Written by: Jack Bourgeois
Interior lineman, the unsung heroes of every football team. They are the ones fighting the behemoths in the trenches play after play, being asked to block the Aaron Donalds, Ndamukong Suhs, and Gerald McCoys of the world. They basically have to protect their quarterback from the biggest, most powerful, most athletic men on the planet, all while receiving next to no credit for doing so. The old adage goes “football is won and lost in the trenches,” and the statement couldn’t be more accurate! If your team doesn’t have an offensive line that can do their job, then you don’t have a run game. If you don’t have a run game, your quarterback will consequently be under pressure. If you can’t keep the pressure off your quarterback, you can’t score. If you can’t score, you lose! Plain and simple. Rarely does a commentator or analyst even mention a guard’s or center’s performance, much less give them credit for the effect they had on the outcome of the game. Unless you subscribe to Pro Football Focus, there are no stats to track a lineman’s performance. ESPN doesn’t show highlight reel blocks, and unless your name is Quenton Nelson, good luck finding highlight videos on YouTube of your favorite inside guy. Hopefully, I can shed some much-needed light on the blue-collar positions that everyone seems to forget to mention.
Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
Weight: 329 lbs
Career Starts: 26
Bench Press: 35 reps
Arm Length: 33 ¾”
Quenton Nelson is the best guard prospect to come out of the draft in arguably a decade. His resume speaks for itself, but his film screams “YEAR ONE ALL-PRO TALENT.” There’s nothing that Quenton can’t do; he’s a mauler, a road grader, and an anchor in the passing game. His technique is as clean as it gets, something rarely said about lineman that are as physically gifted as he is. Though Nelson didn’t run the 40 at the NFL Combine, he did participate in the bench press, putting up 225 lbs a staggering 35 times, 2nd amongst all O-lineman. His game tape is unlike anyone else’s– the Notre Dame guard has a unique blend of size, power, technique, and surprising quickness. For 6’5” 329 lbs the man can move. He’s as agile as they come, and doesn’t carry any excess weight. Nelson, along with fellow Fighting Irish O-lineman and 1st round draft prospect Mike McGlinchey, were taught by now Chicago Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Hiestand is responsible for some of the league’s best lineman prospects and players over the past 10+ seasons including Ronnie Stanley, Zach Martin, and Olin Kreutz. With his former coach now in Chicago and the team sitting at pick #8, there is no way Hiestand and new head coach Matt Nagy will let Nelson slide past them in the 1st round.
At the college level, most offensive lineman have a very unpolished, raw skill set. Rarely does a lineman come out of the NFL draft being a dominant force in both run and pass blocking. Typically, they have a set of strengths that coaches will take advantage of and scheme away from their player’s weaknesses until they’ve grown under an NFL caliber offensive line coach. Whoever drafts Quenton Nelson will not have to go through that transition period. He’s equally talented in both facets of the offense and can protect the quarterback just as well as he can open up lanes for his running backs. Nelson’s quick 1st step and pop off the line of scrimmage is something to marvel over. He’s always winning the initial body position battle, doing an excellent job of using leverage techniques and not just his brute strength. Nelson has some of, if not the strongest hands and most powerful punch seen in quite some time. He dictates where his opponent is going by driving them off the ball and to the ground throughout the entire game. The man hardly ever gave up a pressure, much less a sack in college; his ability to absorb the bullrush and refusal to be pushed backwards stems from his core and lower body strength. Even in pass blocking, he’s simply the bully and not the victim. It’s hard to find a guard who can deliver punishment when not moving forward but Nelson has some of the nastiest highlights a lineman has ever produced.
Quenton Nelson is a can’t miss All-American, year one Pro Bowler/All-Pro, and scouts are already writing him into the Hall of Fame before even stepping foot onto an NFL field. Is he really that good? You’re darn right he is! Believe it or not, Nelson’s physical gifts are equal to his mental fortitude, as he has immaculate field vision and understands blocking schemes like he’s reciting the alphabet. Quenton reads defenses and picks up blitzers with ease (as shown in the clip above). He also does a tremendous job of communicating and shifting blocking responsibilities with his teammate’s mid-play. What might be the most impressive attribute of his game is his fluid movement, Nelson does a great job of playing under his feet and not wasting any steps or motion. The Notre Dame product is set to be the 1st top-ten interior line pick since 2014, and rightfully so. Expect Quenton to go early come April 26th and dominate at the next level.
