The final installment of the series on potential 2014 draftees at the Cowboys positions of perceived need returns to the offensive line. Last time around, we took a gander at offensive tackles, focusing on guys who have the disposition to man the nastier right tackle spot; today, we'll wrap things up with a look at the 2014 class' projected top guards.
As we noted in the series' penultimate post, the top of the most recent draft experienced an unprecedented early dominance by offensive linemen. As far as guards are concerned, we saw an unheard of number (two) drafted in the top ten and, depending on where guys like Justin Pugh, Kyle Long and Travis Frederick end up playing, as many as five drafted in the first round. Next year's class doesn't seem to be quite so illustrious; nevertheless, there are some good candidates, many of whom, with a good 2013 season, project as first or second day picks.
As is usually the case, many of these players are collegiate offensive tackles who lack the requisite size, arm length or quick feet to play outside in the pros and are therefore more likely to move inside at the next level. Without further ado, let's take a look, shall we?
Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State (6'4", 320): Jackson signed at MSU as a highly regarded prep prospect. After redshirting in 2009, he won the starting left guard position in 2010 and has earned the nod in each game since, gaining Second Team All-SEC accolades the last two seasons. As a result, some prognosticators were surprised when Jackson opted to stay for his senior season, as he could very well have joined Cooper and Warmack as a first round pick.
Jackson boasts NFL length and evident physical gifts. He plays with good knee bend and overall flexibility and has the athleticism to get to and block well at the second level. He is quick off the snap but too often struggles to generate movement and can be tossed aside by stronger defensive linemen, at times simply getting knocked to the ground. To fulfill his significant potential, therefore, he'll need to play with greater overall physicality, aggression and explosion. Want to see his game? Here he is going heads up with SEC rivals Alabama and Tennessee:
Despite the above, Jackson's strong suit is run blocking; he needs to show improvement in pass protection. If he shows scouts steady improvement, he could easily push his stock into firm standing on the second day of the 2014 NFL Draft. Jackson's size and athleticism will surely intrigue NFL scouts working for zone blocking clubs (ahem, Cowboys, ahem)
Cyril Richardson, Baylor (6'5", 335): Although Richardson played left tackle for the Bears in 2011 and could possibly be a right tackle in the pros, but his fit best in the NFL will probably be at guard, where he offered distinguished play in both 2010 and 2012. Like Jackson, Richardson's strong suit is run blocking. He's a massive man, and uses his feet well for a guard, creating sizeable running lanes (just ask Terrence Ganoway). In 2013, Richardson could have a huge season as a run-blocker with a duo of excellent backs in Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin. Want to see some of his road grading? Check him out against Big XII rival Texas:
Richardson's feet may push him ahead of Jackson on many boards when it's all said and done, giving him an advantage in scouts eyes' much like that Jonathan Cooper enjoyed over Chance Warmack. In any case, a strong season should put him in the running as the upcoming draft class' top guard prospect.
Zack Martin, Notre Dame (6'4", 304): A three-star recruit out of high school, Martin redshirted in 2009 before earning a starting role in 2010. And he hasn't let up, starting 39 straight games for the Irish, primarily at left tackle, where he's been the anchor of a line that has allowed a mere 1.4 sacks per game over that span. A fifth-year senior, Martin has a chance to be named Notre Dame's Offensive Lineman of the Year for an astonishing fourth year in a row.
Martin isn't massive like Jackson and Richardson, but he bends well and stays balanced in his stance, sinking his butt (Mike Mayock would be so proud) and extending off the snap. He has good feet, displaying lateral athleticism in his initial kickslide, and the quickness to stay square to the defender. Irish insiders say he takes pride in his craft and flashes the raw nastiness to develop into an effective pro blocker. Here's Martin (#70) lined up at right tackle against BYU:
Although he's been a steady collegiate left tackle, Pro scouts project Martin to offensive guard, largely because he suffers from the dreaded "short arm disease." Unless he can prove them wrong in post-season All-Star games and workouts, his NFL destiny is inside, most likely in a zone-blocking system, where his intelligence and good feet will be real assets.
Anthony Steen, Alabama (6'3", 312): Throughout his career at Alabama (he started two games as a true freshman), Steen has been a full-time starter on one of the best offensive lines in all of college football, playing in 38 career games and earned 24 starts. Although other players - Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, and sure-fire 2014 top-ten pick Cyrus Kouandjio - got all the ink during ‘Bama's title run, it was Steen who had the perfect season: no penalties and no sacks alllowed all season.
One of the reasons he doesn't receive the same level of publicity is that his game is comparatively quieter. He's strong and reasonably athletic, and a very sound technician who uses good feet to maintain position. Here he is against SEC rival Georgia, and the Bulldogs' array of defensive talent:
At present, Steen is probably a second day pick. If he can show scouts that he can play as well without Warmack, Jones and Fluker surrounding him, he could go even higher.
Brandon Thomas, Clemson (6'3", 305): Thomas broke into the Tigers' starting lineup as a sophomore in 2011, following that up with a quality 2012 campaign, earning second team All-ACC honors after anchoring an offensive line that paved the way for one of the nation's most dynamic offensive units. As a junior, Thomas was consistently one of the highest graded linemen in the ACC.
