A loaded lineman lot awaits in NFL Draft

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 11:45 p.m.

An offensive guard hasn't gone in the top 10 of the NFL Draft in 16 years. Chance Warmack of Alabama and Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina could change that in a hurry April 25.

Call it the Year of the Offensive Linemen, with as many as five likely to be taken within the first 12 picks. Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M could be the No. 1 pick by the Chiefs, and Eric Fisher of Central Michigan — not recruited by a single Big Ten school — will soon follow.

Joeckel was so versatile that he successfully protected a pocket quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and a run-around-everywhere QB in Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in a two-season span. And, yes, he does want to be No. 1, and not just because of the big contract and Roger Goodell megahug it will bring.

“I want to get there,” Joeckel said. “I'm definitely striving to be the No. 1 pick, going through this entire (pre-draft) process and playing this season.”

Offensive tackles, of course, are a much-sought and highly drafted commodity. Offensive guards, who protect the interior rather than a quarterback's blind side like a left tackle does, generally are not.

But Warmack and Fisher are too good, too promising and too coveted to stay undrafted for very long.

“There are two beautiful players sitting there,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I mean, Chance Warmack from Alabama is the best football player I saw on tape this year. And Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina is just a tiny notch behind him. As a matter of fact, Cooper's probably a better athlete.

“If either of those players at are on the board at (No.) 10, I'd jump all over them. I couldn't care less about whether that's a position of value or not.”

Warmack, coming from Nick Saban's NFL-like program at Alabama, is considered to be take-him-out-of-the-box-and-play-him ready. Cooper dropped a little bit of weight last season so he could run better in a no-huddle spread offense, which probably hurt his strength a bit, but his athleticism is unmistakable.

“Being taken in the top 10, I would be ecstatic,” Cooper said. “That would be icing on the top to be the first guard taken since '97 in the top 10.”

Fisher might have been the best player at the Senior Bowl, where he was intent on proving a player from Michigan need not be a Wolverine or Spartan to be a prime NFL prospect.

There's considerable talent beyond the first round, too, even though no center — Brian Schwenke of Cal and Barrett Jones of Alabama are considered the best of the group — is projected to go until the late second round or early third round.

Warmack's Alabama teammate, tackle D.J. Fluker, will go high, and tackle Reid Fragel of Ohio State — projected as a third-rounder — might have gone higher in a year when there wasn't so much top-end linemen talent.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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