MIKE O'HARA

O'Hara's Draft Preview: Rating the offensive linemen

Posted Apr 22, 2013

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

Mike Cummings has coached Central Michigan’s offensive line the last three years, and when he attended a banquet last week in East Lansing it was natural that a conversation among coaches turned to Eric Fisher, his star lineman.

Fisher is one the top-rated offensive tackles in this year’s draft, and it’s possible that he could be the first player taken in Thursday night’s first round.

Cummings related a story told by John Herrington, head football coach of perennially powerful Farmington Harrison High, about a play Fisher made for Stoney Creek High in a game against him.

Was it a pancake block against a pass-rushing defensive end? Nope. Cut block that wiped out the entire right side of the defensive line? No, again.

“He was playing outside linebacker, and he picked off a pass,” Cummings said the other day.

It is not surprising that Fisher would be nimble and athletic enough – and determined enough -- to intercept a pass. He was a hidden gem in those days, so far under the recruiting radar that Eastern Michigan and CMU, both from Mid-American Conference, were the only schools that recruited him.

Fisher was a tall, lean prospect who was overlooked because he played only one season of his three seasons at Stoney Creek on the offensive line, along with three seasons of basketball.  He weighed less than 250 pounds when he graduated in 2009.

Four years later, he’s still tall (a little over 6-7), and not nearly as lean at 306 pounds.

And unlike four years ago, Fisher is on every draft board’s radar screen.

Eric FisherT Eric Fisher

Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M and Fisher are rated the top two offensive tackles in the draft. It is likely that one of them will be the first player drafted. Kansas City has the first pick and has indicated it will announce its intention before Thursday night.

It is a given that whichever tackle isn’t drafted first will not get past the Lions, who have the fifth pick. A left tackle would let the pieces fall in place for the reconstruction of the Lions’ offensive line.

Fisher is one of the prospects who will attend the first round of the draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Fisher invited Cummings to attend, along with family members and friends.

Fisher isn’t the type to have his head in the clouds, but he has enjoyed the pre-draft visits he made, including one to Allen Park to visit with the Lions.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s like being recruited.”

This is a good draft for offensive linemen. Six to eight, in a combination of tackles and guards, could be drafted in the first round.

After Joeckel and Fisher, Lane Johnson of Oklahoma and D.J. Fluker of Alabama have first-round quality. Menelik Watson of Florida State is rated on the fringe of the first round.

Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina and Chance Warmack of Alabama are first-round guards. Justin Pugh of Syracuse, Kyle Long of Oregon and Brian Winters of Kent State fall in behind Cooper and Warmack.

Travis Frederick of Wisconsin is the top center in a position that lacks a first-round prospect and depth, which is not unusual for centers.

Fisher has observed the draft process with a measure of the determination and appreciation that marked his career at Central.

“It’s just amazing watching my dream becoming reality slowly,” he said at the Combine earlier this year.

Fisher did more than dream about playing pro ball. He worked at his game. He spent time looking at tapes of Central’s games, grading his own play, and watching other offensive linemen for any tips on technique that would improve his game.

“We have a library of other players, pro players,” Cummings said. “He’d try to work on technique and figure out what those players were doing.

“He was very determined. He’s a very competitive person. He took the challenge that was put in front of him. He wanted to be the best lineman in the league, and he wanted to play in the NFL.”

Cummings, who was hired at CMU in 2010 for the start of Fisher’s second season, saw Fisher’s stock rise rapidly. The first time it hit him full force how highly Fisher was valued came last spring when a pro scout visited Mt. Pleasant.

“One of the scouts stopped in my office and said, ‘This guy is a first-rounder,’” Cummings said. “That was the first guy ever to say that. It just kind of spun from there.”

Following are my ratings for the top tackles, guards and centers in the draft, with comments on each player, and other issues involving where the Lions stand on the position. Each player’s height, weight and time in the 40-yard dash are included.

Tackles:

1. Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M, 6-6/306, 5.25: Football runs in the family. His father played at Texas Tech, and his twin brother, Matt, is a quarterback at A&M. Luke didn’t waste time contributing at A&M. He enrolled in January, 2010, and started all 13 games as a true freshman. In 2013 he allowed only two sacks blocking for Heisman Trophy winning QB Johnny Manziel.

Luke JoeckelT Luke Joeckel

2. Eric Fisher, Central Michigan, 6-7/306, 5.03: Lightly recruited coming out of Stoney Creek High in Oakland County but making up for it in the pre-draft process with his stock rising. Athletic and versatile, which he showed at CMU in 2010. In the last nine games he started four games at right tackle, two at right guard and three at left tackle. He’ll be the opening-day starter at left tackle for whoever drafts him.

3. Lane Johnson, Oklahoma, 6-6/303: 4.72: Athletic versatility showed in his spectacular workouts. He played quarterback and free safety in high school and was a shot-putter. Also a QB in junior college before going to Oklahoma in ’09, where he was first tried at tight end in spring ball. Still on the move after a red-shirt season, playing defensive end and tight end in 2010. Started 12 games at right tackle in 2011 and 11 at left tackle in 2012.

4. D.J. Fluker, Alabama, 6-5/339, 5.28: Built to play right tackle, with size, long arms – almost 37 inches – and big hands. Played tackle in high school and started nine games at right tackle for Alabama in 2010 after red-shirting in ’09. Started all 27 backs the last two seasons as Alabama won consecutive national championships.

5. Menelik Watson, Florida St., 6-5/310, 5.25: Interesting background – most of it not related to football. Grew up in Europe playing basketball and came to the U.S. with a scholarship at Marist. Played football in junior college in 2011 and started 12 games in 2012 in his only season at Florida St. Only two seasons of football – junior college and Florida St. – but is athletic.

