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Hutchinson, Davis top impressive class of offensive lineman

TAKE A GANDER — Notre Dame guard Mike Gandy is rated among the top guards in the country.
TAKE A GANDER — Notre Dame guard Mike Gandy is rated among the top guards in the country.

The guard and center positions usually receive little attention at the top of the NFL Draft with most pro clubs focusing on the more demanding tackle position. This spring may see some changes in that philosophy because of a strong guard class in an above average group of offensive linemen.

The guard class usually becomes stronger as many college offensive tackles have to move inside as pros — lacking the physical skills necessary to play the outside in the NFL. Most college teams play their best linemen at left tackle, but many of those prospects have to move inside to start in the NFL. This year's guard class will benefit from many of those types of moves — Omar Smith (Kentucky), Chad Ward (Washington), Matt Light (Purdue) and Adam Haayer (Minnesota) all project as fine pro guards. Michigan's Steve Hutchinson is the one blue chip player and the prototypical prospect — powerful and agile with the footwork to be a top pass protector. He will hear his name called in the first round.

We could see as many as six guards selected on the first day of the NFL Draft and the most guards selected early in the player process in more than a decade.

The offensive tackle spot has been one of the key positions annually in the draft. NFL clubs covet the big, athletic tackles who have the agility to mirror pass rushers and the power to move a 300-pound defender off the line of scrimmage as drive blockers. Last spring, three tackles were selected in the first round with eight prospects selected in the top two rounds and 10 chosen in the top 100 picks. This spring should produce similar results when the first day of the NFL Draft is over on April 21st. Though this class lacks a player in the Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden or Orlando Pace category, it is a fine group of prospects with the ability to make a difference on NFL clubs.

GUARDS

1. Steve Hutchinson, 6-4, 290 lbs. Michigan

Rugged senior guard has been a mainstay on the Wolverines offensive line since his freshman season. He is a strong drive blocker with the footwork to mirror in pass protection plus all the intangibles to succeed in the NFL. He may be the most advanced prospect in this entire draft class and should be an opening day starter for any club. He figures in the middle of the first round with the Jaguars, Redskins and Lions all very interested.

2. Matt Light, 6-4, 300 lbs. Purdue

Tough left tackle has been instrumental in the success of quarterback Drew Brees over the past three seasons. He is well versed in pass protection and is a tough drive blocker who gets into an opponent. He has graded out high on a game-to-game basis over the past several seasons and is a battle tested lineman who should earn an early NFL starting berth. He figures as a middle-round pick and is one of the best values in the class at that point of the selection process.

3. Mike Gandy, 6-4, 310 lbs. Notre Dame

Wide body guard graded out consistently high this season along the Irish line. He gets a strong surge at the point of attack and has the mobility to get outside or downfield to make blocks. He has a strong base and nice footwork that allows him to get a strong push against defensive tackles along with the ability to get outside and pull.

4. Chad Ward, 6-4, 335 lbs. Washington

Massive senior tackle has been an important performer in the Huskies' rise to the top of the PAC 10. He uses his huge frame to the fullest in pass protection and can simply engulf a defender as a run blocker. He lacks the top athleticism necessary for the outside, but has prior experience at guard and should make the conversion easily as a rookie.

5. Michael Keathley, 6-3, 290 lbs. Texas Christian

Sound technician has been instrumental in the success of tailback LaDainian Tomlinson. He is a savvy player who sustains his blocks and understands line play to get the most out of his skills. He has the smarts and athleticism to move inside and eventually start with further seasoning.

TACKLES

1. Leonard Davis, 6-6, 365 lbs. Texas

Massive left tackle carries a top 10 grade after all the postseason action. He is a powerful athlete who has developed quickly on the outside by showing dominant skills as a drive blocker. He has made nice strides in pass protection and shows good footwork to mirror defenders in that area. He has performed at a high level of competition and should be able to come in and start immediately, though he will be thoroughly tested on the left side.

2. Kenyatta Walker, 6-5, 310 lbs. Florida

Well-developed right tackle has flourished in the Gators pro-style attack. He makes excellent use of his massive wingspan in pass protection and has the footwork to mirror the fastest speed rushers. He is a superior athlete for the right side and could move to the more demanding left side in certain situations. He has the prototypical numbers plus fine footwork and the bulk to be an accomplished blocker in both run and pass blocking. Jaguars are praying he makes it to them at the 13th overall selection.

3. Jeff Backus, 6-5, 310 lbs. Michigan

Rugged left tackle has been one of the most consistent performers in the nation over the past three seasons on the outside. He is a sound technician and follows a rich tradition of Wolverine tackles like Jon Runyan and Jon Jansen. He may not have all the athletic skills to play the left side but certainly projects to right tackle or guard where he should have a long career in the NFL.

4. Marcus Williams, 6-4, 300 lbs. Michigan

One of the fastest rising players this season and a blocker who got little notice initially playing on a line that featured Steve Hutchinson and Jeff Backus. He is a fine athlete with the footwork to match up in pass protection. He is mobile and has a strong base that allows him to get a good surge as a drive blocker. He is still improving after starting his career at defensive tackle and has the upside potential to be as good as the top two tackles in this class.

5. Kareem McKenzie, 6-6, 320 lbs. Penn State

Big, agile tackle has played on the left side since his freshman season in the Big 10. He has fine body control and balance with the reach and ability to slide to the outside in pass protection. He had a subpar final season that hurt his grade substantially after entering the 2000 campaign as one of the top two senior tackles. He may fall to the second round on concerns about his intensity and consistency.

CENTERS

1. Dominic Raiola, 6-3, 310 lbs. Nebraska

Powerful hog pivotman has been instrumental in Nebraska's successful rushing attack. He has a wide base and gets a strong surge as a drive blocker, which has allowed him to dominate in the Big 12 over his career. He has the speed to get to the outside and pull or matchup with defensive tackles in single assignments on the inside.

2. Ben Hamilton, 6-5, 280 lbs. Minnesota

Four-year starter has been the anchor on the Gophers line that led them to back-to-back bowl games. He combines strength, smarts and technique to grade out consistently high on a game-to-game basis. He is a good run blocker at the point of attack, relying on good technique and strength to control an opponent. He lacks the top foot speed to get outside and pull.

3. Casey Rabach, 6-4, 300 lbs. Wisconsin

Strong, versatile senior has been part of one of the best lines in college over the past four seasons. He gets a strong surge as a drive blocker, showing the ability to move a defender off the line and control him for the full play. He played primarily center in his first three seasons before moving to guard as a senior. He is one of the more underrated linemen in this class and an excellent middle-round value.

4. Robert Garza, 6-2, 290 lbs. Texas A&M-Kingsville

Explosive small college pivotman has been a dominant performer at the lower level during his career. He combines fine technique with the strength and agility to control an opponent the full play. He more than held his own at the Senior Bowl practices against one of the finest groups of defensive tackles in the past decade.

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