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NFL Draft Preview: Offensive Line

Posted Apr 16, 2013


Alabama G Chance Warmack could be the first guard drafted in the top 10 since 1997. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

With one of their two big-name free agent moves in the offseason, the Rams extended themselves right away to land perhaps this year’s biggest free agent fish in offensive tackle Jake Long.

After a courtship that lasted a little bit longer than normal, the Rams and Long finally struck a four-year deal that instantly made Long quarterback Sam Bradford’s new blindside protector.

In bringing the four-time Pro Bowler aboard, the Rams took a significant step toward the continued improvement of a line that made strides in 2012 and figures to only continue its improvement under coach Paul Boudreau in 2013.

With Long in the fold, it’s expected that right tackle Rodger Saffold will move to right tackle, theoretically giving the Rams the bookend tackles they’ve long sought. Of course, Saffold still must embrace the move and get the fundamentals of the other side down and he’s scheduled for free agency after the 2013 season.

Elsewhere on the line, the Rams have a pair of grizzled veterans on the interior in right guard Harvey Dahl and center Scott Wells. Both are on their way to being fully healed and ready to go in time for training camp at the end of July, if not sooner.

At left guard, the Rams have a question mark that must still be answered after the departure of Robert Turner to Tennessee in free agency. Make no mistake, they do have options in the form of Rokevious Watkins, who the team is bullish on but has yet to prove himself in game action, Shelley Smith, who fared well in a handful of starts last year and Chris Williams, who the team brought back in free agency after he proved solid at guard in Dahl’s stead last year albeit on the right side.

The Rams also bring back promising young tackle Joe Barksdale, who figures to, at minimum, fill the swing tackle role behind Saffold and Long and could also figure into the mix at guard after he spent parts of his offseason getting acclimated to both tackle and both guard positions.

There is even more potential returning from last year’s practice squad in the form of guard Brandon Washington and tackle Ty Nsekhe.

Considering the plethora of options in place, it’s possible the Rams could enter this year’s NFL Draft without looking too hard for help on the offensive line. But based on their pre-draft visitor lists, the opening at left guard and the possibility of a long term opening at right tackle, it’s expected the Rams will pursue at least one offensive lineman and it’s not out of the question that player could be procured early in the draft, even as early as the first round.

This year’s NFL Draft figures to be heavy on offensive linemen in the first round with a trio of tackles and a pair of guards stealing most of the headlines.

Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher and Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson are generally considered the top three and all could be gone within the first seven picks of the draft.

Behind that group is a pair of big, physical maulers who could also land somewhere in the 10-25 range in Alabama’s D.J. Fluker and Florida State’s Menelik Watson.

Fluker could step in at a guard position right away and project out to right tackle down the line should the Rams use one of their picks on him. Watson also figures to have the ability to play some guard early though he has the athleticism to project to left tackle long term as well.

One or both of Fluker and Watson could fall to the 22nd spot but it’s highly unlikely either will be around when they pick in the second round.

At guard, it’s Alabama’s Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper that are garnering the headlines. Both are thought to be elite prospects who can step in and be impact players from the get-go.

Either or both players could go in the top 10 and be the first interior lineman to hear his name called that early since New Orleans took Chris Naeole tenth in the 1997 NFL Draft. Should Cooper or Warmack fall to the Rams, they could be strongly considered.

Behind that pair is a group of intriguing players with different skill sets. Oregon’s Kyle Long has obvious ties to the Rams as the brother of defensive end Chris. Although Long is still scratching the surface of his football potential, his versatility to play guard and tackle could make him an interesting options in the second or third round, should he last that long.

Virginia tackle Oday Aboushi is similar to Long in that he too can play guard or tackle and could also be of interest to the Rams.

Kentucky guard Larry Warford is a big, physical mauler who doesn’t have the versatility to play anywhere but guard but could be the final piece to the puzzle of the offensive line for the Rams should he last into the second round as well.

Long, Aboushi and Warford could factor into the equation, though it likely wouldn’t be until the second round or into some sort of trade down in the first.

Other guards who could get looks include Syracuse’s Justin Pugh, Illinois’ Hugh Thornton and Tennessee’s Dallas Thomas.

One other area of need for the Rams could come at the inside swing position. With Turner gone to the Titans, the Rams still have Tim Barnes as a possibility for that role on the roster.

But the Rams could also look to the draft to find a possible short term starter at left guard and a long term replacement for Wells at center.

Options for that role include Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick, California’s Brian Schwenke, Kent State’s Brian Winters and Alabama’s Barrett Jones. Frederick and Schwenke will likely come off the board in the second or third round while Winters and Jones figure to be fourth round or later selections.

 

Top Five Offensive Tackles

1. Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M – Technically sounds, solid blind side protector who could stand to add a little size but should plug and play from day one.
2. Eric Fisher, Central Michigan – Not far behind Joeckel and some might prefer his size and tenacity.
3. Menelik Watson, Florida State – Just scratching the surface on vast potential but with a mean streak a mile wide. His physical approach could turn him into the best in class in time.
4. Lane Johnson, Oklahoma – Like Watson, still scratching the surface. He’s big, athletic and has great feet.
5. D.J. Fluker, Alabama – A massive, mauling type who projects as a right tackle with ability to play guard. Will do damage in the run game but will need occasional help in pass protection.

Sleeper: Terron Armstead, Arkansas Pine-Bluff – Freakishly athletic for his size but didn’t play top tier competition. If athletic skills translate could be an absolute steal at tackle.

Top Five Guards

1. Chance Warmack, Alabama – A full on brute capable of opening huge holes in the running game and protecting the passer. A bit limited in versatility but he’s as solid as they come at guard.
2. Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina – An athletic type with underrated power and the ability to get out in space and take out linebackers and safeties. Also versatile enough to play center.
3. Larry Warford, Kentucky – Like Warmack, a big, physical mauler who will wear you down with his size.
4. Kyle Long, Oregon – Still relatively new to football but has excellent athleticism much like his famous brother. Could also project as a right tackle.
5. Brian Winters, Kent State – From a smaller school but held his own at the Senior Bowl and shows some versatility to play other spots.

Sleeper: J.C. Tretter, Cornell – Had some knee issues and injuries kept him from playing at Senior Bowl but extremely tough and doesn’t hesitate to finish his blocks. Still relatively new to the position but has some upside.

Top Five Centers

1. Travis Frederick, Wisconsin – Like many Badgers linemen he doesn’t blow you away athletically but just gets the job done. Could also plug in at guard though best suited for a power scheme.
2. Brian Schwenke, California – Strong performance at the Senior Bowl opened some eyes.
3. Khaled Holmes, USC – Productive, intelligent player from strong bloodlines. Struggled with durability and not overly athletic.
4. Barrett Jones, Alabama – The king of versatility playing tackle, guard and center during his college career. Extremely intelligent but lacks athleticism and a bit on the small side.
5. Braxston Cave, Notre Dame – Not the biggest or most athletic player but toughness and awareness combined with intangible could help him overcome physical deficiencies and injury history to land somewhere in the draft.


Sleeper: Mario Benavides, Louisville – Small but has some quickness and toughness. Could make a roster as a backup.