Projected Round: 1st (picks 2–8)
Team Fits: Giants, Broncos, Colts, (all 32 teams)
NFL Comparison: Zach Martin 2.0
Isaiah Wynn, G, Georgia
Weight: 313 lbs
Career Starts: 26
Bench Press: N/A
Arm Length: 33 3/8”
The Georgia guard/tackle could be one of the biggest steals in this year’s NFL Draft. Isaiah Wynn is an expected 1st rounder, but he’s not drawing as much attention from the football community as some of his fellow prospects. The SEC’s best offensive lineman helped open up gaping holes against opposing defense, allowing both Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to feast in the ground game. Resulting in the nations 10th best rushing attack in 2017 and helping solidify both of his running backs draft stock. Isaiah is flying under the radar and isn’t getting merely enough attention for how talented he is. The versatile O-lineman was asked to play left tackle, right tackle and left guard, which is where will most likely be where he’ll be asked to play once he arrives at training camp. The 1st-team All-SEC, 2nd-team All-American has a frame best suited for the interior, but his ability to move across the entire offensive line will be a considerable advantage compared to his competition. Isaiah’s positional flexibility to go along with his tenacity is what has scouts and coaches alike falling in love with him in the film room.
Isaiah Wynn’s downfall to playing on the outside is his height. At only 6’3” he doesn’t have the prototypical measurements the NFL looks for at tackle, but if in a bind he’ll be able to fill those shoes when called upon. The first thing that stands out when breaking down his game tape is his insanely quick 1st step and set. He explodes off the snap and into his stance in an impressive fashion. Not only is he quick off the ball, but his feet are equally notable, as they are smooth, active and help him beat his opponent to underneath leverage and proper angles when reach blocking. He packs some power in his punch and has a strong, aggressive grip that allows him to maintain blocks through the whistle. Wynn was almost never seen being overpowered or beaten off the line of scrimmage. He often took his defender into the 2nd level of the defense when blocking in the ground game. The Bulldog’s pass blocking was equally impressive, and his kick slide was technically sound. Isaiah does a remarkable job with hand fighting and placement, locking his paws inside the shoulder pads of defensive lineman, refusing to disengage. He’s a finisher and road grader who loves to get out into the open field to deliver brutal hard hits on undersized backers and secondary. The guard’s athleticism allows for him to be a top-notch lead blocker when pulling across the line or selling the screen and setting up mid level blocks to spring open big plays time and time again.
Without Wynn, many of Georgia’s huge running gains wouldn’t have been possible. His ability to open up rushing lanes in traffic is the reason why Chubb was one of the league’s best backs over the past 2 season and why Michel is regarded as a late 1st to early 2nd round prospect. Nearly every one of their highlight reel runs featured a massive set up block by the Isaiah, and that can’t be ignored come the NFL Draft. It goes without saying that the man is tough; he tore his labrum back on November 18th against Kentucky but refusing to fix the issue until after the Senior Bowl, where he had a dominant performance that set himself apart from the rest of the competition. I have a feeling that he’ll be the 3rd or 4th lineman taken behind the Notre Dame guard, tackle tandem. Teams will be splitting hairs when comparing him to tackles Kolton Miller and Connor Williams because all three are not scheme limited and can play multiple positions. Wynn should go anywhere from mid to late 1st round; it would be shocking to see him slip into the second with the amount of talent he possesses. Expect Isaiah to be a day one starter who will have to prove he can handle the bigger, more powerful defensive tackles in the NFL. If he can do that, the guard’s potential will be out of the roof.
