Until recently, interior offensive linemen didn’t get the same notoriety or have the draft value as tackles. That has changed and we see quality guards taken in the premium rounds just about every year. The reason for that is NFL defensive coordinators are always looking for a weak spot to attack along the offensive line when rushing the passer. If that happens to be a guard, then they will set their scheme that week to attack that player. To counter, NFL clubs have looked for better and more athletic players to play inside. Not only does this help players in the Draft, but in free agency as well. Quality guards are now getting paid similar to tackles.
By the end of the 2017 college season, one guard who may be at or near the head of the class as far as his NFL value is Notre Dame left guard Quenton Nelson. Nelson is a fourth-year junior, and 2017 will be his third year as a starter at the left guard position. Coming out of high school, Nelson was rated as a 5-star prospect at tackle but was moved to guard when Notre Dame had a need at that position.
I felt Nelson played very well as a redshirt freshman in 2014, but his play fell off some in 2015 as he got too heavy. When I say heavy, I don’t mean fat, as Nelson is a workout warrior who spends a lot of time in the weight room. He just built himself up too much and he lost some of his quickness and agility. This was evident in space, as he didn’t do a good job adjusting on the move.
In 2016 Nelson came back at a lighter weight and right away it showed on the field. He did a much better job staying on his feet and making productive second level blocks. For 2017 Notre Dame has brought in a new strength and conditioning staff and word is Nelson looks even better. Currently, Nelson is about 6050 – 325 with long arms. In 2015 he was closer to 340, and last year played at about 320-325.
Nelson is a very strong and physical player with good overall athleticism. I doubt he will run much faster than 5.20, but he has quick feet and balance. He plays with bend and keeps his back straight; you seldom see him overextend. Nelson has good snap reaction, stays low out of his stance and consistently gets to his blocks quickly. He is especially good as a run blocker, where he is very powerful in the lower body, has snap through his hips on contact and is consistently able to generate movement. Getting to the second level is no problem, and he is especially good with combo blocks. On pulls he can find his block and adjust on the move and put his man on the ground.
In the pass game, Nelson can set quickly and shows a quick, strong punch to control his opponent. Again, he keeps his back straight and plays with balance. He can slide and recover versus moves and anchors very well versus bull rushers. Nelson has been well-coached and has very good hand use — you consistently see him keep his hands inside. With his upper body strength and strong hands, Nelson is as good as any in college football in controlling his opponent.
As good as Nelson played in 2016, I look for improvement in 2017. He will then have a decision to make, stay in school for a fifth year or enter the Draft. By December, scouts may rank him as one of the top two or three guards in the country — and maybe the No. 1 guard if he continues to develop the way he has in the past.