch and quick feet to fend off pass rushers or open lanes for runners. However, his best-documented display of footwork at Iowa occurred before he even suited up when, in 2008, he outran Iowa City police for 20 minutes before being arrested for public intoxication.
3. *Jonathan Martin, Stanford, 6-5, 312, 1
Martin turned down the opportunity to be the first fourth-generation African-American Harvard student in history to become a scholar-athlete at Stanford. So for the past three years his parents, both Harvard grads, watched him do something he only could have done at Stanford -- protect the blind side of quarterback Andrew Luck. He did well enough to accomplish something he probably couldn't have managed at Harvard -- be considered as a first-round draft choice. Not all scouts agree that Martin has the natural strength to be highly successful as a pro pass protector, but he did manage to get the job done in Stanford's pro-style offense. He seemed more comfortable as a run blocker, but that is not unusual. Some scouts believe Stanford's zone blocking scheme helped Martin maximize his results and that he will need more strength to battle the behemoths he will encounter in the NFL. That concern was amplified when, after not working out at the scouting combine, Martin managed only 20 reps on the bench with 225 pounds at Stanford's pro day. He does flash some attitude on the field, but is far from a bully. Martin was named first team All-Pac-10 in 2010 and first-team All-Pac-12 in 2011.
4. Mike Adams, Ohio State, 6-7, 323, 1-2
At this point Adams lacks the great technique that would make him a reliable left tackle to protect a right-handed quarterback's blind side. Given time he certainly could learn. Meantime, Adams already moves well enough to get into linebackers on the second level. He has a substantial frame with conspicuous muscle in the right places and the footwork of a dancer, albeit more like hip hop than ballet. On film he did well handling Wisconsin's J.J. Watt (drafted No. 11 overall by the Texans last year), but was befuddled by the nifty moves of Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan (No. 16 overall by Washington in 2011). In his final two seasons as a starter, Adams had issues on and off the field. He underwent shoulder surgery and then a season-ending left foot injury, both in 2008. Adams missed five games in 2009 with a knee injury and was suspended for two games the same year for violating team rules. He was one of five players suspended the first five games last season for receiving benefits from selling collectibles through a tattoo parlor and had to pay back $1,000 he received for a ring.
5. Zebrie Sanders, Florida State, 6-6, 308, 2
When starting left tackle Andrew Datko went out with an injury last year, Sanders moved from right to left tackle and seemed to have some of the best games among his 50 career starts. However, he does not appear to be a candidate for left tackle in the NFL. Sanders is a lithesome, long-limbed athlete who was very effective in FSU's zone-slide pass protection scheme and is the kind of player who should show significant improvement over the next few years. In 2009 he had a career-high 43 knockdown blocks, but he also had problems pass blocking as he gave up six sacks and was benched during a game against South Florida. Again in the Senior Bowl he struggled while handling power rushers one-on-one and scouts think he will need to add about 20 pounds of muscle to cope with NFL defenders. Sanders always displayed the exceptional dedication it takes to do accomplish lofty goals -- to be an Eagle Scout, an accomplished violist in a chamber orchestra or, most important in this context, an NFL offensive tackle.
6. *Bobby Massie, Mississippi, 6-6, 316, 2-3
This powerful right tackle was once considered a lock to go to Alabama and replace All-American tackle Andre Smith. That would have been appropriate because they were both in bad shape at the time, as Smith memorialized in the 2009 scouting combine when he jiggled his shirtless, flabby, 332-pound body through a 40-yard dash in 5.28 seconds. Massie, who weighed 335 pounds at the time, decided to go in another direction. He chose Mississippi, lost 20 pounds, started as a freshman and helped the Rebels rank second in the SEC and 14th in the nation with fewest sacks allowed (17). That same season, Massie was a key blocker when Dexter McCluster set the school record with 282 yards rushing against Tennessee. Last season, despite playing on a 2-10 team that ranked 114th in the nation in total offense (281.25 ypg), Massie was credited with the key block in all 12 of the team's touchdown runs. According to statistics by The Draft Report, Massie had 102 knockdown blocks last year, tops among tackles in the tough SEC. In his final 29 games Massie blocked for 14 different individual 100-yard rushing games, including two over 200.
