Detroit Lions 2022 scouting combine preview: Offensive linemen

Detroit News

This is the fifth installment of a multi-part series previewing the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine. The event will be broadcast over four days on the NFL Network, Thursday, March 3 through Sunday, March 6. Today, we’ll look at offensive linemen.

Lions’ pre-free agency needs

Barring an unforeseen decision to make Halapoulivaati Vaitai a cap casualty, the Lions are tracking toward returning their projected starting five from a year ago. Unfortunately, that group never managed to see the field together in 2021, due to a revolving door of injury woes.

It’s a valuable reminder about the importance of reliable depth, even at positions of perceived strength. And that’s why one of Detroit’s under-the-radar priorities this offseason should be restricted free agent Evan Brown, who performed exceptionally while filling in for Frank Ragnow. Brown might be a little undersized, but he also can  handle filling in at guard in a pinch.

Detroit also should be able to easily bring back offensive tackle Matt Nelson and guard Tommy Kraemer, while former fourth-round pick Logan Stenberg remains under contract. If there’s an emphasis beyond keeping Brown in the fold, it should be adding another tackle to the mix, potentially a developmental option who can grow into being the long-term backup for Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell.

Metrics to monitor

► Broad jump, 10-yard split, 20-yard shuttle, bench press

No one really needs to know how fast a 320-pounder can run 40 yards in a straight line, but the 10-yard split and broad jump can effectively demonstrate a lineman’s lower-body explosion. Combined with the bench press, which is all we have to showcase correlating upper-body strength, you can get a general sense for a prospect’s power.

The short shuttle carries weight for offensive linemen who are going to be asked to regularly work in space, whether that’s a pulling guard or an offensive tackle getting out in front of a screen pass and adjusting to blocking opportunities in the open field.

Top prospects

► Evan Neal, Alabama

A mountain of a man, Neal is listed at 6-foot-7, 350 pounds. Yet, for those not familiar, the raw athleticism might surprise you. The school’s director of sports science told The Athletic that Neal’s jumping power is in the top 1% he’s ever measured, routinely executing 48-inch box jumps. On the field, he limited defenders to two sacks and 11 total quarterback pressures on 650 pass-blocking snaps. And, as you might imagine with his size, he’s a mauler in the ground game.

► Charles Cross, Mississippi State

Cross has a prototypical build at 6-foot-5, 310 pounds with long arms. He uses his ranginess effectively when protecting the quarterback, allowing the signal-caller to be hit just twice in 2021 on more than 700 pass plays. He has far less experience run blocking, doing it fewer than 400 snaps the past three seasons, while primarily operating in a zone blocking scheme.

► Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State

A mauling brawler, Ekwonu is a powerful force in the ground game, showcasing his background as a state champion high school wrestler. He’s a work in progress as a pass protector, but made noteworthy strides last season, cutting the quarterback pressures he allowed from 25 to 13. Reportedly possessing excellent football character, that breeds optimism about his ability to reach his full potential.

► Kenyon Green, Texas A&M

Largely viewed as the best guard in this class, Green is a road-grading interior lineman who can single-handily open lanes for his running back. He’s also done an above-average job keeping rushers away from the quarterback, limiting the opposition to 20 total pressures the past two seasons and just a single sack. The biggest issue he’ll need to iron out early in his career is penalties.

► Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa

The premier center prospect in this draft, Linderbaum is a top-tier athlete at the position. Similar to Ekwonu, Linderbaum has a wrestling background, which shows up with his combination of balance, leverage and strength. He conceded almost no pass-rush pressure the past two seasons, but his smallish frame (6-foot-3, 290 pounds) point to being a better fit in a zone-heavy run blocking scheme.

Sleepers to watch

► Darian Kinnard, Kentucky

The Wildcats boast a run-heavy offense that has been churning out NFL-caliber offensive linemen the past several years. The 345-pound Kinnard is the latest product. Primarily playing right tackle, he has the strength and mass to overwhelm defenders at the point of attack. But like others from the school, his pass-blocking skills are going to need a lot of work.

► Cole Strange, Chattanooga

Strange has a ton of experience, starting 44 games, mostly at left guard, while earning first-team all-conference honors in 2021. On the lean side at 6-foot-4, 304 pounds, he’s plays with a non-stop motor and is always looking for the next defender to hit. Coming out of a run-heavy scheme, he’ll need work on his pass protection, but his play style and athleticism point to starting potential.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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