Quenton Nelson

Could Quenton Nelson increase his value by playing tackle?

USA Today

Could Quenton Nelson increase his value by playing tackle?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Quenton Nelson hasn’t met with the Bears yet during this pre-draft process, and doesn’t have a local visit scheduled with them. But maybe that’s not too surprising.

Harry Hiestand has better intel on him than anyone else after coaching him for the past four years at Notre Dame, after all. 

“Coach Hiestand, he’s known me since I was an immature freshman that wasn’t good at football, until now being a lot more mature and responsible and doing the right thing and a good football player,” Nelson said. “He knows everything about me.”

Could part of that intel provided by Hiestand be that Nelson has the ability to eventually play tackle?

Nelson might be the closest to a “sure thing” prospect in this year’s draft, with his reams of dominant film and off-the-charts work ethic projecting him as an All-Pro for years to come. But that he plays guard is a stumbling block, given interior positions generally don’t hold as much value as tackles in the NFL.

So here’s a potential scenario for the Bears: They draft Nelson at No. 8 — which is still "high" for a guard — and plug him at left guard in 2018. They then, under the careful watch of Hiestand, slide him to tackle in 2019. 

“I’m pretty convinced that Q could do whatever he sets his mind to,” Mike McGlinchey, a first-round tackle in his own right who's Nelson’s ex-Irish teammate and workout buddy, said. “If that’s what teams want him to play, I’m sure he’ll take that head on and perform to the best of his ability.” 

Nelson, to his credit, is confident he could make the switch to tackle (he was recruited by Hiestand as a tackle, and began his college career backing up Zack Martin at tackle). He said the only team that’s asked him about it so far is the Cincinnati Bengals, though it’s unlikely he’ll still be on the board when they pick at No. 21. 

But maybe the thought of guards being significantly less valuable than tackles is slowly becoming antiquated in today’s NFL. Four of the top 10 highest paid offensive linemen, by total contract value, are interior linemen. Three of the top 10 offensive linemen with the most guaranteed money are guards, led by Andrew Norwell, who inked a five-year, $66.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this month with $30 million guaranteed at signing. Only one offensive lineman — Nate Solder, who just signed with the New York Giants — is guaranteed more money. 

Following the money, if teams are willing to splash down loads of cash for the best guards in the league, a team may be willing to spend a top-10 pick on a guard who could immediately be among the best at his position in the NFL. Or the calculation for whatever team drafts him may be this: Would you rather have him as a perennial All-Pro guard or "merely" a solid-to-good tackle? 

Regardless of where he ends up playing, though, Nelson is one of those supremely-talented players who takes the right approach to his craft — in other words, one of those guys you just want to get in your building. And while Nelson said he’d love to play for his hometown New York Giants — who could be interested in him with the No. 2 pick — he said getting to link back up with Hiestand would be an incredible opportunity, too. 

“That would be amazing to play for him,” Nelson said. “He’s the one that made me into the player I am today. I wouldn’t be here without him or be in any conversations in the draft without him, so it would mean a lot to play for him again.” 

Free agent focus: Free-agent options for Bears to fill hole on offensive line

Free agent focus: Free-agent options for Bears to fill hole on offensive line

One of Ryan Pace’s first moves with an eye on the Bears’ 2018 roster was releasing guard Josh Sitton back in February, which generated $8 million in cap savings but created a hole in team’s offensive line. The Bears can pencil in four starters for September: Left tackle Charles Leno, guard Kyle Long, guard/center Cody Whitehair and right tackle Bobby Massie. None of those guys appear to be going anywhere as free agency nears. 

Part of the reason the Bears released Sitton was the team’s confidence in the health of Long, who underwent neck surgery in December, had his shoulder operated on in January and missed time due to an ankle injury last season. 

“Kyle is working hard,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “We feel good about his progress. So yeah, that's part of the equation.”

As the Bears look for Sitton’s replacement, the ability of Whitehair to play guard (the position at which he was drafted) or center (where he’s largely played the last two years) offers some flexibility. Bringing in Harry Hiestand — Notre Dame’s offensive line coach from 2012 to 2017 — makes Quenton Nelson a natural fit with the No. 8 pick in April, presuming A) Nelson is still on the board and B) the Bears are OK “reaching” for a less-valued position with a top-10 pick. 

But if the Bears do look to fill Sitton’s spot through free agency, they’ll have some interesting options, too. 

Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers

Norwell is the best offensive lineman available this month. The 6-foot-6, 313-pound 26-year-old is coming off an All-Pro 2017 season and hasn’t missed a game in the last two years. He has a similar “nasty” streak to Nelson, and signing him would allow Long to stay on the right side of the line, where he’s been a three-time Pro Bowler. 

“Andrew had a terrific year, and he's been nothing but a solid player for us every season,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last week. 

