Virginia guard Branden Albert(notes) was the story of the 2008 Combine, bumping himself up from status as a borderline second-rounder to the 15th overall pick with the work he did in Indianapolis and the film that showed his potential at left tackle. Relegated to guard duty so that Eugene Monroe(notes) could kick outside, Albert was nonetheless regarded highly enough for the Kansas City Chiefs to make him the cornerstone of their still-rebuilding offensive line.
Idaho left guard Mike Iupati had no teammate impeding his progress as Albert did; his possible future outside is based more on measurables and speculation. Scouts and evaluators see Iupati's 6-foot-5, 325-pound frame, 35-inch arms, and inside agility and wonder if he could be made to protect a quarterback's blind side. It's a bit of a departure from the school of thought that caused the NFL to hand Steve Hutchinson(notes) and any other free-agent guard with a half-decent pedigree millions of dollars five years ago, but as we've said before, the NFL is more and more a passing league, and quarterback protection is where the money is now.
Mike Mayock of the NFL Network believes that Iupati could possibly start in the NFL at any one of the five line positions, but there's room for caution before handing Iupati left tackle money. Though he was a star of the Senior Bowl, attempts to move him to right tackle in practices showed that there's still work to be done. Even at his natural position, Iupati struggled in the Senior Bowl game, allowing penetration and penalties and displaying iffy hand- and footwork.
That's not to say he isn't a blue-chip prospect; Iupati has the skills and mean streak you'd want in a guard, and there is enough raw talent to make the left tackle idea intriguing. But it's important to note that the talent is still a bit undeveloped. Those comparing him to the likes of Hutchinson should go back and watch Hutchinson's Senior Bowl week. Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com, who was at Hutchinson's Senior Bowl and tells me to this day how blown away he was by Hutchinson's skill set, had this to say about Iupati:
Iupati offers the combination of size, strength and athleticism to make offensive line coaches drool. He is far from a finished product, however. Iupati has great upper body strength and can control the defender in pass protection when he gets his hands on him. He has the foot quickness and balance to mirror athletic pass rushers, but was exposed as being fundamentally lazy during the week of practice at the Senior Bowl (and the game itself), as he'll stop moving his feet and, instead, lean into the defender. His foot quickness and long arms translate well to the offensive tackle position, including the all-important blindside, but to be successful there as a pass blocker, Iupati will need to be even more diligent with his footwork.
He does have the fluidity and balance to be successful on the edge as a run blocker. In some scouts' eyes, he's a better fit as a run blocker outside, as he too often gets tall out of his stance, rather than firing forward. This leads to smaller defensive tackles standing him up in the hole, despite Iupati possessing greater strength. The tools are there for Iupati to eventually star at any of the four exterior positions on the offensive line, but his dominant size, strength and agility will, at least at first, be held back by flawed mechanics.
It's possible that the 2010 Combine will be to Iupati what the 2008 Combine was to Branden Albert, but there's a reason Albert elicited such a buzz among the media covering the event -- such elevations don't often happen in such a short time.