Career Recap: Typically in an NFL draft, interior offensive linemen have a shot at going in the back half of the first round. An exception was the 2013 NFL Draft, which saw four guards get selected in the top 25 with two in the top 10. The 2017 NFL Draft was a rare year in the opposite fashion as no guards or centers were selected in the first round; the first guard didn't come off the board until the 38th-overall pick when the Chargers took Forrest Lamp. A lot was made about the 2017 NFL Draft being weak at offensive tackle, but it was an odd year on the inside as there wasn't a lot of interior talent either. One of the reasons for the lack of high-end talent was Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson deciding to return for his senior year.
If Nelson had declared for the 2017 NFL Draft, he would have been the top-rated guard and probably would have been a Thursday night selection. In this analyst's opinion, Nelson is a much better prospect than Lamp. Over the past two seasons, Nelson has been an excellent guard for Notre Dame, making an impact as a blocker at the point of attack.
Nelson played well in 2015 in his first season as a starter, but he was dominant in 2016. He moved defenders at the point of attack in the ground game and was rock solid in pass protection.
2017 Season Outlook: In Week 2 of the 2017 season, Nelson could see the best lineman he will face all year with Georgia defensive tackle Trenton Thompson. Thompson is a first-round athlete who had five sacks last year with other good production. If Nelson can shutdown Thompson, that would be huge for the former's draft grade.
In the middle of October, USC will visit Notre Dame, and the Trojans have some interior defensive-line talent. A week later, Nelson is slated to see one of the best defensive lines in college football with N.C. State. Defensive end Bradley Chubb is the headliner, but sources have talked up the talent next to him. To close out the regular season in November, Miami and Stanford could provide challenges with their interior defensive line talent.
Skill-Set Summary: Sources told me last fall that Nelson was receiving first-round grades, and one national scout told WalterFootball.com that they think Nelson is a future Pro Bowler in the mold of Logan Mankins. I'm in complete agreement as Nelson is a fantastic prospect who is well-rounded with a great skill set and a player that is NFL-ready.
You don't often hear an offensive lineman being a player who has fun tape to watch, but that is the case with Nelson as he is a dominant player who destroys defenders. In the ground game, Nelson is a pure bulldozer. He routinely uses his tremendous size and strength to push defensive linemen out of their gaps. Nelson can blast them off the ball and ride them around the field. Routinely, you see him drive block a tackle around the field before burying him with a pancake block. Nelson is going to be a load as a run blocker in the NFL and should be a real asset in short-yardage or goal-line situations.
Nelson is a tremendous drive blocker in the ground game with excellent body lean that make it extremely hard for defenders to shed him. He is superb at sustaining his blocks, and when he locks on defenders, he is very difficult to get away from. Between his natural strength and development in the weight room, Nelson has NFL strength already. Not only is he extremely strong, but he is athletic with good feet. Nelson is quick to the second level and good at pulling to hit blocks in space.
In pass protection, Nelson is very good. He has quick feet and is able to mirror speed rushers. He also gets his hands on defenders quickly and rides them around the pocket. Additionally, he has a strong lower body to anchor against bull rushes. Nelson is smart about picking up blitzers with good instincts and feel. His pass protection is just as NFL-ready as his run blocking.
The uptempo spread offenses lead to a lot of teams not wanting their linemen to finish defenders off to slow down the set up of the next play. However, Nelson blocks through the whistle and has a nasty streak to him. He is very physical and regularly bullies defenders at the point of attack.
In this analyst's opinion, Nelson could end up being one of the best guard prospects to enter the NFL in many years. He could have the athletic ability to get consideration at tackle and center. It wouldn't surprise me if Nelson ends up being one of the safest picks in the 2018 NFL Draft. I think he could be one of the top guards and a Pro Bowler early in his NFL career.
2018 NFL Draft Expectations: If Nelson plays like he did in 2016, he could be a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.