INDIANAPOLIS — Guards don’t often get picked highly in the NFL draft. Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson might change that this year.
The last time a college guard was taken in the top 10 was 2013’s terrible draft, when the seventh and 10th picks were used on Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack, respectively. A top-five pick hasn’t been used on a college guard since 1983, when the Broncos took Chris Hinton fourth overall, before trading him to the Colts for John Elway.
Nelson is considered by some as the top player in the draft this year. That includes Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout. He’s had Nelson as the No. 1-overall player since the end of last season.
“I’m not saying I would take him No. 1, but he’s a better guard than any player is at their position in this draft,” Brugler said. “He’s a dominant player you project as a plug-and-play. He’s nasty. He’s going to come in Day 1, and you’re going to start him and not worry about position for a long time.”
It’s not only draft analysts who like Nelson. The junior has plenty of fans in the NFL.
“Quenton is as fine a college football player as I’ve seen in a long time,” Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said at the NFL Combine. “As complete as I’ve seen. I’m not sure Quenton can’t play any of the five spots up front.”
At the combine, Nelson checked in at 6’5 and 325 pounds, which is typically closer to tackle size. As a freshman, Nelson played on the outside on Notre Dame’s scout team. Since then, he’s strictly been an inside player.
Pro Football Focus graded Nelson as having the best run block success and sixth-best in pass block efficiency in college football in 2017.
But Nelson has much more than just numbers. He has highlights. Think about that for a minute.
How many interior offensive linemen consistently deliver eye-catching blows?
“My mindset is being dominant,” Nelson said. “I want to dominate all of my opponents and take their will away to play the game by each play and finishing them after the whistle.
“Yeah, I would consider myself a nasty player.”
Nelson was particularly nasty last season against LSU. He did this to a poor linebacker:
Y’all keep acting like Quenton. Nelson didn’t do this too... pic.twitter.com/HAbxNIw8Xz— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) February 3, 2018
After asking Nelson about that play and what it’s like to plant another human into the dirt, a sinister smirk crept across his face.
“It feels good. It’s a good feeling. There’s a lot of things on a football field that you can’t do in real life, and that’s one of them,” Nelson said.
Despite Nelson’s almost can’t-miss play, there’s still the question of whether or not a college guard can be a top-five pick.
“It’s a philosophical question: do guards matter? Every position matters on the field,” Tobin said. “He certainly has earned his way to the top of this draft for sure.”
Nelson was much more direct about his intentions. Although he wouldn’t say he’s the best player in this year’s draft, he did say he’s the top offensive lineman.
“I should be talked about in that regard as a top-five conversation,” Nelson said. “You have guys who are dominating the NFL right now — Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox — that have just been working on interior guys. You need guys to stop them, and I think I’m one of those guys.”
There’s also the question of positional value along the offensive line. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com has Nelson rated slightly behind Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, but thinks the Notre Dame blocker is special. Still, in historical context, even the best guard might not rate as highly as a top offensive tackle prospect.
“I think the guard position is automatically going to fall behind the tackle position in terms of how great you can be from a historical perspective,” Zierlein said. “It’s like when you watch the Olympics and one score is higher because of degree of difficulty, that’s the tackle position. With that said, I see Nelson as having the opportunity to be as good as Larry Allen was as a run-blocking force. For a guard, that’s about the highest praise you can get.”
The NFL’s seeing the value in guard play, especially considering some of those athletic defensive tackles Nelson knows he’ll have to stop.
Last offseason, Kevin Zeitler signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Browns. The Lions signed T.J. Lang to a three-year deal worth $28.5 million. In 2016, the Eagles gave Brandon Brooks $40 million over five years. The Raiders’ two starting guards, Gabe Jackson and Kelechi Osemele, took up $21 million of Oakland’s salary cap last season.
“I’m always open to good players at whatever position they come. Guards are getting paid a lot in free agency,” Tobin said. “Whether they change your fortunes or not as a team is the debatable point.”
What doesn’t need debated, though, is whether Nelson deserves to be considered one of the best players in the 2018 NFL Draft. He’s already answered that.