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Strong up front


INDIANAPOLIS – If Thursday didn't belong to Luke Joeckel, it sure belonged to those like him.

Will April 25 be the same story?

That's what much of the next two months will be in NFL circles, determining if Joeckel or another offensive lineman will be the first name called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in Madison Square Garden on April 25. As of Thursday, Day 1 of the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, this much is clear:

The draft will have a decidedly offensive-line oriented theme.

And there's a fairly high chance the theme will center on Joeckel.

"That's crazy to think about," Joeckel said Thursday at the combine, which will continue through Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

Crazy or not, it's still true, with Joeckel among at least four offensive linemen projected to be possibilities in the Top 10.

"The offensive line depth is really good," NFL Network Draft analysts Mike Mayock said.

How good is good?

Good enough that Mayock ranks six offensive tackles as first-round possibilities, including Joeckel and Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher, as well as Lane Johnson of Oklahoma, D.J. Fluker of Alabama, Menelik Watson of Florida State and Justin Pugh of Syracuse.

"If I had to list a top eight or ten players, they'd probably be offensive linemen or defensive linemen," Mayock said. "I'm not seeing some of those impact guys in some of the skill positions."

Joeckel, an offensive tackle from Texas A&M, is projected by many to be the No. 1 overall selection to the Kansas City Chiefs. He also is considered by some the best left tackle to enter the draft in several years.

"It would be really cool, a dream come true," Joeckel said, "but 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. But my dream is to just play in the NFL.

"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."

Fisher, a left tackle from Central Michigan, has ascended in recent months, and is ranked by some close to Joeckel or even above.

"My goal here is to prove to everybody that I am the No. 1 tackle in the nation," Fisher said. "It's been my goal for a long time. I knew I had to put in a lot of hard work to get there, but I think that's my ultimate goal after this is all said and done.

"That's not up to me in the end. That's up to coaches and general managers, but that's what I'm working for."

Fisher's stock rose throughout this past season, then rose again at the Senior Bowl, where he impressed scouts and coaches enough that some rank him near or above Joeckel, who was long the consensus selection as the draft's best player at the position.

 "It's just amazing watching my dream becoming reality slowly," Fisher said. "Obviously, there's still two months till the draft and I'm going to do whatever I have to do to get drafted as high as possible and make my dream complete, but it's been absolutely amazing. Just a surreal experience."

A strong left tackle class is only part of what makes the line class strong.

"The offensive line class has strength in the front end," Chicago Bears General Manager Phil Emery told reporters Thursday. "When you look at it from tackle, guard and center, and you look all the way through, there are a number of players who would be in the mix as starters."

The 2013 class is perhaps the strongest guard class in the history of the draft, strong enough that a position that normally has at most one player selected in the first round could have two players selected in the Top 10.

Chance Warmack, an offensive guard from Alabama, is considered by most a Top 5 selection. That would make him the earliest guard selected since Hall of Famer John Hannah went No. 4 overall to the New England Patriots in 1973. NFL Network Draft Analyst Mike Mayock ranks Warmack as the No. 1 player in the class.

As good as Warmack is, many analysts rank Cooper just behind him. Cooper also is projected as a possible Top 10 selection.

"I'm very blessed to be playing guard, and be as highly regarded as I am," said Cooper, who said he has had people tell him during college that no way could he be selected in the first round playing the position. "I'm grateful. I have been blessed."

Cooper was asked the fun part of the predtaft process.

"The possibility of being drafted, and possibly being drafted high," he said, smiling.

Mayock called Cooper one of the most athletic guards he ever has seen, and said there's a very real chance each player could be off the board when the draft enters the second 10 selections.

"Chance Warmack from Alabama is the best football player I saw on tape this year," Mayock said. "Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina is just a tiny notch behind him. As a matter of fact, Cooper's probably a better athlete.  So if either of those players are on the board at 10, I'd jump all over them.  I could care less about whether or not that's a position of value or not. 

"So I would have no hesitation taking Chance Warmack at 10.  And to be honest with you, if I was one through nine, I wouldn't have any hesitation of taking him either. 

"I've never seen two guards at the top end this good that could be top 10 picks.  Love them."

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