2011 Draft: Time for the interior guys?

For years, offensive tackle has been outpacing guards and center early in the draft. That will probably still be the case this year, but guards and centers are closing the gap.

Call it being guardedly optimistic.

It's been more than 30 years since the first interior offensive lineman was chosen ahead of the initial offensive tackle in the draft, and at least a quarter-century since there were more combined guards and centers than tackles in the first round.

Both streaks will probably continue this year, although there might be a few interior blockers who go higher in the draft than anticipated. University of Florida guard Mike Pouncey, who played center last year, figures to be the first interior guy off the board, and of the league college personnel directors queried here this week at the NFL combine, two rated Pouncey ahead of or equal to any of the tackle prospects.

Of course, there is a long way to go between now and late April, and a ton of material to still digest in the evaluation process, and it's hardly as if anyone has yet finalized their draft boards. But it's possible, personnel men agree, that Pouncey, Florida State guard/center Rodney Hudson and Baylor guard Danny Watkins could end up in the first round.

In the past five years, tackles have outnumbered interior linemen in the first round, 14-7, and the gap is even wider (33-13) the last decade. But there were two inside blockers chosen in the first round in each of the last two drafts, so there might be at least a slight change in emphasis.

"With all the 3-4 defenses we're seeing now," said one personnel director, "there is more of a need for centers, and guards, too, although (tackles) are still the biggest priority. But there are some inside people out there, too, and they can open some eyes, let me tell you."

And open some holes, as well, through which some other inside linemen might be able to squeeze.

"I know what (the emphasis) has been," Hudson said this week, "but I also know that, if you can block, you can block. ... But, let's be honest, the tackles are the big-money guys."

There were four first-round tackles in each of the past two lotteries, and there have been at least three in all but three of the last 20 years. That doesn't figure to be any different in 2011, with Tyron Smith (Southern Cal), Nate Solder (Colorado), Anthony Costanzo (Boston College), Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State), Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin) and Benjamin Ijalana (Villanova) all potential first-round selections. But the guards could affect the draft, too.

"The fact (Maurkice) Pouncey was able to step in and play so well (for Pittsburgh) last year probably helped some people this year," acknowledged one area scout.

Common name, uncommon talent: There were a lot of scouts anxious to see the aforementioned Tyron Smith work out, because the USC tackle certainly passed the eyeball test on Thursday, and could be the next standout Southern Cal tackle to be taken in the first round. Smith was thought to lack some girth, but weighed in at 307 pounds, and simply looked like an athlete. The consensus is that, unless Smith falls on his face between now and April, he'll be the best of a strong tackle group in the 2011 draft. Because he hasn't fully recovered from meniscus surgery, Smith ended forgoing the physical drills until his pro day.

Docs in the house: Smith isn't the only potential first-rounder about whom the scouts are curious. The interest in Iowa defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn, though, is more on his physical exam than on how he fares in his workout. Clayborn suffers from a condition known as Erb's Palsy, an on-again, off-again paralysis of the upper arm. Sometimes known as Brachial Plexus Birth Palsy, the condition is most often the result of a difficult birth or shoulder dystocia. Common symptoms are a loss of sensation in the arm, or even atrophy, and while Clayborn has played with the disease for years without any obvious side effects, teams want their doctors to question him about it.

Full(back) house: Typically fullback isn't a high-priority position in the draft - there hasn't been a pure fullback chosen above the third round in at last seven years and the best fullback in the 2010 draft, John Conner of Kentucky (taken by the New York Jets) was a fifth-rounder - and that probably won't change in 2011. But all five of the fullbacks here for the combine are pretty compelling figures, and all of them pretty much know their place in the pecking order.

"You're more like a lineman ... but with a lower number," allowed Shaun Chapas of the University of Georgia.

There are 34 tailbacks compared to the five fullbacks, but the group of blocking backs in the league is growing collectively long in the tooth, and the '11 draft might offer a few replacements. That is, for those teams that still use a fullback. Notable is that one of the first personnel moves the St. Louis Rams made after hiring former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator was to release fullback Mike Karney.

"There are probably a few teams," former University of Pittsburgh fullback Henry Hynoski said, "where you have no chance. But there is still a place, I think, for the fullback. I guess we'll see."

Hynoski is an intriguing case. He rushed for more than 7,000 yards in high school and 113 touchdowns, but accepted a back seat to Deon Lewis at Pitt, and made himself a terrific blocker. At 260-plus pounds now, many regard him as the top fullback prospect in the draft, even as an underclass entry. Of course, like Conner discovered last year, being at the top of the fullback class might only earn one a fifth-round slot.

"Whatever happens, I'll be OK with it," Hynoski said. "For most of us (fullbacks), we kind of had to give up a lot. Most of us were runners in high school and we sort of had to (subjugate) some of those skills and concentrate on blocking and catching the ball. If we all get a chance, that'd be great."

Deep thoughts: We're guessing Virginia deep snapper Danny Aiken actually has one of the strongest arms here. "I can throw it a pretty long way," Aiken, the lone long snapper invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, said. We're not surprised. Years ago, then-Atlanta long snapper Harper LeBel, maybe the best we've ever covered at the position, told us the key to being successful at the esoteric art was having an unusually strong arm. The rationale, LeBel said, and Aiken confirmed, is using the same motion you use to throw a football. Only, of course, you're turned upside down. "Strong wrists and a good release, those are the keys," said Aiken, of Virginia, who once played quarterback in high school.

The last word: "I guarantee we will win (the Super Bowl) this year. I'm not afraid to stand up here and say we're going to get it done. I'm trying to will a championship. ... I'm always going to say the same thing. I believe we can be champs. Why wouldn't I believe it? Somebody tell me why I shouldn't believe that we deserve to be champions. Why would you put yourself out there? Because I believe we're going to get it done. We're going to lock arms and get it done." - outspoken New York Jets coach Rex Ryan

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