INDIANAPOLIS -- If the NFL Combine is the league's version of a meat market, then the offensive linemen are the beefiest steaks the butcher has to offer. From a potential top overall pick in Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas (6-7, 310) to mid-round prospects and versatile players with the ability to play multiple line spots the 2007 crop of offensive linemen includes plenty of choices to suit every team's tastes.
The Patriots have built a young, developing offensive line in recent years thanks in part to the selection of nine linemen by Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli in their seven previous years heading New England's draft efforts. The likes of 2005 first-round pick Logan Mankins, '05 third-round pick Nick Kaczur, 2003 fifth-rounder Dan Koppen and 2001 second-round pick Matt Light lead a group of Patriots offensive line starters that's signed to stay together through the near future. Throw in developmental-project-turned-solid-right-guard Stephen Neal and the front of the New England offense is going to get the chance to play together and build much-needed chemistry at the point of attack.
But heading into the 2007 draft there's a good chance the team will also continue to look to add depth and talent to line coach Dante Scarnecchia's core of players. So while it's unlikely the team would target a lineman early on the first day of the draft, adding some more beef up front could be a consideration in the mid to later rounds.
Opinions on the depth and overall talent of the offensive line class of '07 are mixed. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. called the crop of tackles "mediocre," while he believes the group of guards is "excellent" bearing "a lot of good guards." That somewhat contradicts Texans head coach Gary Kubiak's first day Combine assessment that tackle and wide receiver were two of the strongest positions in this year's draft.
One thing that is unanimous is that Thomas will be the top lineman taken, even if it isn't with the top overall selection. Beyond that Penn State's Levi Brown (6-6, 323) is another likely first rounder, with Central Michigan's Joe Staley (6-6, 296) seen as a late first or early second-round possibility at this point. Overall NFLDraftScout.com expects as many as 21 tackles to hear their names called over the course of draft weekend.
While the Patriots seem strong at tackle with the Pro Bowler Light and Kaczur backed up by 2005 draft pick Ryan O'Callaghan and Wesley Britt, two players to keep an eye on in the middle of the draft are Notre Dame's Ryan Harris (6-5, 299) and Fresno State's Chris Denman (6-7, 308). Obviously, both players hail from school's led by former Belichick assistants. Fresno State's Pat Hill was a key part of Belichick's offensive line development program with the Browns and utilizes many of the same techniques and coaching styles for the west coast school as the Patriots employ in New England.
"Coach Hill, he's always over with the offensive line, giving us tips, helping us with technique. He coached offensive line for a long time in the NFL, he's a real good coach," Denman said, adding that Mankins had also addressed his former offensive line teammates a few times.
Harris played every game over the last three years and made 45 straight starts in his four years, a note made more impressive considering a back injury and subsequent surgery put his senior season in question. He played three years of left tackle and one on the right side and was quick to praise Irish head coach Charlie Weis' effect on his chances of succeeding at the next level.
"Coach Weis brought a system that any player in the country would have been lucky to have," Harris said. "I was fortunate to play in his offense, and he surrounded himself with excellent coaches. I can't say enough about how thankful I am and how much I benefited from playing in Coach Weis' system."
And as is the story with many players at the Combine, Harris had some unique tales to tell during his meeting with the many media in attendance. Not only did he become the only member of his family to convert to the Muslim faith in middle school prior to attending a Catholic high school and college, but he also aspires to be governor of his home state of Minnesota.
"I think politics is a good avenue to affect peoples' lives for the good, and I believe in this country and the system of the government," Harris said. "It's something I think I would enjoy."
Other mid-round tackle prospects include Northern Illinois' Doug Free (6-7, 305), Boston College's James Marten (6-8, 303) and Oregon State's Adam Koets (6-5, 302). Late-round possibilities are Maryland's Stephon Heyer (6-6, 320), Purdue's Mike Otto (6-5, 305) and Florida State's Mario Henderson.
