Pre-Combine NFL Draft rankings: Several future NFL starters among the interior OL class
Dane Brugler
Posted: 2020-02-18

In my last article, I wrote about the immense talent at offensive tackle in the early rounds of this draft class. However, it is the exact opposite for this year’s prospects on the interior of the offensive line.

Without a lock first-round pick at guard or center, it isn’t a top-heavy group. But there is quality depth starting in the second round with several players who project as NFL starters.

My pre-combine top-10 interior offensive linemen:

1. Lloyd Cushenberry, LSU (6-3, 312, 5.21)

Geismar, La. (Dutchtown), redshirt junior. Age 22.42 (calculated to nearest 100th on draft day)

A two-year starter at LSU, Cushenberry lined up at center in offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger’s offense, earning team MVP honors in 2019. He became the first offensive lineman to be awarded LSU’s coveted No. 18 jersey (only wore it in practice), which is presented to a player with high character and “does all the right things.”

Cushenberry anchors well in pass protection with his low hips and physical hands, quickly regaining his balance to redirect vs. counters. Although he doesn’t consistently bully in the run game, he stays connected to his man with quickness and tenacity on the move. Overall, Cushenberry needs to tweak some technical shortcomings, but he is an ironman with the lower body agility, natural power and dependable intangibles to be a starting NFL center.

2. Cesar Ruiz, Michigan (6-4, 320, 5.10)

Camden, N.J. (IMG Academy), junior. Age: 20.86

A three-year starter at Michigan, Ruiz was the starting center in head coach Jim Harbaugh’s pro-style offense, starting every game there the last two seasons. The coaches speak highly of his confidence and understanding of protections, which earned him playing time as a true freshman (Harbaugh: “Players gravitate to him and coaches like him”).

While not explosive, Ruiz plays with efficient movement patterns and outstanding body control, sitting in his stance with the awareness to make quick adjustments. He moves his feet well to gain proper angles, load his hands and drive his feet, but sacrifices his balance at times. Overall, Ruiz’s technique tends to break down when rushed, but he is very steady in pass protection and continues to grow as a run blocker, displaying all the ingredients to be a longtime NFL starting center.

3. Robert Hunt, Louisiana (6-5, 314, 5.35)

Burkeville, Texas (Burkeville), redshirt senior. Age: 23.66

A four-year starter, Hunt lined up at right tackle in head coach Billy Napier’s run-heavy offense. Along with right guard Kevin Dotson (his roommate), they formed one of the nastiest right sides of the offensive line in the FBS in 2019, although he missed the second half of the season and part of the draft process due to his groin injury.

Hunt has stubborn hands to keep defenders tied up, not simply engaging, but preferring to strike and bury his opponent. While he rolls into his blocks to overwhelm defenders in the run game, he must use better sink mid-kickslide to win the leverage battle in pass pro. Overall, Hunt needs to clean up some bad habits from a mechanical standpoint, but his quiet feet, loud hands and competitive nature are NFL starting-level traits, projecting best at guard.

4. Matt Hennessy, Temple (6-4, 302, 5.05)

Bardonia, N.Y. (Don Bosco Prep), redshirt junior. Age: 22.43

A three-year starter at Temple, Hennessy was the starting center in head coach Rod Carey’s up-tempo RPO attack. He never took a snap at center before he arrived at Temple, but he allowed only one sack the last three years and was awarded a single-digit jersey (practiced with the No. 3) for his toughness, work ethic and appetite for football.

Hennessy is alert and diagnoses quickly with his eyes married to his feet and his hands not too far behind, reaching three techniques with ease. While he isn’t a bully in the run game and will be out-matched by power at times, he does a nice job staying between the ball and defender due to his body control. Overall, Hennessy has only ordinary point-of-attack strength, but he is an athletic craftsman with his outstanding quickness, balance and attention to detail, projecting as an NFL starter in a zone-blocking scheme.

5. John Simpson, Clemson (6-5, 330, 5.26)

North Charleston, S.C. (Fort Dorchester), senior. Age: 22.68

A two-year starter at Clemson, Simpson lined up at left guard in head coach Dabo Swinney’s shotgun spread scheme. Clemson hasn’t had an offensive lineman drafted in the top-90 picks since 1979, but there is a decent chance that will change in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Although he has only average athletic skill and needs to polish his mechanics, Simpson is able to punch holes at the line of scrimmage as a run blocker and consistently gets the job done in pass protection when his technique is right. His intelligence and genuine intangibles are both strong selling points and made him a steadying presence on the interior of Clemson’s line and in the locker room (Swinney: “He’s one of my favorite kids I’ve ever recruited”). Overall, Simpson is built to be a road-grader and dominates his square due to his girthy body and brute power, projecting as starter-level NFL prospect with room to get better.

