(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, set for April 26-28.)
Guards have a tendency to be the forgotten men along the offensive line – not as well-paid as the tackles and not as integral to the smooth operation of the five-man unit as the center. But this year, in this upcoming NFL Draft, there seems to be considerable buzz about the talent available at guard. As for the prospects at center, well, with no Pouncey brothers available to be picked, there might not be a single one selected in the first round.
The best of the bunch along the interior of the offensive line is Stanford's David DeCastro (6-foot-5, 315 pounds), who has been compared by Cardinal Coach David Shaw to former Raiders All-Pro guard Steve Wisniewski. Shaw should know, because he once was an assistant on the Raiders staff. After taking a redshirt in 2008, DeCastro started all 39 games at right guard from 2009-11 and was part of an offensive line that allowed only 24 sacks over that three-year span. There is a belief that DeCastro might just be the most NFL-ready player available in this draft, and while his former college coach has compared him to Wisniewski, others see him being another Steve Hutchinson.
After DeCastro, the guards to come off the board will do so partly because they have the potential to line up and play tackle as well. Georgia's Cordy Glenn (6-5, 345), Iowa State's Kelechi Osemele (6-6, 335), and Miami's Brandon Washington (6-3, 320) all played some tackle in college, and Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler (6-4, 315) will be in the mix to get picked early as well even though he did not.
Glenn is a massive man who was thrown into a starting role as a freshman, and he went on to tie a Georgia record with 50 total starts, 28 of which came at left guard, 18 at left tackle, and four at right guard. Although he is projected by most teams to be a guard in the NFL, he started 14 games at left tackle in 2011 and also lined up there at the Senior Bowl. The general feeling now is that while Glenn could morph into a quality tackle in the NFL provided he lost some weight and improved his technique, he has more of what it takes to be a right guard. And, his versatility will help him at the professional level.
Osemele was a team captain in college who is big, strong and smart. He has 35 1/4-inch arms and an 85 1/2-inch wingspan, and he was known to overwhelm defensive players when he could get his hands on them. Osemele was a left tackle at Iowa State, but he probably will fare better in the NFL if he is moved inside to guard.
Zeitler played in three games as a freshman in 2008, but come 2009 he cracked the lineup as a starter at right guard and was there for the rest of his college career. He is big, smart, steady and dependable, with just enough perfectionist in him to keep him striving to improve. Scouts believe Zeitler can succeed in any number of offensive systems, and he is considered a safe pick in this draft.
Some of the other better prospects at guard include Washington's Senio Kelemete (6-4, 305) and Miami (Ohio)'s Brandon Brooks (6-5, 355).
At center, it's a much more typical group, which is to say there is only one player who generally is regarded to have a chance to get picked in the first round. That player is Wisconsin's Peter Konz (6-5, 315).
Konz finished second in 2011 in the voting for the Rimington Trophy, given to college's top center, but there is little doubt he won't be coming in behind Michigan's David Molk (6-1, 300) – the guy who won the Rimington – when it comes to the NFL Draft. Konz has more athletic ability and better size than Molk, but he has missed some games because of injury in each of his three college seasons.
One of the interesting prospects here is Mississippi State's Quentin Saulsberry (6-2, 305), and what makes him interesting is his versatility. Being position-flexible is a great quality to have when trying to make an NFL roster, and Saulsberry started 12 games at right tackle as a freshman, started 12 games at left guard as a sophomore, started 10 games at right guard and two at center as a junior, and started nine games at right guard and four at center as a senior.
THE 2011 NFL DRAFT, G-C STATISTICS
Number drafted: Guards 14; Centers 7
Picks by round: Guards: 1 in the first; 0 in the second; 2 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 4 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh; Centers: 1 in the first; 2 in the second; 0 in the third; 0 in the fourth; 0 in the fifth; 3 in the sixth; 1 in the seventh
Highest pick: Guards: Danny Watkins, Baylor, Round 1, 23rd overall, by Philadelphia; Centers: Mike Pouncey, Round 1, 15th overall, by Miami
Biggest impact: Guards: Danny Watkins started 12 games for the Philadelphia Eagles; Centers: Mike Pouncey started all 16 games of his rookie season for the Dolphins