OHARA'S DRAFT PREVIEW: Rating the offensive linemen

Posted May 2, 2014

In the fifth installment of his draft preview series, Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara rates the top offensive linemen available

This year’s class of offensive tackles won’t fill up the top of the first round the way last year’s did, but the consensus opinion is that there is a more talented and deeper class in 2014 than in 2013.

Greg Robinson of Auburn, Jake Matthews of Texas A&M and Taylor Lewan of Michigan are expected to validate their value with performance on the field, if not by draft position.

Any of the three likely would have been valued high enough to be the first player drafted last year, when Eric Fisher of Central Michigan and Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M went 1-2 to the Chiefs and Jaguars respectively and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma went to the Eagles at No. 4.

It was the first time since the NFL and AFL adopted the common draft in 1967 that three offensive linemen were taken with the first four picks.

Robinson, who entered the draft after only three years at Auburn to help his family financially, is the best athlete of the group and has the greatest upside. Many mock drafts project Robinson as being the first tackle drafted and as high as second overall to the Rams, who have the pick, or to another team if the Rams trade down.

Centers and guards typically are drafted lower. Former NFL GM and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly said earlier this year that teams can fill needs in the mid-rounds from an exceptionally deep pool of interior linemen.

Matthews comes from NFL royalty. His father, Bruce, was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman. An uncle, Clay Matthews, was a Pro Bowl linebacker with the Browns and a cousin, Clay, is a Pro Bowl linebacker with the Packers.

Matthews joked at the NFL Combine earlier this year about being a highly rated prospect because of his play, not his family lineage.

“I’d like to think I wasn’t grandfathered in,” Matthews told reporters. “I hope I earned my way here.”

He doesn’t feel burdened by carrying the family name, nor should he. He was a four-year starter at Texas A&M and moved to Joeckel’s spot at left tackle – protecting Johnny Manziel’s back – when Joeckel moved up to the NFL in 2013.

“It is special, the family I came from and the relationships I have with my dad and cousins and brothers and all the people who have gone through this process,” Matthews said. “That’s really special, and something where I can look to them to ask what it was like – what their experience with it was.”

Matthews, Robinson and Lewan all are projected as left tackles. The need to protect young quarterbacks adds to their value. The Rams, Falcons and Bills are among teams in the top 10 who are candidates to draft a tackle.

Matthews said it was a challenge blocking for Manziel the last two years because of his scrambling style and willingness to hold the ball to keep plays alive. However, unlike Manziel’s public image, Matthews said he was a good teammate.

“It’s definitely different,” Matthews said of blocking for Johnny Football. “Ever since Johnny took over, I’ve been answering this question. You really don’t know what to expect. He’s all over the place. But at the same time, you’ve gotta take what comes with it because the guy makes plays. He’s proved it game after game.

“I don’t consider him a me-first guy at all. When he was on the field, he was just a tremendous competitor  -- great leader, someone that I loved playing for.”

O'Hara's Top 10 offensive tackle prospects
1 Greg Robinson Auburn 6'5 332 4.92
2 Jake Matthews Texas A&M 6'6 308 5.07
3 Taylor Lewan Michigan 6'7 309 4.87
4 Zack Martin Notre Dame 6'4 308 5.22
5 Cyrus Kouandjio Alabama 6'7 322 5.59
6 Ja’Wuan James Tennessee 6'6 311 5.34
7 Antonio Richardson Tennessee 6'6 336 5.30
8 Jack Mewhort Ohio State 6'6 309 5.37
9 Morgan Mosess Virginia 6'6 314 5.35
10 Seantrel Henderson Miami (Fla.) 6'7 331 5.04

O'Hara's Top 5 guard prospects
1 Xavier Su’a-Filo UCLA 6'4 307 5.07
2 Joel Bitonio Nevada 6'4 302 4.97
3 Gabe Jackson Mississippi State 6'3 336 5.51
4 Trai Turner LSU 6'3 310 4.93
5 David Yankey Stanford 6'6 315 5.48

O'Hara's Top 5 center prospects
1 Weston Richburg Colorado State 6'2 293 5.10
2 Marcus Martin Southern Cal 6'3 320 5.28
3 Travis Swanson Arkansas 6'5 312 5.28
4 Gabe Ikard Oklahoma 6'4 304 5.13
5 Wesley Johnson Vanderbilt 6'5 297 5.11



The best:

Greg Robinson, Auburn: It’s a close call for No. 1 over Jake Matthews. Robinson’s superior athletic ability makes him the No. 1 prospect overall by some analysts. To run a 40 in 4.92 seconds at 6-5 and 335 pounds speaks to a level of athleticism that is almost breath taking. Add 35-inch arms and big hands. After a red-shirt 2011 season, Robinson started 25 of 26 games the last two seasons.

The rest

Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: Jake was a starter as a true freshman in 2010, and after starting at right tackle moved to left tackle in 2013. He’s the most polished lineman in the draft and day-one ready to start.

