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Protection of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers makes offensive line an important pick

Apr. 23, 2011
 
Baylor offensive lineman Danny Watkins participates in a drill Feb. 26, 2011, during the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis. Watkins is a top prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Baylor offensive lineman Danny Watkins participates in a drill Feb. 26, 2011, during the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis. Watkins is a top prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft. / File/AP

Offensive line

• Top prospect: USC tackle Tyron Smith rates highest among four closely bunched first-round tackles.

• Overall: No all-world type prospect, but a strong draft through three or four rounds at tackle and guard.

• Packers outlook: They have a couple prospective starters they like in T.J. Lang (guard or right tackle) and Nick McDonald (center, maybe guard), but there’s room for more prospects with left tackle Chad Clifton’s career getting close to its end and left guard Daryn Colledge possibly leaving in free agency this offseason.

• Rising star: Guard Will Rackley wasn’t well known playing at the lower, Football Championship Subdivision level at Lehigh but has moved up to a likely second-day pick after building on a good performance at the East-West Shrine Game.

• Falling star: Arkansas’ DeMarcus Love started at tackle for three years in the best conference in the country but struggled in the Senior Bowl and probably now is a prospect at guard and a mid-round pick at best.

• Sleeper: Grand Valley State, where Packers guard Nick McDonald went to school, has a lineman named Cameron Bradfield who has decent size (6-4, 304) and impressive athletic ability (4.82-second 40).

• Wisconsin ties: UW tackle Gabe Carimi (Monona Grove High School), UW guard-center John Moffitt, UW guard Bill Nagy, Kansas guard Brad Thorson (Mequon Homestead High School).

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The Green Bay Packers have a young franchise quarterback they need to keep upright and healthy, especially after he sustained two concussions last season.

So it stands to reason that offensive line is as high a priority as any position in the first couple of rounds of this year’s NFL draft.

They don’t necessarily need a rookie to start but probably will have an opening at left guard if the right player is available. They also will need a starting tackle to pair with Bryan Bulaga in the relatively near future, even with 34-year-old Chad Clifton’s solid play on the left side during their run to the Super Bowl last season.

So when their first pick, No. 32 overall, comes up Thursday night, there’s a decent chance they’ll grab an offensive lineman if one or two of the late first-round prospects is available, namely Baylor guard Danny Watkins or Mississippi State tackle-guard Derek Sherrod.

“I could see them taking whichever offensive lineman is left,” said a high-ranking scout for an NFL team.

Watkins is a possibility because of the likely loss of left guard Daryn Colledge in free agency this offseason. If the NFL’s next collective bargaining agreement lowers the minimum eligibility for free agency to four years, Colledge will be free to sign with any team, and with the Packers making no attempts to sign him to a long-term deal over the past year, odds are he’ll find better offers from other teams looking for a starter.

The Packers have players to replace him, most likely either T.J. Lang or, a longer shot, Bulaga, if they acquire a right tackle who could start.

But if Watkins is available, they could draft him on the assumption he would start there from Day 1.

Watkins has one of the more unusual back stories entering this draft, especially for a possible first-round player. He didn’t play football growing up in British Columbia and was invited to try out for the team when he showed up at Butte (Calif.) Community College — where Rodgers coincidentally played for one season — to pursue a degree in firefighting.

Watkins started at left tackle for two years, then transferred to Baylor and started at left tackle for two more seasons, though he projects to guard in the NFL. He will turn 27 in November, but his age doesn’t appear to bother many teams, as his draft status suggests — he appears likely to go anywhere from the mid-20s of the first round to the mid-30s early in the second.

“I’m OK with (his age),” said a general manager for another team. “He hasn’t played a lot, he doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear on his body. He’s a healthy guy physically. He doesn’t bug me. He’s tough as (crap), people up there would love him.”

Another longtime scout compared Watkins (6-foot-3 3/8, 310 pounds) favorably to former Packers guard Adam Timmerman, a seventh-round pick in 1995 who became a starter in his second season and later played in two Pro Bowls after signing a lucrative free-agent contract with the St. Louis Rams.

