Analysis  

 

Top underclassmen: Taylor Lewan paces offensive linemen

Andrew Weber / US Presswire
Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan is part of a long-standing Big Ten tradition of having top talent in the trenches.

Top underclassmen:
» Offense: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers/tight ends | Linemen
» Defense: Linemen/linebackers | Defensive backs

Offensive tackles

Taylor Lewan

College: Michigan
Height: 6-8 Weight: 302

It's easy to understand why Lewan plays with the toughness and attitude he does. His father, Dave, walked on at Minnesota as an offensive lineman despite suffering a collapsed lung before arriving on campus. Unfortunately, his other lung collapsed during his sophomore year, ending his career before he could take his game to the next level. Taylor will not only fulfill his father's dream, but he'll be among the top prospects at his position.

Lewan was voted second-team all-conference by Big Ten coaches after starting all 13 games in 2011 -- no small feat for a sophomore playing in a conference known for its talent in the trenches. Opponents had already seen his skills during his redshirt freshman season, when he moved into the starting left tackle role in late September (he finished with nine starts, missing the Wisconsin contest with a head injury). That's a pretty fast ascent, considering the fact that he played on the offensive line for only one season in high school. Michigan State defensive end William Gholston was suspended for one game last season after punching Lewan during the showdown between the heated rivals. Watching the entire contest makes it clear that Gholston acted out of frustration, because he was being harassed and needled by Michigan's star left tackle throughout.

Strengths: Lewan is a tall, long and athletic left tackle prospect. Explodes out of a three-point stance in spite of his height. Brings a very strong punch whether on combo blocks or man-up. Possessing excellent mobility and agility, he can get the down-block and still get out in front of bubble screens or carry linebackers and safeties for a few yards. Actually hurdles defenders on the ground to stay in the play. Quick feet and strong hands help him get an angle to seal off defensive tackles inside. Attacks his man in pass protection and the run game, landing his hands inside and keeping his feet churning. Simply does not let go of his man until the whistle blows; he will land multiple punches and push his man to the ground. Tough competitor who plays through injuries. Cleans up piles and has his teammates' backs during on-field scuffles. Has personality; he has a mustache tattooed inside his right index finger.

Weaknesses: Overextends on occasion, partially because of his height but also because he is so tenacious when trying to sustain the block through the whistle. Needs to flatten his back in pass protection; he has natural bend, but will play a bit high at the waist. His lateral movement off of the kick-slide could be smoother.

NFL comparison: Matt Kalil

Bottom line: Lewan's size, length and athleticism already put him among the best players in the country at his position -- but his nasty streak (both as a run blocker and pass protector) and potential for growth are what NFL offensive line coaches, scouts and general managers most appreciate.

Luke Joeckel

College: Texas A&M
Height: 6-6 Weight: 310

Although Texas A&M right tackle Jake Matthews (the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews) gets more publicity, Joeckel is the one who received second-team All-Big 12 honors from league coaches after a strong 2011 season. New Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin took over for former head coach Mike Sherman after last season, but there's no expectation of an offensive slowdown in College Station.

Joeckel was a consensus high school All-American who sifted through many scholarship offers before deciding to attend A&M with Matthews to play for Sherman. He started every game at left tackle as a true freshman (something he might not have done elsewhere) in 2010, garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors while first-round quarterback Ryan Tannehill (selected by the Miami Dolphins with the eighth overall pick in 2012) led the team to a bowl appearance.

Strengths: He is a technically sound left tackle prospect. Plays with good bend and a very wide base in pass protection in spite of his long legs. Moves his feet quickly and stays in balance, rarely giving up the edge and pulling off the downblock/outside blitz pickup admirably. With good timing and strength on his punch, he possesses good hand placement and will reset them to maintain distance. Recovers quickly if he misses his punch, staying on his man. Gets after his man in the run game; he has the foot quickness to get the correct angle and keeps moving to sustain the block. Is a capable cut-blocker.

Weaknesses: Does not possess elite upper- or lower-body strength; only adequate as a drive-blocker, he can be pushed back by better defensive ends and shed in the run game. Foot quickness is good, but does not execute the reach block as often as you'd like. Overextends his punch on occasion; is vulnerable to rip moves outside or spins inside.

NFL comparison: Michael Roos

Bottom line: A technician with an athletic build, Joeckel excels as a pass protector for the Aggies and displays enough of a temper in the run game to be a top left tackle prospect, especially as he continues to add bulk under Sumlin.

