|Otto Gruele Jr. / Getty Images|
|Arizona State center Mike Pollak is a bit undersized but more than makes up for it with tenacity.|
MOBILE, Ala. -- Despite the fact that many top-rated offensive linemen often do not participate, the Senior Bowl has traditionally been a great place to scout linemen headed to the draft.
The general consensus from coaches and front office that I spoke with this week was that 2008 is a poor year for offensive line prospects. The first few days of practice backed up that position, but Wednesday there was a jump in the level of play.
Whether it was five linemen working together or players getting back to their natural positions, there were a number of athletes who looked like intriguing prospects. At least one NFL team's scouting report suggested that most of the best centers, half of the projected top tackles and three of the top five guards were in Mobile.
Up to nine of the 18 linemen here this week could be drafted in the first three rounds, while the rest could become bargains in Rounds 4-7.
There is always a lot of interest in the one-on-one drills, where the offensive line works against the defensive line. Usually the defensive linemen dominate, but it can be a dangerous situation to draw too many conclusions about the offensive linemen based on this drill.
For example, I liked Steve Justice from Wake Forest much better in the team drills, where he demonstrated an ability to work with the other offensive linemen than I did in his individual drill against a pass-rushing nose tackle.
Another drill that can be tricky to evaluate is the 9-on-7. It is great to watch, but the defense knows every play is a running play, and that can be an unfair advantage. Any offensive lineman who gets movement on a defensive linemen in this drill is very impressive.
I thought guards Mike McGlynn from Pittsburgh and USC's Drew Radovich stepped up against a front seven that was playing on the balls of their feet and coming off the ball looking for the runner.
I watched the drills with Randy Cross, the great former 49ers lineman, and Jim Sweeney, one of my former players who spent 16 years in the NFL as a lineman with the Jets, Steelers and Seahawks, and bounced ideas off of them. Watching the offensive line by yourself is next to impossible. Cross and Sweeney made me feel like the position was covered.
In no particular order, here's a look at the young men who jumped out at me over the three days I was at practice.
HEATH BENEDICT, 6-6, 335, Newberry College
I talked with Benedict after practice on Tuesday and he was just starting to feel comfortable. He has a body similar to the 49ers' Joe Staley, who was here last year. He is athletic and can really move around. He believes he will run a 4.1 short shuttle at the combine. At practice he did not demonstrate that kind of speed and he looked like he was hesitating to finish plays. I don't think he's ready for the NFL at tackle, but at guard he has the bulk to compete and the athletic ability to pull and get in space. He is a former University of Tennessee player who transferred to Newberry. If he has a good game on Saturday his stock will rise from a mid-round pick to late in the third round, and maybe higher as the draft process continues.
ONIEL COUSINS, 6-4, 305, UTEP
Cousins struggled early in the week when I watched him at left tackle. He struggled against speed rushers, and when he over-set on the speed, he got beat inside. In the one-on-one work opposing linemen got into his body and won the hand-placement battle. I would think he's headed to guard after this week and will not be perceived as an ideal tackle candidate. Some thought he came into the week as a third-round prospect, but it looks more like a later round for him unless he has a big game on Saturday.
SAM BAKER, 6-5, 305, USC
Baker struggled in the 1-on-1 drills early in the week. He needed to be at left tackle where he looked more comfortable than he did at right tackle. His best day by far was Wednesday when he put Xavier Adibi on his back with a two-hand punch in the 9-on-7 drills and was successful in most of his team period pass-pro blocks. The opinions vary on where Baker will be drafted between first and early second round at this point, but it is still too early to tell. I know he showed up here in Mobile as one of the top tackles in the draft, and that goes a long way with the offensive line coaches who are just beginning their evaluations. A personnel director pointed out to me that Baker was rarely on the ground, and there are a few top prospects not here who struggle to stay on their feet.
GOSDER CHERILUS, 6-7, 319, Boston College
Sweeney is working with Cherilus as the Boston College prospect prepares for his pro football career. Cherilus is tall but can bend his knees and has long arms. He was a soccer player growing up and didn't play football until he was 14. He got into a fight with a defensive player during practice this week and demonstrated a mean streak for such a quiet kid. Sweeney thinks he has a chance to be a good left tackle. I saw him get beat to the inside once, which is a no-no, but he recovered nicely on the next play. He's more athletic than Jeremy Trueblood, a former teammate at Boston College who is now Tampa Bay's starting right tackle. The Senior Bowl has helped his stock, and I expect almost every NFL line coach to head to B.C. to work him out. Cherilus could be on the move to an early-round grade.
MIKE POLLAK, 6-4, 292, Arizona State
Pollak is a center who Cross and I liked. He gets out of his stance with great quickness. Some will call him undersized, but most centers in the league are in that range. He could struggle with a 3-4 nose tackle in a bull rush but he will more than survive with his ability to get position on a defender and compete. Pollak did well against a shaded nose a few times this week, but like everyone else, he got beat by Sedrick Ellis on occasion.
DREW RADOVICH, 6-5, 305, USC
Radovich is the "other lineman" from USC after everyone discusses Baker. He really had an uneventful Monday but started to come on in the Tuesday practice and really caught the eye of the line coaches on Wednesday, when he was at left guard. There was a play in the team period when he pulled to his left with his shoulder square to the line and got out in front of a sweep and really looked the part. He has the height to be a tackle but looked better at guard. One coach described him as "a dancing bear who likes to decleat a guy when he can." The Senior Bowl looks like it helped his draft status go from a late pick to a mid-round pick.
MIKE McGLYNN, 6-5, 315, Pittsburgh
As my radio partner Tim Ryan would say. "Don't let the bad body fool you." McGlynn is a guy who works hard and always seems to get the job done. Coaches love players like that. During the 9-on-7 drills he reminded me so much of guard Chris Snee of the New York Giants, trying to finish every defender right up to the whistle and quietly going back to the huddle. Someone told me they had a fourth-round grade on him coming in but his performance here put him into the third. I agree.
STEVE JUSTICE, 6-4, 284, Wake Forest
If you watch Justice in the 1-on-1 drills you might not like the guy. If you watch him in the team period and your team runs the Alex Gibbs zone-blocking running attack, he's your guy. Any time he works in tandem with another lineman, or he's in a slide-type protection scheme, or he winds up uncovered and has to help out where needed, he's excellent.
ROBERT FELTON, 6-4, 328, Arkansas
All three of my partners during the week who played pro football loved this guy's toughness and competitive style. He competes and is a fine short-area player. He has his moments when it isn't pretty and he fails, but it doesn't carry over to the next play. He can play too high at times but battles to recover and makes a defender's life miserable in the trenches. Some team is going to try and steal this guy in the fourth or fifth round.
KORY LICHTENSTEIGER, 6-3, 300, Bowling Green
He's not pretty and struggled at times, but he reminded me of Cleveland Browns center Hank Fraley. Looked a little over his head most of the week but could make a team as a backup center/guard and grow into an NFL starter.
This might sound a bit strange to the average football fan, but a large number of offensive line coaches love when offensive line prospects aren't perceived as a great group. "I got a great left tackle in Buffalo who wasn't even drafted," said Jim McNally, a recently retired line coach, "And I have had so many great players taken in later rounds, I get the time to develop them."
This year looks like one of those years where coaches are going to need time to develop their incoming offensive linemen, and that's just fine.