6. Damien Lewis, LSU (6-2, 335, 5.30)

Canton, Miss. (Canton), senior. Age: 23.09

A two-year starter at LSU, Lewis lined up at right guard in offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger s offense. After arriving in Baton Rouge in 2018 from the JUCO level, he instantly became a favorite of the Tigers coaching staff, who praised him for his initiative and never-flinching play personality.

With his body girth and thick lower half, Lewis creates a surge in the run game and has an appetite for finishing blocks. While he was rarely overpowered on tape, he struggles to reset after he moves his feet, creating balance issues when asked to block in space. Overall, Lewis doesn t have high-end athletic traits required for some NFL schemes, but he is a masher in the run game with inline power to wash opponents, giving him a chance to push for starting duties in the NFL.

7. Ben Bredeson, Michigan (6-5, 316, 5.34)

Hartland, Wis. (Arrowhead), senior. Age: 22.18

A four-year starter at Michigan, Bredeson lined up at left guard in head coach Jim Harbaugh s pro-style scheme. One of the few two-time team captains in Michigan history, football is important to him, playing with a killer instinct and the mature toughness that translates to the pros.

Bredeson is a savvy, power-based blocker, who can create a surge with his hands. However, his initial reflex is to react with his hands, not his feet, which will tie him up vs. quick rushers at the snap. Overall, Bredeson displays the lower body tightness and athletic concerns that likely limit him to a phone booth in the NFL, but he is experienced, strong and tough-minded, showing the starting-level positional traits for a power-running scheme.

8. Kevin Dotson, Louisiana (6-4, 310, 5.30)

Plaquemine, La. (Plaquemine), redshirt senior. Age: 23.60

A four-year starter, Dotson lined up at right guard in head coach Billy Napier s run-heavy offense. Along with right tackle Robert Hunt, he helped anchor one of the best right sides of the offensive line in the FBS the last few seasons, becoming the first player in school history to earn First Team Associated Press All-American honors.

Dotson is naturally strong with a physical punch to win the point-of-attack, displaying better-than-expected mobility. He tends to default to his power too often instead of trusting his technique and his snap-to-snap urgency could use a boost. Overall, Dotson has some untidy elements to his game, but he controls the line of scrimmage and physically moves defenders around the field like a pissed off club bouncer, showing NFL starting potential in a power scheme.

9. Jonah Jackson, Ohio State (6-4, 310, 5.29)

Media, Pa. (Penncrest), redshirt senior. Age: 23.22

A one-year starter at Ohio State, Jackson played left guard in head coach Ryan Day s scheme. After only 11 wins over his four years at Rutgers, he became an integral part of Ohio State s 13-win CFB playoff team in 2019 after the Buckeyes lost four of their five offensive line starters from 2018.

Jackson is a very stout blocker and wins with his natural size and energy, overwhelming defenders at the point of attack. His upper half is quicker than his lower half, however, which leads to balance and mechanical issues, especially in space. Overall, Jackson lacks ideal range and isn t nearly as effective outside his square, but his natural size, strength and tenacity are NFL-quality traits, giving him the chance to fight for NFL starting snaps in his first two seasons.

10. Shane Lemieux, Oregon (6-4, 317, 5.24)

Yakima, Wash. (West Valley), redshirt senior. Age: 22.95

A four-year starter at Oregon, Lemieux lined up at left guard in offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo s spread, shotgun scheme. He didn t play on the offensive line until his sophomore year of high school, but proved to be a quick study and started all 52 games at left guard the last four seasons.

Lemieux moves with agile feet and enough body flexibility to leverage the point-of-attack and get his hands involved. However, his timing issues at the snap and with his punch will be even more pronounced vs. NFL-level speed and power. Overall, Lemieux s lack of explosive traits limits his NFL ceiling, but he works hard to stay engaged and keep defenders occupied, projecting as a scheme-versatile reserve who should push for starting consideration by year two.

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