6. Justin Pugh, Syracuse, 6-4/307/5.12: Some teams project him as a guard in the pros. Started all 25 games at left tackle in 2010-11, Missed the first four games in 2012 with a shoulder injury and returned to start the last nine. Short arms (32 inches) could necessitate a move to guard in the pros.

7. Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 6-5/306, 4.71: As well as he ran at the Combine, it was no surprise to NFL scouts. They timed him the previous year and knew he was fast. They also know he’s tough. He played all season with a sprained shoulder. Started six games as a freshman and 33 the last four seasons.

8. David Bakhtiari, Colorado, 6-4/299, 5.02: Unusual athletic background for an offensive lineman. He played high school football and lacrosse in California. Replaced Patriots first-round draft pick Nate Solder at left tackle in 2011 and started 11 games. Also started 11 in 2012. Does not have prototype size for a tackle.

9. Dallas Thomas, Tennessee, 6-5/306, 5.08: Another college tackle who could be a guard in the pros. Thomas started every game at left tackle in 2010-11 but moved to left guard in 2012.

10. Brennan Williams, North Carolina, 6-6/318, 5.32: Grew up in a football family. His father played 11 NFL seasons at defensive end. Brennan was mostly a reserve his first two seasons at NC, then started all 13 games in 2011 and the first eight in 2012 before undergoing surgery for a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

Other tackles: Winston Painter, Virginia Tech; David Queensberry, San Jose St.; Jordan Mills, Louisiana Tech; Xavier Nixon, Florida; Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin; Reid Fragel, Ohio St., John Wetzel, Boston College; Luke Marquardt, Azusa Pacific.

Guards:

Chance WarmackG Chance Warmack

1. Chance Warmack, Alabama, 6-2/317, 5.49: A powerful player whose 40-yard time in the Combine was disappointing but did not overshadow how he played at Alabama. Played sparingly in 2009 but started 40 games over his final three seasons. Comes from a strong family. Graduated in December. Will be an opening-day starter.

2. Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina, 6-2/311, 5.06: Made 47 starts in four seasons, all but one at left guard. Started one game at center. Wrestling background in high school could help because of the explosion and leverage involved.

3. Brian Winters, Kent St., 6-4/320, 5.25: Primarily a left tackle at Kent State but also started on the right side. More suited to guard in the pros.

4. Larry Warford, Kentucky, 6-3/332, 5.56: A high school tackle in Kentucky but moved to guard in college. A backup as a true freshman in ’09, and started all 37 games the last three seasons. Will play better in the pros if he sheds some weight.

5. Kyle Long, Oregon, 6-6/313. 4.91: The genes are there for Kyle Long to be an outstanding pro, but he hasn’t performed that way on a consistent level. His father, Howie, was a Hall of  Fame defensive lineman with the Raiders. Brother Chris is a defensive end with the Rams. Kyle went to Florida State to play baseball and was drafted by the White Sox in 2008 as a pitcher. Kyle bounced around to junior college, playing defensive end and offensive line, then to Oregon in 2012 and played 11 games, starting four at guard.

Other guards: Alvin Bailey, Arkansas; Hugh Thornton, Illinois; J.C. Tretter, Cornell; Oday Aboushi, Virginia; Earl Watford, James Madison; 6-4; Eric Herman, Ohio U.

Centers:

1. Travis Frederick, Wisconsin, 6-4/312, 5.55: In 2009 he became the school’s first true freshman to start the opening game on the offensive line. A red shirt in 2010, had 13 starts in 2011, mostly at guard. Moved to center exclusively in 2012 and started all 14 games. He has a high school wrestling background.

2. Brian Schwenke, Cal., 6-3/314, 4.94: A four-year player and a starting guard in 2010-11. Moved to center in 2012 and started all 12 games. Schwenke showed well at the Senior Bowl, playing for the South team, coached by the Lions’ Jim Schwartz and his staff.

3. Barrett Jones, Alabama, 6-5/306, no official time: A sterling resume in college that might not translate to success in the pros. In ’09 he started every game at right guard on an undefeated national championship team. Won the Outland Trophy at left tackle in 2011. Shifted to center in 2012 and won the Rimington Award as college football’s best center. Finished the season with a foot injury that required surgery and did not allow him to work out for the pros.

Barrett JonesC Barrett Jones

4. Khaled Holmes, Southern Cal., 6-3/302, 5.30: Part of quite a family picture. His father, Mike, played defensive line for Michigan. Brother Alex played tight end on two national championship teams at Southern Cal. And Steelers safety  Troy Polamalu is his brother in law. So, at least he gets a deal on shampoo? Started out at right guard and moved to center his last two years.

5. Braxton Cave, Notre Dame, 6-3/303, 5:30: After two years as a long-snapper, became the starting center in 2010. A torn knee ligament after nine starters in 2011 ended his season. Granted a fifth season of eligibility and started every game in 2012, including the loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game. Wonder if Braxton Cave watches sports on TV in his man cave.

Other centers: P.J. Lonergan, LSU; Matt Stankiewich, Penn St; T.J. Johnson, South Carolina.

Lions depth chart: Left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola are the only returning starters. Left tackle Jeff Backus retired. Right guard Stephen Peterman was released. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus signed with the Colts as a free agent.

Riley Reiff, a first-round draft pick last year, will start somewhere – tackle or guard – depending on who is added in the draft. Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard are in the equation at right tackle.

Newcomer Bill Nagy will get a shot at center and guard. Rodney Austin, who spent last season on the practice squad, will compete at guard. Dylan Gandy is an experienced backup who has started at center and plays on special teams.

Lions draft possibility: The Lions should take either Joeckel or Fisher at No. 5. It fills an immediate need, solidifies a position for Reiff, and helps build a younger offensive line.