7. Mitchell Schwartz, California, 6-5, 318, 2-3
Mitchell has NFL bloodlines. His brother, Geoff, was the Panthers' seventh-round pick out of Oregon in 2008, started in 2010 but was injured last year, and recently signed with the Vikings. Mitchell was a model of consistency at Cal, starting 51 games, 35 at left tackle and 16 at right tackle. He credits diverse blocking schemes at Cal for upgrading his overall play. And that play was impressive at the Senior Bowl workouts, where scouts raved about the way he handled some of the best pass rushers in the country. That was surprising because most scouts believed he projected as a right tackle for the NFL.
1. *David DeCastro, Stanford, 6-5, 316, 1
Stanford's pro-style offense has prepared DeCastro to plug-and-play in an NFL line. He has already earned comparisons to some of the greatest guards in recent NFL history. Stanford coach David Shaw compared him to former All-Pro Raider Steve Wisniewski, whom Shaw also coached. DeCastro is one reason Stanford averaged more than 200 yards rushing per game for the past two years, and he is easily the top guard prospect in this draft. DeCastro plays with a solid base, necessary aggression and knows how to use his hands to control defenders. His mobility is especially impressive when he pulls and leads through the hole. He also uses those quick feet and great body balance to mirror pass rushers effectively. DeCastro, a finalist for the Outland Trophy as top offensive lineman in the country, is regaled by teammates for his nonstop work ethic both in the weight room and in practice.
2. Cordy Glenn, Georgia, 6-5, 345, 1
This massive man looked like a natural when he was first thrown into a starting role as a freshman. Glenn went on to tie a school record with 50 total starts, including 28 at left guard, 18 at left tackle and four at right guard. There was even talk about trying him on the defensive line, but it didn't happen. Glenn obliterates defenders on the run and was a very good pass protector in college, certainly a factor in Georgia finishing third in the SEC with an average of 413 yards of offense per game. Glenn appears most natural at guard, but was used at left tackle last season and in Senior Bowl workouts. He lacks an explosive first step -- perhaps quantified by a 23½-inch vertical jump that was third-worst at the combine -- so he will probably play inside in the NFL. He has all the strength you would expect of a man his size and then some, but somehow manages good enough footwork to be efficient much of the time as a pass blocker and can get downfield to pick off second-level defenders, much to the surprise of both scouts and the overwhelmed defenders themselves.
3. Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin, 6-4, 314, 1-2
A perfectionist, Zeitler expects more out of himself than anybody else could in class, the weight room and on the field. His anxious nitpicking is noticed and not always well-accepted by classmates, teachers and teammates. But it is opposing defenders who pay the price when the sum of his hard work pays off on the field. So, as expected, scouting reports show he does just about everything according to the book to his best ability -- and he has plenty of ability. Zeitler added a significant amount of lean mass in his college career and used it well. According NFL Draft Report statistics, he led college football with 142 knockdown blocks and had 33 blocks that resulted in touchdowns, obviously a major reason Wisconsin had a per-game average of 44.62 points and 467 total yards, including 237 on the ground.
4. Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State, 6-6, 333, 2
That's pronounced kah-LETCH-ee oh-sem-AH-lee, and scouts know it well. Osemele may be stronger than he is big, which is saying something. While some players use a strong base and others rely on a powerful upper body, Osemele has both. He has incredible reach (35¼-inch arms and an 85½-inch wingspan) and massive hands (10 3/8 inches) that make him hard to escape. He seems to enjoy using that strength most on run blocking, where he overwhelms defenders. He is a bit more tentative as a pass blocker and must work on recognizing what is happening there. A hard-working student on and off the field, Osemele made the academic Honor Roll three times and was selected All-Big 12 first team in 2011. He played in 49 games and started 43 in a row despite missing most of one game last year with a severely sprained ankle.