Taylor LewanT Taylor Lewan (Photo: AP Images)

Taylor Lewan, Michigan: He played tough in Ann Arbor – too tough, some opponents say. He started 9 of the last 10 games in 2010 and all 39 his last three seasons. He turned down an invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl. He said at the Combine that he likes to play “through the whistle” and leave opponents “in the dirt.” Tough talk, but his performance did not always show that level of dominance.

Zack Martin, Notre Dame: He is highly rated across the board on the offensive line. Some have him as the No. 1 guard. Most of his playing time has been at left tackle. A two-time captain, he holds the school record for career games played with 52.

Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama: He came out of DeMatha Catholic, a powerhouse in high school sports in Maryland. A knee injury ended his freshman season early in 2011. He returned to start all 26 games the next two years. Kouandjio is a young prospect with the physical assets – including 35-plus inch arms – to develop into an effective left tackle.

Ja’Wuan James, Tennessee: James was a starter from day one as a freshman and set the school record for an offensive lineman with 49 straight starts in four years. He should fit in at right tackle as a solid pick after the first round.

Antonio Richardson, Tennessee: No joke, there could be an All-Volunteers draft segment. Richardson prepped with a freshman reserve season in 2011, then started every game the last two seasons. He showed his power with 36 reps in the bench press.

Jack Mewhort, Ohio State: Over the last two seasons he started all 26 games at left tackle after dividing time as a sophomore in 2011 as a starter at right and left guard. He showed his toughness in 2011 by not missing any games after having two broken ribs in a collision with teammate Carlos Hyde.

Morgan Moses, Virginia: Because of issues with grades he spent a year at Fork Union in 2009. A right tackle for two years, he moved to the left side to start 23 of 24 games the last two seasons. He operates more on strength than quickness.

Seantrel Henderson, Miami (Fla.): One of the top football recruits out of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, he originally committed to Southern Cal but asked to transfer when the NCAA sanctioned the program and landed in Miami. He had some suspensions, which he said at the Senior Bowl were the result of failed drug tests. Inconsistency and not playing to his talent level will cost him in the draft.


The best

Xavier Su’a-Filo: An outstanding high school player in Utah, he was an opening-day starter at UCLA in 2009 and started all 13 games. After a two-year mission, he returned in 2012 and started every game in 2012-13 at left guard or tackle. He’s rated a guard prospect in the pros, despite playing more games at tackle in college.

The rest

Joel Bitonio, Boston College: Rated highly at tackle, too, but projected as a guard in the NFL, he did not become a starter until 2011 and started every game thereafter. There are no real flaws in his game.

Gabe Jackson, Mississippi St.: He reminds some scouts of Chance Warmack, a guard from Alabama who was a first-round pick last year. Jackson did not run a good 40 time (5.51 seconds), but neither did Warmack. Jackson is powerful and did not give up a sack the last two seasons.

Trai Turner, LSU: Fleeter afoot than the other top-rated guards (4.93 in the 40), he started the last 20 games of his career at right guard. His ability to play center provides versatility and adds to his draft value.

David Yankey, Stanford: A native of Australia who played high school ball in Georgia, he was a reserve in 2010 and began a string of starts as a sophomore – 13 at left guard in 2011, 14 at left tackle in 2012 and back to guard for 13 starts in 2013. He’s strictly a guard prospect.


The best

Weston Richburg, Colorado St.: Opinions differ widely on who rates No. 1 at this position. Richburg started every game his last two seasons, and showed some toughness and desire in 2011 by staying in the lineup after breaking a bone in his right hand in Game 9. He moved to tackle, then guard, to avoid missing a start.

The rest

Marcus Martin, Southern Cal: A grad of the L.A. Crenshaw High sports powerhouse, he’s another interior lineman with position flexibility. He started at guard in 2011 as a true freshman and again in 2012, then moved to center in 2013. He could pass Richburg to be the first center drafted.

Travis Swanson, Arkansas: Another solid Arkansas prospect who persevered through going 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC in 2013. Only 20 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press didn’t help his stock.

Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma: He was used to winning in high school, playing on three state championship teams in basketball and two in football. He had two seasons as a starter at left guard, and the last two at center. He’s highly respected as a leader on the field and for his community work.

Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt: He had more starts at left tackle than at center in four years at Vandy, but he’s a center prospect in the pros.  He helped the Commodores to 9-4 records and bowl-game victories the last two years.

Lions depth chart

Returning: Starters – LT Riley Reiff, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Larry Warford, RT LaAdrian Waddle or Corey Hilliard. Backups – G Rodney Austin.

Newcomers: C Sherman Carter, G Darren Keyton, T J.B. Shugarts.

Lions draft probability: With a lack of backup depth – no reserve center or guard who has played in a regular-season NFL game – at least one interior linemen will be added as a mid-round pick.

Round longshot: A tackle is not a first-round priority, but it’s a possibility – repeat, possibility -- if the players the Lions have targeted are gone, or if they trade down in the first round. Clearly, there are greater needs, but a talented tackle is not a bad secondary option.