Projected Round: 1st (picks 15–32)
Team Fits: Bengals, Bills, Cardinals
NFL Comparison: Kelvin Beachum
Will Hernandez, G, UTEP
Weight: 348 lbs
Career Starts: 37
Bench Press: 37 Reps
Arm Length: 32”
There is no other way to put it: Will Hernandez is built like a brick S***house. At 6’3” nearly 350 lbs, good luck trying to create movement against this monster of a man. He’s UNDEFEATED when blocking against the bullrush, and the only way he can be beaten is by taking the long way around where he is just as wide as he is tall. The guy’s just bigger and stronger than anyone he’s faced, regardless of the talent pool seen during his 4-year collegiate career at University of Texas at El Paso. At the NFL Combine Hernandez put up a stunning 37 reps of 225 lbs during the bench press. Though he posted a 5.15 second 40-time, compared to other 350 pounders, he’s quite fast for his size. The big boy might move like a freight train, but once he gets rolling, it’s a scary sight for would-be tacklers.
The movement Will Hernandez generates off the line of scrimmage is similar and a close second to that of top ranked Quenton Nelson. Though Hernandez’s technique is nowhere near on par with the Notre Dame star, his power overcompensates for a majority of his flaws. I’m not sure if any defensive tackles will be able to drive him backwards, but he can be beat. His initial 1st step and quick set while in pass protection will need some work at the next level, and he tends to play too upright when moving and too far over his feet when attempting to lunge into blocks. He has trouble adjusting in space and can’t recover quick enough to last second redirects. Hernandez’s corner slide is a little choppy, and his lack of reach will hurt him when trying to engage opponents who can keep their distance with length. All that said, Will is a day one plug and play guard at the next level, that will thrive in a run-heavy power scheme offense such as the Jaguars. He is a destructive down blocker, who loves to finish his opponents by driving them to the ground with his immense strength.
Will Hernandez plays like he wants to maim anyone in front of him. Coaches and scouts alike love lineman who bring an attitude to the offense, and Will is the kind of player who will wear out a defense throughout the game with his punishing style of play. If he can be paired with a good O-line coach who can shape his raw abilities into a technically sound blocker, the sky’s the limit for the Las Vegas native. From his knee bend and flexibility to his balance and agility, on top of the ridiculous power, he has all the tools necessary to have an outstanding career in the National Football League. The El Paso product is seeing a lot of interest and could easily be drafted in the 1st round. Although with plenty of other proven and more well-rounded talent available, Hernandez will most likely see himself off the board day 2, somewhere in the early to mid 2nd round and to a team looking to establish the run.
Projected Round: 2nd (33–45)
Team Fits: Broncos, Bears, Colts
NFL Comparison: Richie Incognito
Billy Price, C, Ohio State
Weight: 312 lbs
Career Starts: 55
Bench Press: N/A
Arm Length: N/A
The number one ranked center in this year’s draft class, Billy Price is as alpha male as they come. He’s the Ohio State Football record holder for most consecutive starts with 55, while playing all three interior positions over the 4-year span. If needed to, Billy could easily slide back to guard if a team values his talents and have an established player at center. He’s a total swiss army knife of an offensive lineman and could wind up as one of the best in the draft. His NFL Combine performance was cut short by a slight tear in his Pectoral muscle only a few reps into his bench press, which surely will have some effect on his draft stock. It was minor enough to where he won’t need surgery and isn’t expected to miss any time this offseason. Price was rumored to be able to put up close to 40 reps of 225 lbs, which would have helped, but the tape alone is enough to warrant interest from several teams by day 2, if not earlier.
He may not be built like a mammoth similar to Will Hernandez, but Price’s strength and explosiveness off the line is on par with that of the big fella. The OSU center plays with a ferocious intensity that is reminiscent of the old school football of the 70’s and 80’s. He’s mean, he’s tough, and he’s coming to take your head off play in and play out. Unlike Hernandez though, Billy possess length and is a little more technically sound. Price wins with his initial get off and quick setting stance, driving his hands inside the shoulder pads and creating leverage before the defensive lineman even has a chance to get out of there stance. He packs a punch and uses his strong hands to angle his opponent away from the run. The man also is passionate about the game, and it shows in his preparation when deciphering defenses and making calls at the line of scrimmage. He’s excellent at locating the blitz and disengaging from the double team to directing his attention to the next defender.