5. Amini Silatolu, Midwestern State, 6-4, 311, 2-3
Silatolu hopes to get a break in the draft and in the NFL that helps him attain the type of national recognition he has missed several times. He has been outstanding at every level he has played, but his highest level has been Division II. Coming out of West Tracy (Calif.) High School as a two-way football star, he stopped at San Juoquin Delta Community College to improve his grades in an attempt to play for Boise State and earned juco All-American honors in 2008. But after missing the 2009 season due to academic ineligibility, he still could not play at Nevada, so Silatolu settled on little Midwestern State College in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he was a dominant left tackle. Last season he became the first MSU player ever to earn a Division II consensus All-American honor. He finished second in voting for the Gene Upshaw Award for top D-II linemen. And he was the first MSU player invited to the Senior Bowl, but once again was disappointed as he pulled a hamstring and was unable to take part. His performance at the combine didn't live up to his play at MSU, so opinions on his pro potential are as varied as the path he has taken to get this far. But when finally given a chance he has been outstanding at every level so somebody will certainly see if he can do the same in the NFL.
6. James Brown, Troy, 6-3, 306, 3
Brown started all 38 games he played for Troy at left tackle and graded out extremely well. But during Senior Bowl practices he struggled on the outside and was moved to guard, which seems to suit him better against top competition. He is still unpolished and needs work on his overall technique and strengthen his base to increase ballast as an interior blocker. But he has quick feet, long arms (33½ inches), strong hands and enough natural athleticism to give him tantalizing upside. After starring at Amite County High in Liberty, Miss., Brown was an All-Mississippi juco player at Southwest Mississippi Community College before finally making it to Troy. He started 13 games in 2009 when Troy was third in the nation in total offense (485.69 ypg). By 2011, he was first team All Sun-Belt Conference.
7. *Brandon Washington, Miami, 6-3, 320, 3
Washington is a stout, get-it-done lineman who played guard and tackle at Miami and will play inside at the next level. He is one of four siblings raised by his single mother in a tough Miami neighborhood, where he played three years at Edison High then finished on Miami Northwestern's talented national championship team. Rated one of the top preps in the country, Washington needed to attend Milford (N.Y.) Academy to become academically eligible for Miami. He has improved each year and is a brutal blocker on runs, but still needs work to recognize variables presented by various alignments and pass-rush techniques. At Miami, he started 15 games at left guard his first two years and 12 at left tackle last season. He was penalized only eight times in 1,727 offensive snaps.
1. *Peter Konz, Wisconsin, 6-5, 314, 1
Konz (pronounced "Kahnz") is the type of dedicated player coaches look for at center. He showed that and his high character when he made the decision to opt for the draft after his junior year. Konz wrote a letter of explanation for Badgers fans, telling them, among other things, that he crammed 18 units into the fall semester so he could graduate this spring and, oh yes, he was getting married. Konz was equally accountable on the field, where his intensive off-field work was evident. His anticipation and alertness compensate for average quickness, so he still gets in position in time to take on defenders. Konz is more of a persistent, wall-off type of blocker than a physical mauler. In order to start in 30 college games, he overcame several setbacks including blood clots in both lungs (2009), a severely sprained ankle (2010) and a dislocated left ankle that kept him out of three games last season, including the Big Ten Championship Game, before he returned to play in the 2012 Rose Bowl against Oregon.
2. Ben Jones, Georgia, 6-2, 303, 2-3
As if centers don't have enough trouble getting recognized, Jones became even harder to find when he changed his uniform number from 61 to 60 for his last season when it became available because of Clint Boling's departure. The switch was in honor of Jones' father, Steve, who was a standout high school and small college player, but was killed in a helicopter crash when Ben was 10. "Wearing his number would have been special if we had gone 1-11," Ben said. "But to have the season we had, playing in the Southeastern Conference championship. ... To be able to honor my dad was a dream come true." Jones lacks the great size or smooth athleticism of some of the top centers from recent drafts, but his consistency and toughness are remarkable, and many scouts expect he will compete for a starting job immediately on the right NFL team.
Frank Cooney is the publisher of NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.