“I like the fact that (Watkins) is a pretty powerful player,” the scout said. “He’s a square guy, powerful the way he plays. A push-shove guy, but he adjusts well enough. I didn’t see him on the ground much. I watched him against TCU, which has a quick defense, and he was able to adjust and do some things on the second level (i.e., against linebackers).

“He’s not a light guy, not a small guy; he’s a big, square guy, almost in the mold of what Adam Timmerman looked like. I think he moves better, he’s a better player than Adam Timmerman, but the same kind of build, a big mauler-brawler kind of guy.”

There’s also a decent chance Sherrod will be gone by No. 32, especially because of the premium NFL teams place on tackles for pass protection. Some scouts think of Sherrod as a big man (6-5 3/8, 321) who’s athletic enough to play left tackle, others think he has to move the right side and still others say he might have to move to guard. He might go as early as the low 20s in the first round because some teams are desperate for tackles, but he just might be on the board at 32.

“Hard to figure out, he’s an interesting guy,” another scout said. “Last year guys had a huge grade on him, this year he underperformed a little bit. I still think he’s a good player.”

TACKLES

1. Tyron Smith, USC, 6-5, 307, Round 1: Entering the draft as a true junior, latest in the line of offensive line prospects from USC, which has produced eight linemen drafted in the first two rounds of the last seven drafts. Started the last two seasons at right tackle but has all the makings of an NFL left tackle. “I don’t know why he isn’t a left tackle, he’s certainly athletic enough to be a left tackle,” one NFL scout said. “His athletic ability is as good as I’ve ever seen coming out. If you have a chance to look at that play versus Arizona or Arizona state, I forget which game, they run a screen, he blocks a guy, knocks him down, jumps over him and gets the safety. It’s the damndest play you’ve ever seen. I think he’s a special guy.” Has a cut physique for an offensive lineman, played at 285 last season but was up to 307 at the scouting combine. Has extremely long arms, 36 3/8 inches, tied for second-longest of the 54 offensive linemen at the combine. Didn’t work out at the scouting combine, then on his Pro Day ran the 40 in 4.98 seconds (only four offensive linemen were under 5.0 seconds at the combine) and had a 29-inch vertical jump, 9-1 broad jump and did 31 bench-press reps. Could have some trouble with bull rushers. “I think he has to play right tackle, I really do,” another scout said. “Everybody’s falling in love with his athleticism and size, but I don’t see a dominating (butt) kicker, I really don’t. He bends at the waist too much for me and he pushed players instead of getting on them and finishing. I have him at right tackle, I still have him in the first round because it’s hard to find big, athletic guys with length like that. To me there’s something missing on the guy. Maybe it’s just me.”

2. Anthony Castonzo, Boston College, 6-7, 311, Round 1: Tall with a relatively lean build, probably will go somewhere between No. 15 to 25 in the first round. Scouts are all over board ranking the three tackles after Smith. Some think Castonzo can be a good left tackle, others think he has to play the right side. “It depends on who’s your left tackle,” a scout said. “If you don’t have a left tackle, I’d stick him in there and see if he can do it, but I know he can play multiple positions, and he’s smart, he’s got like a photographic memory. I think he’d be a left tackle. I’d go him, (Wisconsin’s Gabe) Carimi and then say (Colorado’s Nate) Solder is next.” Biochemistry major had the highest score on the Wonderlic intelligence test (41) among offensive linemen at the combine, and at his media session there said he wants to go into medical research when he retires from football. Spent his first year out of high school at a prep school bulking up from 225 pounds after no one offered him a scholarship, then at BC started four years – at right tackle as a freshman and left tackle the last three years. Grades out fine but not great in the measurables – 34 ½-inch arms, 5.21-second 40, 29 ½-inch vertical, 8-9 broad jump, 28 bench-press reps. “Big guy, very smart, tough guy,” another scout said, “just not real athletic, a little bit stiff. I don’t see him being a left tackle in the league. Too many speed rushers. I wouldn’t want to put him out there against the guy (i.e., Dwight Freeney) from Indianapolis, that would scare me. He might be a right tackle, he might be a guard. He’s not that athletic. He didn’t have a great Senior Bowl, in the one on one pass rush he got abused by some of these speed rushers. He’s a big, long-armed guy, and when he gets his arms on you and gets his hands on you, he’s going to block you.”

3. Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin, 6-7, 314, Round 1: Went to Monona Grove High School just outside Madison, redshirted as a freshman then started at left tackle the next four years as the successor to Joe Thomas. “I think he’s got a little bit of Joe Thomas (personality) in him, he’s got that self-assuredness and he’ll find a way kind of a thing,” a scout said. “He’s smart, he plays smart.” Has a mean streak that scouts love but isn’t as athletic as Castonzo and probably will be a right tackle or guard. “I like him a lot,” another scout said. “He’s a big, physical son of a buck, he’d have to be a right tackle for me, or a guard. But his toughness, and there’s things he does you can’t teach. I’d rather have a guy I need to tone down (temperamentally) as opposed to tone up. I’d start him out at right tackle, and if he had any trouble I’d move him inside. I think he’s a guy down the road that could be about as good any (guard) you could find.” Has more-than-long-enough 35-inch arms, and tested similarly to Castonzo – 5.18 seconds in the 40, 31½-inch vertical, 9-1 broad jump, 29 bench-press reps. “He shows some tightness in the hips, a couple times, I put down he’s a head butter,” a third scout said. “But he’s taller, 6-7, two or three inches than some of the guys rushing against him. He’s a natural pass blocker who has to work on his run blocking even though he’s a mauler to get to the second level. But I’m really high on him.”

4. Nate Solder, Colorado, 6-8¼, 319, Round 1: Moved from tight end to left tackle as a redshirt sophomore, started all 38 games his final three seasons. Extremely tall, lacks bulk, but a couple of scouts predicted he’d end up the best tackle in this draft in a few years. “He’s a freak athletically,” a scout said. “There’s one game where this little defensive end – (Solder) is so tall – just ran around him and kept running upside the edge, and (Solder) was having a tough time with the guy because he had to bend and run and chase. Well, he’s not going to be playing against (short guys) at the next level, so it’s going to be a little bit different. His thing too, he’s going to have to get stronger at the point of attack and get more strength and explosion through weight-room training. But athletically he’s off the charts.” His 21 bench-press reps tied for third-fewest among offensive linemen at the combine, but tested great athletically (4.96 seconds 40, 32½-inch vertical, 9-2 broad jump, 35-inch arms). “The other guy (Solder) has some upside,” another scout said. “When he learns how to bend a little bit and have an anchor – the first thing that’s going to happen is people are going to go right down the middle on him, just try to soften him up there. He’s so tall, so long. I know (Castonzo and Carimi) are 6-7, but this guy looks tall and light in the (butt).”

5. Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State, 6-5 3/8, 321, Rounds 1/2: Started 35 of 37 games at left tackle his final three seasons. None of the scouts interviewed rated him among the top four tackles but most had him fifth. He’ll probably will be among the final few selections of the first round. “Nice feet,” one scout said. “People are trying to move him to guard, I’ve heard that around the league, but this guy’s going to be a good tackle. Is he going to be a right tackle more than left? Probably. But he’s going to play for a long time. He’s got great feet, good hands, good punch and recoil. This guy has a little (crap) in his neck too, he’s a(n expletive) at times.” Has a big, thick frame with long arms (35 3/8 inches) but isn’t a great athlete (5.18 seconds in the 40, 28-inch vertical, 8-1 broad jump, 23 bench-press reps). Smart, hard working, but scouts are divided on whether he’s a genuine first-round prospect, or just getting pushed up the board because of the premium on tackles. “I don’t like that player at all,” another scout said. “He has a waist bending problem, he’s stiff. I hope he goes in front of us because that means a good player is coming down. I think he’s a guard. He’s got a real issue in space.”

