Brown, Thomas, Blalock set to reverse trend

The NFL draft has experienced a shortage of premier offensive linemen recently. There never has been immense value placed on interior offensive linemen, so it's no surprise that over the course of the last three drafts the center and guard positions have maxed out at one first-rounder each. What is alarming, however, is that no more than two offensive tackles have been selected in the opening round in that same three-year span.

There's good news on the horizon, though. That downward cycle should shift in the next draft, as senior tackles Levi Brown (Penn State), Joe Thomas (Wisconsin) and Justin Blalock (Texas) all project as first-round talents. Thomas seems to have the best pro potential of the three, but he faces the challenge of rebounding from a right knee injury suffered in the Badgers' Capital One Bowl victory over Auburn in January. Brown has the athleticism to handle the speed rushers that left tackles face at the next level, but he still has some technique issues that must be addressed early in his NFL career. Blalock, on the other hand, is a massive road-grading type that projects better on the right side.

There are also a few promising youngsters who could emerge as competition atop the 2007 draft board. The best of the eligible underclassmen in my opinion are Sam Baker (USC), Jake Long, (Michigan), Kirk Barton (Ohio State), and Barry Richardson (Clemson).

As far as offensive guards are concerned, Manuel Ramirez (Texas Tech), Samson Satele (Hawaii) and Kasey Studdard (Texas) are three potential Day 1 picks. However, Josh Beekman (Boston College), Doug Datish (Ohio State) and Tim Duckworth all could creep into the fold with strong senior seasons.

At least early on, the 2007 crop of centers looks to be stronger than most years. Kyle Young (Fresno State) seems to be getting all the early publicity in this group, but I think he's a bit overrated. Ryan Kalil (USC) still needs to improve his bulk, but he is far more athletic and explosive than Young. Another prospect who will compete with Kalil and Young for top center honors in next year's draft is Leroy Harris (NC State), a hard-nosed mauler entering his fourth year as a starter for the Wolfpack.

Very few interior offensive linemen make themselves available for the NFL draft as underclassmen. Last year, for example, only two guards (USC's Fred Matua and Tennessee's Rob Smith) and no centers left school early -- and Smith was not drafted. That trend is unlikely to change in 2007, but Kirk Elder (Texas A&M), Adam Spieker (Missouri) and Will Arnold (LSU) are a few who could be faced with a difficult decision after their junior seasons.

Finally, not as many "sleepers" exist in this year's crop of linemen, but two names to remember are Donovan Davis (Grambling State) and Tucker Peterson (New Hampshire). Davis is a massive (6-5 5/8, 337) offensive tackle with sloppy technique but good potential, while Peterson is a more polished but squattier (6-2, 308) guard prospect.

Three-Year Tally

The following is a graphic representation of the number of offensive linemen (tackles, guards, centers) selected in each round of the previous three NFL drafts. Most NFL teams use this type of chart to study position trends when setting up their respective draft boards each year.