In the NFL, games are often won or lost up front, so identifying dominant offensive linemen is a priority for general managers, scouts and coaches.
Offensive tackle is the marquee position, with left tackles valued at a premium. Teams are willing to invest in the position to protect the quarterback's blindside, and this year's draft class features a host of blockers with the ability to thrive at the next level.
While interior linemen typically don't garner the attention of tackles, the success of great offenses can also be tied to the presence of a star in the middle.
In this year's class, Mike Pouncey is hoping to follow the example set by his twin brother, Maurkice (of the Pittsburgh Steelers), and become an instant difference maker at center. Baylor's Danny Watkins and Florida State's Rodney Hudson also have shown signs of being future stars, but they rate a notch below Pouncey on most boards. Regardless, they are likely first-year starters with the chance to make an immediate impact.
Given the wealth of talented blockers, there are several teams that could see their offensive fortunes change after nabbing a quality lineman in the draft.
1. Nate Solder, Colorado: Solder has seamlessly transitioned from tight end to being a three-year starter at left tackle, showing outstanding athleticism and movement skills as a pass blocker. He mirrors speed rushers well off the corner and has the body control to handle counters. He occasionally has issues dealing with power players adept at using bull rushes, but his length and athleticism make him an ideal left tackle candidate. In the running game, he is a sticky blocker who uses angles to cut off defenders. He routinely gets on linebackers and safeties in space, and is capable of being featured in a movement scheme that uses pulls or traps from the offensive tackles. Solder isn't the most polished offensive tackle prospect in the class, but his talent and intriguing potential have scouts willing to pull the trigger early to land his services. If he dazzles in workouts, he could creep into conversation as a potential top-10 pick.
Possible landing spots: Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis
2. Anthony Castonzo, Boston College: Castonzo hasn't generated the same level of fanfare as Solder, but his workmanlike game is built on sound fundamentals. He plays with patience and poise, and his ability to handle rushers has been honed through four years of starting. As a pass blocker, he shows good quickness out of his stance and has the lateral quickness to shadow speed rushers. He combines his underrated athleticism with a strong initial punch and accurate hand placement. He routinely wins downs against rushers by neutralizing their quickness before they can get started. In the running game, Castonzo lacks the strength to maul defenders at the point, but effectively uses his body position to keep his assigned player out of the play. With the majority of teams employing a zone-based running game, he shouldn't have any issues functioning as an immediate starter at left tackle. If he can continue to surprise scouts with better than anticipated athleticism, he could be taken earlier than expected. Throw in Boston College's esteemed reputation for producing quality offensive linemen, and it isn't surprising that he is slowly creeping up draft boards.
Possible landing spots: Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago
3. Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin: He is a big, physical blocker with strength and power. A dominant run blocker adept at blowing defenders off the ball on power plays, he relies on his size and relentless motor to eventually wear opponents down. Even though he lacks the athleticism to excel in space, he routinely cleans up trash on the second level. In pass protection, Carimi effectively battles finesse rushers. He lacks the movement skills to shadow and dance, but he compensates by quickly engaging rushers and using his frame to push them past the quarterback. He is best suited to play right tackle on the next level.
Possible landing spots: Minnesota, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh
Tackling the issue
4. Tyron Smith, USC: Scouts are salivating over his rare athleticism and movement skills. He glides through his movements on the edge and shows the agility to handle crafty pass rushers and to anchor against power. He occasionally stops his feet against counters, however, his long arms allow him to latch on to keep rushers from getting to the quarterback. As a run blocker, he flashes power moving defenders off the point of attack. He is better suited to function as a positional blocker in a zone-based scheme. He has spent the bulk of his career manning the right side, but his size, athleticism and body control have many teams projecting him as a left tackle. A strong showing in workouts could boost his stock.
Possible landing spots: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Chicago
5. Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State: He is an athletic edge blocker with an excellent frame and good movement skills. He is surprisingly nimble for his size and shows good lateral quickness in space. As a pass blocker, he looks like a natural left tackle with the ability to mirror speed rushers. He reacts and adjusts to counter moves well and flashes a good initial punch engaging with a rusher. With a game that is built on finesse skills, Sherrod struggles against power players. He lacks the strength, balance and body control to anchor against bull rushes and will need to develop an effective counter to thrive as a pro.
Possible landing spots: Pittsburgh, Chicago
1. Mike Pouncey, Florida: He possesses outstanding athleticism and movement skills, and his instincts shine while he controls the offense from the pivot. He's started 13 games at center and 28 at guard. That flexibility makes him a valuable commodity. Pouncey is an athletic blocker at the point of attack with the strength and power to move defenders off the ball. He has the quickness to cut off linebackers and safeties on the second level. As a pass blocker, he has the body control and strength to anchor against power rushers. He holds his ground against bull rushes, and has the balance to react quickly to counters without losing control. Given his versatility and talent, Pouncey can solidify his status as the top interior blocker with a strong performance at the combine.
Possible landing spots: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh
2. Danny Watkins, Baylor: He is an aggressive interior blocker with good instincts. He quickly recognizes stunts and games upfront, and his ability to sort rushers is indicative of his awareness. As a pass blocker, Watkins shows strong hands and quickly engages defenders after the snap. He flashes strength, balance and body control anchoring against power. He maintains the integrity of the pocket and provides the quarterback with a clean launch point. Watkins has toughness and tenacity as a run blocker. He moves defenders off the ball and effectively sustains and finishes blocks. With all his attributes, Watkins is certain to be one of the first interior linemen off the board.
Possible landing spots: Kansas City, New England
3. Rodney Hudson, Florida State: He is a tough, rugged interior player. He shows good instincts and awareness in pass protection, while easily sorting through twists and games at the point of attack. His ability to pass off rushers indicates he understands protection well. Against power rushers, he has balance and body control when he anchors. Hudson also displays good lateral movement when he faces quick penetrators in isolated matchups. As a run blocker, Hudson excels at moving defenders off the ball and gives outstanding effort when finishing blocks. Even though he lacks ideal size, Hudson is a solid Day 2 prospect at this point.
Possible landing spots: Philadelphia, Indianapolis
4. Clint Boling, Georgia: He is a smart, instinctive player with the versatility to play multiple spots. As a pro, he is ideally suited to play guard due to his rugged demeanor and awareness. He quickly identifies potential rushers within the box, and his ability to switch responsibilities with his teammates shows his anticipation. He has quick, accurate hands, and his initial punch stops rushers in their tracks. As a run blocker, he lacks the strength to consistently move defenders, but he is a solid position blocker with the athleticism to limit pursuit on the backside. He isn't an ideal fit in a power scheme, but his toughness and intelligence make him capable of thriving in most systems.
Possible landing spots: New England, Philadelphia
5. William Rackley, Lehigh: He is underrated player with outstanding size, instincts and tools. He dominated small-school competition, and held his own against talented players from BCS programs in the East-West Shrine Game. He's capable of moving defenders and flashes enough quickness to get blocks at the second level. He flashes a strong initial punch in pass protection and is fairly accurate with his hand placement. While he hasn't consistently faced strong competition, his strong showing in Orlando has many scouts forecasting Rackley as a solid prospect.
Possible landing spots: Indianapolis, Kansas City, Philadelphia