INDIANAPOLIS — Even with the spotlight fixed on College Station last season during Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy run, left tackle Luke Joeckel was content standing in the shadows and doing his job. Namely, keeping defenders away from “Johnny Football.”
Anonymity is no longer an option for the 6-foot-6, 306-pound offensive lineman. When he touched down at the 2013 scouting combine, Joeckel was widely considered one of the top-ranked players in the class. He’s No. 1 in NFLDraftScout.com’s latest rankings.
“The way I’m just looking at it, I want to get there. I am definitely striving to be the No. 1 pick, going through this entire process and playing this season and all that kind of stuff,” the baby-faced Joeckel said. “But my dream is to just play in the NFL. I know, being the No. 1 pick, after that, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve got to go prove yourself in the NFL.
“It’s just like that in college. Being the No. 1 recruit in college doesn’t matter unless you step on that campus. It’s the same thing. It’s cool and everything, but going to any team I go through, proving myself there will be the biggest thing.”
The last time an offensive lineman was selected first overall was 2008, when Michigan’s Jake Long went to the Miami Dolphins, but in a draft that lacks skill position star power and no sure thing at quarterback, Joeckel leads a highly respected cadre of o-line talent garnering extra attention.
Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher and Alabama guard Chance Warmack could also be top 10 draft choices.
The Kansas City Chiefs own the No. 1 pick and a need at left tackle. They’re expected to part with Branden Albert, the 15th overall pick in 2008 who battled back issues last season.
“I did have a chance to look at him, and I’ll tell you, he’s a pretty good football player,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Albert. “I heard he’s a pretty good football player on film, and he was a pretty good football player. I haven’t had an opportunity to meet him. I look forward to having that opportunity.”
Joeckel is almost certain to come off the board early. He’s light on his feet and more than held his own against NFL-level competition in the SEC. There could be more jostling for Warmack and Fisher.
Joeckel was a three-time all-conference pick — twice in the Big 12, last season in the SEC — but Fisher developed from more humble beginnings.
“Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan were my only two offers,” Fisher said. “And (I) went with Central Michigan and never looked back.”
With a strong week of practice against top-tier college competition at the Senior Bowl — the likes of which he didn’t often face in the Mid-American Conference — Fisher cemented his status as a top 20 prospect.
Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson could enter that conversation.
He’s a former quarterback who also played tight end and defensive end in a winding road from junior college to Oklahoma. He started at right tackle in his first season with the Sooners and his biggest question mark is inexperience. Johnson has only one full season of reps at left tackle against major college competition.
“It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you end up,” Fisher said. “That’s a big thing I take to heart.”
Bloodlines aside, Long has taken the long road
Given the many obstacles he faced in a path from Florida State and minor league baseball that led him to Oregon, offensive tackle Kyle Long knows the value of being resilient. He’s likely to be a middle-round draft pick, becoming the latest member of the Long family — following father, Howie, and brother, Chris — to play professional football.
Of the many prospects in this draft to overcome injury and incident, Kyle Long has overcome his own beast.
“Chemical dependency,” he said. “It’s no secret I was arrested for DUI on Jan. 3, 2009. It was a tipping point for me. The next day I made the decision I wasn’t going to be able to go back to Florida State University. There was stuff I needed to work on personally. I took a self-inventory and was able to start the process of recovery. I still have a lot to work on, but I’m happy where I am today.”
Bakhtiari’s versatility stands out
With just four wins the past two seasons, the University of Colorado doesn’t have many top-echelon talents in this year’s draft class. But David Bakhtiari is an underclassman who stood out on the offensive line for the Buffs and is regarded as one of the more versatile blockers in this draft.
“I’ve had guys tell me I’m suited for left tackle and teams have even told me they’d like me to be an athletic center,” Bakhtiari said. “Come Sunday, I just want to play, whether that’s tackle, guard, center or extra tight end.”
Bakhtiari added that he has never taken a snap at center, but does have experience playing guard. He has lined up at left tackle the past two seasons and at 6-4 and 299 pounds, he was the lightest offensive lineman during the weigh-in portion of the combine.
Colorado has had an offensive lineman drafted each of the past two years (Nate Solder, Ryan Miller) and Bakhtiari hopes to extend that streak to the 2013 NFL Draft. He said he wants to stay at left tackle, but that his ability to move around the offensive line will help at the next level.
“I feel like I can play any position.”
Illinois’ Thornton embraces his wrestling background
Offensive linemen are expected to take on and fend off 300-pound rushers on every snap. And for Illinois’ Hugh Thornton, his wrestling background has helped develop his physical ability on the football field.
“I think wrestling definitely has an influence on how I play,” Thornton said. “It’s physical, it’s one-on-one, it’s domination, and it’s why I play the offensive line.”
Thornton was a two-time Idaho state heavyweight wrestling champion as a sophomore and junior in high school. He moved to Oberlin, Ohio for his senior season of football and also finished third in the state of Ohio in wrestling at heavyweight.
“I could have played defensive line in college, but at offensive line there is nothing like locking someone out and as hard as they want to get past you, they can’t because you have good hips, good stability, good base. And all that stuff I learned in wrestling.”
Thornton, who is currently NFLDraftScout.com’s No. 8-ranked guard and is projected to be a fifth round pick, also is receiving advice from former teammate guard Jeff Allen, who was a second-round pick last year.
He texted me this morning and told me to enjoy the process and if I have any questions just ask him,” Thornton said. “He’s one of my best friends. And if I can get drafted in the second round I’d be happy as well.”
Measurements to note
For several of the underclassmen and prospects who didn’t participate in the all-star circuit, scouts are anxious to discover their exact height, weight and other measurement numbers.