The issue with Norwell, though, is pretty clear: He’s going to cost quite a bit, maybe upwards of $30 million in guaranteed money. If the Bears wanted to get younger and cheaper in releasing Sitton, they’ll get younger with Norwell, but not cheaper. Even with a healthy cap situation, signing Norwell could mean the Bears have about $20 million tied up at guard in 2020 — and that’s not to mention the likely need for Whitehair to receive a second contract in a year. 

Don’t put it past Pace to commit resources to building Mitch Trubisky’s offensive line, but given the current composition of that group, it seems a little far-fetched to imagine Norwell as part of it. 

Zach Fulton, Kansas City Chiefs

Fulton looks like a good fit for the Bears for a few reasons:

— He played in 63 of 64 games from 2014 to 2017 with the Chiefs, so Matt Nagy can vouch for the 26-year-old’s toughness and consistency. 

— Like Whitehair, he’s flexible enough to play guard or center, so getting him in the building would allow Hiestand to figure out the best interior combination during OTAs, minicamps and training camp. 

— He’d accomplish both getting younger and cheaper than Sitton. 

— He’s a Homewood-Flossmoor alum, and being a local product couldn’t hurt the Bears’ pitch to him. 

Josh Kline, Tennessee Titans

If the Bears can’t land/pass on Norwell, the 28-year-old Kline would make sense as a target along with Fulton. He played in all 16 games for the Titans last year, though that was the first time in his five-year career that he didn’t miss a game. The Hoffman Estates native (he went to high school in Ohio) would provide some less-expensive stability, though Fulton might be the better option if the Bears have a choice. 

Justin Pugh, New York Giants

The Giants want to keep Pugh, who’s played both guard and tackle since New York used a first-round pick on him in 2013. If the Giants are willing to pay him like a tackle, that probably prices him out of the Bears’ range if they want him as a guard — if he even wants to leave New York in the first place. 

Senio Kelemete, New Orleans Saints

Kelemete and Pace overlapped for a year in New Orleans, and he’d be a solid fit as a reserve with the ability to play all five positions on the offensive line. He’s never been a full-time starter (58 games played, 22 starts), but he’s only missed one game in the last three years, potentially making him a more reliable backup than Tom Compton going forward. 

Chris Hubbard, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Bears don’t appear to be moving on from Massie at right tackle in part because A) he’s coming off a solid season and 2) there’s not a clear upgrade available in free agency. If the Bears sign a tackle, it’ll most likely be a backup along the lines of Hubbard, who’s played in 40 games but only started 14 times in his four-year NFL career.

Post-NFL Combine mock draft: Will Quenton Nelson be available at No. 8, or does that even matter?

Post-NFL Combine mock draft: Will Quenton Nelson be available at No. 8, or does that even matter?

NFL coaching staffs and front offices spent the last week in a whirlwind of interviews, test scores and medicals, and began building out their draft boards in earnest in Indianapolis. So with that in mind, here's our latest mock draft, with another one coming after free agency dies down -- and, most importantly, we know where Kirk Cousins winds up. 

1. Cleveland Browns

JJ: Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Josh Allen left the NFL Combine with plenty of buzz (and not just because of DraftJoshAllen.com), but Darnold still seems like the top quarterback in this class for now. 

Moon: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The far-and-away top rusher in this draft lit up the Scouting Combine, and the cluster of QB prospects, none as high-rated as Barkley, still give the Browns options at No. 4.

2. New York Giants

JJ:  Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Even with Eli Manning in the twilight of his career, and with a number of highly regarded quarterbacks on the board, the Giants go with a guy who looks like the best player in this draft. Is a running back at No. 2 too high? This is how general manager Dave Gettleman responded to that question last week: “The bottom line is, is the guy a football player? This whole myth of devaluing running backs, I find it kind of comical. At the end of the day, if he’s a great player, he’s a great player.”

Moon: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Drills and interviews will strike teams differently but with Barkley gone and Eli’s time running out, Rosen rates as best of this year’s QB clump. Sam Darnold has been prominent but USC QB’s have a very suspect history (for every Carson Palmer, there are Matt Barkley, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and even Todd Marinovich). Rosen could be the last ‘SC guy to plummet on draft day. Of course, UCLA did produce Cade McNown, but Troy Aikman was also a Bruin.

3. Indianapolis Colts

JJ: Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State

The Colts’ woeful pass rush generated only 25 sacks last year, and Chubb is the best defensive player in this class and the only clear-cut elite pass rusher available. With Barkley off the board at No. 2, this is a layup for Chris Ballard. 

Moon: Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State

Defense is such a priority for the Colts and its new coaching staff. Frank Reich likely can work Andrew Luck into something and a franchise pass rusher raises everything on that side of the football.

4. Cleveland Browns (from Houston)

JJ: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

With Allen, Rosen and Baker Mayfield still on my board here, and Barkley off it, the Browns very well could trade down here. But in the event they don’t, Fitzpatrick would be a strong pick with the ability to play either safety or cornerback at an elite level. 