D.J. Fluker

College: Alabama
Height: 6-6 Weight: 335

Fluker's been through his share of adversity in recent years. His family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Fluker attended three different high schools due to family issues, then had his apartment ripped apart by the tornado that swept through Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April 2011. Fluker won't be blocking for star running backs Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson in 2012, and he isn't yet the dominant force that Andre Smith was, but don't expect him to back down from any challenges.

He was a consensus high school All-American despite his changes of venue. Fluker redshirted his first season with the team in 2009, watching Alabama win its first BCS title under head coach Nick Saban. Saban and his staff didn't waste any time getting Fluker on the field the following year, starting him at right tackle in the 2010 season opener. An injured groin cost him four starts and three games that year, but SEC coaches saw enough in his nine starts to put him on the Freshman All-SEC team. He stayed healthy in his sophomore year, starting all 13 games at right tackle while the team won its second BCS title in three years.

Strengths: He is a tall, long, thick right tackle prospect with huge hands and a solid (not sloppy) build. That pure size gives him the power to collapse the edge and create running lanes. Defensive ends must be very quick off the snap to beat him on their initial pass rush move, because of his length and hustle. Has improved his anchor against bull rushes; a wide base and length make him tough to move. Flashes footwork to reach linebackers at the second level, who can't separate from him once he locks on. Shows some bend for his size in his stance; can get low to cut block on quick passes and in short-yardage situations.

Weaknesses: Gives up too many secondary rushes and lacks the recovery speed to stay in front of his man if the quarterback holds on to the ball. Must get his hands up more quickly to sustain blocks, both in pass protection and in the run game. Quicker players in space can avoid him if they see him coming. Loses his balance regularly when overextending toward his target, often ending up on the ground.

NFL comparison: Jeff Otah

Bottom line: Though not as dominant or purely athletic as Smith, the Tide's last mammoth pro tackle prospect, Fluker has the girth, length and respectable movement skills to become a top-notch starting right tackle -- and he'll need to fulfill his potential in a hurry if Alabama's running attack is to make up for the loss of Richardson.

Guard/center

Travis Frederick

College: Wisconsin
Height: 6-4 Weight: 328

The Badgers have become a pipeline for NFL offensive linemen. Fourteen of their big boys up front have been selected since the 2000 draft -- the most of any school in the country over that time period. Nine were top-100 picks (which is second behind USC's 10), including Peter Konz, who went to the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Frederick is scheduled to play center as a junior, but scouts will appreciate his versatility -- much like Atlanta did with Konz, who has moved from center to guard for the Falcons as a rookie.

Frederick, a two-time all-Wisconsin pick as a high school offensive and defensive lineman, made an instant impact on campus after graduating early from tiny Big Foot (Walworth) High School in Wisconsin to take part in 2009 spring practices. He became the first true freshman center to start a season opener for the Badgers when veterans John Moffitt and Bill Nagy (both NFL draft picks in 2011) sat out due to injuries. The next week, he started again in the pivot, but an ankle injury took him out of the lineup. Eventually, though, he was needed again, stepping in for injured veterans at left guard for the final two games of the year. Frederick redshirted the 2010 season because of the team's depth on the line before getting his chance as a full-time starter as a sophomore, garnering second-team All-Big Ten honors.

Strengths: He is a thick-bodied interior lineman with experience at guard and center. Possesses the upper-body strength to turn his man out of the hole. Gets his hands up quickly after the snap, keeping them inside. Also moves his feet well to get angles, combo from tackle to linebacker. Churns his legs as a drive-blocker, getting movement. Anchor is strong; he does not get bulled backwards when man-up, and late blitzers bounce off his chest. He works hard to sustain and finish one-on-one blocks. Regularly used on the move whether at guard or center; he fits on blocks well, whether stepping up to the second level or outside the hashes. Shotgun snaps are reliable with good velocity.

Weaknesses: Girth in the middle takes away some quickness behind the line. It takes time for him to get around the tackle, and he gets tripped up in traffic when on the move. Gets out-quicked by interior blitzers and occasionally stops his feet in pass protection. Can lose his balance when leaning into his man, though he recovers well enough to get back in the play.

NFL comparison: David Baas

Bottom line: The Badgers' streak of providing the NFL with top interior line prospects should continue with Frederick, because he uses his toughness, thick body, excellent technique and quick feet to move defenders, whether he's playing guard or center.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter.

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