Looking at the interior line, the group is led by Auburn's Ben Grubbs (6-3, 315) and Tennessee's Arron Sears (6-3, 317) as the top projected guards and top USC center Ryan Kalil (6-3, 291). But as with tackles, any Patriots picks in the interior line mix might come in the middle and later rounds.
At center one of the interesting middle-round projections is West Virginia's Dan Mozes (6-3, 300). Mozes played in a zone-blocking scheme for the Mountaineers athletic and productive rushing attack. He could play either guard or center and actually made light of his own versatility.
"I like center guard, no pause in the middle," Mozes said when asked what he considers himself. "Center first."
Joking aside, Kubiak said that type of versatility in the new-age group of linemen is a key consideration on draft weekend and then later on game day.
"Anytime you can find a versatile player, it sure helps you," Kubiak said. "Because when it comes to how many guys you suit on game day, whether it's seven or eight, you
have to have guys that are versatile. And when you're fighting for a job on an NFL club and you have some versatility inside and can play both sides at tackle, it's going to help you stick with a football club. It's very important."
After Kalil the only centers projected to be first-day picks are Hawaii's Samson Satele (6-2, 294) and Ohio State's Doug Datish (6-4, 302). Mid-round picks beyond Mozes include North Carolina State's Leroy Harris (6-3, 298) and Clemson's Dustin Fry (6-3, 326).
One of the interesting middle or late-round centers is Fresno State's Kyle Young (6-5, 328). Young did not earn a Combine invite after getting suspended from his team last fall for not going to class. Once considered one of the top center prospects, Young will have to prove himself at his pro day. That's something his teammate Denman expects to happen.
"I haven't talked to Kyle," Denman said. "I know he's training hard, working hard for the pro day, and I'm sure he's doing good things."
Later center possibilities are Texas' Lyle Sendlein (6-3, 300), Iowa State's Scott Stephenson (6-4, 305) and Central Michigan's Drew Mormino (6-3,305).
Similar to tackle, the guard group includes another coaching pipeline Patriots prospect in Notre Dame's Dan Santucci (6-3, 300). Recruited as a defensive lineman with the Irish, Santucci was switched to offense and took advantage saying he "got to get even bigger."
Like the rest of his Notre Dame teammates Santucci praises what Weis brought to South Bend, including the tough coaching ways he honed as New England's offensive coordinator.
"My first impressions were that he was just a hardnosed guy," Santucci recalled. "He actually came to see us when (former Irish) Coach [Tyrone] Willingham was there. He came on a Saturday morning workout. Lets just say he gave it to us afterwards. Coach Willingham let him talk and he just kind of laid into us a little bit. It was his alma mater and as somebody who took great pride in Notre Dame he let us know how he felt. So we knew right off the bat, the guys that were there for that, that we were getting a hardnosed coach who just tells you like it is. That's all you can ask for. He works his butt off. He's there all the time, all hours of the day, and he just tells you how it is whether you are playing well or not so well. I like a coach who just tells it to me straight forward what you need to work on, what you are doing well, what your are doing bad. He's always a straight shooter with you."
Guard also includes other notable potential late first-day picks in Boston College's Josh Beekman (6-2, 315), Texas Tech's Manuel Ramirez (6-3, 335) and Akron's Andy Alleman (6-4, 302), a prospect on the rise who confidently believes he has "a great upside, as big as anyone here."
Later guard options beyond Santucci are Auburn's Tim Duckworth (6-3, 305), Iowa's Mike Jones (6-5, 305) and Rutgers' Cameron Stephenson (6-5, 305).
Overall the opinions might be mixed about the 2007 Combine class of offensive linemen, but there's little doubt that there is some talent and good ol' beef in the group. So while it's unlikely the Patriots will look to the line early on draft weekend, an o-line pick at some point is likely. As the team as done in each of the last two years and in five of seven drafts under Belichick and Co., adding more depth and talent along the line is a never-ending process that could continue and pick into an interesting crop of '07 prospects.