Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Photo: USA TODAY Sports

For a long period of time, offensive guards were always an afterthought in the NFL draft. The key position along the offensive line was always left tackle, followed by right tackle. In recent years, right tackles have been taken almost as high as the left tackles because in today’s spread offenses, where little blocking help comes from a tight end, the right tackle is on an island just like the guys on the left side.

Defensive coordinators are always looking for a mismatch — especially when it comes to rushing the passer, and they now realize putting a quick inside pass rusher up against an immobile guard can give them the mismatch they are looking for. Because of that, clubs began putting better athletes inside to combat the top interior pass rushers. It’s always a chess game in the NFL.

This year the top of the guard class may be better than the top of the tackle class. It’s not often that a guard is the first offensive lineman off the board, but that will be the case this year when Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson could be a possible top-five-to-top-eight pick. The following are my four favorite guards in this draft.

Quenton Nelson – Notre Dame

Nelson isn’t only the best guard in this draft, he might be the highest-rated guard ever! There are few that have his combination of size, strength, power, nastiness and skills.

Nelson was recruited to play tackle at Notre Dame but was moved inside to guard because the Irish had depth at the tackle position. He redshirted as a freshman, then started every game the following three seasons. As a redshirt freshman, he was very good, and then Nelson dominated the last two seasons.

Watching his 2016 film, I was concerned with his weight, as he he was playing at around 350 pounds. He wasn’t fat — just big — but it hurt his mobility. This past season he played at between 330-335 pounds, and then got down to 325 for the combine. If he stays in the 320s, we know he can be an outstanding guard, but he might also be able to play right tackle. That will be up to the team that drafts him. As a player, there is nothing Nelson can’t do. He’s a dominant run blocker, an excellent pass blocker and can play in space on pulls and traps. He starts the day he signs his contract.

Full scouting report (subscribers only)

Will Hernandez – UTEP

There can be some argument as to who is the No. 2 guard in this class. Some will have Hernandez, and others with have Georgia’s Isiah Wynn. I gave them both the same grade in the Pro Football Weekly current rankings, but I have Hernandez slightly ahead. Why? I love his combination of size, strength and athleticism. He’s almost like a poor man’s Quenton Nelson.

Hernandez measured 6023 and 327 pounds at the combine, and he ran a fast 5.15 in the 40. He also did 37 bench-press reps of 225 pounds, which is among the best of the whole O-Line group. Hernandez is an excellent run blocker who consistently gets movement. He has the athleticism to pull, trap and play in space, and he plays with an aggressive attitude. Hernandez is also an accomplished pass blocker with a strong punch and good-to-very good mirror ability. Like Nelson, he will come in and play right away. There is not much to dislike about Heranadez.

Full scouting report (subscribers only)

Isaiah Wynn – Georgia

Wynn is also a very good player, who started 42 games for Georgia during his career, so he has plenty of experience. For most of his career he played guard but was moved to left tackle in 2017 because he was easily the best offensive linemen on Georgia’s team.

At 6023 – 313 with quick feet, bend, athleticism and speed, Wynn has the entire package. He is an aggressive run blocker who stays low out of his stance, is explosive on contact and gets movement. He has the ability to adjust on the move and make productive blocks in space. As a pass blocker he can set quickly, mirror his opponent and anchor. When playing left tackle in 2017, he showed he could cut off wide speed. For a shorter guy, he has long arms and plays with leverage. Wynn can use his hands and almost always keeps them inside. Because of his athleticism and versatility, some clubs might rank Wynn higher than Hernandez, but what it really gets down to is taste and exactly what a club is looking for in an offensive lineman. Both are very good prospects.

Full scouting report (subscribers only)

Braden Smith – Auburn

Smith isn't quite at the same level as the top three, but he is pretty good in his own right. Smith measures 6062 - 315, but he has short arms for a guy that tall (32 ”), which prevents him from playing tackle. His weight-room strength is excellent (35 reps of 225), and we see that strength with his play.

Smith is a very competitive player who consistently looks to finish his blocks. He tested really well at the combine, where he was among the best in his group at the vertical and long jumps (33.5”, 9’5”) — and we see that type of explosion in his play.

Well-coached and alert, Smith is a very good pass blocker. He gets and keeps good position on his opponent and can anchor. He uses his hands as well as any lineman in this draft. Atlhough he might not be long enough to play tackle, Smith should easily be able to play center at the NFL level, as well as guard. The player he reminds me of is Cody Whitehair, whom the Bears selected in the second round of the 2016 draft. Whitehair has been a starter at guard or center since game one of his rookie year. Smith should do the same.

Full scouting report (subscribers only)