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Interior linemen offer intrigue in draft's early stages

I will be the first to admit that evaluating prospects remains an inexact science. Although scouts spend countless hours in the film room poring over tape, you still can miss out on all-star caliber prospects despite having access to all the empirical data in the world.

While everyone can point out the notable misses at the skill positions, I've found that some of the biggest snubs occur when evaluating interior offensive linemen.

Just look at the 2011 Pro Bowl rosters, and you'll find three undrafted free agents -- Kris Dielman, Brian Waters and Jeff Saturday -- among the eight selections at guard and center.

2011 NFL Draft preview
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks and Pat Kirwan took an in-depth, position-by-position look at the key players to follow in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Quarterbacks: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Running backs: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Receivers: Overview | Scouting | Report | Chat
Offensive tackles: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Guards/centers: Overview | Scouting
Defensive ends: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Defensive tackles: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Linebackers: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Cornerbacks: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Safeties: Overview | Scouting | Chat

Granted, there are guys who outperform their draft status at other positions, but the presence of three undrafted guys among the elite suggests there is something scouts are missing during the evaluation process.

Of course, you can certainly point to the presence of Logan Mankins and Chris Snee on the Pro Bowl roster as examples of high-round selections fulfilling their potential. But the prevailing theme that remains is that you can identify quality interior blockers at any stage of the draft.

They possess strength, power, balance, and body control. Interior blockers are expected to handle 300-plus pound defensive tackles, and they must possess those attributes to have any chance of consistent success.

Guards are also expected to have a level of athleticism and quickness that allows them to work to the second level on pulls, traps and climb blocks. Although teams are capable of playing with lesser athletes, the proliferation of zone-based schemes makes it necessary to have nimble players occupying the interior line.

Centers might lack some of the physical skills of their counterparts, but their mental abilities should rate off the charts. They often set the protection for the offensive line, so their ability to properly identify defensive fronts and anticipate blitzes is a critical component to any game plan.

This year, the draft offers a few intriguing possibilities in the early stages. Florida's Mike Pouncey looks like a lock to go in the first round, but he might be joined by Baylor's Danny Watkins and Florida State's Rodney Hudson as early-round possibilities.

Let's take a look at the challenges scouts face in breaking down each:

Mike Pouncey, G/C, Florida

Pouncey has emerged as the top interior prospect after enjoying a stellar senior season following a move to center for the Gators. He brings outstanding versatility to the table with his combination of athleticism, strength and skill.

Though his game is built on finesse, he is a sticky blocker who understands how to use help from his teammates to handle massive defensive tackles. He flashes the quickness and body control to work effectively on the second level against linebackers. At center, he shows excellent "snap and lock-on" quickness, and he shouldn't have a problem handling quick-penetrating nose tackles.

The biggest challenge making Pouncey's evaluation difficult is avoiding being heavily influenced by his twin brother's immediate success. Maurkice Pouncey, who earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was so good during his first season that teams could overestimate Mike's skill set based on his brother's success. If he can prove in private workouts and team visits that his physical and mental skills stand out on their own accord, Pouncey might be a surprisingly high selection for an interior blocker.

Danny Watkins, G, Baylor

Watkins has been projected to move inside as a pro after starting two seasons at left tackle at Baylor. He has the sheer strength to overwhelm defenders. His dominance on the outside allows scouts to easily project his potential against stout defensive tackles. As a pass protector, he shows adequate quickness and lateral movement skills. He does a decent job of shadowing athletic rushers, but he will have issues against the NFL's elite, which makes Watkins better suited to play right tackle (against base ends) or slide into guard.

Making projections are tough at any position, so scouts are struggling with assessing how quickly Watkins could transition into a starting guard. His skill set suggests he could easily make the move, but you never know how well he will handle the change until he shows up at minicamp and training camp workouts.

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Rodney Hudson, G/C, Florida State

Hudson enters the league as an experienced interior player after spending four years in the Seminoles' starting lineup. He brings an impressive blend of toughness, athleticism and intelligence, which makes him an intriguing prospect as a center or guard. He has demonstrated the ability to make the calls and adjustments at the line, and should not have a problem handling similar responsibilities as a pro.

As a blocker, he shows balance, body control and power battling defenders. Though he doesn't create a lot of movement, his tenacity allows him to win downs consistently. He quickly engages rushers and has enough body control to anchor against power. While the league's heavier interior rushers will certainly test his ability to slow penetration, he didn't show major issues on tape.

Hudson ranks as one of the most underrated prospects in the draft due to scouts' uncertainty about his ability to handle size and power as a pro. While his intelligence and toughness have earned high marks, he must convince evaluators in private workouts that he has the strength to hold his own against the league's best. He answered just some of those questions at the Senior Bowl.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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