INDIANAPOLIS — Maybe we all should listen to New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman as the debate rages in Chicago about if an interior offensive lineman — specifically, Notre Dame mauler Quenton Nelson — is worth a top-10 pick.
“At the end of the day, if he’s a great player, he’s a great player — it doesn’t matter what position it is,” Gettleman said this week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. “… Sometimes I think it gets lost in the sauce that football is the ultimate team game. You blow a whistle and 11 guys have to go out there, both offense and defense and special teams. Everybody has to understand that every player is important.”
Gettleman offered this perspective when asked if the No. 2 overall pick — where his Giants sit — is too high to draft a running back like Penn State standout Saquon Barkley. But let’s apply the same logic to the Bears at No. 8.
Is Nelson a great player? By just about every account, yeah, he is. Take this description of what it’s like to play with Nelson offered by former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams: It’s like “running behind a tow truck.” Mike McGlinchey, the ex-Irish left tackle who could be a first-round pick, too, said Nelson is “about as nasty as they come.”
Don’t believe them? Here’s some tape:
There’s little doubting Nelson’s ability here at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis — that’s not the issue, certainly not for a Bears team that hired Nelson’s college position coach, Harry Hiestand, to coach its offensive line. It wouldn’t be a surprise if re-uniting Hiestand and Nelson produced a decade of stability with a handful of Pro Bowl selections sprinkled in there.
The question, then, for the Bears — and the seven teams picking ahead of them — is this: Is it worth it to take a guard in the first 10 picks of a draft, even if he's great player?
In the last 20 years, 33 offensive linemen have been top-10 draft picks. Three of those were guards; the other 30 were tackles. Some, like two-time Washington Pro Bowler Brandon Scherff, played tackle in college but were quickly moved to guard once they were drafted. But the point is: It’s extremely rare for a guard to be selected as a top-10 pick. That’s the nature of a position where the thought is it’s easier to find solid players than it is at tackle.
Nelson, though, offered this defense Thursday of himself for being, specifically, a top-five pick:
“I think I should be talked in that regard, the top five conversation because you have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox that have just been working on interior guys and you need guys to stop them, and I think I’m one of those guys,” Nelson said. “You talk to quarterbacks, and they say if a D-end gets on the edge, that’s fine, they can step up in the pocket and they can throw, a lot of quarterbacks if given the opportunity can do that. That’s what I give is a pocket to step up in, and I think I also help the offense establish the run through my nastiness and establishing the run also opens up the passing game, so I think it’s a good choice.”
That’s a pretty good sales pitch. But maybe there’s another way Nelson can sell himself as a top pick: Does he have the flexibility to play tackle?
Nelson said no teams have talked to him about switching from guard to tackle yet, but he was recruited to Notre Dame as a tackle. More importantly: Nelson, while redshirting in 2014, practiced as a tackle under Hiestand’s watch; maybe he would’ve stayed there had Notre Dame not had two future first-round picks as its starting tackles in 2015 (Ronnie Stanley, who was the sixth overall pick in 2016, and McGlinchey, who’s likely a first-round pick in 2018).
“I’m definitely more comfortable at guard, that’s the position that I’ve played in college for three years,” Nelson said. “But what I do have is the fundamentals and characteristics to play any position on the offensive line.”
So perhaps the Bears could view Nelson as someone who fills an immediate need at guard, but later in his career could move to tackle. That would certainly up his value and lessen questions about taking an interior offensive lineman so high.
But wherever Nelson winds up, he’s a good bet to be successful not just because of his physical traits, but because of his approach to every aspect of the game — film study, meetings, practice, you name it. Nelson is one of those football junkies who has the elite physical traits to become great.
His nasty streak certainly helps, too.
“As a blocker my mindset is being dominant,” Nelson said. ”I want to dominate all my opponents and take their will away to play the game by each play and finishing them past the whistle. … Yeah, I would consider myself a nasty player.”