"Don't take it the wrong way because they don't even talk amongst themselves," said the guy in the Jacksonville shirt. "I remember when Tom Coughlin was coaching down here. We were at one of these dinner parties, standing around making small talk, throwing a few names around, and he was nodding and grunting a bit. Some guy walked up and asked him point blank what he thought of Fernando Bryant. Coughlin almost choked on his crab claw. He said ‘Who? Wha? Well, I didn't watch him much, so I couldn't really tell you anything.' Of course, that's the guy he ended up drafting in the first round."
The guy in the Jacksonville shirt introduced his friend, a scout. The scout wasn't eating crab claws, so I started throwing names at him.
"This seems like a good year for centers," I said.
"I think you're right," he said. "Who are the guys again?"
"Unger and Mack."
"Yeah, they're good," he said.
"And Wood, Luigs, Caldwell."
"Yeah," he said. "I like Wood and Luigs."
I thanked him for the confirmation. As he started to walk away, I threw one more name at him.
"What about Phil Loadholt?"
"Who? Wha?" he stammered. "Well, I didn't watch him much, so I couldn't really tell you anything."
And then he was gone, leaving me to wonder how he could NOT have watched the biggest, most powerful guy on the field this week.
Phil Loadholt is 6-foot-8, 343 pounds – a "cut" 343 as one scout put it. The guy's a monster. He played left tackle at Oklahoma, but he played a lot of right tackle here this week. It looked like a natural fit, considering Loadholt's brute strength and athletic feet. But sometimes he doesn't get low enough, so he can look like those massive tackles who have so much trouble blocking James Harrison.
No one seems to be calling Loadholt a first-round pick, but the Planet Theory – that says there are only so many men on the planet who are that big and athletic that you have to get one or two – demands it.
So, is Loadholt a true mountain man of a right tackle? Or is he Jamain Stephens? I'll watch the Senior Bowl tonight to learn more.
Also in my scope are the centers. There aren't any top guards, so the centers must suffice. Max Unger of Oregon is the best of the bunch. He's 6-4, 299, with a frame to build on. He can play all five line positions and is considered a late first-rounder. Alex Mack of Cal is another. He's 6-4, 312 with a stocky frame that can't take much more weight. But he's a tough guy who finishes his blocks with attitude. He probably could play guard, if needed, but has the look of a future captain in the pivot. Mack's considered a high second-rounder, or, if my instincts are correct, the frontrunner for the Steelers' first-round pick.
The problem with Unger and Mack this week is that they had to work against the best defensive prospect down here – 335-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji of Boston College. Raji destroyed everything in his path this week, although Unger and Mack both made nice recoveries the last day in pads.
"The offensive line had a tough job in practice this week," explained North coach Marvin Lewis. "In games, they can cut their guy off his feet, but we're not going to cut this guy right now. So the defensive guy can explode aggressively up the field and it looks like he's really dominating there. Conversely, on offense we can run powers and things like that and the poor defensive guy's a little defenseless. So there's a little bit of give and take there. There's always going to be those surges from one side to the other when you practice football."
It'd be nice to see Unger and Mack go up against Raji tonight with the threat of a cut block in their arsenal, but they're on the same team. So I'll watch how the second-round centers, Eric Wood (6-4, 304) of Louisville and Jonathan Luigs (6-3, 302) of Arkansas, fare against the beast they call Raji.
The scout said one more thing to me before he left the dinner party: "Don't get too caught up in this game, or even this week of practice. There are 13 other weeks already on their resumes. That's more important than this week."
But isn't it important to watch them practice? Doesn't it help to see Alex Mack sprinting downfield on kickoff coverage every single time? Doesn't it help to talk to Max Unger and appreciate his intelligence?
"Of course," the scout said. "I'm just telling you that it's only one piece of a big puzzle. Remember that."