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Thursday, February 24, 2011
Offensive linemen are focus of Day 1

By Mike Reiss

INDIANAPOLIS -- The starting left tackle for the past 10 seasons is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. The starting left guard, an All-Pro, is at odds with the club on a long-term contract and could play hardball by not signing his franchise-tag tender. The center enters the last year of his contract, and the top right guard, who has battled injuries, might not return.

These are key points to consider when assessing the New England Patriots' need for offensive linemen in the 2011 NFL draft.

The big guys up front were the focus of Day 1 at the NFL combine, and the consensus among top personnel men is that teams looking for help, like the Patriots, should find it.

"There are several players in this draft that are very good starters at the tackle position, good guys that could be guards," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said. "The depth of this offensive line group is pretty good. I like it."

Gabe Carimi
Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, who declared himself the best tackle in the draft, wouldn't say whether he met with the Patriots on Thursday.

Draft analysts project as many as five tackles going in the first round, with Boston College's Anthony Castonzo among the group. Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert has noticed an influx of quality tackles in recent years and cited a recent trend in college as the reason why.

"It all relates to the spread offenses in college football, because these guys are good pass protectors from their freshman year on as they develop," Colbert said.

As for the Patriots, while they have interest in bringing veteran left tackle Matt Light back in 2011, it's unlikely to happen until the league's labor situation is resolved. So that creates a situation where the team might be more inclined to draft a potential replacement as insurance.

The Patriots have certainly seen plenty of Castonzo, who was steady and durable right up the road in Chestnut Hill the past four years. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi spoke with confidence Thursday, saying he was the best tackle in the draft.

"I know I can play right away, that's my best asset," said the 6-foot-7, 314-pound Carimi. "I'm a draft-ready tackle."

Showing that he was a quick study in the Patriots' secretive ways, Carimi also wouldn't reveal if he met with the Patriots at the combine on Thursday.

Others to watch as early-round possibilities at offensive tackle are Southern California's Tyron Smith, Colorado's Nate Solder and Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod.

If the Patriots don't draft an offensive tackle early, and Light doesn't return, they could flip Sebastian Vollmer to left tackle, and bank on Nick Kaczur returning to form at right tackle after missing the 2010 season with a back injury. Mark LeVoir and Steve Maneri are also under contract for 2011 and could be in the mix.

Meanwhile, the picture is a bit cloudier on the interior, where Mankins' franchise-tag situation could lead to him not reporting until halfway through the season. Center Dan Koppen returns for the final year of his contract, and it wouldn't be surprising if starting right guard Stephen Neal is not brought back at a $3 million salary.

Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Rich Ohrnberger could compete for starting jobs, while the Patriots figure to also consider adding top talent in the draft.

Florida's Mike Pouncey, a first-round talent, could be a solid fit. Pouncey, who has played center and guard, didn't come into the media center Thursday, leaving the spotlight for other interior linemen like Baylor's Danny Watkins, Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, Villanova's Ben Ijalana and Florida State's Rodney Hudson.

Like Neal, the Patriots right guard, Ijalana has a background in wrestling.

"It was vital. Wrestling is probably the hardest physical activity I've ever been involved in. It's intense. It's a matter of what you do after you get tired," he said. "When you think of a [football] game, 60 to 70 plays, fourth-quarter drive, overtime, guys putting their hands on you -- it definitely helped me."

Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Watkins was impressive in his media interviews, recapping how he worked as a firefighter before attending college. Like Kaczur, the Patriots' six-year veteran who entered the draft in his mid-20s after working construction prior to going to college, Watkins is one of the oldest players being scouted.

Asked if that concerned him, he was quick with a reply. "Well, I don't have arthritis," he cracked.

Overall, the Patriots have drafted just one offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the last five drafts (Sebastian Vollmer), which sets them up to potentially address that area early this year.

Mike Reiss covers the New England Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.