Moon: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Measurables may not be ideal (6-foot-1) but they weren’t for Russell Wilson either. Mayfield made all the throws and has the benefit of coming from a big-time program.

5. Denver Broncos

JJ: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

The Broncos wouldn’t necessarily have to play Allen right away, which seems like a good situation for a guy with off-the-charts talent but some accuracy issues at Wyoming. Don't be surprised if Denver goes quarterback if there's a healthy debate between Allen and Mayfield, given the Broncos' coaching staff had the benefit of coaching both during the Senior Bowl. 

Moon: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

Denver needs a QB hit and evaluations will determine which one. If the Broncos land Kirk Cousins, they’ll try to trade out of here but John Elway needs to hit on a QB somewhere.

6. New York Jets

JJ: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

With some feelings around Indianapolis last week that Kirk Cousins could sign with the Minnesota Vikings, even if it means taking less money than the Jets could offer him, New York goes with a quarterback here. Quite a few teams came away impressed with Mayfield at the Combine, as was the case at the Senior Bowl. He could be a media star in New York if he were to lead the Jets to be competitive in the AFC East. 

Moon: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

QB a more pressing need but this is the top DB in the draft. Jets have been in the Kirk Cousins Derby, too, which could ultimately scramble the top 10 by the time teams are on the clock.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

JJ: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame

Tampa Bay’s rushing attack was brutal last year, averaging a paltry 3.7 yards per carry (27th in the NFL). Nelson is an absolute mauler, and is one of the best offensive line prospects to come out of college in recent memory. That he’s a guard shouldn’t matter much here. 

Moon: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

Ward was a backfield mate of Marshon Lattimore and consistently solid. Bucs haven’t gone DL at No. 1 in five years and want to remain elite up front but Ward projects as day-one starter.

8. Chicago Bears

JJ: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

Edmunds is a freak athlete who only turns 20 a few days after the NFL Draft. While he only had 5 1/2 sacks last year with Virginia Tech, he said last week he’s confident he could succeed at outside linebacker, which would certainly help fill a glaring need for a Bears team that needs at least one more reliable edge rusher. “I don't limit myself so I can perfect my craft at whatever position it is,” Edmunds said. “Whatever position they ask me to play, I'll be fine."

Moon: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

If there’s a trade-down scenario for Nelson, Bears would seriously consider. But the need after releasing Pernell McPhee is for rush-LB and those are too rare and too expensive in free agency. Edmunds has length for 3-4 OLB or possible ILB when Bears go nickel. Decision will be between Edmunds, with length, and Roquan Smith, with better production (6.5 sacks, 14 TFL in ’17).

9. San Francisco 49ers

JJ: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

Ridley is the most polished route-runner in this draft class and would be a good fit for Jimmy Garoppolo and that hype-fueled 49ers offense. He’s probably not worth the No. 8 pick for the Bears, unless they whiff on all their top receiver targets, but if they were to trade down and he was available at, say, No. 11, that may make more sense. 

Moon: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

Assuming Bears don’t grab Smith, he is a hedge against Ruben Foster injury and deepening character issues. Calvin Ridley may be too good to pass up as complement to QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

10. Oakland Raiders

JJ: Vita Vea, DT Washington

Vea did approximately 500 bench press reps and ran a ridiculous 40-yard dash for a man of his 347-pound size. He could be an interior force for years to come for whatever team drafts him. 

Moon: Vita Vea, DT, Washington

Ridley would fit Raiders’ tradition for impact passing offense if he lasts this long, and Raiders very likely to go offense to muscle up for Jon Gruden’s program and support Derek Carr. But Gruden’s Oakland and Tampa Bay teams were stout on defense.

JJ's picks Nos. 11-32:

11. Miami Dolphins: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
12. Cincinnati Bengals: Connor Williams, OL, Texas
13. Washington Redskins: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
14. Green Bay Packers: Mike McGlinchey, OL, Notre Dame
15. Arizona Cardinals: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

16. Baltimore Ravens: Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
17. Los Angeles Chargers: Derwin James, S, Florida State
18. Seattle Seahawks: Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College
19. Dallas Cowboys: Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
20. Detroit Lions: Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

21. Buffalo Bills: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
22. Buffalo Bills: Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
23. Los Angeles Rams: Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA
24. Carolina Panthers: James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
25. Tennessee Titans: Uchenna Nwosu, OLB, USC

26. Atlanta Falcons: Isaiah Wynn, OG, Georgia
27. New Orleans Saints: Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina
28. Pittsburgh Steelers: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
29. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State
30. Minnesota Vikings: Mike Hughes, CB, UCF
31. New England Patriots: Kolton Miller, OL, UCLA
32. Philadelphia Eagles: Sony Michel, RB, Georgia