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Persistence puts Thomas in line for big payoff

This is the fourth in a series of stories on players eligible for the April 28 NFL draft. Today's story deals with offensive linemen.

Buffalo Bills receiver Lee Evans has been a source of inspiration for the top offensive lineman in the 2007 NFL Draft.

Evans underwent major knee surgery in his junior year at the University of Wisconsin but recovered well enough to have a big senior season and become a first-round draft choice in the NFL.

The same thing is going to happen with massive Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the Badgers' bowl game at the end of his junior year. He recovered, dominated during the Big Ten season in 2006 and is poised to hit the jackpot April 28.
"Lee was one of the main people after I hurt my knee who said, 'Don't worry, you're going to come back stronger than you were before,' " Thomas said. "It was very encouraging. Lee's an outstanding person, and he helped me just kind of talk through what he went through in his process, which was even worse because he had to have two ACL surgeries. He's just a great resource to bounce information off of."
Evans was the 13th overall choice in the 2004 draft. Thomas is expected to be among the top four choices this year.
Thomas is not a sure-fire NFL superstar in the mold of Jonathan Ogden or former Jacksonville star Tony Boselli. However, whoever drafts him -- whether it's Detroit at No. 2, Cleveland at No. 3 or Tampa Bay at No. 4 -- will expect to get a solid starter for many years.
At 6-foot-6 1/2 and 313 pounds, Thomas has prototypical size. He is very agile for a man so big. Among the 45 offensive linemen timed at the scouting combine, Thomas was the third fastest in the 40-yard dash with a time of 4.92 seconds. He still is capable of clearing 6 feet in the high jump. He holds the Wisconsin school indoor record in the shot put. While he still has room to get stronger, he bench-pressed 225 pounds a respectable 28 times.
"I think I'm a technician," Thomas said. "I think I'm a guy that won't settle for anything less than perfection when it comes to all aspects of my game."
Thomas heads a decent -- but not great -- crop of tackles in the draft. The guard and center crop is very athletic this year.
The No. 2 tackle is Penn State's Levi Brown, a four-year starter at left tackle for the Nittany Lions. He graduated in 3 1/2 years with a degree in labor and industrial relations then went on to get a second degree in psychology.
The No. 3 tackle, Central Michigan's Joe Staley, also should be a first-round pick. Staley showed up at college as a 225-pound tight end but switched to offensive line as a sophomore and developed into an All-Mid-American Conference tackle. Staley is athletic. As a Michigan high schooler, he was sixth in the state in the 200-yard dash. He posted the fastest 40 time of any lineman at the combine -- 4.78 seconds. He'll need to add a bit more strength in the NFL.
Auburn guard Ben Grubbs is probably the best guard to come out of the Southeastern Conference since Alan Faneca, a No. 1 pick of the Steelers in 1998. Grubbs is a 311-pound mauler and should go later in the first round.
The top center is Southern Cal's Ryan Kalil, who should be a late first- or early second-round pick. Kalil likes to sing Frank Sinatra songs and played at only 285 pounds last year, but don't think he's not tough. He showed a fierce attitude at the Senior Bowl, and he draws comparisons to Denver's star center, Tom Nalen. His father, Frank Kalil, played at Arizona and was drafted by Buffalo in the 11th round in 1982. He never made the Bills but he did play a couple of years in the USFL.
Tony Ugoh is another left tackle with impressive athleticism and ideal size. He has 36-inch arms in addition to 6-5 height. He's a track and field star, too. He missed spring practice at Arkansas each of his first three years to compete in track, and some have questioned his intensity and aggressiveness. A very good right tackle who has a lot of upside is Iowa's Marshal Yanda. He may be a late second-rounder.
Texas' Justin Blalock made a school-record 51 straight starts for the Longhorns at tackle but he's only 6-3 so the NFL wants him at guard. He or Tennessee's Aaron Sears, another 6-3 collegiate tackle, are second best among guards.
The second-best center is Hawaii's Samson Satele, who may be a mid-second-round choice. He's in the mold of the Browns' LeCharles Bentley, but not quite as highly rated. Satele lives up to his name. He has not had his hair cut since 2002.

NEXT: Defensive line.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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