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Early draft picks to be weighted toward O-line

This is the sixth of an eight-part

series previewing the NFL draft April 25-27. Today’s installment: offensive linemen.

By Jay Skurski

News Sports Reporter

As many as three offensive tackles could hear their names called in the first seven picks of the NFL Draft next week at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

Another two guards might not have to wait much longer.

It’s a good year to be a big ugly.

“Obviously you keep hearing about the same couple of guys, and it is a good left tackle draft,” said Doug Majeski, the Bills’ coordinator of college scouting. “It’s a little bit unique that you get guys with the prototypical size and length and athleticism.”

The list starts with two players competing to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs – Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher.

Joeckel, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 306 pounds, is technically sound. He started all 37 games of his college career against top competition. He’s a safe pick.

Fisher, though, is pushing him for that top spot. The 6-7, 306-pounder fell through the recruiting cracks, but established himself as a top prospect in the Mid-American Conference.

“Fisher, every level that he’s played, whether it’s playing against top 1A competition, Senior Bowl, Combine, he’s passed every test flying,” Majewski said. “I think it’s unique to get as many players – and there are other players as you go through the tackle draft – that can come in and help an NFL team.”

Just behind Joeckel and Fisher is Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson. How good of an athlete is he?

He played quarterback at Kilgore Junior College in Texas before starting his career with the Sooners at tight end. Johnson played right tackle in 2011 before switching to the left side last season.

“That’s a first and it’s unique,” Majewski said of scouting a left tackle who started as a quarterback. “For the amount of time he played at tackle is unique also. Here’s a kid that played [junior college] one year as a quarterback, one year as a tight end and gets converted to tackle at Oklahoma and after two years he’s a top player.”

Both Detroit at No. 5 and Arizona at No. 7 are prime candidates to take a left tackle in the first round. San Diego at No. 11 and Miami at No. 12 also have big needs to fill at the position, and with 11 picks, the Dolphins seemingly have the ammunition to trade up.

If they don’t, and one of the left tackles falls, would the Bills take him? It’s an interesting prospect. If they were to, they could shift Cordy Glenn to either right tackle or left guard, where the departure of Andy Levitre has left a big hole in the starting lineup.

The Bills could also stay put and take a left guard at No. 8 to plug that hole. Alabama’s Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper are both talented enough to go in the top half of the first round.

“There’s some great evaluators that tell you don’t take a guard in the first round, let alone the top 10. Some teams won’t be interested in guards, some will,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. “I know John Hannah went fourth overall in 1973 (to the New England Patriots). It’s been rare, but it’s happened. It’s been a rare scenario to see two guards going this high.”

Warmack is 6-2 and 317 pounds. He’s a mauler who is technically sound and a good enough athlete. Cooper is more athletic, but doesn’t possess Warmack’s strength.

“Chance is a powerful man. Just looking at him, you just know he’s got a great base, a great technician, a great feel for combo blocks and getting downfield,” said Chuck Cook, the Bills’ director of college scouting. “As we saw against Notre Dame linebacker Manti [Te’o], he can really face up and finish. We like everything about him.”

Drafting either one would give the Bills a player they could plug into the starting lineup for the next five years.

“I think Buffalo at eight could look very seriously at Cooper,” Kiper said. “He’s as athletic a guard as you’ll ever find. You can see him 30 yards down the field making a key block.”

“I know people have said we’re taking one of those top two guards,” Bills General Manager Buddy Nix said. “Our roster in house is better than I think we get credit for, especially offensive line. We’re pretty deep there. We’ve got six guards and we think a couple of them can play.

“Now, having said all that, before you write that we’re not going to take a guard at No. 8, it’s hard to pass up two players like the old boy at Alabama and the kid at North Carolina. Both of those are great players so you have to give that a lot of thought when they come up.”

Alabama’s D.J. Fluker is the top-rated right tackle prospect. He’s a mountain of a human at 6-5, 339 pounds with 36½-inch arms. He could go in the first round.

Other tackles who could hear their names called in the first two rounds include Florida State’s Menelik Watson and Syracuse’s Justin Pugh. Watson, who will be 25 at the start of the season, is from the United Kingdom. He didn’t play football until he gave up on a basketball career at Marist.

At 6-4, 307 pounds, Pugh could be switched to guard in the NFL.

The top-rated center is Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick, a 6-4, 312-pounder, followed by Cal’s Brian Schwenke (6-3, 314) and Alabama’s Barrett Jones (6-4, 306). Frederick is expected to be a second-round pick, and Schwenke and Jones are third- or fourth-rounders.

Akron native J.C. Tretter, who played left tackle his final two seasons at Cornell, should hear his name called on the third day of the draft, perhaps as high as the fourth round.

“He’s an athletic kid, and he’ll probably be looked at as more of a guard or center in our league. He’s got a lot of athletic ability,” Majewski said.

Next: Defensive line.