“The best offensive line prospect ever.” Among his key traits: a to-the-echo-of-the-whistle meanness marked by driving one opponent into the turf, standing over him and snarling, “Now STAY there!” And his 30+ reps were among the power leaders for his position group at his Combine.
And he is not Quenton Nelson. He is/was/still is Tony Mandarich.
The Notre Dame offensive lineman is rated as the No. 1 or No. 2 best prospect in this year’s draft, a consensus day-one, plug-and-play, perennial Pro Bowler. As was Mandarich in his day, the can’t miss draft prospect if ever there was one.
The point is not to project Nelson for inclusion in a team photo of all-time NFL draft bust, which Mandarich is (more on that shortly). The point is the dangers of buying into the hype and, even more so in fairness to NFL evaluators, the epic difficulty of projecting college excellence into an NFL context.
The Bears at No. 8 may be confronted with a Nelson quandary: Is Nelson the next Mandarich (No. 2 overall, 1988) or Jonathan Cooper (No. 7 overall, 2013)? Or is he a John Hannah (No. 4, 1973, HOF class of 1991)?
The reasons for the uncertain outlook lie in the position group itself, and lead to more “reaches” than any position group other than quarterback.
Former Bears GM Jerry Angelo once said that, because of the dearth of NFL-grade front-five guys, offensive linemen routinely are drafted 1-2 rounds higher than their true grade. The supply chain has not gotten stronger in the last five years, since the days when Angelo committed to the position group with three No. 1’s spent on tackles in the span of 10 years: Chris Williams (2008, No. 14), Gabe Carimi (2011, No. 29) and Marc Colombo (2002, No. 29). Colombo (Dallas) and Williams (Bears, Rams, Bills) went on to serviceable careers of 10 and seven seasons, respectively, but it all points to the difficulty of hitting on picks with a bust/mediocrity potential second only to quarterback.
Bears GM Ryan Pace has not ignored the offensive line by any means, albeit with a success rate in the range of Angelo’s. Pace invested a fifth-round pick in Jordan Morgan last draft, a No. 2 on Cody Whitehair in 2016 and a No. 3 in Hroniss Grasu in his first (2015) draft – all addressing the interior at this point. Probably just coincidence here, but Angelo and Pace both are former college defensive linemen, and Angelo often copped to how hard it’d been for him to score with up-front prospects on that other side of the football. Pace hit on Whitehair, Morgan’s rookie year was spent on IR, and Grasu is in a battle for a roster spot, giving Pace a net “Incomplete” grade on his O-line drafting.
The character factor
Maybe The Mandarich Experience was all a casualty of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. But the jinx (which really refers to solo cover portraits more than in-action shots) didn’t take down Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus or a lot of others. So cover-boy status isn’t the culprit.
Over-estimation or over-drafting (for need) usually is. Over-hype can enter in but hopefully personnel departments have appropriate filters in place for white noise.
Is Nelson really on a level with John Hannah or Gene Upshaw, even Steve Hutchinson or David DeCastro, or Kyle Long for that matter?
Best guess is that Nelson is in fact the polar opposite of Mandarich. Nelson has gone through the Combine, pro days, workouts and the rest with the same chip on his shoulder that he’s had since he came to Notre Dame. Mandarich firmly believed he was the hype and by his own admission, without the hunger.
Coaches are consultants on draft personnel decisions but don’t make them. While Matt Nagy will be in the draft room, he isn’t likely to be pounding the table for an offensive lineman on day one (round 1) or two (rounds 2-3). As mentioned previously, during Nagy’s years (2008-12) with some very good Philadelphia teams under Andy Reid, the Eagles took just one offensive lineman higher than the fourth round. And that one pick was a guard (Danny Watkins) taken at No. 23, who was a bust.