Interior lineman get more attention

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 Scouting 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 Carmini (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.

Around the league

No safety net: Remember the old saw "safety first?" Well, apparently, unless your name is Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu, neither do a lot of teams.

The past two weeks have seen the releases of four safeties — Erik Coleman (Atlanta), Bob Sanders (Indianapolis), O.J. Atogwe (St. Louis) and Eugene Wilson (Houston) — who were all starters for their respective franchises within the past two years. And things could get a lot worse when, or if, free agency begins.

Counting the players released so far, and the pending unrestricted free agents, 25 of 32 teams could lose at least one safety who started 10 or more games the past two seasons.

"It hasn’t quite become a disposable position, but there’s a lot of turnover," one NFC coach told The Sports Xchange here. "Unless you’ve got a real playmaker, a guy who legitimately makes a difference in what you do . . . it becomes like musical chairs. It’s not easy to find the next Reed or Polamalu out there."

Especially this year. There were five safeties chosen among the top 50 players in 2010 — including first-round picks Eric Berry (No. 5 overall, Kansas City) and Earl Thomas (Seattle, 14th) — but the position might struggle some this season to approximate that number.

"I don’t know that there’s anyone like that," Denver coach John Fox, who might be replacing both starting safeties (Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill), told The Sports Xchange. "But we’ll see. It’s still early and there’s a lot of work to do."

Arguably the top safeties coming into the combine were Rahim Moore (UCLA), Quentin Carter (Oklahoma) and Tyler Sash (Iowa), and all have some concerns. Suffice it to say that none of the safety prospects to this point has a Berry- or Thomas-type grade.

Sly like a (John) Fox: Speaking of Fox, he is excited about his new gig in Denver, and despite some concerns nationally about the direction of the organization, emphasized that new vice president and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway has been "terrific" to work with.

Said Fox: "People say, ‘Well, he’s been away from the game for a while.’ But you know what? He still knows football and his time away from things has made him good at the business side, too. He wants to win, and I’m comfortable he’ll do everything he can to make us a winner again."

Fox conceded that switching the Broncos back to the 4-3 front with which he’s most familiar, "will bring some rough spots."

But he doesn’t necessarily agree that the Broncos lack the personnel to make the transition. And to make it fairly quickly. Fox emphasized that both Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers, who played 3-4 outside linebacker under the old regime, will fill the end spots. And not just as situational, pass-rush ends, either.

"They’ll do fine; they’ll hold up physically," Fox said. "You’ll be surprised. I think I know a little about end, and they can do it."

Common name, uncommon talent: There are 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.

Guaranteed money: Three "franchise" players have signed their one-year tenders already, and it’s somewhat surprising, given the uncertainty of the labor situation, that more haven’t autographed their deals. In fact, talking to league people and even some agents Friday morning, it’s long been one of the mysteries of the "franchise" tag, that more players don’t just sign and guarantee the money. Even if they sign the tender, players can still negotiate long-term contracts.

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. The likelihood is that Clayborn will be poked and probed a lot more than some of the 300-plus prospects here.

The end result: It’s unlikely that Iowa teammate Christian Ballard will be chosen ahead of Clayborn. Provided, of course, that Clayborn checks out physically fine. But there is plenty of interest in Ballard, and one reason is that he is among a pretty impressive group of potential 3-4 "base" ends in the 2011 draft class.

It’s worth noting that the 3-4 teams — and even with the various switches of defensive fronts likely to take place because of coaching changes, there still figure to be about 15 franchises who use the 3-4 in 2011 — might not have as much trouble this year locating ends to play in their "base" fronts.

The past few years have featured a lot of undersized ends who projected to 3-4 outside linebacker, and this year’s class certainly has its share of those players. But there are some pretty interesting 3-4 end prospects — guys who can line up at the so-called "five technique" spot and play well — and that is a draft rarity.

"It’s always been hard to find those (guys)," said Kevin Colbert, the director of football operations for the Steelers, and a man who selected Ziggy Hood in the first round in 2009 to fill the end hole. "The 300-pound end who can (anchor) against the run . . . it’s just hard to fill. Everyone wants the 260-pound upfield pass rusher. But with the ‘spread’ offenses being used so much in colleges now, defenses have had to counter, and we’re getting a few more (3-4) ends now than we used to."

