From the combine: Luke Joeckel leads a loaded class of O-linemen, but others are gaining on him

INDIANAPOLIS -- The 2013 NFL Draft may be a relative disaster if you're looking for a quarterback who can turn the lights up on a franchise, but things look a lot better on the offensive like this time around. At least four offensive tackles and two guards could very well be selected in the first round this year, and there's no question that Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel leads that class at the turn. Some mock drafts have him going first overall to the Kansas City Chiefs, which would make him the first offensive lineman selected with the top pick since the Miami Dolphins took Jake Long there in 2008. Joeckel is somewhat reminiscent of Long as a player -- he run-blocks very well and is a great pass-protector -- and it's primarily with that versatility that he stands alone on top.

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"Yeah, definitely -- coming into this thing, I wanted to be the first tackle taken in the draft," Joeckel said during his Thursday media session. "Now I know it’s a long process until then. I’m trying to do every single thing right to make sure that happens. I know it’s a competition between him [Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher] against the other guys, you know (Oklahoma’s) Lane Johnson. It’s good type of competition between all of us. That’s one of the fun parts about the combine – the competition aspect of it, going against some of the best athletes at your position in the country."

Fisher and Johnson became more well-known after this year's Senior Bowl, where both players really stood out. Fisher, in particular, proved that he possesses all the tools to become a great offensive tackle over the time. And any questions he may have had to answer about strength of competition while at Central Michigan were definitively answered when he stoned some of the best pass rushers in this draft class through practice week. At 6-foot-7 and 306 pounds, Fisher was thought by some to be more of a "finesse" pass-blocker in the Joe Thomas mold, but that notion was eradicated to a degree when people saw him run-block from a wide base. Fisher has had counsel from Joe Staley of the San Francisco 49ers, another Central Michigan alum who was selected 28th overall in the 2007 NFL Draft, and is now an anchor on the NFL's best offensive line.

“Yeah, me and Joe have been in touch," Fisher said on Thursday. It’s great having a role model like him. I remember being recruited and seeing his picture up on the wall as a first-round tackle, and he was a tight end when he started out so I kind of came in as a tight end body and he showed me that it was possible. He’s gotten in touch with me recently and it’s great having somebody like that to look up to and be able to talk to about what to expect from the Senior Bowl to the combine to pro day and then to the draft. It’s great keeping in touch with him."

Oklahoma's Lane Johnson is another lighter tackle (6-foot-6, 303 pounds) who impressed in recent opportunities, and now looks to solidify his potential status as a first-rounder. But the biggest splash among the possible first-round tackles was made by Alabama's D.J. Fluker, who had alarmed more than a few folks in Mobile when he showed up at the Senior Bowl at 355 pounds. Fortunately for Fluker's future, he was able to drop enough weight between then and now to tally in at his normal playing weight of 339. Fluker projects as a right tackle or guard, but there's no question where his former linemate Chance Warmack goes.

The Crimson Tide guard may be the best overall player in this draft, and after intense workouts with trainer Travelle Gaines in Los Angeles, Warmack weighed in at 317 pounds. Able to bull through run blocks with the best of them, Warmack is also looking to prove that he's agile enough to work well in any zone scheme.

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"Chance Warmack from Alabama is the best football player I saw on tape this year," Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said in a media conference call this week. And Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina is just a tiny notch behind him. As a matter of fact, Cooper's probably a better athlete."

Cooper's name is one you're going to hear more and more as the pre-draft process goes along. The tape shows that he's one of the more athletic guards in recent memory. Occasionally lining up in a two-point stance in North Carolina's offense, Cooper showed the kind of eye-popping athleticism that should make him a combine star when the big guys do their drills on Saturday. He measured in a 6-foot-2 and 312 pounds in Indy, but as he said during his Thursday media session. he's played at a much lighter weight.

"During the season, I’d gotten down to 285 pounds running spread no-huddle offense," he said. "We just about tripled the number of plays we ran in practice. It really kind of sped up my metabolism, but now I’m up to 312 and I do feel the difference. I feel the power. I feel I’ve got just a little more butt behind me, and I’m ready to be more of a physical player.

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Cooper added that weight at the end of the season, through predictable means.

"Just trying to eat as much as I possibly could, and it really just turned into eat, eat, eat. Sometimes you have to sacrifice. Maybe it was pizza; maybe not the healthiest things but just get the weight on because I knew I’d work hard enough to get it where I needed to be."

The next step in that work process is already underway, but one thing's for sure. Barring something unforeseen, there will be a lot of blockers hearing their names on the first day of the NFL Draft. Until then, double up on the energy bars, and put the pizza aside.

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