Michigan offensive lineman Jake Long. AP Photo.
INDIANAPOLIS – No group has drawn more criticism since New England's Super Bowl XLII upset loss to New York than the team's offensive line. That five-man lineup – a unit that includes a trio of Pro Bowlers in left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen – was beaten badly in the biggest game of the year in the battle at the line of scrimmage by the Giants dominant, athletic group of defensive linemen.
Does that mean the Patriots need to overhaul the line this spring? Probably not, but it might mean a unit that allowed just 21 sacks during a pass-happy perfect regular season could be under consideration an injection of more talent, athleticism and competition.
As fortune would have it, the 2008 NFL draft includes an impressive array of talent along the offensive line. From potential franchise left tackle types to versatile interior maulers, the group of 49 offensive linemen invited to Indy this week for the Scouting Combine would seem to offer a solid variety of choices to suit any team's draft liking.
With the premium placed on the tackle position, specifically the left tackle spot, the top line prospects are those who might be able to fill that premier pass protection role at the NFL level. At this early point in the draft preparation process some believe as many as six different tackles could go in the first round come April.
"It's the best group I've seen in 24 years collectively, and it was a good group before the juniors were added to it," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "Those guys enhanced what we really think is a strong group. The majority of them can play on the left side or play both sides. It's unusual to have that many guys that big and that athletic and that productive. I think for the ones that are on the right (side) some of them have actually played on the left before and they probably have that flexibility. Just to be able to play the left (side) is such a premium. I think you can get a tackle in (the first) three rounds."
Michigan senior Jake Long (6-7, 313) tops many projections at tackle, although he's not without his critics. Long -- who allowed only two sacks and was penalized just twice over the course of his collegiate career -- believes his efforts returning to the Wolverines last fall should quiet some of the questions about his pass protection skills and overall potential as an NFL left tackle.
"It has helped me a lot. Last year I didn't feel I was good enough to come out, I wanted to improve on things and those things I improved on," Long said. "I feel I'm a smarter and better player than I was last year. I'm smarter in identifying the defenses. I worked on the little things in my game and I've gotten a lot better."
For what it's worth to Patriots fans, Long says he admires and has patterned his game after New England All-Pro left tackle Matt Light.
"He's a great player. Technique is sound," Long said. "He tries to do the little things right. He looks like an intense player and that is the type of guy I want to be."
There are those that believe Long is best suited for right tackle in the NFL thanks to his dominating efforts in run blocking. If that's the case then he might not warrant a top-five type selection or even be the first tackle taken. Boise State's junior entry Ryan Clady strongly believes he's the top tackle in the draft and there are those that agree seeing him as a more pure, prototypical NFL left tackle than Long. At the very least Clady should become the school's first first-round NFL draft pick.
What makes Clady think he's the best the tackle position has to offer?
"My pass-blocking abilities and my feet, I think I have good feet," Clady said with confidence. "And I think I can excel at the next level."
Clady, who has been working out with former NFL tackles Will Shields and Jackie Slater, describes himself as better suited for a zone blocking scheme in the mold of the Denver Broncos linemen that work well in space and cut block opposing defenders. While the Patriots aren't a pure zone team like Denver, Clady's skills would nevertheless seem well suited for New England if the team were looking to solidify the line with the No. 7 pick.
According to NFLDraftScout.com three other tackles that could go in round one are Vanderbilt's Chris Williams (6-6, 320), Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah (6-6, 340) and Kansas' Anthony Collins (6-6, 308).
But as Colbert and other NFL decision makers have pointed out the talent at tackle goes well beyond the top round. Teams looking in the mid rounds for a tackle will have plenty of talent to consider. The list of players projected in that area of the selection process includes possible third or fourth rounders like Newberry's Heath Benedict (6-5, 321), Toledo's John Greco (6-5, 320), Virginia Tech's Duane Brown (6-5, 300) and Rutgers' Pedro Sosa (6-4, 296).
Greco is an interesting prospect because like Long, he's also modeled himself after a current member of the New England offensive line. Greco played right tackle early in his career at Toledo, starting opposite Nick Kaczur. When Kaczur as drafted by the Patriots in the third round in 2005 Greco took over his left tackle spot at Toledo, starting 49 straight games and finishing his career as a two-time captain.
"Even at Toledo I looked up to Nick," Greco said of his former teammate, roommate and friend. "I kind of modeled my game after his. We were good friends. Just seeing his success, it kind of helps you and gets you in the right mindset that you can do the same thing."
As is the case for so many linemen the draft, versatility might be key for Greco early in his pro career. Teams have already talked to him about playing both guard and tackle.
"In my opinion I can play any position. I've been taking center snaps," Greco said. "Just showing that I'm versatile and can play anywhere on the line will only increase my value, I think."
