DT Alan Branch feels comfortable at any spot along the defensive line
Alan Branch and Calvin Johnson, two juniors in 2006, spiced up the top of the 2007 NFL Draft when they chose, not unexpectedly, to leave college early for a shot at the pros.
Branch and Johnson also added some spice to the NFL Scouting Combine press room Saturday afternoon when they arrived for podium interviews within a few minutes of each other. Both players are widely expected to come off the board among the top 10 picks in April, and each gladly accepted the opportunity to state his case for such a lofty selection.
Branch, the powerful defensive tackle from Michigan, focused on his quickness and versatility. Noting that he played nose tackle as a freshman, defensive end as a sophomore and three-technique defensive tackle as a junior, Branch vowed that he could handle any of those positions on the professional level.
"I love all of them," said the genial big man. "When I learn defenses, I try to learn all three positions so that if something happens and I'm pressed into service at another spot I'm not caught off guard. Anywhere along the line is home to me.
"I'm big, but I've got a lot of explosiveness out of the gate. I think I can keep up with anybody for the first five yards. Whatever team drafts me is going to get a versatile player."
Branch had little trouble deciding to come out after his junior season. The Wolverines were much stronger than expected for most of last fall, going undefeated before finishing with losses to Ohio State and USC. Much of that time, they were carried by an extremely stingy defense, with Branch at the center. The team's success helped put Branch in position to move up NFL draft boards. He could be the first defensive tackle taken, a distinction that usually gets a player into the top 10.
"When everybody did their job, we stopped whoever we played," said Branch. "As we won more games, more people paid attention to us and my stock rose."
If mock drafts are to be believed, Johnson's stock climbed even higher this past fall. Generally expected to be the first receiver taken, he is commonly slotted in the top five. That's a direct result of his rarely-seen combination of size, speed and strength; Johnson played the 2006 season at 238 pounds and yet displayed the agility of a much smaller receiver. That's why he considers himself the best player available in this year's draft.
"I definitely feel that way," said Johnson. "Not many people have that [combination of] size, strength and speed. I feel like I'm the best athlete in the draft. You've got to have that attitude."
Johnson said he met with Buccaneers representatives the night before and felt the meeting went well. Of course, he was a popular evening guest for many NFL teams, and he felt good about the entire interview circuit.
And when asked to compare himself to current NFL receivers, Johnson wasn't shy, evoking a player combination that few teams could resist.
"I'd say a mixture of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, but more so like Marvin Harrison in terms of attitude," said Johnson.
Bobby Petrino, hired last month by the Atlanta Falcons, was one of a dozen or so head coaches to stand for a round of questioning at the combine's press room podium. Like the others, he mainly discussed the state of his team and its position in the draft.
However, Petrino was also in the unique position of being an expert on one of the hottest commodities in this year's draft. Until he was lured away from Louisville by the Falcons, Petrino had an up-close view of the unique talents of defensive tackle Amobi Okoye.
The son of former NFL running back Christian Okoye, Amobi inserted himself into the consciousness of every draftnik with a sterling performance at last month's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. That he is stunningly young to be a matriculating senior – Okoye started at Louisville when he was 16 and is now only 19 – became just a side story to how gifted he may be. After his frequently dominating performance in Mobile, Okoye seems to have leapt up the draft charts to the first half of the opening round.
Petrino and the Louisville staff helped their young star get in position for such a rise. In 2005, Okoye played at about 317 pounds and didn't have quite the impact for which the Cardinals had hoped. "When we went back and looked at the film," said Petrino, "he wasn't on the field as much as we wanted."
The solution was to encourage Okoye to play at somewhere below 300 pounds in 2006, and the results were just what the team had expected. Okoye became a full-game impact player, and it became obvious that there was still room for him to improve. Petrino noted that the team that drafts Okoye will be getting a player at the age at which many are just going into their redshirt freshman seasons.
"The ceiling for him is way out there," summarized Petrino.
Fast and Strong
Combine officials posted the first round of (unofficial) 40-yard dash times and weight-room results on Saturday afternoon. Though many of the skill-position players have yet to test their speed, the offensive linemen and tight end ran their 40s on Saturday morning.
As if Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas wasn't already one of the draft's most coveted players, he may have even improved his stock with a strong run. Thomas' 4.92-second 40-yard dash was third-best among all offensive linemen at the combine.
Below are the top 10 40-yard dash times among offensive linemen on Saturday (some players do not participate in every drill):
|1. Allen Barbre (T)||Missouri Southern||4.84|
|2. Gabe Hall (T)||Texas Tech||4.91|
|3. Joe Thomas (T)||Wisconsin||4.92|
|4. Ryan Kalil (C)||USC||4.96|
|5. Tony Ugoh (T)||Arkansas||5.06|
|6. Andy Alleman (G)||Akron||5.07|
|7t. Brandon Frye (G)||Virginia Tech||5.08|
|7t. Adam Koets (T)||Oregon State||5.08|
|7t. James Marten (T)||Boston College||5.08|
|10. Ryan Harris (T)||Notre Dame||5.09|
Of course, while speed is important at any position, it probably isn't the most important asset for an offensive linemen. That's why the weight room work often garners more attention than the 40-yard dashes when it comes to these trench workers. The league also reported the top 10 performances by offensive linemen in the bench press circuit on Saturday, measured in the number of times in succession the player could lift 225 pounds.
Here, two powerful guards from Texas carried the day, as the Longhorns' Justin Blalock and Texas Tech's Manuel Ramirez tied for the lead at 40 repetitions each.
Below are the top 10 bench press repetition totals among offensive linemen on Saturday (some players do not participate in every drill):
|1t. Justin Blalock (G)||Texas||40|
|1t. Manuel Ramirez (G)||Texas Tech||40|
|3t. Nathan Bennett (G)||Clemson||34|
|3t. Dustin Fry (C)||Clemson||34|
|3t. Brandon Frye (G)||Virginia Tech||34|
|3t. Ryan Kalil (C)||USC||34|
|3t. Adam Koets (T)||Oregon State||34|
|3t. Enoka Lucas (C)||Oregon||34|
|3t. Scott Stephenson (C)||Iowa State||34|
|10t. Casey Studdard (G)||Texas||32|
|10t. Tony Ugoh (T)||Arkansas||32|
The assembled tight ends also ran their 40-yard dashes. Below are the top eight 40-yard dash times at that position on Saturday (some players do not participate in every drill):
|1. Greg Olsen||Miami||4.51|
|2t. Michael Allen||Whitworth||4.71|
|2t. Gijon Robinson||Missouri Western||4.71|
|4t. Ben Patrick||Delaware||4.74|
|4t. Derek Schouman||Boise State||4.74|
|6. Dante Rosario||Oregon||4.76|
|7t. Kevin Boss||Western Oregon||4.78|
|7t. Scott Chandler||Iowa||4.78|