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Not 2008 revisited, but this tackle class isn't far off

INDIANAPOLIS -- It might not have the first-round dominance of a year ago, but the current draft crop of offensive linemen -- and especially the tackles -- is considered every bit as strong.

In 2008, eight offensive linemen, all tackles, were selected in Round 1.

This year, the number figures to be slightly smaller, by two or three, yet NFL talent evaluators see no decline in overall quality.

Projecting draft picks

As many as four tackles could be taken in the top 10 picks of the draft. In all, Pat Kirwan projects as many as six offensive linemen going in the draft's first round. More ...

"There are a number of very adept left tackles that are coming out in the draft this year, which I think is going to be very positive for the league and the teams that are searching for that anchor off the left side," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said during a break from evaluating college prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine.

The offensive linemen most scouts mention as likely to be among the first 32 picks are tackles Eugene Monroe of Virginia, Andre Smith of Alabama, Jason Smith of Baylor, Michael Oher of Mississippi, William Beatty of Connecticut and Eben Britton of Arizona.

All six excel in pass protection, which is the single-most important quality that teams seek in a pass-happy league. They're also solid run blockers. And they have the versatility to play on either side of the line.

"Those guys are going to go fast and furious," said Kevin Colbert, director of football operations for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I think there are a lot of great players in the group, a lot of athletic players, myself included," said Oher, who did not allow a sack last year. "It's going to be a great year for us, I think."

For the most part, the tackles viewed as being worthy of first-round consideration in the April 25-26 draft could be counted on to start as rookies, which was the case with several of the first-round tackles of a year ago who avoided injuries. Jake Long, whom Miami made the top overall pick of the draft, and Ryan Clady, whom Denver selected 12th overall, started from the first minute of their NFL careers. Both performed well.

NFL teams are always pleased when there is a proliferation of talented tackles because the position represents the primary building block of any franchise. The Detroit Lions, who pick first and 20th overall, are looking hard at the position and might go with it in the top spot rather than quarterback.

"Just look at last year," first-year Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "All the draft experts had some (first-round tackles) as second-round picks, and maybe later, and the run started on offensive tackles early. Coaches realize how important those guys are to schemes, so any year is good to be a tackle."

There are some fascinating stories among the draft's offensive linemen. Oher's childhood, during which he lived on the streets with his drug-addicted mother before being adopted by an affluent family, is the subject of a bestselling book, "The Blind Side." Monroe is the youngest of a family with 16 children, some from different parents.

Most of all, however, they are best known for their achievements in football. Oher is so focused on his NFL career that he hasn't even bothered to read "The Blind Side" and has no interest in the actor who would play his part in a movie based on the book.

The 6-foot-5, 309-pound Monroe combines incredible strength, making him a dominant blocker at the point of attack, with a great deal of athleticism, particularly when it comes to quickness off the snap. He also shows excellent instincts and intelligence.

Asked why he should be the first offensive tackle selected, Monroe said: "I think, over my career at Virginia, I've proven I can block anybody. I have the determination to improve my game and the ambition to succeed, and I'll never stop. I'll just continue to set goals. When one step is completed, I set another goal. I'll make sure that I do everything in my power to achieve that. And if I can't, if there's a setback, I'll re-set everything and I'll go back to the drawing board and just continue to grind."

Andre Smith, who allowed only one sack last season, has a reputation for tenacity. Scouts and coaches love the way he consistently finishes plays. When a defender gets caught in Smith's clutches, he can virtually count on being eliminated from a play.

"As an offensive lineman, it's a pride thing," Smith said. "Go out there and dominate a guy for four quarters, set the tone from the first play, let them know how it's going to be for the remainder of the game. My father always told me to be the nicest player off the field, but on the field, be the meanest, most tenacious guy you could ever possibly be."

One of the bigger surprises among the offensive linemen in this year's class is the fact there are some outstanding centers, including a few who could receive first-round consideration. Centers rarely are viewed as being worthy of such elite consideration because they generally aren't regarded as being particularly athletic.

This year's group is different. Alex Mack of Cal, Max Unger of Oregon and Eric Wood of Louisville are regarded as centers who could be selected near the bottom of the first round and no later than the middle of the second. Besides their ability to play well at center, they are versatile enough to work at guard.

Most player-personnel people consider guard one of the weaker positions in the draft.

The most notable player in the group is Herman Johnson of LSU. And that's mostly because of his 6-7, 364-pound frame, which makes him the largest of all of the 300-plus combine invitees and seems far larger than most NFL teams would prefer for an interior lineman.

For now, Johnson's greatest claim to fame is that at birth he weighed 15 pounds, 14 ounces, making him one of the largest babies in the history of Louisiana.

"I reported to LSU (as a freshman) at 411 pounds," he said.

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