By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A bevy of beefy linemen are expected to command the spotlight usually reserved for quarterbacks when the National Football League (NFL) Draft kicks off with first-round selections on Thursday.
At the annual NFL Draft, the cornerstone of building winning teams in the enormously popular professional league, the last four No. 1 picks, and 12 of the last 15, have been quarterbacks.
Names that resonate with NFL fans such as Peyton Manning (1998), his brother Eli (2004), and last year's one-two punch of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, have underlined the crucial role a top-flight quarterback means to a winning team.
But a less than inspiring crop of college quarterbacks this year has suddenly thrust the men who play in the trenches into the spotlight.
Offensive tackles Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M and Eric Fisher of Central Michigan are most often mentioned by pundits as the likely choice of the Kansas City Chiefs, who own the first pick after having the NFL's worst record (2-14) last season.
"It just so happens that this year it's not a sexy draft in terms of a lot of offensive skilled players that are evaluated as first-rounders," former NFL coach and NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci told Reuters on Wednesday.
"Maybe one running back, maybe two receivers, maybe one or two quarterbacks, maybe one tight end. Usually there's more than that. There's more big guys, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, who are the cream of the crop this year."
The NFL's 32 teams pick in order from worst to first with ties broken by strength of schedule as clubs balance positional needs with the opportunity to take the best available player.
Following the Chiefs are the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and all the way down to the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, with the 32nd pick of the first round.
There are seven rounds of the draft, which will be held at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. Rounds two and three will be on Friday and rounds four through seven on Saturday.
At least eight players from beyond the borders of the United States may be selected in the draft, including several who are likely to be chosen in the first round.
Top defensive end prospect Bjoern Werner, a native of Berlin, Germany, played football for the first time at age 15, but went on to become an All-America selection at Florida State.
After a brief basketball career at Marist College in New York, tackle Menelik Watson, a native of Manchester, England, tried football for the first time at Saddleback Junior College in California and also won football honors at Florida State.
Defensive end Ziggy Ansah, a Ghana native, was a walk on at Brigham Young and is now projected as a first-round pick.
While an offensive tackle lacks the star appeal of a quarterback, running back or receiver, left tackle is considered a key position as he protects against a pass rush from the 'blind side' of a right-handed quarterback.
Joeckel and Fisher make no bones about vying for the distinction and rewards of being picked No. 1.
"This is a competition," said Joeckel, after participating in a youth football program on Wednesday. "Football is always about competition and every one of the guys here ... are all working toward getting that number one pick."
Said Fisher: "Number one pick is a huge honor. I want to get drafted as high as possible. I've done all I can do. The hay's in the barn and we'll see what happens."
Mariucci said teams with specific needs will be tempted to trade up address roster concerns.
"It's a big man's draft for the most part but the interesting thing will be to see how many teams move up in the first round and grab that young quarterback to compete for the starting job or for depth," said Mariucci, who coached the San Francisco 49ers for six seasons and the Lions for three.
"I'm guessing we're going to see some trades. Move up and get the defensive lineman, move up to go get that running back, move up go get that tight end."
Quarterbacks available include Geno Smith of West Virginia, Ryan Nassib of Syracuse, E.J. Manuel of Florida State, Tyler Wilson of Arkansas and Matt Barkley of USC.
Smith said he was prepared for anything on draft night, even having to endure a long wait in the green room before hearing his name called.
"One of the best sat in that green room - Aaron Rodgers," Smith said of the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl-winning quarterback who was taken 24th overall in 2005.
"Tom Brady wasn't even invited to the green room, so it's not that big of a deal."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)