Although Thomas will be playing left tackle this year for the Tigers, he'll most likely play guard in the NFL due to his less than ideal height and arm length. Moreover, he looks uncomfortable in space, getting off-balance too easily against speed rushers. In addition, he needs to play with better knee bend, to generate more power, especially if he's going to anchor against bull rushes. Wonder what I'm talking about? Here's Thomas in action (at right tackle; he's number 63) against Florida State's star-studded defense:
While Thomas boasts an impressive resume as a three-year starter at left tackle for a powerful offense, he still has a lot of growth ahead of him if he's to be a big time player at the next level.
Spencer Long, Nebraska (6'4", 315): A former walk-on, Long has been the anchor of the Nebraska offensive line for the past two seasons, starting the past 27 games at offensive guard and playing a major role in the Huskers being ranked in the top 15 nationally in rushing in each of the past two years. He was an All-Big Ten performer in a breakout sophomore season in 2011; the following year, he was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection and garnered second-team All-America honors. This fall, Long figures to be a strong contender for first-team All-America honors and a candidate for the Outland Trophy.
Long is a tough, physical offensive lineman. Like most of the guys on this list, he excels in the run blocking game, helping the Cornhuskers average 217 yards per game by opening up holes for running back Rex Burkhead. Also like the other names on this list, he's limited athletically, and will need to continue to gain strength and to polish his footwork. Here he is in action, at right guard (#61), in the Huskers' September loss to UCLA:
Long has gained some some mobility and added strength over the past year. If he comes through with an impressive 2013, he could move up higher, into the second day of the 2014 draft.
Best of the Rest:
Chris Burnette, Georgia (6'2", 322): Burnette was selected Second Team All-SEC after helping to pave the way for 184.2 rushing yards per game and allowing quarterback Aaron Murray to rank in the top-five in the SEC in both total offense and passing yards per game. His draft stock will rise as long as he's able to stay healthy; Burnette missed two games last season with a shoulder injury, two games in 2011 with a knee injury and sat out the entire 2010 season with various dings. In the plus column: as a member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll last fall, he's an "RKG."
*La'el Collins, LSU (6'5", 321): As a sophomore, Collins started all 13 games for the Tigers at left guard, showing off power in the running game and earning an All-SEC honorable mention after leading the team in snaps played (789) and total knockdowns (58.5). In 2013, he may move to left tackle, replacing the departed Josh Dworcazyk. If so, he'll certainly be under the spotlight facing the country's best edge rushers on a weekly basis. Will he play well enough for NFL scouts to consider him an NFL-caliber tackle or will he, as so many of these other guys will, have to kick inside to guard/
Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA (6'5", 315): As a true freshman, Su'a-Filo set a Bruins record in 2009 with 13 starts at left tackle, earning second-team freshman All-American and Pac-10 honorable mention laurels. and In 2010 and 2011, he was out of football while serving on a Mormon mission. After two years away, he jumped right in as the starter at left guard and earned first-team all-league honors in 2012. Want to know the definition of "RKG"? The dude's an Eagle Scout. Really.
*Tre Jackson, Florida State (6'4", 327): In 2012, as a true sophomore, Jackson stepped into the starting lineup at right guard and proved to be one of the ACC's best offensive linemen, helping the FSU offense in 2012 go down as the most productive in in 'Noles history, averaging 205.9 yards rushing and racking up a school record 6,591 total yards. He is not only a powerful lineman who can rut out defensive linemen and anchor against the pass rush, but also demonstrates nice agility and movement skills for a big lineman and may well prove to be the most athletically gifted player on this list.
Antwan Lowery, Rutgers (6'4", 305): Lowery was a backup for three years but saw his play increase when Kyle Flood took over the Rutgers head coaching duties from Greg Schiano. With the increased opportunity, Lowery has a very good 2012, earning a first-team all-Big East selection. If Lowery can continue to show off his athleticism and repeat his one-year success, he'll attract NFL scouts' attention and shoot up draft boards.
Tyler Moore, Florida (6'6", 312): Moore, one of the nation's top prep O-linemen coming out of high school, started out his collegiate career at Nebraska, and started it out well: he was the tenth true freshman offensive lineman to play for the Huskers since 1973, and his play merited a freshman All-Big XII selection. However, he soured on Nebraska and left after only one season. He spent one semester at St. Petersburg Community College before transferring to Florida in January 2012. Although he'll likely play right tackle in 2013, scouts project him to guard at the pro level.
Zach Fulton, Tennessee (6'4", 324): Although he hasn't received the same notoriety as Vols offensive tackles Antonio Richardson or Ju'Wuan James, Fulton, the brother of Xavier Fulton, the Buccaneers' 2009 fifth rounder, has everything it takes to play a long time in the NFL. If he can put it together, his great size and movement skills should help him climb up draft boards between now and next May.
There you go, folks - a second helpin' of Big Uglies. Do you want any of these likely lads in particular to wear the star in 2014 and beyond? Anyone you definitely DON'T want to see in silver and blue? Well, then go to the comments section and let yourself be heard!