6. Ben Ijalana, Villanova, 6-3 5/8, 317, Round 2: Started every game at left tackle the last four years, including last year for the Division II national champs. “His film was actually better than I anticipated,” a scout said, “but at the combine he was kind of a strange interview, kind of a weird, quiet, it was spooky. But there were some things that flashed on film. Somebody’s going to take him high, higher than he should go because there’s going to be a run on tackles, like there is every year. He’s athletic.” Short for a tackle but has long enough arms (36 inches) and quick enough feet to compensate. Had double-hernia surgery after the season so couldn’t work out at the combine, then on campus earlier this month performed well enough (5.12 seconds in the 40, 27-inch vertical, 9-0 broad jump). Some teams consider him more of a guard, but others think he can play tackle, though he might need a year or two before he’s ready to start. “I don’t see Ijalana up there,” another scout said. “He’s a stiffer guy. He tested real well, moved around, looked real fluid in his workout. But then he plays real stiff, and he doesn’t play hard. So I’ve had a hard time with him. I don’t get it, I don’t see it.”

7. James Carpenter, Alabama, 6-4 3/8, 321, Round 2: Academic non-qualifier went to junior college for two years than started all 27 games at left tackle the last two seasons for Alabama. “He’s an athletic guy,” a scout said. “I’m not sure how smart he is. Coming out of that system, I know it’s a pro system, but those guys aren’t asked to do a lot from the standpoint of scheme. I think he’s got great recoverability. When he has an issue and he gets beat he has the athletic ability to get in front of you and re-set his hands and his feet. He’s an interesting guy.” Did only the bench press at the combine (23 reps), then at his campus workout had a shockingly bad vertical jump (20½ inches). Looks like he can play tackle but might have to move to guard. “I kind of liked Carpenter, but he has to get some work done,” a second scout said. “He has slow feet and no explosion coming out of his stance. But he’s played at a high level (of competition) and has been effective.”

8. James Brewer, Indiana, 6-6 ¼, 323, Round 2/3: Played more basketball than football in high school, finally became starter at right tackle his redshirt junior and senior seasons at Indiana. Played in ’09 opposite Rodger Saffold, who was the first pick of the second round of last year’s draft. “I don’t see the athlete (that Saffold is),” one scout said. “I do see a good football player that’s going to take a little time, some tinkering with technique. I didn’t see Saffold.” Has good height and arm length (35½ inches), and moves his feet well from his training in basketball, but doesn’t anchor well. Ran the 40 in 5.21 seconds, had an 8-4 broad jump and did 26 bench-press reps. “He’s an athlete,” another scout said. “He makes a ton of mistakes. You look at the Senior Bowl he went the wrong way about three times. He’s a basketball guy playing football, very soft. He flashed at the combine because it was in shorts, but when it got physical on tape he had some issues. He certainly athletically has that (left tackle ability), but he’s a soft left tackle.”

9. Marcus Cannon, TCU, 6-5, 358, Rounds 2/3: Started at right tackle for two years and left tackle last season for undefeated TCU team that defeated Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Somewhat underrated player who shut down likely first-round pick J.J. Watt of Wisconsin. Ran well enough (5.26-second 40) and had an outstanding 30½-inch vertical jump for a player his size, along with a decent 8-9 broad jump. Should be able to play left tackle in the NFL. “Like him a lot,” a scout said. “Watched him against Watt, Watt didn’t sniff against him. The guy’s an outstanding football player. He’s big, he’s mobile, he’s strong. He’s great about getting on the second level (in run blocking), he can get outside, he can block one on one. He’s a big man, 350-some pounds, that runs really well.”

10. Marcus Gilbert, Florida, 6-6 1/8, 330, Rounds 2/3: Was a backup his first two years, then started at right tackle as a true junior and left tackle last season. A massive man with enough athletic ability to play tackle. Showed some strength at the combine (30 bench-press reps), then injured his hamstring while running a 5.41 40-yard dash. Has good athletic ability for such a big man, as his 30½-inch vertical jump in his campus works suggests. Arm length is on the short side (33½ inches). “He’s a physical guy,” a scout said. “Another offense that’s hard to project (to the NFL), but he wasn’t bad. He had some drifting issues where he’d set too far away and looked like he was weak because he drifted into the quarterback instead of taking a guy on fast. But a lot of that is that offense. They tell them to do a lot different things than they did in the pros.”

