Quenton Nelson is the rarest talent in the 2018 NFL draft. That may sound foolish, given that Saquon Barkley moves like he was bitten by a radioactive insect and up to four quarterbacks could be taken in the first six picks. But it’s true. While Barkley is undeniably special, a running back going in the top five is no longer an outlier. It’s happened in each of the past two drafts, with Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette. Nelson was born in 1996. In his lifetime, a guard has never been drafted in the top five. And based on his ability, that’s where Nelson deserves to be considered.
There’s been talk of the Notre Dame product going as high as second overall to the Giants. If he lasts past the fifth pick, it’ll likely stem from an early run on quarterbacks. Nelson is the best offensive lineman to enter the draft in years. This point in the NFL calendar is always prone to hyperbole, but in this case the hype is justified: He’s a nearly perfect prospect at his position.
Offensive line nerds have been gushing about Nelson for months, and their outpouring of love starts with his uncommon mean streak. Plenty of offensive linemen play with nastiness and aggression, but Nelson takes it to an entirely different level. It almost feels like each defender has personally wronged him, and now he must exact his revenge. Every other play he’s on the field resembles the third act of Unforgiven.
Check out this clip from Notre Dame’s 38-18 win over Michigan State last September. Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey (who’s also a projected first-round prospect, making this Fighting Irish offensive line duo a college football cheat code) are tasked with double-teaming the defensive end, who slants across McGlinchey’s face. The pair blows him off the ball about 5 yards with its initial push. That should be enough; their job is effectively done. Only Nelson keeps driving the defender down the field, eventually planting him a full 10 yards from the original line of scrimmage.
In Nelson’s mind, doing his job isn’t enough. He wants to bury opponents beneath the stadium. This level of dominance won’t often be possible in the NFL, as the defensive linemen are too big and too strong. Yet even if Nelson isn’t creating cartoonish outlines of guys in the turf, his finisher’s mentality should translate to the pros. It’s an approach that informs all of his snaps.
Watching Nelson crunch defenders left and right is joyous, but his knack for obliterating opponents isn’t the only reason that he’s earned a billing as a potential generational talent. He combines that ass kicker’s attitude with a transcendent set of gifts. Nelson’s 2018 combine numbers are typical of a mauling guard. At 6-foot-5 and 329 pounds, he’s huge for the position, and he pumped out a ridiculous 35 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. He fits the bill of an interior lineman who can simply manhandle defenders at the point of attack. Watch his tape, though, and it becomes clear just how much more there is to his game.
What makes Nelson truly terrifying—especially for back-seven defensive players—is how well he moves in space. For a big man, he makes pulling to the second level look effortless. Take this play from the Irish’s 20-19 loss to Georgia in September. Nelson pulls from his left guard spot, hunkers down, and sends an unfortunate slot cornerback airborne. Nelson locking onto a defensive back in the open field is reminiscent of a great white shark targeting a helpless seal. One is a perfect machine of destruction; the other doesn’t see what’s coming until it’s too late.
The most impressive trait Nelson shows as a puller is his level of control. On this huge gain from Notre Dame’s 49-20 win over Boston College, his job is to pull around and lead up onto the play-side linebacker. It’s a block that has to be made in space against a quicker player, and Nelson completes it with ease. He has no trouble gathering his body, delivering a devastating punch, and—most importantly—maintaining his balance while taking the defender another 15 feet downfield.
This type of standout body control shows up all the time in Nelson’s film, and it’s a central reason scouts find him so intriguing. Plenty of college linemen are monsters in the weight room, but their strength doesn’t always carry over to the field. Nelson boasts functional power that comes from his understanding of leverage, angles, and so many other facets of offensive line play that often get overlooked. My favorite trait for interior offensive linemen is the ability to work their hips into the proper position without sacrificing strength. This shines through on tougher reach blocks that force players to work to the outside of a defensive tackle who is lined up as a 3-technique. Nelson consistently takes a great first step on these blocks, working his hands and hips to turn his assignment back inside.
More than his knack for deatomizing defenders with body slams, these subtler shows of strength are what make Nelson special. Every element of his routine blocks—from hand placement to punch strength to the way he uses his lower body to finish plays—is excellent, and it leads to him playing with self-assuredness. Elite guards like Marshal Yanda and Zack Martin are able to hold their own against the league’s top interior pass rushers because they’re rarely out of sorts and almost never thrown off their plan of attack. Nelson shows that same level of comfort as a pass protector.
Of course, becoming a Yanda- or Martin-like blocker also requires mastery of the mental aspect of pass protection. That’s where plenty of incoming offensive linemen have recently flamed out. Blitz concepts and line stunts are far more prevalent in the NFL than in the no-huddle, up-tempo world of college football. And emerging as a high-level pass protector necessitates knowing where defenders will come from and how to pass them off. Since he’s vigilant about keeping his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, Nelson doesn’t have much trouble with traditional twists. Poring over his film, there are several examples that point to just how high his acuity for blitz pickup actually is.
Nelson’s most famous college play came in one such scenario. On a first-and-10 in the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s loss to Georgia, Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush dropped back to pass. At the snap, a Georgia defensive tackle aligned over Nelson slanted outside. When guards are left without anyone to block on pass plays, they’re taught to “look for work.” Typically, this means cleaning up the defender locked in battle with the center. But rather than give his center a helping hand, Nelson managed to spot a delayed defensive back blitz all the way across the formation. The early recognition allowed him to streak down the line and annihilate the defensive back while Wimbush stood in and made a throw.
Every aspect of that play, from Nelson’s awareness to his physical dominance on the block, is unique for an offensive lineman. It’s a snapshot of the combination of skills that make him such a rare talent at guard.
Interior offensive line play has never mattered more in the NFL than it does now. With quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quicker than ever and some of the league’s best defenders rushing on the inside, quality guard play is at a premium. Nelson is the most talented guard prospect to enter the draft this decade, and he’s come along at a time when guards have reached their peak value. He’s every bit the top-five pick many consider him to be.