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NFL Draft: Talent in the trenches

This is the first in a nine-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 30-May 2. Today’s installment: Offensive linemen.

News Sports Reporter

To borrow an overused word from the NHL this draft season, there are no “generational” talents believed to be available along the offensive line in the upcoming NFL Draft.

But what the position lacks in perceived star power, it makes up for in depth.

As many as eight offensive linemen are projected to go in the first round when the draft kicks off April 30 in Chicago. That would match the number selected in 2013, when three of the first four picks were offensive tackles. Last season, five of the first 19 picks in the draft played along the line, including two of the first six.

It’s possible this year that only one offensive lineman goes in the top 10. Iowa’s Brandon Scherff is projected in most mock drafts to be that player. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. forecasts him to the New York Jets with the No. 6 pick, while Kiper’s colleague, Todd McShay, sees Scherff landing with the New York Giants at No. 9 overall.

“I have Brandon Scherff as my top offensive lineman,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think his best position, because of his power, his toughness, his football sense, is inside. I think he’s an All-Pro guard. But that doesn’t mean he can’t play tackle.”

For his part, Scherff doesn’t have a preference on where he plays.

“I’m pretty versatile,” he said. “Tackle or guard, I’ll play wherever I get the opportunity.”

Growing up in Denison, Iowa, Scherff played five high school sports – football, basketball, baseball, tennis and track and field. In addition to the good athleticism that shows, Scherff is also a tough dude.

He had arthroscopic knee surgery in 2014 on a Tuesday, then played four days later.

“I owed something to my team,” Scherff said. “If I was able to play, I was going to play.”

Behind Scherff, Mayock said “there’s like five or six guys that all are kind of prototypical left tackles that are really gifted athletes, but there are holes in their game for some reason or another.”

That list includes Florida’s D.J. Humphries, Pitt’s T.J. Clemmings and Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi.

Clemmings started his college career at defensive end before converting to offense two seasons ago.

“I wasn’t having the success I wanted on defense and offensive line was literally my last option,” Clemmings said of making the switch. “I wanted to get back on the field. I wanted to start again. Thinking about being on the field again – wherever that was – it made it feel right.”

Clemmings did not play football of any kind until his junior year of high school in New Jersey, so any team drafting will have to be patient, but could be rewarded for it.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Clemmings said of the label he’s raw. “I need to work on some things. I’m not afraid of that.”

Humphries was the No. 2 prospect in the nation coming out of high school in North Carolina. He played in only 29 career games with the Gators, and the NFL Draft Advisory Board suggested he go back to school for his senior season.

But Humphries opted for the draft anyway, and it looks like he’ll be a first-round selection.

“I think people just normally suspect for juniors to be a little less knowledgeable and a little more behind than the older guys,” he said. “I’m just ready to show them I’m on the same level as everybody else.”

Mayock said Humphries has “left-tackle feet.”

“I put his tape on and went, ‘Wow, look how quick that is.’ He pops in and out of his stance,” he said.

Like Scherff, LSU’s La-El Collins is another college left tackle who some scouts believe projects better at right tackle or guard. Either way, he’s viewed as a first-round prospect – which would make him the first Tigers player drafted there in 17 years.

“We’ve had a lot of guys go in the first round, but at the offensive line position, there haven’t been too many of them,” Collins said. “It would be an honor.”

Stanford’s Andrus Peat is another college left tackle who may project better on the right side in the NFL.

“He’s not 21 years old yet, and he needs to get much stronger up top,” Mayock said of Peat. “Two years from now he’s going to be a completely different kid just because of body type and strength, but he’s a first-round pick.”

Mayock said teams looking for right tackles should be able to find starting-caliber players into the second and third rounds.

Ogbuehi projects to the left side, but will be a challenging evaluation for teams. He suffered a torn ACL in Texas A&M’s bowl game, and that came after a down season in which he allowed seven sacks. He was thought to be a lock for the first round heading into 2014, but that status is now in question.

The top-ranked center, Florida State’s Cameron Erving, has gone through two position changes in college, from defensive tackle to offensive tackle, then inside to center. Lance Zierlein, a draft analyst for NFL.com, has compared Erving to Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood.

“When I made the switch a lot of people asked me how I felt about it in terms of the NFL,” Erving said. “That wasn’t on my mind. I mean, I’ve always been the type of person that does what’s best for the team.”

The top-rated guards are South Carolina’s A.J. Cann, Duke’s Laken Tomlinson, Hobart’s Ali Marpet and Florida State’s Tre’ Jackson – all of whom are expected to be second- or third-round picks and could be of interest to the Bills, who have a need at the position.

“Say you’re looking for a defensive player, and your entire defensive side of your board is decimated. So now you’re looking for a safe guy who you know that can plug and play and has little downside,” Mayock said. “There’s been an awful lot of those interior offensive linemen that have answered that particular question.”

Next: Edge rushers.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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