Price’s downfalls correlate to consistency issues. At times he completely throws technique out the window and attempts to be an enforcer instead of a blocker. He gets overly aggressive and will leave the center position to find someone to hit. He needs to learn to be patient and not go overboard attempting to lay out a defender every single play. The footwork is decent enough to mirror most defenders but has trouble quickly resetting and recovering from counter moves that the more athletic defensive lineman can throw at him. His on-field flaws can most likely be corrected at the next level, and teams know that. If not for his setback at the NFL Combine, Price would be considered more of a 1st rounder. Due to the mishap, he’ll probably be getting the call on Friday, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he even jumped number 3 on this list because of his versatility and the fact that he’s not scheme specific. Look for Price to have a year one impact and work his way into being a staple of an NFL offensive line by year two.
Projected Round: 2nd
Team Fits: Vikings, Colts, Dolphins
NFL Comparison: Alex Mack
James Daniels, C/G, Iowa
Weight: 295 lbs
Career Starts: 37
Bench Press: 21
Arm Length: 33 ¾”
James Daniels is another guard turned center, but unlike his fellow prospects he won’t be asked to switch once drafted. He’s slightly undersized and has trouble with the bigger, more physical defenders. If there is such a thing, Daniels would be categorized as more of a finesse lineman. He’s not a powerful mauler who’ll impose his will on defensive lineman, but he does possess elite quickness for the position. The 3 year Iowa starter has been all over draft boards due to being better suited in a zone blocking scheme, which he has excelled in throughout his time as a Hawkeye. Iowa is best known for producing NFL caliber offensive lineman, and James Daniels is no exception. To his advantage, the team runs a pro-style offense much like what we see in the National Football League, giving James a slight leg up on the competition compared to some offensive lineman who play in a spread system that doesn’t ask them to maintain blocks for an extended period of time. This has proven to be vital for lineman’s success at the pro level. It’s one thing to do enough to block defenders for 1–2 seconds, but it’s a whole other beast to hold a block on a 7-step drop.
James’ strengths lie within his footwork and ability to get off the line faster than the big boys he faces in the interior. If he can beat his opponent to the punch and win the initial leverage battle, then he’s going to have success. If not, he’s vulnerable to being overpowered and has been manhandled on more than one occasion. The center is at his best when being asked to move, as he’s very agile and light on his feet. His quickness is his biggest advantage against his opponents– when reach blocking he can flash laterally across a defensive tackle’s angle to the ball carrier and set his block. He does a great job of using his flexible hips to turn D-lineman and create gaps, but his lack of power doesn’t allow him to be a body mover. He simply does enough to disrupt the defender’s route to the running back. He’s excellent in space and does a great job adjusting to make contact when blocking in the 2nd level. His high motor allows him to out hustle all of his blocking assignments and his football IQ is on show during every film session you watch on the guy. He does a great job of locating, calling out, and picking up blitzes and has natural instincts to not bite on defenses disguising pressure.
If Daniels can add some size and overall strength to his frame, he could definitely carve out a starting role in the NFL for a long time to come. The technique is mostly there, but he’s pushed back too often in college to not expect a similar outcome once facing a Marcell Dareus-type that can move anything in his way. Proper form can only get you so far, but in the football world, it’s easier to learn from a strength coach than it is an offensive line coach. You can add mass, and you can’t always teach the crisp, clean footwork, knee bend and body control that James Daniels has. He is another scheme specific player who needs to go to a zone running team that requires their linemen to be agile and athletic enough to get down the line of scrimmage. He’s a 2nd round prospect and could rise and fall depending on how the run on 1st round interior O-lineman goes.
Projected Round: 2nd
Team Fits: Redskins, Chiefs, Packers
NFL Comparison: Rodney Hudson