Recently the idea of kicking guard Quenton Nelson out to tackle was rehashed for the umpteenth time. It’s not a new or novel concept. DraftWire.com proposed it back in late February citing a Bengals source saying Nelson is so talented he could play all five positions. At the time, it was dismissed as foolish. That hasn’t changed.
Let’s be clear from the jump, just because a player has the ability to play all five positions along the offensive line, it doesn’t mean they should.
Nelson was drafted as a left guard. He gave up two sacks... in 2015. None in 2016 or 2017. He was a unanimous All-American at guard. Nelson is widely considered the highest graded offensive lineman to enter the draft in the past 15-20 years. Yes, offensive lineman, which includes tackles, not just interior players. Coming out many analysts put Nelson’s floor, yes, floor, to be Steve Hutchinson, a likely Hall of Fame inductee with his ceiling as Hall of Fame inductee Larry Allen, who was arguably the best offensive lineman in the history of the NFL.
Recently in the NFL, players like Aaron Donald, Gerald McCoy and Fletcher Cox are beginning to dominate and change games. What do all these players have in common? They are interior defensive lineman. Due to that, the NFL has started to invest more and more in interior offensive linemen.
As the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles made abundantly clear, the best way to get under the skin of the best QBs in the game is to get pressure under their chin and in their face. The idea interior offensive lineman are somehow less valuable than tackles is becoming more and more antiquated. It’s a thought of those who simply aren’t paying attention to the current trends of today’s NFL.
But don’t just take my word for it, let’s look at the top salaries for offensive lineman to see what NFL front office’s are saying with their wallets. Below are the top five paid offensive lineman in the NFL.
- Nate Solder - LT - New York Giants
- Zach Martin - OG - Dallas Cowboys
- Trent Williams - LT - Washington Redskins
- Andrew Norwell - OG - Jacksonville Jaguars
- Russell Okung - LT - Los Angeles Chargers
You’ll notice two of the top five are guards. Ok, ok, so there are two outliers that get paid more. Yeah, but... what does the top ten look like? Well, four of the top ten are guards. Shoot... yeah, but... what does the top 25 look like? I’m so glad you asked. 12 of the top 25 paid offensive lineman are interior players.
Don’t get me wrong, left tackle is an important position, likely the most important position on the offensive line. However, a solid interior is almost as important in today’s NFL as front offices are making plainly clear.
Let’s use the Colts as an example.
Whether you agree with it or not, Anthony Castonzo is widely considered a top 10-15 left tackle. He’s been Andrew Luck’s blindside protector his entire career. How’d that go without talent on the interior? Team’s exploited the Colts weaknesses and literally knocked Luck out. They forced Luck out of the pocket, made him run. He took unnecessary hits and got injured.
I know, I know. Yeah, but... the Colts also had a terrible right tackle situation. That’s true. However, Austin Howard was brought in to shore up the position. They also have young players looking to step in if given the opportunity.
Additionally, if we’re gauging importance of a position based on average salary, the top earning right tackle, Lane Johnson, comes in at 14th overall with four guards ahead of him. Johnson is also the only right tackle in the top 25. NFL front offices are making a pretty clear statement they value left tackle and interior offensive lineman far more than right tackle so even trying Nelson at right tackle on an experimental basis is simply foolish.
Let’s get back to the original point though, just because Nelson can play tackle doesn’t mean the Colts should try him at tackle. Nelson is the prototype of all prototypical offensive guards. He’s big, strong, agile and smart. He’s rarely fooled. He anchors against the bull rush and keeps his head on a swivel for unexpected blitzes. Earl Grey crushes opponents in the running game, pancaking them whenever possible with a spot of tea for good measure.
So why delay the inevitable? If you have a Lamborghini, you don’t just cruise around a parking lot with speed bumps. You want to open it up, let it loose on the open road, obeying appropriate speed limits in effect, of course, and see what it can do where it’s supposed to be.
If the entire purpose was to protect Andrew Luck and solidify the interior of the offensive line, arguably one of the Colts biggest weaknesses pre-draft, with Nelson, an All-Pro caliber player, why risk a miss? With Castonzo manning the left tackle position, there’s no logical argument to support moving Nelson to tackle.
To put it simply, the NFL has evolved. Top defenders are now rushing from the interior because offenses are tailor made to get the ball out of the QBs hand faster. Interior offensive line play is at a premium. NFL front offices are making that abundantly clear looking at recent salary trends. Thus, putting Nelson at tackle and playing him out of his natural position, one he’s dominated for the past three years at a high level program, would be foolhardy at best.