In the weeks leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft (April 26-27), BR.com will offer a look into the top prospects by position. This week, it is interior offensive linemen. Leading the way is Virginia's Branden Albert.
The influx of underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft can add excitement and firepower to most position groups.
Selecting a running back wasn't nearly as sexy until juniors Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall, Felix Jones and Jonathan Stewart all joined the fray.
Malcolm Kelly, DeSean Jackson and Mario Manningham bolstered an otherwise ho-hum pool of receivers.
Perhaps the biggest exception to the rule of underclassmen is on the offensive line, where a gross majority of the best prospects are seniors – unless he is a prototype left tackle.
That is why Virginia's Branden Albert is so intriguing. After three years in a Cavaliers uniform, Albert gave up his final year of school.
It seems that the 6-foot-5 1/2, 309-pounder was right. As soon as he made that decision following Virginia's appearance in the Gator Bowl, Albert rocketed to the top of a list of tenured guards without a clear-cut leader.
A strong performance at February's NFL Combine further solidified his status. **
"I just felt like it was the best situation for me this year," said Albert at the Combine. "I just looked at the situation, the draft class, the guards and whatnot. I just felt like I could make a strong, competitive effort by coming out."
One of the factors that went into Albert's choice to come out is Virginia's offense. Head coach Al Groh, who has 13 seasons of NFL coaching experience, including a stint in 2000 heading the New York Jets, teaches his players to approach the game with a professional mentality, both on and off the field.
"Coach Groh runs a pretty tight program that comes from a pro background," Albert explained. "That helped me out significantly with this whole process. That made me a tough player, a tough guy. He builds a program that helps you have good character."
The Rochester, N.Y. native – who was also educated at Glen Burnie (Md.) High School – made sure to note the teammates he's played alongside throughout his tenure in Charlottesville, Va.
While at Glen Burnie, Albert was an All-Metro selection by the Baltimore Sun as a senior offensive tackle, but he moved inside at Virginia because someone named D'Brickashaw Ferguson had already spoken for that position.
Albert's performance at guard spoke for itself. He earned a spot on the Freshman All-American third-team and Freshman All-ACC first-team from The Sporting News.
Even after the Jets made Ferguson the fourth-overall pick in 2006, Albert remained at guard.
"The coaching staff felt like they had to find somewhere on the field for me," said Albert, who is also open to playing tackle at the next level. "I played the left guard spot that year, and they kept me there since then."
From what most draft analysts are saying about Albert, it was a good assessment by the Cavaliers' coaches.
He has that rare athleticism scouts love on the interior offensive line. A promising basketball career in high school, where he averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game as a senior, helped him build nimble feet, quick hands and explosiveness out of his stance.
Albert demonstrated his agility at the Combine, where he placed third among offensive linemen in the broad jump (9 feet, 3 inches) and tied for seventh in the 40-yard dash (5.17 seconds).
"I'd say the main strength of my game is my athleticism, my pass blocking," he said, quick to add a humbling thought. "One thing I do have to work on is my pad level on my down blocking and in-line blocking. That's one thing I'm going to have to concentrate on."
For now, Albert is concentrating on his school's Pro Day, which is March 18, and impending visits to various clubs across the NFL for more interviews. Albert already made his biggest decision, electing to enter the draft as an uncommon underclassman guard.
All that is left is for a team to make the call on him.