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Combine: Tackle help is there for the taking

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Gabe Carimi speaks at the NFL Scouting Combine. AP Photo.

With Matt Light heading into free agency and Nick Kaczur rehabbing from back surgery that cost him the entire 2010 season the depth at offensive tackle for the Patriots heading into 2011 is very much a concern.

Beyond second-team All-Pro right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, there isn't a lot of lineup certainty on the outside of the offensive line. In fact, with the possibility of the 2009 second-round pick Vollmer moving to left tackle, the overall future of both tackle spots could be a fluid situation.

If Bill Belichick is so inclined, he could make a big impact on the tackle spot on draft weekend, delving into a strong crop of talent that includes both high-end prospects as well as mid- and latter-round options.

According to NFLDraftScout.com two dozen tackles could be drafted come April, with the possibility of five going in the first round.

In fact respected Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbertlisted offensive line, and tackle in particular, when asked for his thoughts on the strongest positions in the 2011 draft class.

Dolphins GM Jeff Irelandbacked that up, focusing on guys who could have impacts as a rookie.

"There are several players in this draft that are very good starters at the tackle position," Ireland said.

But at this point there is no consensus top prospect at the position, unless you ask one of the guys in the running for that honor – borderline cocky Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi(6-7, 314).

"You have to be confident in your game," Carimi said of competing with the other impressive tackles in Indy. "I know I'm the best tackle out there. So I'm just going to play like it and act like it.

A little later in his press conference Carimi, the Outland Trophy winner who started 49 games as a Badger, continued with his confident self assessment.

"I'm physically stronger and have more career starts and better knowledge of the game than any other tackle out there," Carimi clarified. "That's why I'm the No. 1 tackle out there."

Other tackles in the mix to go in the first round, and maybe as the top tackle overall, include Boston College's Anthony Castonzo (6-7, 311), USC junior Tyron Smith (6-5, 307), Colorado converted tight end Nate Solder (6-8, 319) and Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod(6-5, 321).

In the age of NFL teams looking for taller tackles with longer wingspans, Solder is clearly the prototype. He's only played tackle for three years after joining the Buffalos as a tight end. He was introduced for his press conference by Combine godfather and former Cowboys personnel man Gil Brandt, always a sure sign that a player is a truly elite prospect. What Solder may lack in experience, he clearly makes up for in physical potential.

"I think the worry of being a taller guy is not being able to bend and the thing I've done to counteract that is to show I can bend, work on stay on staying bent," Solder said. "Now, the advantages are you've got a lot bigger wingspan and it's a lot harder to run around you."

But the former tight end also thinks he measures up well against the rest of the tackle class based on more than just size.

"I think I'm more athletic than they are, I can move a little better in space," Solder added.

Castonzo also has the pure size favored by NFL teams looking for tackles, and like Carimi comes from a school known for developing truly professional offensive linemen. Castonzo set a school record with 54 starts for the Eagles.

"We take pride in the offensive line at Boston College," he said. "My coaches have definitely prepared my very well."

He, like most of the other top tackle prospects, was also asked about Carimi declaration.

"That's his opinion," Castonzo said. "It's what we've put on film. I'm not going to stand up here and say I'm better than him or he's better than me. It's for the scouts to decide based on what we've put on film. This is just kind of the capper here at the Combine."

On the other end of the spectrum from the tall tackles hailing from big-time football programs, is Villanova's Benjamin Ijalana (6-3, 317). The son of Nigerian immigrants, Ijalana started 53 games at I-AA Villanova, all at left tackle. He's open to the possibility of playing guard at the next level, the position NFLDraftScout.com has him slated for as a second-round pick.

"When I wake up tomorrow, I'm still going to be this height," Ijalana said with no hint of regret. "There's nothing I can do about it. I'm not 6-6. I'm not 6-8. But if you put some cleats and a helmet on me, I can be. I'm just trying to show them my skill set."

Ironically, he could become the next in a long line of NFL players with Nigerian roots thanks to his size, not in spite of it.

"As far as Nigerians there comes a point you become too big for soccer," joked Ijalana, who can't work out at the Combine as he's recovering from December hernia surgery that will keep him from showing his skills in drills until his March 16 Pro Day.

For teams looking to nab a tackle in the middle of the draft, there are a number of interesting options. Pittsburgh's Jason Pinkston (6-3, 313), TCU's Marcus Cannon(6-5, 350), Miami's Orlando Franklin (6-7, 315), Arkansas' DeMarcus Love (6-5, 318), LSU's Joseph Barksdale (6-5, 336), Alabama's James Carpenter (6-4, 321), Indiana's *James Brewer *(6-6, 323) and Florida's *Marcus Gilbert *(6-6, 329) are all projected to go in rounds two through four.

