Quenton Nelson

Stankevitz: Why the Bears should draft Quenton Nelson with the 8th overall pick

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USA Today Sports Images

Stankevitz: Why the Bears should draft Quenton Nelson with the 8th overall pick

The majority of the decisions made by Ryan Pace since New Year’s Day have been centered around Mitch Trubisky. 

He hired a young, offensive-minded, quarterback-driven coach in Matt Nagy — who hired Mark Helfrich and retained Dave Ragone — to pair with Trubisky. He guaranteed $66.2 million to Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton in March to dramatically improve the weapons at his young quarterback’s disposal. He guaranteed $5 million to Chase Daniel, who’s only thrown three regular season passes since the end of the 2014 season, to give Trubisky a backup who knows the nuances and language of Nagy’s offense.

So why would the Bears deviate from that approach in the NFL Draft, specifically with their first-round pick?

That’s why the Bears should draft Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson with the eighth overall pick on Thursday night. 

Nelson is regarded as one of the best offensive line prospects in recent memory, and those who were around him at Notre Dame see him as a Pro Bowler from Day 1. He’s an aggressive mauler in the run game who doesn’t play out of control, and has a highlight reel of pummeling opposing defenders to prove it. He’ll immediately help the Bears effectively run the ball, especially on the inside zone plays that are a staple of Nagy’s offense. He’s a sturdy, consistent pass blocker who will keep opposing defenders out of Trubisky’s face, allowing him to step up in the pocket and connect with all those shiny targets added by Pace in March. 

The “problem” with Nelson is that he’s a guard, a position traditionally not valued as worth such a high draft pick. But the league is changing: Three of the 15 contracts with the most guaranteed money handed out in free agency this year went to interior offensive linemen (Andrew Norwell, Weston Richburg and Ryan Jensen). Yes, left tackle Nate Solder got more than those guys, but the point here is that quality offensive line play is not easy to find. 

Plus, as Nelson eloquently argued at the NFL Combine, having strong interior line play is more important in today’s defensive landscape than ever before. 

“You have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and 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.”

And we haven’t even got to the Bears hiring Nelson’s college position coach, Harry Hiestand, to coach their offensive line. Hiestand recruited Nelson to Notre Dame and developed him into an elite player over their four years together in South Bend. If there’s anyone that can make Nelson an even better player in four years than he is today, it’s 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 at Notre Dame’s Pro Day last month. “He knows everything about me. … He’s always pushed me to be the best at everything I’ve done and I couldn’t be any more thankful and grateful for him.”

Do the Bears need to address their red-line need for a pass rusher? Of course. Does Vic Fangio’s defense need more playmakers? Absolutely. Those needs will have to be a focus of this week’s draft. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick or Georgia’s Roquan Smith would all be fine picks. 

But if Pace is sticking to his strategy of building around Trubisky and drafting the best player available, there’s only one player that makes sense. And that’s the bruising, powerful guard who played his college ball two hours away in South Bend. 

“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.”

John "Moon" Mullin's counterpoint: Why the Bears should draft Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds

  
 

Three 'LB or OL?' decision points for Bears' pick at No. 8 overall

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AP

Three 'LB or OL?' decision points for Bears' pick at No. 8 overall

Much more is going on this week at Halas Hall besides just the introductory minicamp under coach Matt Nagy, where evaluations are obviously part of the days’ (and after-hours’) activities. But those evaluations are preliminary. The ones going on upstairs in the offices of GM Ryan Pace’s draft staffers are far from preliminary at this point of eight days before the draft.

What makes the two evaluation processes kind of interesting is that, while they will be noting weaknesses where they exist, Nagy and his coaching staff are working to find what particular players do well. But the draft staffers are doing something in the other difference, that of looking for negatives, for reasons why NOT to draft someone high, or at all, for that matter.

This is the final-approach period of the draft in which the shortcomings are highlighted, whether a character question, a red flag in the medicals, a doubt about matchup potential at the NFL, anything that’s “wrong” with a prospect that drops him on the draft board. The board has been set for some time but it is nothing if not fluid. It’s why a player like UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen is reportedly sliding on draft boards even without throwing a workout pass or answering an interview question. Teams start looking back at his two concussions last season and a shoulder injury the year before, and suddenly...

But it’s not simply a matter of now the prospect with the fewest negatives sees his draft stock rise. More than specific negatives or positives factor into the Bears’ fourth top-10 pick in as many years.

For illustration purposes, “View from the Moon” will superimpose on three elite prospects – Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith – the three big-picture drivers behind a pick at the Bears’ level (No. 8), with both players widely regarded as top-10 talents:

*                          *                          *

Grade

In a universe where “best player available” is an annual mantra, the player with the higher grade has his name written on the card taken up to the Commissioner next Thursday evening. Teams do draft boards for a reason and the smart ones stay with the ratings they’ve taken months to arrive at, and which have survived this week’s pick-pick-pick-pick at prospects’ possible flaws.

