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Lining up for NFL duty

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's never the most exciting or glamorous position to scout, and for the Patriots, it might not even be a position of first day need/want/value in the draft on April 23, but there are plenty of big, beefy offensive line bodies on display this week in Indy at the NFL scouting combine.

Based on many accounts, cornerback, running back and wide receiver are some of the more talented positions heading into April's selection weekend, while an offensive line group that was expected to be even deeper was somewhat diminished by underclassmen who chose to remain in school. With that said, there should still be solid talent available in the middle to later rounds along the line that could suit the need for added depth and potential contributors up front in New England.

With restricted free agents Stephen Neal, Brandon Gorin and Tom Ashworth, as well as unrestricted players Joe Andruzzi and Adrian Klemm, New England has five guys who saw action along the Patriots offensive line last year that might not be back with the club in 2005. And even if all the players are at Gillette Stadium for training camp in late July, the depth of mid-round talent available in this year's crop of guards, centers and tackles could still be enticing to Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli come draft day.

In true New England fashion, though, the team will never tip its hand, even so much as to characterize the talent of the line group as a whole. The team may be interviewing and targeting offensive linemen this week, but it certainly isn't talking about it.

"It's a solid group," said Pioli in the most simplistic of evaluations at this still-early point in the pre-draft scouting process.

New Packers General Manager Ted Thompson also gave a simple evaluation of the group's depth, sounding like the classic Budweiser commercial with his response when asked if he believed the offensive line was a deep area of the draft. "Yes I do."

The group is also as diverse as it is relatively deep and talented. From big, dominating left tackles coming out of big-time programs to a class of centers that is projected as the deepest in years, to small school guys trying to make a name for themselves and players bouncing back from rare illnesses, this year's group seems to have a little bit of everything.

Without the statistics and obvious production to evaluate, that leaves the scouting process for linemen even more in question. New England has had great success in recent seasons developing low draft picks, undrafted players, free agents and practice squad guys, as line coach Dante Scarnecchia has sent a pliable and successful group to the field each Sunday. Without the benefit of any truly elite level players, and with Matt Light as the group's only first day draft pick, the team could use April's draft to add talent to the unit.

At the center spot, a position where New England has developing two year starter Dan Koppen, Mississippi's Chris Spencer (6-3, 310), North Carolina's Jason Brown (6-2, 330) and LSU's Ben Wilkerson are all potential first day picks. A confident Brown said this week that he considers himself the class of what he called "a great year for centers." Although Brown went on to say, based on what he's seen from the more than 60 guys he's working out with this week, that the line group is "deep with a lot of talented guys. The competition is very strong."

A look at the tackle spot shows a trio of players in Florida State's Alex Barron (6-7, 318), Washington's Khalif Barnes (6-5, 304) and Oklahoma's Jammal Brown (6-5, 312), who could all come off the board in the first round. But one of the more interesting guys in the group is North Carolina State's Chris Colmer (6-6, 320). Colmer bounced back from a rare virus called Parsonage Turner Syndrome to have a successful final season for the Wolfpack that leaves him as a mid-round draft prospect. The extremely rare nerve disorder caused great numbness and pain, but after running its course, left Colmer with high hopes for his football career.

"There is no question I was rusty at first," Colmer said of his return to the field this fall after a year away from the game. "But there is no doubt I am back on track. The best thing that I have coming into the NFL is that I am aggressive."

And through it all, Colmer never lost confidence in his abilities or his future as a professional. After all he's been through, where does Colmer, who refers to himself as a "multidimensional" offensive linemen, see himself fitting in the draft process?

"The top," he said with confidence, a common characteristic most of the players at the combine have put on display this week.

One of the small school offensive linemen at the combine looking to make a name is Division II Michigan Tech guard Joe Berger (6-5, 303). Berger, the only player from his school (he says to get to the small school, "drive north and when you think you're there, just keep driving north") ever invited to the combine, realizes he faces an uphill battle in the NFL. While he knows he isn't rated with the top level guards in the group, including guys like Virginia's Elton Brown (6-5, 335), Mississippi's Marcus Johnson (6-6, 325) and Michigan's David Baas (6-4, 320), Berger doesn't feel any added pressure as a more unproven commodity.

"All you can do is show your stuff," Berger said of working out with players from bigger football programs. "And what you have is what they get."

As is the case with all drafts at a number of positions, there are always players that could fit in a variety of spots at the NFL level. Fresno State's Logan Mankins (6-3,320), who played under former Belichick assistant Pat Hill (and thanks to a reddish goatee bears a striking facial resemblance to his college coach), is projected as an early-round guard at this point after a career as a successful left tackle. The former walk-on is somewhat surprised at the level he's reached in his football career, but at this point, is also confident that it can continue successfully at the next level.

"I am expecting to go on the first day," Mankins said with a classic confident smile before going on to give a self-scouting report. "I got here with lots of hard work. I am a tough, hard-nosed player. I give 100-percent on every play and try my hardest. And I hope to continue to play football as long as they'll let me play football."

In the end, that goal is basically the same for the dozens of other linemen Mankins is working out with in Indy, and players at every other position at the combine as well.

With all the diverse offensive linemen working out at the RCA Dome, New England and the other 31 NFL teams have a lot to evaluate. But with all the clear talent that is also on hand in Indy, that evaluation process should lead teams to the acquisition of offensive linemen on draft weekend throughout the seven rounds that should be able to contribute at the NFL level. And that makes all the work pay off in the end, both for this deep group of players and the teams working so hard to evaluate that talent.

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