Notre Dame was churning out NFL-caliber offensive line talent in recent years under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand, who has returned to coach the Chicago Bears’ offensive linemen in 2018.
Should that put a player like Quenton Nelson on the Bears’ radar when they draft eighth overall in the 2018 NFL Draft?
Nelson was a unanimous All-American last season and is a first-round talent who seems like a lock to be picked in the top-10. Daniel Jeremiah ranked him as the draft’s second best prospect in his initial rankings, Matt Miller put him third, as did SI.com’s Albert Breer, who wrote Nelson was “probably the most agreed-upon prospect that I’ve discussed with scouts.” And even Mel Kiper Jr.’s first mock draft (the one that called Calvin Ridley the best receiver prospect “by a mile) sent Nelson to the Buccaneers with the seventh overall pick. No matter which way it’s sliced, Nelson is a top-notch talent and a premier prospect.
Rankings aside, he can also do this:
Nelson is a stud offensive line prospect and the Bears have a quarterback whose protection is of the utmost importance. Picking him eighth sounds like an incredible value. But how could such a prospect even fall to No. 8? What would stop the Bears from taking him there? What would preclude another team from picking him earlier?
Well, it all comes down to positioning.
Nelson plays left guard and interior offensive linemen have never been valued as highly as tackles on either side of the line in the draft or free agency. Fourteen offensive tackles have been picked in the top-5 since 2001, while Leonard Davis (2001 Cardinals) is the only guard to be taken that high. Davis was a productive pro who missed just five games in his six-year career in Arizona, but his best work came in Dallas where he made three straight Pro Bowl trips for the Cowboys from 2007 through 2009.
There appears to be value in the safety that comes with drafting a first-round guard. There haven’t been many (20, to be exact) since 2001, but 12 of them have gone on to be Pro Bowlers and six have earned first-team All-Pro status. On a percentage basis, first-round tackles are less likely to be Pro Bowlers (26.7% compared to 60% of guards) or All-Pros (15% of tackles, 30% of guards).
That’s a roundabout way of saying when teams have taken a leap of faith in taking a guard in the first-round, it has been rewarded with production. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a history of top-10 guards producing at a high level. Only three guards have been picked in the top-10 since 2001 and Davis has been the best of the bunch. In the same time frame, 25 tackles have gone in the top-10 – 11 have reached the Pro Bowl and six have turned into All-Pro players.
If you’re in search of a favorable comp for Nelson, look no further than fellow Notre Dame product Zack Martin. The Cowboys picked Martin with the 16th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and paid immediate dividends. Martin earned the first of his two first-team All-Pro nominations and four Pro Bowl appearances as a rookie. That’s the new standard for first-round guards for Nelson (and others) to live up to in the future.
Offensive guard isn’t the highest priority for the Bears right now, but that could change depending on how the team approaches what to do regarding Josh Sitton’s team option for 2018 and a potential Cody Whitehair position change.
It would be difficult to be disappointed with the Bears taking a consensus All-American lineman in the top-10, but that would come at the risk of not getting the best value at the position. A game-breaking wide receiver, impact pass rusher, and stud tackle could all be more significant pieces – this Bears team, in particular – in the grand scheme of things.