Using NFL.com’s ratings as an apples-to-apples standard:

Nelson — 7.34 (No. 2 overall behind RB Saquon Barkley)

Edmunds — 7.17 (No. 4, after Barkley, Nelson, DE Bradley Chubb)

Smith — 6.74 (No. 6; QB Sam Darnold slips in ahead of him).

Smith loses points because of size (6-1, 236 pounds), not production (20 QB hurries, 6.5 sacks in ’17). But his grade equates to “Chance to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player,” vs. “Pro Bowl-caliber player” (no “chance to”) for Edmunds, at 6-5, 253. The 40-times are nearly identical, but while Edmunds did not have Smith’s production, he also plays at 4 inches and nearly 20 pounds bigger.

Nelson carries the “Pro Bowl caliber” player evaluation and is the consensus No. 1 or No. 2 player in the entire draft.

Advantage (slight): Nelson

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Need

When grades are close, the tiebreaker is typically the positional need. All things being close to equal, which player fills an immediate and significant need?

The Bears committed this offseason to building around quarterback Mitch Trubisky. They got him new coaching, new receivers and are even rebuilding portions of Halas Hall (not for just him, of course). They also signed guard Earl Watford into an interior mix that also includes Eric Kush and Kyle Long, together with Cody Whitehair, whose center-or-guard assignment has become a rite of spring and summer.

But Kush is coming off a hamstring injury that ended his 2017 season in training camp. Long is still coming back from ankle, neck and shoulder surgeries over the past couple years, and a one-time Pro Bowl automatic is now setting goals of just being healthy first.

So the need at guard is high, based on the pall of injury uncertainty that has settled over the group. And there is always a “need” for the kind of elite talent Nelson is projected to be, particularly in front of a franchise quarterback-in-progress.

The Bears have had nearly as bad luck at linebacker, the defining position group in a 3-4 scheme like Vic Fangio’s. Danny Trevathan has missed more than one-third (11) of the games since the Bears signed him. Nick Kwiatkoski has missed seven games since the Bears drafted him in 2016. And Pernell McPhee and Willie Young were let go because of recurring injury issues.

McPhee and Young, along with the presumed not re-signing of Lamarr Houston, took the bulk of the Bears’ pass rush with them. Aaron Lynch was signed as a reclamation project from Fangio’s time in San Francisco and realistically is found-money if he returns to top form.

The need for pass rush, particularly from the edges, is dire, arguably more than the need for help in the interior offensive line. Edmunds had 10 sacks over his last two Va Tech seasons; Smith, nearly identical in size to Trevathan, had 6.5 last season, plus 20 QB hurries and 20.5 tackles for loss.

“The question is, do you help your quarterback,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said via conference call on Wednesday, “or do you go a defensive centerpiece for the next 10 years?”

Advantage: Edmunds/Smith

*                          *                          *

Position value

This one is something of a tipping point, at least in a case of choosing between an impact player on defense and a foundation player for offense.

Some context: Last year, Jamal Adams was the No. 2 or 3 player in the pre-draft rankings, depending on the source. Yet he fell to No. 6. Mitch Trubisky was ranked well below Adams, yet went No. 2. Solomon Thomas was ranked below Adams; Thomas went No. 3.

The reason, perhaps oversimplifying for illustrative purposes, was position. Adams is a safety; Trubisky is a quarterback and Thomas is an edge rusher, two of the positions in football that command a premium; safety is not one of those.

Fast-forwarding to 2018: Neither is guard.

A pass-rushing linebacker will command a premium on draft boards. And at pay windows: Using Sportrac numbers for comparisons, 12 outside linebackers and 10 defensive ends command salaries of $10 million or higher. Seven guards are in that rarified contract air. (Now, if Nelson wants to move out to tackle, 13 of those are in the 10-Mill Club).

Point being: An impact linebacker gets the tiebreaker over a guard, all things being close to equal.

Advantage: Edmunds/Smith

*                          *                          *

Edmunds/Smith tiebreaker

Two out of three drivers shade the Bears toward someone who can harass quarterbacks and run down backs over someone who protects them. But the Bears aren’t going to draft both Edmunds and Smith. The one-spot mock draft here has the Bears selecting:

Roquan Smith, linebacker, University of Georgia

The reason is production, and adaptability to pair with either Kwiatkoski or Trevathan in the Bears’ 3-4 and working either in the middle or on the weak side when the defense goes 4-3 for nickel, which it does as much as half of the time. Smith calls to mind Lance Briggs.

“If you protect him and give him room, I think he has exceptional range,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “In today’s NFL, he’s a perfect fit – speed, an outstanding tackler, and he can operate in coverage.

“He’s not going to last long on draft night.”

The guess here is that he won’t last past No. 8.

For Bears, a cautionary tale if considering Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson with a high No. 1 pick

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USA TODAY

For Bears, a cautionary tale if considering Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson with a high No. 1 pick

“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.