INDIANAPOLIS - Tackle is generally the marquee position among the offensive line - specifically the left tackle, which is responsible for protecting the blind side of right-handed quarterbacks.
In the 2012 draft class, however, the tackles may not be the most glamorous group, compared to years past.
Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland believes that, overall, the o-line class is "very good ... as whole."
Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert went a step further, though. Last year at the Combine, he said he felt like the tackles stood out. This year, different story.
"It's a little better on the interior, specifically at guard, which is unusual than it has been in recent years," Colbert observed. "Tackles are still good. It's not as deep as it has been, and center is not very deep."
That said, there is still a good amount of talent - and versatility - available should the Patriots choose to go the tackle route again with either of their two first-round choices or their pair of second-rounders.
USC'sMatt Kalil (6-6, 306) and Iowa* iley Reiff* (6-6, 313), both underclassmen, are widely considered to be at the top of the tackle class this year.
Kalil has the NFL pedigree. His brother, Ryan, starts at center for Carolina, while his father, Frank, was a former pro lineman in the USFL in the early 1980s.
"Being a tackle coming out of USC and being highly regarded as I was and definitely talking to a lot of people, sitting down with my brother, sitting down with my dad, they basically told me that if you're going to be a highly-valued prospect, it's definitely
the time to come out," said the confident Kalil in his opening remarks to the Combine media.
"And I'd done all I could at SC. I was an All-American. I won the Morris Trophy. I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish there. And I think it was definitely time for me to move on and take my skills to the next level."
Reiff, meantime, has the kind of versatility that the Patriots crave. He has played both tackle spots, as well as left guard, in his Hawkeye career and says he'll gladly play anywhere he's asked to in the NFL.
It doesn't hurt that he comes from a school where the head coach, Kirk Ferentz, enjoys a close relationship with Bill Belichick. In addition, like former Patriots guard Stephen Neal, Reiff is an accomplished former wrestler who has used his skills on the mat to help him on the football field.
"Just using your hands, your hips, footwork. Mental toughness, that really helps you," Reiff explained.
Neither Kalil nor Reiff, though, is expected to be available when the Patriots pick at either 27 or 31 in the first round.
So, unless, New England swings a trade deal to move up into the top five or 10 spots, a more likely option would be Mike Adams (6-7, 323) of Ohio State.
Clearly talented, Adams has started games since his freshman year in Columbus. However, injuries to his shoulder, foot, and left knee limited his availability early on, as did suspensions in his sophomore and senior seasons. The first was for violating team rules (cited in January 2009 for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia; charges were eventually dropped); the other more recent incident was widely publicized, as Adams and a number of other teammates were involved in a tattoos-for-merchandise scandal.
Adams missed the first five games of the 2011 season, but bounced back with a strong remainder of the season, followed by an impressive week at the Senior Bowl last month.
He insists that his bad decisions are behind him and that he is inherently a good person and an even better player for whichever NFL team decides to draft him.
"I've had some bumps in the road early in my career. But I think I've let those things build my character rather than break it down," said Adams. "I think that my character is something that my coaches and teammates at Ohio State will vouch for. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not a bad guy. I might have made some mistakes, but I've definitely learned from them."
James Brown (6-4, 305) of Troy could be another tackle in the second-round range. He has a wealth of experience, having started every game of his college career after red-shirting in 2007. However, at the Senior Bowl, coaches moved him to guard to test his versatility.
"Quite frankly, I'll play anywhere they want me to play," Brown told reporters, and that's exactly what the Patriots coaches like to hear.
Brown may have starting experience, but he's still clearly a raw talent that could benefit from the tutoring of someone like New England o-line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
"I definitely need to work on my technique, flexibility and leverage," conceded Brown. "I'm a better run blocker. I've been told that I have a great punch, and that helps me out in the run game and the passing game, too."
The Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds, but then just one each in the next two, and none thereafter, as it currently stands. If they don't acquire any additional picks on Day 3 of the draft and they want an offensive lineman, they might look to someone like Utah's Tony Bergstrom (6-5, 315).
More mature, perhaps, than most other players at his position, the 26-year-old Bergstrom is already married (to Baltimore Raven DE/OLB Paul Kruger's sister) and has served on a Mormon mission.
Like Brown, Bergstrom has experience at tackle (mostly on the right side), but is already being projected as a guard in the pros. He appears to possess the kind of attitude the Patriots look for in a lineman, too.
"I'm a finisher. You watch me on film and I finish players, not just plays," Bergstrom stressed. "I'm really good with my hands. I get my hands inside. I have a good punch on pass blocking.
"I'm happy to move anywhere," he added. "I played only left guard in the senior bowl and felt like I did alright there. I played a little left tackle my freshman year. I played center in high school. I've heard all of it. I've heard guys say you'll probably move to guard. Whatever. Whatever it takes to win. I want to win."
Tom Compton (6-5, 315) of South Dakota could be another player of interest to the Patriots in the middle or later rounds. Head coach Bill Belichick has often remarked about how difficult it is to find tackles who can play on both the right and left sides, which was one reason why Sebastian Vollmer was so attractive to New England coming out of college a few seasons ago.
Well, Compton clearly has the versatility. A four-year starter for the Coyotes, he began his college career on the right side, started there as a freshman and sophomore. In the offseason prior to his junior year, Compton's position coach informed him he was sliding over to left. So, the conscientious young man spent as much time as he could learning the nuances of the premier offensive line position. He started his final two seasons at left tackle.
He, too, though, has heard rumblings from scouts so far in the pre-draft process that he might be a guard at the next level. Compton might need work, but he comes across as an intelligent, likeable player who would take well to teaching.
A year after drafting Nate Solder with the 17th pick overall, and Marcus Cannon - a first-round talent who dropped to the fifth round because he was battling cancer -- New England could still be in the market for a number of offensive linemen in this draft, including at tackle.
It's unclear, for instance, if left tackle Matt Light will return to the Patriots or decide to retire after a long, successful NFL career. And the health of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer remains a concern after he missed most of the past season with back and foot ailments.
Though there may be more pressing needs on both sides of the ball, don't be surprised if the Patriots choose another versatile offensive lineman somewhere in the early to middle rounds of this year's draft.