GUARDS

1. Mike Pouncey, Florida, 6-5, 303, Round 1: Twin brother of Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who was the No. 18 pick overall last season. Not quite as good as his brother but expected to be in the top 25 picks. “A good athlete, the versatility to play center and guard,” one scout said. “Obviously I think he’s a better guard. I thought his brother was tougher than him, I liked his brother better.” Moved to defensive tackle as a freshman because of injuries on Florida’s defensive line, started at guard as a sophomore and junior, then moved to center last year to improve his draft stock. Was horribly erratic as a shotgun snapper last season so will need extensive work on that before an NFL will trust him at center in a game. Tough, powerful, high-character player. Ran the 40 in 5.12 seconds, had a 25-inch vertical jump and 8-0 broad jump. “The thing about Pouncey is his upside, his athletic ability,” another scout said. “He’s a better guard than he is a center, that ball is all over the place. You’re going to get a ground ball, you’re going to get one over your head, it’s very erratic. If he can figure out snaps, he’s going to be a two-position player, that value when you’re dressing seven linemen every week, that guy that can pull the ball up is going to be a valuable guy.”

2. Danny Watkins, Baylor, 6-3 3/8, 310, Rounds 1/2: Canada native did not play football until attending Butte Community College in California, where he was studying to be a firefighter. Transferred to Baylor, where he started at left tackle for two seasons. At 26 is old for a draft prospect. “I have Watkins ahead of (Pouncey),” a scout said. “I like that guy, he’s (mean). Mean, ornery, likes to finish, pile-drive guys, push ’em, put their faces in the ground as he’s getting up. Obviously the NFL players aren’t going to put up that (expletive), but that’s what you’re looking for, for that attitude, that aggressiveness, that toughness from an inside player. He has all that.” Still a little raw because of his inexperience in football — he played hockey and rugby growing up in British Columbia. Not athletic enough to play left tackle in the NFL — 5.36-second 40, 7-8 broad jump, 26-inch vertical — but plenty strong (29 bench-press reps) and powerful for guard and projects as a starter from Day 1. Scored 40 on the Wonderlic, second-best of all the offensive linemen. “Right now Watkins is as good as he’s going to get,” another scout said. “He’s very good, he’s sound technically, his hands, his feet. The thing about Pouncey is his upside, his athletic ability.”

3. Orlando Franklin, Miami, 6-5½, 316, Round 2: Started at left guard for two years, then switched to left tackle last season. Projects inside in the NFL because he doesn’t have the foot quickness to play tackle . Big, strong and tough, but not much of a technician. Had trouble keeping his weight down in college. “He’s kind of got a slow slide and slow feet,” a scout said. “Good balance, which is key, but he’s kind of tight hipped and slow fitted. Interesting guy, up and down a little bit in my opinion. Carries his hands low, has to bring them up a little to keep guys out of his frame, but he’s got tools to work with, definitely.”

4. Will Rackley, Lehigh, 6-3 1/4, 309, Rounds 2/3: Four-year starter at the Football Championship Subdivision level has moved up draft boards this spring. Not particularly athletic but stood out at the East-West Shrine, where he faced better competition than in college. Had a hip-flexor injury at the combine and had a poor vertical jump (23½ inches) and broad jump (8-3). Played tackle his final three years in college, is too limited an athlete to play there in the NFL, but has the mentality and ability to start at guard early in his NFL career. One scout compared him favorably to New Orleans’ Jahri Evans, who has been a starting guard for New Orleans since the Saints drafted him in the fourth round in 2006. “Everybody dinged (Rackley) because of the (lower) level of competition, but when you dominate your level of competition, you have a chance,” the scout said. “This guy fits in that same mold (as Evans). Will Rackley, Lehigh, second-rounder. If he slides into three they’ll be fighting for him at the top (of the round).”

5. Clint Boling, Georgia, 6-4 5/8, 308, Rounds 2/3: Four-year starter played every position but center in his career. Played mostly tackle the last two years but projects to guard in the NFL. Not a great athlete or butt kicker, but smart, experienced and versatile. “Kind of soft,” a scout said. “He’s not very physical.” Tested fine — 5.28-second 40, 31-inch vertical, 8-6 broad jump, 28 bench-press reps. “He’s going to have a hard time powering guys and uprooting them, especially if they’re strong,” another scout said. “He’s a guy that shows a pretty strong base in pass pro, but in the run blocking stuff he narrowed it up and got tall. I’m not sure if he’s going to wind up panning all the way out.”