Looking to the later rounds of the tackle prospects, with more than 25 players having a chance to hear their name at some point in the seven-round draft, there are plenty of big bodies to choose from. Potential sixth and seventh round picks include Mississippi Valley State's Thaddeus Coleman (6-8, 308), Clemson's Barry Richardson (6-7, 331), Texas A&M's Corey Clark (6-6, 318), Colorado's Tyler Polumbus (6-7, 305) and Northwestern State's Demetrius Bell (6-5, 301).
Looking inside on the line to the guard and center spots doesn't hold as much potential as the tackle crop but there are still some athletic, and maybe more importantly, versatile, players in the draft process. NFLDraftScout.com doesn't project either a center or guard to go in the first round, but more than a dozen guys at each spot could get the call through the seven rounds of draft weekend.
Virginia junior entry Branden Albert (6-5, 309) is seen as the top guard available. He's played some tackle and like most prospects is willing to play any spot moving forward, but considers himself a guard first.
"I'd say the main strength of my game is my athleticism, my pass blocking," Albert said giving a self-scouting report. "One thing I do have to work on is my pad level on my down blocking and in-line blocking, that's one thing I'm going to have to concentrate on."
Albert feels he has a step up on some of his prospect competion thanks to his time working under former Jets coach and current UVA head Al Groh.
"Coach Groh runs a pretty tight program, it comes from the pro background. That helped me out significantly with this whole process," Albert said. "That made me a tough player, a tough guy. He builds a program that helps you have good character."
The next group of guards, all projected to go in the third or fourth rounds, includes Oregon State's Roy Schuening (6-4, 308), Tennessee's Eric Young(6-4, 308), Pittsburgh's Mike McGlynn (6-5, 309), Arkansas' Robert Felton (6-4, 313), USC's Drew Radovich (6-5, 302) and Connecticut's Donald Thomas (6-4, 292).
Young is coming off a ruptured quad injury that cost him the last six games of his senior year. The Volunteer tackle is being projected as a guard but won't be able to work out at the Combine, but will return to Indy for a recheck before the draft and could have an individual workout in early April. Even he admits it's hard to get past the huge scar on his left knee.
"That's the first thing [teams] look at when I interview," Young said. "As I walk up [to them] I just see eyes staring at it."
But Young is trying not to let the physical limitations hold back his pro prospects.
"It definitely has been hard to deal with, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Young said. "I read the Bible, play, and keep working, and keep fighting."
Late-round guard possibilities are Northern Iowa's Chad Rinehart (6-5, 317), Maryland's Andrew Crummey (6-5, 308), Cal's Mike Gibson (6-4, 308), UCLA's Shannon Tevaga (6-3, 318) and Western Michigan's James Blair (6-4, 337).
Arizona State's Mike Pollak (6-4, 299) could be the top center taken come April, but neither he nor fellow top positional prospect Steve Justice (6-3, 289) from Wake Forest are expected to go any higher than the second round. Justice and many other college centers fight the stigma that they're undersized for the NFL, but he points out that many current centers in the league including New England's Dan Koppen (296) play at under 300 pounds.
"I might look undersized to teams," Justice said. "But I think I'm strong enough and big enough to play. You don't have to be the biggest guy to play. I can play in the league if given a chance."
Notre Dame's John Sullivan (6-3, 301) is projected by NFLDraftScout.com as a possible third-round pick. Like so many who play under former professional coaches, in this case former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, Sullivan feels fortunate to have played for a guy with NFL connections.
"I think it helps with learning a new system -- no matter where we go, you're going to have to learn a new offensive system with your NFL team, and I've been through that learning process," said Sullivan, who took on an even greater role on the Irish offense this season after the departure of quarterback Brady Quinn. "It could help me to understand better when the time comes to do that."
The bulk of the centers that do get drafted are projected to be second-day picks. That group is made up of guys like Bowling Green's Kory Lichtensteiger (6-3, 296), Georgia's Fernando Velasco (6-3, 318), Buffalo's Jamey Richard (6-5, 300), Marshall's Doug Legursky (6-3, 312) and Portland State's Brennan Carvalho (6-1, 316).
The bottom line that was made clear on the first day of the 2008 Combine is that there is plenty of big-bodied talent to be had along the offensive line come draft weekend. Will the Patriots, a team that has a relatively young and experienced starting front made up primarily of recent draft picks, delve into the talented pool? If recent history is any indication – the Patriots have drafted at least one lineman in six of eight drafts in the Bill Belichick era – the answer is yes. Will that be near the top of the draft with a potential first-round pick like Clady? Will it be a mid-round backup interior linemen? Will it be a late-round developmental prospect? Only time will tell, but the talent is clearly there for the taking.