Barron tops offensive line class
Alex Barron is clearly at the top of what isn't a great draft class for offensive lineman.
INDIANAPOLIS -- At 6-foot-7½ and 320 pounds, with the overall girth of a Manhattan city block and a wingspan approximating that of Yao Ming, Florida State left offensive tackle Alex Barron is not going to be readily confused with the normal perception of a doting mother hen.
Unless, that is, one listens to Barron's discussing his approach the art of pass protection. That's when the massive bodyguard morphs into a real-life security system.
Here for the annual predraft NFL combine, where his goal is to impress scouts sufficiently to earn a spot in the first round and to garner financial security for him and his family, Barron is ready to take care of business as well.
And, judging from the tepid reviews of the offensive linemen in this year's draft pool, scouts will certainly be looking for prospects such as Barron, tackles Jammal Brown of Oklahoma and the University of Washington's Khalif Barnes, along with Virginia guard Elton Brown, to separate themselves from a nondescript group.
To be sure, there is no offensive line prospect approaching the talent of Robert Gallery of the Oakland Raiders, the second player selected last year. Scouts aren't going to locate a player the caliber of Jordan Gross, the eighth overall pick in '03 and a starter as a rookie on a Carolina Panthers team that advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII. The next Tony Boselli, Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, Alan Faneca or Walter Jones? Not in this year's draft.
As usual with the offensive linemen, the physical size is jaw-dropping. The skill level, alas, and perhaps the ability to quickly step in and contribute, leaves a lot to be desired.
"I think, just based on what we've heard and seen so far from our personnel people, the depth is there," said Washington Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel. "But this draft might not have the real, high-caliber players we've seen in some other years."
Not since 1989, when the Raiders chose John Clay with the 15th pick, has there been a draft in which an offensive lineman failed to be chosen in the top half of the first round. The 1999 lottery, in which John Tait went to Kansas City at No. 14, was the last time the top-10 choices didn't include at least one blocker. There have been 20 top-10 offensive line picks since '90, but the number likely won't be augmented this year.
Since 1990, the first round has averaged 4.7 offensive linemen, but the '05 draft will be hard pressed to reach that. There were three offensive linemen off the board among the first 10 picks in 2002 and some scouts have suggested there might be only three line prospects, total, worthy of first-round consideration this year. You have to go all the way back to 1990 for a first round that included fewer than three blockers.
"I don't know," said Elton Brown of Virginia, glancing around a convention-hall corridor early Thursday morning at the cadre of beefy line prospects that surrounded him. "To me, all these guys look like first-round [prospects]."
The perspective of NFL personnel directors, who over the past several year have come to expect a bumper crop of blockers, won't be nearly as generous. The consensus, at least at this early, is that the true value for linemen will come in the second and third rounds. One AFC general manager actually cited Barron's former Florida State teammate, tackle Ray Willis, as a "nice, safe-type choice." Translation: A middle-round selection who won't cost nearly as much as a high-profile blocker and who might develop into just as good a player.
One positive is that the combine usually unearths a few offensive linemen who impress scouts with their performances and who enhance their draft stock. Among such possibilities this year are Anthony Alabi of TCU, Eastern Washington's Mike Roos, Central Michigan's Adam Kieft and Rob Petitti of Pittsburgh.
For sure, none of the offensive linemen projected as potential first-rounders is without warts. Barnes missed the second half of the '04 season with a wrist injury that teams will want to closely examine. Jammal Brown is a strong-side tackle whose pass-blocking skills will need work. Elton Brown is coming off a somewhat disappointing season and most teams feel that, with his skills, he will have to move inside to guard.
The ever-candid Barron conceded that he's heard the doubts about his lack of passion and doesn't disagree with the assessment. In his defense, Barron plays with a certain degree of natural detachment. He isn't the kind of player apt to get into a defender's face. Then again, as evidenced by his 67 "pancake" blocks in 30 career starts, he can obviously get into a defensive lineman's body.
"What I'm telling teams in interviews is that, if they're looking for some guy who is one of those 'rah-rah' sort of players, well, that's not me," Barron said. "Turn on the tape, and you'll see what I can do. Look close enough, and I think you'll see there is a real passion simmering below [the surface] with me, honestly. I mean, there's probably been a couple times in my career where I've gone after a [defensive] lineman and screamed, 'What the hell are you trying to do to me?' But, no, not too often. I'm not the one who's going to grab a player by the face mask to get his attention. I'd rather get his attention another way."
Although he flipped between the left and right sides in the Florida State offense -- a scheme in which the linemen are designated "strong" and "weak" and align based on strength of the formation -- Barron principally grabbed the attention of scouts with his pass protection skills. His quick feet and attention to the nuances of blocking, like leverage and hand placement, make him best suited to the left tackle spot.
In that regard, he follows a notable lineage of former Seminoles left tackles, such as Walter Jones of the Seattle Seahawks and the Philadelphia Eagles' Tra Thomas, who moved on to NFL stardom and multiple Pro Bowl appearances. Barron is also the first Florida State offensive linemen to twice earn All-America status, a distinction that, in Tallahassee, means his locker stall will be "retired," encased in glass.
It is a notable honor and one to which Barron hopes he lives up.
Despite a few shortcomings, Barron is a sure first-round choice, scouts acknowledge, and likely be the first offensive lineman selected. After spending the last several weeks working out in New Orleans with noted personal trainer Tom Shaw, who annually works with top-shelf prospects, Barron feels he is close to optimum shape.
"My goal," said Barron, "is just to keep growing my game."
Appropriate since, in what is said to be a poor offensive line pool, Barron certainly looks to be the best of the crop.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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