CENTERS

1. Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State, 6-3, 313, Round 2: His dad, Leo, was a nose tackle for the Baltimore Colts from 1982 to 1984, and his uncle, Steve, was an eight-time Pro Bowl guard for the Raiders from 1989 to 2001. Started at guard as a sophomore and senior and center as a junior. Weight-room strength (30 bench-press reps) doesn’t quite show up in his play, so he projects better to center in the NFL. Ran the 40 in 5.29 seconds, had a 28½-inch vertical and 8-4 broad jump. “A smooth, strong athlete, does everything good,” a scout said. “Not great, not overly impressive, just good. A steady-Eddie who will probably play in this league for 10 years. He doesn’t screw up anything.”

2. Rodney Hudson, Florida State, 6-2 3/8, 299, Rounds 2/3: Undersized lineman was a four-year starter at guard but projects to center in the NFL. Tough, smart and a great leader. Only a decent tester (5.27-second 40, 25½-inch vertical, 7-11 broad jump) but looks more athletic on the field. “He was probably the best lineman in the (ACC),” one scout said. “He’s a war daddy, a tough guy, he’s physical, he can run, and he plays hard every snap.” Might struggle with big nose tackles in 3-4 defenses but should fit well with a zone blocking scheme. “Hudson’s size scares me,” another scout said. “When you start getting down to 290 at the center position, that scares me, you’re talking about playing against some nose tackles that are 320 to 340. That’s an issue.”

3. Brandon Fusco, Slippery Rock, 6-4, 306, Rounds 3/4: Four-year starter who was voted the Division II lineman of the year last season. Has great size for the position and looked in his element against the better competition at the Senior Bowl and then scouting combine. A tough, determined player who has moved up from a later-round pick at the start of the offseason to a likely mid-rounder. Showed surprising agility at the combine with the fourth-best short shuttle (4.43 seconds) and third-best three-cone drill (7.29 seconds) of all offensive linemen who worked out. Ran the 40 in 5.18 seconds, had a 28½-inch vertical and an excellent 9-0 broad jump. “I like him,” a scout said. “For the value for where he’s going to go, you’re better off with your values in your centers. Would you take Pouncey in the (first round)? You’re going to find (centers) in that second and third day that will be anchors for the line for years to come, and the money you have to spend (is less), and to lose a skill-position guy or a guy that can sack a quarterback by (drafting) a center (in the first round), it’s just ….”

4. Kris O’Dowd, USC, 6-4 1/8, 304, Rounds 4/5: Started at center when healthy all four years at one of the best offensive-line schools in the country. Had a string of injuries that could make him a medical reject for some teams — a dislocated knee cap as a freshman that required two offseason surgeries, a torn labrum that sidelined him in the spring of ’09, and a dislocated knee cap in camp in ’09 that limited him to eight games. Started all 13 games last year. Ran the 40 in 5.12 seconds, had a solid 32 ½-inch vertical and 8-9 broad jump. Has upper-body strength (31 bench-press reps) but doesn’t play explosively. “Good footwork and athletic ability,” a scout said. “His endurance and strength are a little bit of a question, but he had some pretty good marks as far as footwork and athletic ability. I thought his frame, he could put some weight on and maybe get up to 320.”

5. Jake Kirkpatrick, TCU, 6-2¼, 301, Rounds 5/6: Lightly recruited after not playing football in Texas until his senior year of high school, redshirted at TCU as a freshman, was a backup for two years, then a starter for every game the last two seasons. Similar to the Packers’ Scott Wells in that he’s slightly undersized but tough, competitive and fairly athletic, and probably will need a couple years to develop before he’s ready to start. “His lower body will be the question with him,” a scout said. “He has to anchor better. But he has good snap and the strength to lock out and press guys off his body and help guards out. If he goes to a division with 4-3 (defenses) instead of 3-4s, he could be a very solid center. If he’s going to have a guy over his nose all the time he could have a little bit of trouble.”

— Reach Dougherty at pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com or at www.twitter.com/PeteDougherty.

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