Football season is right around the corner! Not only in the NFL, but at the college level, too. As a resident guru of the Saturday standouts, Chad Reuter provides the top draft-eligible college players at each position in a 10-part series. Today's group is the offensive linemen.
While quarterbacks are continually targeted most by NFL teams with top-five draft picks, the men who protect them -- offensive tackles -- rank second in that rarified air over the past decade (13 QBs, 8 OTs).
But the "safe" label once held by offensive tackles picked high in the draft has been broken down a bit because of the trials and tribulations suffered by recent draftees. Trent Williams (picked fourth overall by the Washington Redskins in 2010) was suspended four games in 2011 for failing multiple drug tests, while Jason Smith (taken second by the St. Louis Rams in 2009) has struggled to the point of being benched last season.
Robert Gallery was considered the safest pick of the 2004 draft when the Oakland Raiders took him second overall. But Gallery moved inside while still in Oakland, instead of locking down the all-important left tackle spot he was drafted to fill. Now he projects as a reserve for the New England Patriots. And Buffalo Bills fans might have trouble remembering massive Mike Williams' brief career with the franchise. The fourth overall pick out of Texas in the 2002 draft lasted just four years in Buffalo (and eventually made eight starts at guard for the Redskins four years after he left upstate New York).
This doesn't mean teams will stop valuing tall, athletic tackles at the top of the draft. The Minnesota Vikings expect Matt Kalil, the lineman they chose fourth overall in April, to flourish. The former USC stalwart looks the part of a "franchise left tackle" and shares the genes of a current Pro Bowler, as his brother is Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil.
The 2012 draft was actually shaped by a huge appetite for strong interior linemen. Teams selected more guards and centers (11) than tackles (eight) in the first 100 picks -- the first time this has happened in five years. And for the fourth straight year, two interior players were picked in the first round, with Stanford's David DeCastro (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati Bengals) going late in the Thursday-night proceedings.
This year's offensive line class is strong across the board. Teams will be able to find everything from that stud left tackle to a tenacious pulling guard, as well as a couple intelligent (and physical) centers capable of holding down the pivot for years to come.
1. Taylor Lewan, 6-foot-8, 302 pounds, OT, Michigan
Lewan's combination of size, length and athleticism already puts 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 will most appreciate.
NFL comparison:*Matt Kalil
2. Luke Joeckel, 6-6, 310, OT, Texas A&M
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 effective as a long-time NFL starter, especially as he continues to add bulk under new A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin.
NFL comparison:*Michael Roos
3. Eric Fisher, 6-8, 305, OT, Central Michigan
As the top left tackle prospect in the senior class, Fisher opens scouts' eyes with his pro-caliber frame and eye-popping agility in the open field, which he should be able to maintain while working in an NFL strength program. Staying healthy (he missed the final two games of 2012 with a knee injury) while showing off his athleticism throughout 2012 should result in his following in the first-round footsteps of former CMU star and current 49ersPro Bowler Joe Staley.
NFL comparison:Joe Staley
4. D.J. Fluker, 6-6, 335, OT, Alabama
Though not as dominant or purely athletic as the Crimson Tide's last mammoth tackle prospect, Andre Smith, 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 top-five pick Trent Richardson.
NFL comparison:* Jeff Otah
5. Khaled Holmes, 6-4, 305, OG/C, USC
This tall, physical, mobile and intelligent interior lineman first snapped for quarterback Matt Barkley at Mater Dei High School in California, and then for the Trojans in 2011 (earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors) after starting at guard as a sophomore. Comparisons to the Pouncey twins, who were first-round picks in 2010 (Maurkice, Pittsburgh Steelers) and 2011 (Mike, Miami Dolphins) are inevitable.
NFL comparison:Mike Pouncey
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6. Jonathan Cooper, 6-3, 310, OG/C, North Carolina
Cooper, an extremely athletic left guard, racked up second-team All-ACC honors after each of the past two seasons. He's outstanding in pass protection and has the ability to lead the way on runs. He could become a first-round pick if he's able to prove his functional strength to scouts.
NFL comparison:Ben Grubbs
7. Brennan Williams, 6-7, 315, OT, North Carolina
Williams outgrew the NFL path his father laid before him (Brent Williams had 45 1/2 sacks as a pass rusher in an 11-year career, mostly in New England), but retained enough of the athleticism and tenaciousness in the run game to become a legitimate top-40 right tackle prospect if he continues improving his footwork.
NFL comparison:Gosder Cherilus
8. Chance Warmack, 6-3, 320, OG, Alabama
Warmack is a sturdy guard with enough mobility to clear the way for Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and 2012 top-five pick Trent Richardson over the past two seasons. He should immediately start on Sundays -- and stick around for a long time.
NFL comparison:Justin Blalock
9. Dallas Thomas, 6-5, 300, OT/OG, Tennessee
An underrated starter at left tackle for a struggling Volunteers team the past two seasons, Thomas is an athletic positional blocker who might spend 2012 at left guard, adding versatility to his strong natural bend and agility -- and improving his chances of earning top-50 grades from NFL scouts considering him capable of starting at either spot.
NFL comparison: Sean Locklear
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10. Oday Aboushi, 6-6, 310, OT, Virginia
The son of Palestinian parents has started on both sides of the line due to his build and determination. Scouts would like to see him improve his foot quickness when facing NFL-caliber rushers during the 2012 season and postseason work before they endorse him as a sure-fire starter at left tackle.
NFL comparison:Doug Free
11. Ricky Wagner, 6-6, 322, OT, Wisconsin
Scouts won't compare Wagner to NFL All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas in terms of his pass protection and overall athleticism. He should still earn starter's marks, though, as another big, strong Wisconsin lineman who can open up big holes off the edge and get downfield to help running back Montee Ball have another excellent season.
NFL comparison:David Stewart
12. Travis Frederick, 6-4, 328, OG/C, Wisconsin
The Badgers' streak of providing the NFL with top interior line prospects should continue with Frederick. He uses his toughness and thick body -- in addition to excellent technique and flashes of foot quickness -- to move defenders, whether at guard or center (his probable NFL position).
NFL comparison:*David Baas
13. Barrett Jones, 6-5, 302, OG/C, Alabama
The 2011 Outland Trophy winner has played every spot on the line while helping the Tide win two BCS championships in the past three seasons. He is scheduled to move from left tackle to center for his senior campaign. While not the strongest or most athletic lineman, Jones' versatility, intelligence and high character should get him penciled in at guard or center for the next decade in the NFL.
NFL comparison:Max Unger
14. Matt Summers-Gavin, 6-4, 293, OG/OT, Cal
Summers-Gavin moved from left guard to right tackle in 2011 to protect lefty quarterback Zach Maynard's blind side and team up with the Cleveland Browns' 2012 second-round pick, Mitchell Schwartz. The technician has a long competitive streak, allowing him to make such a switch, though his size might cause NFL teams to project him as a better fit starting inside in a zone scheme.
NFL comparison:Marshal Yanda
15. Larry Warford, 6-3, 333, OG, Kentucky
Warford translated his power as a drive blocker, unexpected foot quickness and downfield hustle into second-team All-SEC accolades the past two seasons. He should win his share of future battles against NFL linemen when able to get his thick body moving quickly off the snap.
NFL comparison:Uche Nwaneri
16. Earl Watford, 6-4, 290, OG, James Madison
One of the top players in recent Philadelphia high school football history has become one of the best guards in the Football Championship Subdivision over the past two seasons. While his somewhat lean frame continues to fill out, Watford's upper-body strength, agility and willingness to punish opponents will carry weight with scouts and coaches.
NFL comparison: Jacob Bell