2014 NFL Draft: Plug-and-Play Offensive Linemen with Pro Bowl Potential
Despite the fanfare in the draft process on where the top quarterbacks will land or who will snag receiver Sammy Watkins, NFL teams know that there's much more to drafting for an offense than just focusing on skill positions. Taking an offensive lineman early in the draft isn't a sexy strategy, but finding a plus-starter with Pro Bowl upside on the offensive line can do wonders for an offense.
While there's no locks in the NFL draft, early round offensive linemen have generally proved to be relatively "safe," at least in terms of staying in the NFL, sticking as a starter and producing the Pro Bowlers.
The 2014 class of offensive linemen is one of the better crops in recent years, as it features franchise offensive tackles, instant starters on the interior and likely more than one Pro Bowl-level player. Here are eight players who can both start early in their NFL careers and have the Pro Bowl upside teams covet.
Travis Swanson, OC, Arkansas
Interior linemen's value is perceived to be diminished compared to offensive tackles, as they're perceived to require less lateral control, less concern about speed rushers and fewer responsibilities as blockers.
However, with a premium being placed on interior pass-rushers and schematic versatility by NFL defensive minds, the importance of an athletically capable, high IQ center is growing substantially.
Enter the top center in this year's draft, Arkansas' Travis Swanson. Best suited for a zone-blocking scheme, Swanson is a plus interior pass-blocker who keeps a strong base vs. nose tackles and attacks upfield as a run-blocker.
While he's not a first-round talent, Swanson has the best chance to be the first center taken in a relatively weak class somewhere in the top-64. He's not a fit for every team, but for the offenses he does fit in, he'll be viewed as an instant starter at an important position.
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
A powerful and thick blocker, Xavier Su'a-Filo has been UCLA's best offensive lineman for the past two seasons. With experience at guard and tackle, he'll offer versatility to the team that takes him in the top-50 selections.
Despite possessing a pear-shaped body, Su'a-Filo wins best with his initial quickness and hand placement against both linebackers and defensive linemen. With experience in a man-blocking system and the body control to play in a zone-based scheme, Su'a-Filo will be viewed as a fit for nearly every team in the NFL.
He could come off the board as early as the top-25, with the Bengals at pick 24 being a potential option. But for a blocker with his physical build and foot quickness, don't expect him to last long on draft day after the top offensive tackles are taken.
David Yankey, OG, Stanford
With Stanford's recent history of putting top-notch offensive linemen in the pros, it shouldn't be a surprise to see one on this list as a player who could be an instant starter with Pro Bowl potential.
David Yankey isn't quite the prospect like 2012 first-rounder David DeCastro, but possesses the length, hand placement and lateral control to provide instant starter impact for NFL teams.
While he lacks the plus-athleticism to be a worthy first-rounder, Yankey can slide into a starting role in the NFL and fit into an NFL locker room after playing in a pro-style system in college.
Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State
A mauling run-blocker, Gabe Jackson fits the old-school, power-based blocking scheme that teams still value in today's NFL. Weighing in at over 330 pounds and putting up 30 bench reps at the combine, Jackson's physical capabilities displayed in Indianapolis match the strength he showcased on film while at Mississippi State.
He struggled a bit at the Senior Bowl, especially in lateral one-on-one drills, which may be cause for concern for some teams, and it's clear that he isn't a fit for teams that value mobility and quickness from their interior linemen.
But for a team that focuses on initial strength in pass protection and upfield blocking dominance, Jackson is an ideal offensive guard. The first round would be a surprise, but teams like the Bills, Bengals and Seahawks all likely will view Jackson as a scheme fit and a worthwhile Day 2 pick.
Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
With relatively no buzz or expectations entering his junior season, Greg Robinson has jumped Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan on draft boards, despite the ingrained belief that they were on par with last year's top-two draft picks for most evaluators.
Robinson's athleticism was a feature attraction at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, putting up some of the most impressive numbers for an offensive lineman in the event's history. Combine that workout with his wildly impressive film during his junior year at Auburn, and it's clear that Robinson is not only a worthwhile top-five pick on draft day, but a potential All-Pro when he gets time to develop in the NFL.
The Rams are the first option for Robinson at No. 2 overall, but the Raiders, Falcons and Bills all likely have ample interest in getting the high ceiling pass-blocker.
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Thanks to Greg Robinson edging him out in most combine workouts, Taylor Lewan's fantastic performance in Indianapolis seems to be a bit overlooked. But NFL teams will likely still view Lewan on a level playing field as Robinson, especially after playing at a high level the past two seasons at Michigan.
The rest of the Michigan offensive line did Lewan no favors, as the unit as a whole struggled mightily throughout the season, forcing Lewan into tough decisions as a blocker. Still, he showcased his powerful hands, kick slide capabilities and strong base throughout his senior campaign, and gave teams no reason to drop him on their boards based on on-field play.
Fitting at either left or right tackle and capable of playing in zone or man-blocking schemes, Lewan has a home in the 2014 draft in the top-15 picks. Don't rule out him being a top-six selection and one of the first two offensive linemen taken.
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
After Luke Joeckel left Texas A&M last year and became the eventual No. 2 overall pick, Matthews switched from right to left tackle, viewed as the more important position in the A&M offense. And from an evaluation standpoint, his performance at both positions drastically increased his value to NFL teams as they realize that the tackle positions are nearly equal.
A controlled, fluid mover upfield, Matthews is one of the best run-blockers at the tackle position in recent drafts, and he's capable of playing at Pro Bowl level in the run game early in his career. While his kick slide isn't elite like Robinson or Lewan, he's been very efficient in protection of Johnny Manziel, rarely losing inside leverage and putting ample focus on his hand placement.
Whether it's the Rams, Falcons, Bucs, Bills or Giants that take Matthews on draft day, he won't last long on draft day thanks to his NFL-readiness, versatility and potential to be one of the NFL's most complete offensive tackles.
Zack Martin, OT/OG, Notre Dame
Zack Martin's measurables aren't ideal for the tackle position in the NFL. His arms are under 33", a general threshold requirement for the position, and his hands are just 9.5", smaller than most tackle prospects and could lead to hand control of pass-rushers.
But Martin has proven on film and at the Senior Bowl that he can kick slide, extend and change directions just well enough to play the tackle position. Combine that with his high football IQ, consistently impressive hand placement and patience as a blocker, and it's clear that he's as NFL-ready as you'll find from a rookie offensive tackle.
Also, if tackle doesn't work out in the NFL, his skill set is ideal for guard, and a move there may actually bring out the best in Martin's game. The NFL team that drafts Martin in the first round is getting an instant starter at right tackle or guard, and a potential Pro Bowler at either spot.