(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
The Pittsburgh Steelers advanced to Super Bowl XLV, and one of the contributing factors to that was the versatility of their offensive linemen. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler was talking about that a few days before the Steelers faced the Green Bay Packers, but what he said then just as easily could serve as a job description for anyone interested in an NFL career as an interior offensive lineman.
"Everybody has a comfort zone," said Kugler. "It's not an easy thing to do to play both sides (on the offensive line), or to play different positions. But the first meeting we have with the offensive linemen we explain to them that there are only seven guys active on game days and there's a very realistic situation where we could be down to five in an instant – and that happened to us three or four times just this year. So you gotta be position flexible and you gotta be able to play guard-tackle or center-guard, and you gotta be able to do it on both sides."
Tackle, particularly left tackle, is the glamour spot on every offensive line, but for the guys manning the interior it's often more about versatility and dependability. The more you can do, and what you're willing to do are the keys to drawing s steady paycheck as an interior offensive lineman in the NFL.
The top prospect here might in fact be the top prospect here because of what his identical twin brother did for the Steelers as a rookie in 2010. Mike Pouncey (6-foot-5, 305 pounds) most certainly will follow twin brother Maurkice into the NFL as a first-round pick, but it's no lock Mike will make his living at the same position as Maurkice.
Mike Pouncey was a guard primarily during his first three seasons at the University of Florida – he did get pressed into some emergency defensive line duty as a freshman – and when Maurkice entered the 2010 draft Mike moved to center. His one season there convinced some in the NFL that his long-term future in the league should be at guard but his ability to play center as well will make him more attractive.
There is only one other interior lineman projected as a first-round talent, and that's Baylor's Danny Watkins (6-3, 310), who has an interesting background to say the least. Watkins is a native of Canada who didn't play football until he arrived at Butte Community College, where he had enrolled for its firefighting degree program. He played in all 22 games there as a tackle in 2007-08, and then he moved on to Baylor to play left tackle, where he replaced Jason Smith, the No. 1 pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2009. All of this took time, however, and while there are scouts who like Watkins' strength and technique and believe he could be a guy capable of one day playing four positions along the offensive line, age is a consideration because Watkins will celebrate his 27th birthday during his rookie NFL season.
After Pouncey and Watkins, the next group of prospects here includes Georgia's Clint Boling, Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, Lehigh's Will Rackley, Wisconsin's John Moffitt and Florida State's Rodney Hudson.
Boling (6-5, 308) might not be very impressive at first glance, but the reality is that he was a four-year starter in the SEC and also started games at every offensive line position except center.
Wisniewski (6-3, 315) started his college career as a guard, and he made a smooth transition to center for the 2010 season, a much smoother transition than Pouncey. Wisniewski is a player who brings excellent intelligence and intangibles, and both his father, Leo, and uncle, Steve, played in the NFL.
Rackley (6-3, 309) is judged as an intense guy who plays to the whistle on every snap, and while he started 35 games at left tackle and was a team captain at Lehigh of the Patriot League, it's believed he'll have to move inside to guard in the NFL. Rackley was very impressive at the East-West Shrine Game.
Moffitt (6-4, 319) is a fifth-year senior and fits the general profile of a Badgers offensive lineman – big, thick-bodied, strong, better as a run blocker. He has some versatility, evidenced by his 15 starts at center and 27 starts at left guard from 2007-10.
Hudson (6-2, 300) was a four-year starter (47 games) for the Seminoles and was a three-time All-ACC selection, which combined to make him the most decorated offensive lineman in conference history. He was penalized only once in 832 snaps during his senior season.
THE 2010 NFL DRAFT, G-C STATISTICS
Number drafted: Guards 12; Centers 7
Picks by round: Guards: 1 in the first; 0 in the second; 4 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 1 in the sixth; 1 in the seventh; Centers: 1 in the first; 0 in the second; 1 in the third; 0 in the fourth; 1 in the fifth; 2 in the sixth; 2 in the seventh
Highest pick: Guards: Mike Iupati, Idaho, Round 1, 17th overall, by San Francisco; Centers: Maurkice Pouncey, Round 1, 18th overall, by Pittsburgh
Biggest impact: Guards: Mike Iupati, Idaho, Round 1, 17th overall, started 16 games for San Francisco; Centers: Maurkice Pouncey, Round 1, 18th overall, started 16 games for Pittsburgh and was voted to the Pro Bowl as the AFC's backup center.