Offensive Line -- Top picks need not apply

The New England Patriots came to town for the AFC Championship Game two Januarys ago as eight-point underdogs in part because of an offensive line with only one exceptional player. Damien Woody was the rock at center while rookie second-round pick Matt Light was the left tackle.

An NFL advance scout, helping a couple of writers advance the game, described the guards as "Rich Tylski types." The Michigan State writer among the group asked in jest if it was fortunate the Patriots had MSU grad Greg Robinson-Randall starting at right tackle.

"Yeah," the scout said. "Fortunate for the Steelers."

The Patriots, of course, won the game with the patchwork line and went on to defeat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. Robinson-Randall? He was traded a few weeks ago to the Houston Texans for a fifth-round draft pick.

The Patriots were further proof that super teams don't need super lines to win Super Bowls, and the theory was fortified last season. Not only did the Tampa Bay Bucs win it all with a line consisting of one first-rounder, a second-rounder and three cast-offs, the rest of the final eight teams didn't have much more invested in their offensive lines.

The Houston Chronicle reported that of the 40 starters on those eight Division Round playoff teams, only 11 were first-round picks. The 49ers and Jets had no first-round picks on their lines. The Titans, Bucs and Falcons had one. The Eagles and Raiders had two. The Steelers? They led the way with four and were eliminated in that round. Further research indicates that of the 20 starting linemen in the NFL's final four, only eight were selected in the first or second rounds.

Since the playoffs, the Steelers have lost a first-rounder, Wayne Gandy, in free agency. He'll be replaced by a second-rounder, Marvel Smith, and it's likely the Steelers will replace Smith on the right side with someone from their own scrap heap, which includes three non-descript NFL players (Oliver Ross, Todd Fordham, Mathias Nkwenti) and a practice-squad player (Josh Burr). It's become the NFL way, and one Steelers owner Dan Rooney will certainly embrace financially.

Second Round – Jon Stinchcomb (6-5, 302, 5.06) would certainly tempt the Steelers at the bottom of the second round because they feel he could step in and start at left tackle. He's the type of technician coaches love, but lacks the anchor scouts look for in premium picks. The brother of Raiders' 1999 first-rounder Matt, Stinchcomb impresses coaches with his smarts, feet, competitiveness and willingness to do the extras. They also see his 500-pound bench press and believe he has the strength to build upon. Stinchcomb also projects at center and guard. At the combine, he benched 225 pounds 32 times, jumped 35 inches and led all tackles with a 9-7 broad jump, which is used to identify explosiveness off the ball.

Sixth Round – Marico Portis (6-1½, 311, 5.43) could possibly last until the seventh round, but the Steelers may not wait to find a back-up for Alan Faneca. Portis was a four-year letterman and two-year starter at left guard for Alabama, where he set the school's bench-press record (510 pounds) and incline-press record (460). A high-character run-blocker with a nasty streak and the feet to excel at pulling and trapping, Portis lacks height but that's never stopped the Steelers from drafting a solid football player.

Seventh Round – Makoa Freitas (6-4, 307, 5.07) of Arizona is one of a large crop of available tackles who've started multiple years at big schools. Freitas is the son of Rockne Freitas, who played tackle 12 years for the Detroit Lions. Makoa is strong (36 combine reps) and fast enough, but may not have the quick feet required of a tackle, so he may need to move inside.

Seventh Round – Marques Ogden (6-4½, 315, 5.2 estimated) of Howard is the younger brother of Jonathan Ogden and was named to the Black College All-America team three consecutive years. Last season, Marques showed his versatility by moving from left tackle to center. He can also play guard, is athletic but needs quality coaching to improve techniques.

Free Agent – Long-snappers include Joe Iorio (6-2, 300, 5.45 est.) of Penn State, Patrick Smith (6-4, 305, 5.45) of Central Arkansas and Brandon George (6-2, 263, 4.8) of Temple. George may be the best pure long-snapper of the bunch, but lacks what the Steelers would like to see in a new long snapper: the ability to play a position. Iorio, of Sylvania, Ohio, visited the Steelers recently and was a long-time starter along a weak Penn State line and could play in an emergency. Smith was Southern Cal's long-snapper in 1996 but missed three seasons while making a couple of transfers before starting the last three seasons at left tackle for Central Arkansas. Smith might have the best mix of long-snapping and playing ability of the late-round group.

It's been written that Steve Sciullo (6-5 1/8, 330, 5.5) of Shaler High School and Marshall University dropped in the draft rankings after a poor combine, but scouts believed previously that Byron Leftwich's left tackle would have to move inside in the NFL and would be picked in the later rounds.

Another local product, Reggie Wells of South Park H.S. and Clarion University, is rated highly by some scouts but docked by those who aren't too fond of former basketball players that have made their football marks at Division Two schools. Wells (6-3¼, 300, 5.1) led South Park to the WPIAL Class AAA basketball championship game, where it lost to Blackhawk in 1999. He moved on to become a unanimous Don Hansen Division II All-America offensive tackle and is the son of Reggie Wells, a former Clarion hoops star and European pro. One Steelers scout ranked Wells as the top guard in the draft crop, but don't expect the Steelers to take the plunge before the seventh round.

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Jim Wexell
Steel City

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