INDIANAPOLIS – Without a solid wall of blockers in front of them, exciting skill players like Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins couldn’t flourish. NFL coaches and general managers totally understand that.
Despite four offensive tackles being taken at the top of the first round in last year’s NFL Draft, the group being evaluated at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine is considered to be even deeper. There are imposing left and right tackles, some with an established lineage either by family or school, and a strong number of talented interior linemen.
Heading the watch list here in Indianapolis at tackle are Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, whose father is Hall-of-Fame lineman Bruce Matthews, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, Notre Dame’s Zach Martin and Alabama’s Cyrus Koandijo. But there isn’t much drop-off behind them with the likes of Morgan Moses out of Virginia, Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson and Greg Robinson from Auburn, which means teams could still find a potential starter beyond the first round.
“The guys I’ve looked at, there may be that opportunity. The problem is, you don’t know what the run is going to be like,” Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “Last year, what were there four in the top 11 picks? And all those guys, if I recall correctly, played right tackle. And a lot of them struggled to some degree. It doesn’t mean if you take one that they are going to have any success either.”
Matthews had an opportunity to come out of the college ranks early and declare for the 2013 NFL Draft but he opted to return for his senior year so that he could play with his younger brother and starting center, Mike. His older brother, Kevin, was a two-year starter at center for the Aggies and he felt a loyalty to the program, as well as being able to mature a little more.
Confidence is not an issue for Matthews and having grown up the son of an NFL legend also has helped prepare him for the challenges that await him in the pros. At 6-foot-5 and 308 pounds he has the prototypical build for left or right tackle, but he’s intent on getting the point across to the coaches and executives looking at him this week that he hasn’t made it this far solely based on his last name.
“I’d like to think I wasn’t grandfathered in, I hope I earned my way here,” Matthews said. “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. So that’s really special and something (where) I can look to them to ask what it was like, what their experience with it was. So far it’s been good. I’ve enjoyed it.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the Aggies have been producing a lot of high-level talent into the league in recent years, especially along the offensive line. Luke Joeckel was taken with the second overall pick last year by the Jacksonville Jaguars and at 6-6, 306, he’s similar in size to Matthews, which has not been lost on evaluators this year.
“I was actually down at Texas A&M on one of my trips this fall and that’s a player that stayed in, probably could’ve came out last year and been a high draft pick but the maturity that he shows and the technique that he shows (is noticeable). The bloodline, he knows how to be a pro already,” said Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, who is breaking in a new head coach in Mike Zimmer. “I don’t have any questions. We’re not probably going to take him at the eighth spot if he’s there because we don’t need a tackle, but he’s going to come in and contribute right away. And just how polished he is, I thought Texas A&M and that staff did a great job developing him and a lot of those Texas A&M linemen coming out now are having a lot of success.”
Of course if you ask Lewan, despite what Texas A&M has done lately with their offensive line prospects he views Michigan as the gold standard when it comes to offensive lineman. Back in 2008, the Miami Dolphins chose one of his predecessors on the Wolverines, Jake Long, with the first overall pick and he put together four consecutive Pro Bowl seasons in Miami.
“That was a pretty big shadow, absolutely, and wearing the No. 77, I wore that my last year in high school and I wanted to wear that again,” Lewan said. “Those are huge shoes to fill. Whether I filled those shoes or not that’s really not for me to say, but he’s always going to have a lasting impression at the University of Michigan and I hope I do as well.”
Moving inside to the guard and center positions, there also is a wealth of talent starting with UCLA guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and center Bryan Stork from the national champion Florida State Seminoles. Su’a-Filo is projected as a versatile lineman capable of playing guard or tackle at 6-4, 307, while Stork prefers to stay at center but has played guard and tackle during his career.
Su’a-Filo revealed that he has watched a lot of New England Patriots left guard Logan Mankins, as well as San Francisco’s Mike Iupati and Washington’s Trent Williams because of how physical and nasty they play the position. He wants to be seen as that “mean and nasty” player in the trenches, but he also knows how important athleticism is at the next level.
“I hope to show this weekend that I’m very athletic for a big man,” Su’a-Filo said. “I can move, I’ve got good feet and I want to be able to show my hip explosion. Something that I’ve been able to do well as I prepare is just work on little aspects of my game and I really hope to show them how I move off film.”
All of these players know that they can’t just rely on the film to sell themselves to their prospective employers, which is why they have worked hard with trainers and coaches since the end of the season to improve their stock with their workouts at the Combine. Once they hit the bench press and other strength workouts today, they move on to the agility drills and the 40-yard dash tomorrow and those numbers get highlighted by the media.
But if you ask Stork, who also is not lacking in confidence, he isn’t too concerned about what those numbers show. In fact, unlike most of the other players when they are asked by reporters what they measured in at in terms of height, weight and arm length, he didn’t remember and actually didn’t care.
“I’m just selling myself on being tough, intelligent, doing the right things on time and I get to play football,” said Stork, who for the record came in at 6-4, 315 with an arm length of 321/4 inches. “I’m a football player. I’m not a crazy 4.3-second athlete running the 40, that’s not me. I’m a football player and that’s irrelevant. I’m a football player. Get me on a white board and you can’t shut me up for three hours probably. You’ve just got to know your football and that’s what I’m going to sell myself on. I say I play with a mean streak, finish every play and never take a play off. Good luck going back and trying to find something on film where I took a play off. I’m just always in your face all the time, I’ve got great hands, violent hands, and I like to finish.”
Based on that answer, Stork just might stand out more in his interviews with teams than he will on the field inside Lucas Oil Stadium – and only add to the abundance of choices in such a deep class.