There are even some talent evaluators, both in the out of the league, who feel that Auburn tackle Nick Fairley might be able to line up at a "five technique" spot in the NFL. The top 3-4 end prospect, though, might be Marcell Dareus of Alabama, who played the position some in college. Other guys to watch: J.J. Watt (Wisconsin), Cameron Heyward (Ohio State), Cameron Jordan (Cal), Corey Liuget (Illinois) and Muhhamed Wilkerson (Temple), and Jarvis Jenkins (Clemson) among others. A few scouts on Thursday night also noted that the mid- and late-rounds could have good 3-4 end prospects.

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 that pretty much know their place in the pecking order.

"You’re more like a lineman . . . but with a lower number," said 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 told The Sports Xchange, "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."

Corner market: The Steelers have said they will not use the "transition" tag on cornerback Ike Taylor, as suggested was a possibility in this space last week. But even though the club has commenced negotiations with a player a lot of observers feel in their most indispensable defender, and the eight-year veteran Taylor has said he would like to remain in Pittsburgh and play for coordinator Dick LeBeau, the club will have an almost impossible time re-signing him before the current CBA expires next week.

Taylor seems headed eventually to the unrestricted market, and after the Oakland Raiders on Thursday signed Stanford Routt to a three-year extension worth a reported $31.5 million, it’s hard to blame him. Routt, 27, started 15 games in ’10, but before that he was viewed as pretty much a second-round bust. Before last year, Routt had only once in his previous five seasons started more than four games. Four times in his first five years, he started four games or fewer.

A lot of people, including some Raiders coaches, weren’t even certain he was a good nickel player. If Routt is worth $10 million per year, what is Taylor, clearly Pittsburgh’s best cover defender and a terrific performer despite his suspect hands, going to get on the market?

The Raiders did their old Steelers’ rivals no favors with the Routt deal. Joked one player agent, in discussing the Routt contract and the extension recently given defensive lineman Richard Seymour:

"The words you love to hear anymore when the phone rings are, ‘Mr. (Al) Davis on the line for you.’ You can hear the cash register ringing in the background."

Deep thoughts: The quarterbacks won’t work out here until Sunday (and despite his comments, we’re betting former Auburn star and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton still doesn’t complete the entire regimen), but 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 here, told The Sports Xchange on Thursday night. 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.

Punts: Best educated guess on the fate of Washington Redskins unhappy defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth by a number of people here close to the situation: He will not be traded, at least not quickly, and perhaps not at all. Some feel Haynesworth will be back in Washington in 2011, mostly sitting on the bench, perhaps playing in spots, and will be made an example of while collecting (owner) Dan Snyder’s money. . . . The two-year contract extension to which Chicago coach Lovie Smith agreed on Thursday night is worth at least $5 million per year. . . . Longtime league security chief Milt Ahlerich, a devoted league man and always a gentleman, is retiring. . . . Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum confirmed that former first-rounder Vernon Gholston reached the 20-percent snap threshold required to trigger a bonus and that the Jets "will have to do something with his contract pretty soon." Translation: Despite his flattering assessment of Gholson, and his contention that "the arrow is still pointing up," Tannenbaum is preparing to release the former Ohio State standout. . . . The Falcons are mulling the release of onetime first-round defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson, although nothing appears imminent. . . . Cleveland team president Mike Holmgren lauded quarterback Colt McCoy, and the youngster could go to camp as the Browns’ starter. But Holmgren emphasized that McCoy must add bulk and arm strength in the offseason. . . . Larry Kennan, the executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, said assistants will likely wait until after a new CBA is ratified to seriously discuss forming a union. "But I think something is needed," Kennan said. "They’re kind of the forgotten (victims) in all of this." Eleven franchises have opted out of the league’s pension plan and a 12th, San Diego, is about to. If there is a lockout, assistants could have their salaries slashed 25-50 percent but be expected to put in the same hours, Kennan said. . . . A Bengals official reiterated here the team has no plans to trade quarterback Carson Palmer, despite the veteran’s threat to retire if he’s not dealt away. . . . New Oakland coach Hue Jackson continues to find it tough to fill his defensive coordinator spot. The Jets declined Jackson’s request this week to interview secondary coach Dennis Thurman. . . . Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said that new owner Stan Kroenke hasn’t made any major changes since purchasing the club from the heirs of Georgia Frontiere, but noted Kroenke has been "very supportive of us." Said Spagnuolo: "He has some ideas, but he lets us do our jobs. He knows what he doesn’t know." . . . Unless Green Bay officials are fibbing, there won’t be a trade of quarterback Matt Flynn. There has been plenty of speculation the Packers might entertain offers for their backup.

• 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.