|Lynne Sladky / Associated Press|
|Mike Pouncey (left) could follow his twin brother -- Maurkice (right) -- as a first-round NFL draft pick.|
The 2011 NFL Draft is strong at the offensive line positions, and upwards of 15 linemen could be selected in the first two rounds.
The problem is that the supply of prospects might not satisfy the demand of teams looking for players among the front five. When this draft is over, at least 40 linemen will have been drafted and most of them will make final roster of team that drafts them. At least a dozen will likely find their way into starting lineups during their rookie seasons.
Player with most upside
Offensive linemen usually stay in school for all four seasons, but that's not the case for USC's Tyron Smith. As USC defensive coordinator and longtime NFL coach Monte Kiffin said, "Tyron is just too good to stay in school." The 20-year-old Smith benched 225 pounds 31 times at his pro day, and at 310 pounds ran a 4.98-second 40-yard dash. He's athletic enough to play defense, and his footwork will allow him to handle the elite speed rushers in the NFL. His long arms at tackle can never be overrated, allowing him to keep rushers away from his body. He is also still growing into his frame and could easily add 15-20 pounds of muscle. Although he played right tackle at USC, he's projected as the best left-tackle in the draft. Smith has yet to fully develop as a player, so his best is yet to come.
Biggest boom-or-bust prospect
Mike Pouncey comes with the Pouncey name, and his twin brother -- Maurkice -- made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Mike Pouncey is a very good player, but there's a lot to live up to. If he has to play center and he doesn't solve his issues with the shotgun snap, he might struggle. I think Mike Pouncey going to have a fine professional career, but it might not live up to his brother's career in Pittsburgh.
My favorite sleeper
TCU tackle Marcus Cannon might begin his NFL career as the strongest player in the league. He has a 500-pound bench, an incredible 550-pound power clean and did two reps of full squat at 720 pounds. He's a 358-pound guy who might move inside to guard and have a Carl Nicks kind of career.
Players with most to prove
There are probably five first-round offensive tackles in this draft. Six months ago, the top tackle might have been Colorado's Nate Solder, but it appears he has been passed by underclassman Smith, Anthony Castonzo and maybe even Gabe Carimi. Solder, a former tight end, has excellent feet to pass block and probably needs to develop his power and strength to handle the physical aspect of the position at the next level. Solder might be the third or fourth tackle taken off the board, but it's critical for him to come to camp ready for the intensity and physical aspects of the NFL.
I really like Florida State center Rodney Hudson among the interior players, but there are critics who believe he is undersized at 6-foot-2 and 299 pounds. I watched Hudson practice and play at the Senior Bowl, and he reminds me of Guy McIntyre, who was a member of three Super Bowl-winning teams in San Francisco.
Small-school prospect with a chance
Two young men from East Coast Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) schools look ready to come into the NFL and play well. Villanova's Ben Ijalana played left tackle for the Wildcats, but most likely is a guard in the NFL. Lehigh's Will Rackley had a good week at the East-West Shrine Game practices that helped his draft stock. Everyone remembers how quickly Jahri Evans went from a small Pennsylvania school (Bloomsburg University) to starring for the Saints, and it looks like Ijalana and Rackley have a chance to take a similar path.
Debunking a myth
The popularity of spread offenses on the college level is leaving NFL offensive line coaches with prospects who play best in a two-point stance and struggle to run block. But I have spoken to a few coaches who feel there is enough depth and talent in this draft to find power-run blockers who can get down in a three-point stance and fire out.
Teams with the greatest need
When it comes to tackles, the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings, Falcons, Saints, Seahawks, Bills, Patriots, Jets, Ravens, Browns, Steelers, Colts, Chiefs and Chargers all might look to fill needs at the position early. This is a deep draft for tackles, but not this deep. The run at the position should come early.
As for guards and centers, as usual it will be more of a second- and third-round decision for teams. The Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Bears, Cardinals, Seahawks, Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Titans, Chiefs and Raiders will all probably take an inside player somewhere in this draft.