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NFL Draft Preview: Offensive Line

Posted Apr 20, 2011

 

From the moment the Rams hired coach Steve Spagnuolo more than two years ago, he made it clear that his philosophy in building a team centers on building up the lines on both sides of the ball first.

So it’s no surprise that the Rams have spent the better part of the past two years investing high draft choices and plenty of dollars in building an offensive line that can protect the quarterback and open holes for the running backs.

To wit, two NFL Drafts ago, the Rams used the No. 2 overall pick on tackle Jason Smith. Last year, the team surprised some by using the first pick of the second round on tackle Rodger Saffold.

After what amounts to a rookie season for both, the Rams feel good that they have a pair of bookend tackles for the majority of the next decade.

On the inside, the Rams have gone the free agent route to add a couple of high-priced talents in guard Jacob Bell and center Jason Brown in the past three years.

Joining them inside last year was the versatile Adam Goldberg, who spent most of his time with the Rams before last season working in a utility role.

Goldberg is scheduled for free agency but aside from that, the Rams are expected to bring back the rest of the linemen they had on the 53-man roster last season. That includes promising guard John Greco, who played some early in the season last year and still figures into the plans for 2011.

Veteran Hank Fraley, who can play guard and center, also figures to return in his backup role.

At tackle, Renardo Foster started a game in Smith’s place last year and was solid in his role filling in. He, too, should be back for another year.

Still, with the NFL Draft little more than a week away, the Rams have some needs to fill along the offensive line.

While the starting five was much improved in pass protection, allowing fewer sacks than it had in years, the running game struggled to gain traction the latter half of the season.

As such, the Rams figure to at least search for an option or two at some point in the draft that could contribute on the interior of the line.

That’s why they brought in three guard and/or center prospects for pre-draft visits last week. Lehigh’s Will Rackley carries the most acclaim and could be an option for the Rams sometime in the middle rounds.

The Rams also brought in Cincinnati’s Jason Kelce and Appalachian State’s Daniel Kilgore, both of whom could be options in the later rounds of the draft.

Should the Rams look to address the offensive line earlier in the draft, there are a couple of options that figure to be taken late in the first round or by the middle of the second.

Baylor’s Danny Watkins and Florida’s Mike Pouncey are generally regarded as the top interior prospects in the draft. Watkins played tackle in college, has the versatility the Rams like and the team has examined him closely.

Pouncey can play center or guard and has the bloodline of his Pro Bowl brother Maurkice, who was drafted in the first round last year.

Florida State’s Rodney Hudson, TCU’s Marcus Cannon and Georgia’s Clint Boling could also land somewhere in the top three rounds and draw interest from the Rams.

From a local angle, the Rams have taken a look at McCluer North High’s Keith Williams, who just finished his eligibility at Nebraska. Williams is a powerful guard who figures to go in the closing rounds and could be an option if the Rams haven’t taken one at that point.

As for tackles, this draft could have as many as five land somewhere in the first round though none are considered top five to seven picks like in recent years. It’s possible the Rams could look at a developmental prospect later in the draft to serve as the third or fourth tackle.

Offensive Tackles

1. Tyron Smith, Southern California – Played right tackle in college an could start right away there in the NFL but his athleticism and pass blocking ability could ultimately move him to the left side. Potential top 10-15 pick.

2. Anthony Castonzo, Boston College – Big, powerful tackle who started all 53 games he played in college. Could add some weight but figures to land somewhere in the top 13-20 picks.

3. Nate Solder, Colorado – Not as polished as the others on the list but is very athletic and has the strength to be a starter for a long time in the NFL with some experience.

4. Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin – A monster, powerful run blocker who should step in on the right side and open holes for any team that drafts him. A better pass blocker than he gets credit for and should also land somewhere in round one for a team looking for a bruiser.

5. Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State – A terrific pass blocker who probably is most NFL ready for the left side of the tackle class. Consistent and durable and should also come off the board in round one. 

Sleeper: Derek Newton, Arkansas State – Good height but undersized in terms of strength. Had the feet and arms to play tackle in the pros and a couple of years working on strength could make him an eventual starter.


Offensive Guards

1. Danny Watkins, Baylor – Played tackle in college but proved to be a dominant guard at the Senior Bowl. Mature, experienced, tough and technique sound.

2. Mike Pouncey, Florida – Can play any of the interior positions. Not as talented as his brother but is an outstanding leader that should start from day one and be drafted in the top 20-25 picks.

3. Benjamin Ijalana, Villanova – Another converted tackle with terrific size to be a mauler in the run game. Tough and has excellent athleticism that should land him in the second or third round.

4. Clint Boling, Georgia – Not the best athlete but he is extremely smart and durable with quick feet. Could go anywhere from round two to four.

5. Will Rackley, Lehigh – A small school kid with unlimited upside. Extremely strong with versatility to play just about anywhere on the line.

Sleeper: David Arkin, Missouri State – Good size guy who plays extremely hard. Solid in pass protection and proved capable of standing up to competition in East-West Shrine game. Likely a late round pick but has starter potential.

Centers

1. Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State – Talented, tough, experienced type who can play the middle or guard. Likely to go in first two rounds.

2. Rodney Hudson, Florida State – Played guard for the Seminoles but some think his slight build (around 290 pounds) makes him more suited to center. Probably best in a zone blocking scheme.

3. Kristofer O’Dowd, Southern California – Great size for a center but has long history of medical issues. Still could land somewhere in the middle rounds and surprise if he can stay healthy.

4. Jake Kirkpatrick, Texas Christian – A raw, unfinished product with plenty of upside that could get picked in the later rounds and turn into a starter down the road.

5. Tim Barnes, Missouri – Durability, intelligence and toughness could get Barnes drafted but lack of athleticism could push him to the later rounds.

Sleeper: Brandon Fusco, Slippery Rock – While he comes from a small school, he has size and athleticism to match up with just about any center that figures to go in the middle rounds. Could be next tiny school guy to make a difference at NFL level.

 

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