Franklin is a native of Jamaica who then grew up in Toronto before his family moved to Florida in high school to help him pursue a future in football. He played guard up until last fall, yet still projects to the more premium tackle spot in the pros. He also apparently comes from the Carimi school of self-promotion.

Though quite willing to stay at tackle in the NFL, he called himself "a beast" at guard where he feels like he has "all the answers." He also seemed to have few worries about showing his stuff for scouts this week at the Combine, even though he's just under six weeks removed from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

"I feel like I just have to do what I always do – run fast, jump high and lift a lot of weight," said the confident Hurricane.

Carpenter and Gilbert may be of most interest to Patriots fans as they come from so-called pipeline schools having played for Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, respectively.

Carpenter did a lot of zone blocking for the Tide, something that might suit him for New England. Regardless of where he ends up, he feels he got pro coaching at the college level.

"He gave us all the good work ethic, and he's good at motivating us and preparing us for the games," Carpenter said of Saban.

Gilbert has talked to his former trio of teammates that have landed in New England – 2009 Patriots draft picks Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes and Aaron Hernandez.

"Yeah, I keep in touch with them. Hearing back from the guys that work in that organization, they're doing great. Seeing when them when they come back (to Florida), that's their job – football. That's what they love to do. You can't take that away. Those guys, they're going to have a bright future ahead of them," Gilbert said.

Gilbert recalls some of Belichick's past trips to Florida and the coach's talks with the Gators team. He clearly wouldn't mind joining his former teammates in Foxborough.

"He talks to the team. I know he keeps in touch, especially with Coach Meyer," Gilbert said of Belichick. "He's really good friends with him. Bill Belichick, there's a good possibility that he's going to take guys from Florida, like previous years. If I get that opportunity that would be very exciting. I would be very grateful."

Along those lines, Gilbert also revealed that he had a meeting schedule with the Patriots for Thursday night at the Combine.

Even if the Patriots hold off to take a tackle late in the draft, or if they possibly take a second tackle later on draft weekend, NFLDraftScout.com lists 10 players with the chance to go in rounds five through seven. Among that group is Arkansas State's Derrick Newton (6-5, 311), Clemson's Chris Hairston (6-7, 333), Stanford's Derek Hall(6-5, 305), Michigan State's* .J. Young* (6-5, 307), Montana State's Mike Person (6-4, 299) and Boston College's Rich Lapham (6-8, 323).

Person is intriguing in that he's a former teammate of current Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher. The two have kept in touch over the past year, although Person did something that Fletcher was unable to do last spring by landing an invitation to the Combine.

"He was just giving me some guidance in the whole process," Person said. "I was kind of expecting to be in the same shoes as Dane, not getting an invite here. I'm still taking to heart what he told me, just take it day by day and stuff like that."

Seeing the former Big Sky Conference defensive MVP who Person battled daily in practice carve a role for himself on a Patriots team with the best regular season record in the NFL last fall has the small-school tackle believing he can compete with the big boys in the pre-draft process.

"It does give me confidence that a kid from a smaller school, from my school, can make it," Person said. "Dane and I went after each other quite a bit (on the practice field). Going into the Texas vs. the Nation All-Star game I was kind of nervous about blocking some of those guys. But then I said to myself, 'Heck, I blocked Dane Fletcher all the time so I can block these guys.'"

That doesn't mean Person isn't a little bit in awe of the group of tackles he finds himself competing with for draft positioning.

"It's a strong group of talent. It's kind of overwhelming to start out. You watch these guys on Saturdays all the time and then all of the sudden Nate Solder is standing right next to you. It's pretty cool," Person said. "I feel I do measure up. I just like to have confidence in myself and know that confidence will carry me. The goal for me is to try to be in the top five in all the running stuff. I'm not the strongest kid, so I know I won't be in the top five for the bench. But if I'm in the top five for the running stuff I think people will say, 'Mike Person, who's that?' Then hopefully they'll pop the tape in and watch some film on me."

Considering the Patriots scouting department already beat the bushes at Montana State last fall to find Fletcher, maybe they'll be ahead of the game with Person this time around.

Regardless of whether New England looks for a guy like the self-proclaimed best tackle in the draft like Carimi (who somewhat tellingly said he couldn't comment on whether he'd met with the Patriots after openly acknowledging meeting with the Ravens) or a developmental prospect like Person, the talent is there at tackle.

Combine that with the Patriots uncertainty at the spot and don't be surprised to see the team use one of its picks, maybe one of its six in the first three rounds, on a player at the position to help restock offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia'sroster of talent.

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