SEC Offensive Line Prospects in 2011 NFL Draft
by Eric Caldwell
(Melbourne, Florida, United States)
During a time where protecting your investments has become as voluntary a practice in the NFL as it is in finances, offensive linemen from all across the land are seeing their draft stock skyrocket where it would normally be shadowed by players whose 40-times and 3-cone drills have scouts' pupils moving in perfect sync.
Because these linemen are becoming so highly coveted, scouts are having to dig deeper and overlook common lapses in technique - which can easily be corrected with proper coaching, and delve into the Olympic-sized talent pool that is the SEC in order to satisfy the glaring needs of late-first and early-second round selectors.
This year's bulky SEC class of trench warriors includes many sizely prospects, although a tad raw, who cast a shadow bigger than a Great Sequoia.
My top OT to watch on the 2011 NFL Draft board is LSU's 3-year starter, Joseph Barksdale. Standing tall at an intimidating 6'6", Barksdale continues to gain value in my opinion by keeping the indecisive Jordan Jefferson safe whether it means overpowering the always-threatening SEC defensive ends or adjusting and launching downfield to hammer a linebacker when Jefferson is forced to scramble. His durability is unquestionable after starting 38 consecutive games ranging all the way back to his Sophomore season, and actively participating in roughly 90% of the offensive snaps despite nursing an ankle injury for half of his Senior season. Some scouts see Barksdale dropping as low as the 6th round but I think that is highly unreasonable for a player of his caliber. Indianapolis should be picking somewhere within the 25-32 range, where I suspect he will ultimately end up as the Colts are still shopping for a franchise LT, stemming from the retirement of Tarik Glenn.
Another prospect that others including myself are high on is Mississippi State's solid OT, Derek Sherrod. Sherrod anchored an offensive line that bolstered the SEC's #1 rushing attack during the 2009 season. Of course, Derek is a sizeable prospect like the rest of his SEC brethren, showcasing a sturdy 6'6" frame supporting 303lbs of muscle and instinct. Some believe that Sherrod is the best OT in the country and will be taken in the Top 5, however, I see Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and BC's Anthony Castonzo as the country's most attractive O-Line prospects, and due to a lack of need circulating the middle-first round, I foresee Sherrod being drafted a position or two in front of or behind Barksdale, late in the first round under the bright lights of NYC's Radio City Music Hall.
Other shoe-ins for the late first-early second round range are Arkansas's reliable pass-protector, DeMarcus Love and Auburn's Lee Ziemba. Both have been perhaps the most intrical component to the widely acclaimed success of their respective quarterbacks. How do you think Cam Newton would have faired in the Heisman race if he were tackled for a loss every time he tried to sprint off the left tackle?
Love is a pass-blocking specialist who is very raw and undeveloped, but with a whole new world of upside backing him up, the Texas native has the footwork and quickness off of the ball to be an early pick and a successful NFL LT. Ziemba on the other hand was more of a personal bodyguard for bronze-encased hero, Cam Newton. Although he lead an offensive line that bombarded the SEC competition through the air, Ziemba's film shows that his most effective blocking came downfield with Newton trying to make plays with his legs.
Detroit has an early 2nd round pick and a former #1 overall pick Matthew Stafford, who has shown a rather sensitive shoulder during his first 2 seasons. I expect the Lions to either select one of these players or trade up in order to obtain Barksdale, Sherrod, or another highly coveted out-of-conference lineman.
The need for interior linemen is never as immediate as that of traditional offensive tackles, but there are three guys in this class, all Gators, who have big NFL futures awaiting them. The obvious notion is C/G, Mike Pouncey, who is perhaps the most publicized of all SEC linemen. Pouncey is remarkably athletic for a man with a 320lb structure to lug around. His snapping has been highly criticized (rightfully so) but, chances are, no one is going to ask Pouncey to play anything but guard in the NFL. If twin brother Maurkice's rookie success is any premonition of things to come, many Pro-Bowls will be in this young man's future.
Marcus Gilbert is another well-worn Gainesville prospect whose athleticism is showcased greatly in the spread offense while blocking for, numerically, the conference's quickest backs - Jeff Demps and high-school teammate, Chris Rainey. Any man who can pull out into the flats and commandeer an effective lead block for a man who runs 4.24 second 40 earns high praise from me. A surefire 3rd round talent with all of the necessary skills to be a starter at the next level, Marcus Gilbert should keep his phone on him at all times on draft weekend.
The 3rd UF prospect that may come as a bit of a surprise is longtime starter Carl Johnson, who has had some experience at LT. Johnson has often been overshadowed by the Pouncey twins, Gilbert, and future early-round pick Xavier Nixon, but he has also consistently produced along a line that scored more points than any team in the SEC throughout his tenure with the Gators. Johnson will likely go undrafted, but I'm willing to grade his potential as high as a 5th rounder. He is a true hidden talent and is going to make some GM a very happy man come time for mini-camp. As for Mike Pouncey I could see him going as high as 16 to a team like New England who are unsure about the pieces they have in play, but I would be absolutely flabbergasted if he slid past 25.
A conference that has provided us with current Pro-Bowl selections such as Maurkice Pouncey, Chad Clifton, and Jason Peters is on track to generate a newfound sense of security for the quarterbacks of the NFL. '11's prospects will without doubt be highly sought after and although their dollars are yet to be earned, their skills are promising and their futures get brighter every calendar square while they're counting down to draft day.
My one piece of advice for these young men: Don't get lazy in the offseason. Combine results are ever so important and it never hurts an offensive lineman to add a couple of pounds in muscle.
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