In the past few weeks, Zack Martin became the NFL’s highest paid interior offensive linemen earning a 6 year $84 million deal. We could all sit around and debate the worth of a guard in the modern NFL, but with any luck at all Colts fans will have plenty of time to debate that question in four or five years when Quenton Nelson is set to become the highest paid guard in NFL history — after coming off of 4 consecutive Super Bowl victories.
A guy can dream right?
Facebook reader John Fraser wanted to know how Zack Martin and Quenton Nelson compared as college prospects. Both went to Notre Dame, both were 1st round picks, both play guard in the NFL, both were coached by Harry Hiestand while in college, but what else is there? Are they similar as prospects? What traits do they share? What separates the two of them?
Ultimately, who was the superior prospect?
That’s the question I want to answer but it’s important to distinguish what I mean when I say “superior prospect”. What that means is who, coming out of college, projected to the pro game better. Ranking prospects is difficult, Trent Richardson was a much better pro prospect than David Johnson and we all know how accurate those projections were. Time will sort out the better pro player, right now all we have are projections and prospects.
There are issues with comparing the two purely as prospects, we already know Martin is a 2 time all-pro and I’m not able to completely separate the 2018 Zack Martin from 2013 Zack Martin in my mind, but I will do my best.
We’re going to square these two men off in an old fashion prospect battle, this bout is scheduled for 4 rounds, there will be no knock downs, no count outs and no tapping out. We’re going to go the full 4 rounds and at the end we’re going to declare a winner. Grab a snack, get a drink and enjoy the fireworks.
I’ve got $20 that says the first comment is some guy who didn’t read the article and then discredits the title. Anyone want to take me up on it? No? Okay, let’s get to it.
Round 3: Pass Blocking
So far we’ve looked at these guys in shorts, how big they are and how well they move when no one is in front of them. While those things are important when examining a prospect, nothing is more important than the tape. Quenton Nelson has the advantage thus far, objectively his superior size is the biggest reason he’s ahead at this point.
This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we can give those numbers the ultimate context, do the numbers match how they play?
Do these guys compare at all when the lights come on?
We’ll start with the fact that while these guys played in the same system at Notre Dame, they didn’t play the same position. In their final years Zack Martin was the starting left tackle for the Irish while Nelson played left guard. Tackle is objectively the more difficult position. This isn’t to say that Nelson couldn’t have been stellar at tackle for the Irish, the fact of the matter is, during his time in school, Nelson was on the same offensive line that featured two top 10 picks at tackle in Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey.
The 2015 Notre Dame Fighting Irish had Nick Martin (50th overall pick, 2016), Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018) and Quenton Nelson (6th overall, 2018). Insane.
If you swap Martin and Nelson’s careers year by year, Nelson is probably a tackle and Martin a guard. There’s no real advantage here, we can’t know how Nelson would have played at tackle, therefore this is a wash.
While watching Martin there aren’t a lot of negatives to his game. His athleticism is evident, he isn’t as quick as Tyron Smith, but he is a good athlete. One thing I did notice was his footwork, too often at the snap he took a false step with his left (outside) foot. As a result Martin would rely on his superior athleticism to catch up with the pass rusher. Normally he got away with it, normally he was good enough this didn’t matter.
Watch Martin at LT:
This is a perfect, though rare, example. On this play Martin picks his foot up and sets it back down in almost the same place, it accomplished nothing. Meanwhile 93 is gaining momentum, feels Martin is overextended (a product of trying to catch up from the false step) and takes advantage with a nice club over.
Ultimately Martin prevents the sack but in the NFL his QB is getting hit on this play.
Martin uses his hands well, he mirrors well and is a fluid mover in space. He isn’t the most flexible guy but it shouldn’t limit him. He doesn’t leave himself open to inside counter moves as he understands leverage and usually positions his blocks well.
Martin at LT:
On this block Martin shows textbook form against a lesser athlete. This is what you get from Zack Martin more often than not. He doesn’t have the combination of length and athleticism to keep up with the Von Miller’s of the world but very few do. He’s effective on the edge but the thought with Martin has always been that his length would be limiting in the NFL. With longer arms Martin is a tackle, he does everything in pass pro very well. The issues he has are coachable and frankly, it wouldn’t be a huge issue if he fails to improve his technique at all, he’s already that good.
The thing I love most about Nelson as a pass blocker is the fact that he has a devastating punch. Depending on the defense’s alignment and the protection called, Nelson would often fire out making first contact and stopping the opposing pass rusher in his tracks. Not many people get fired up watching a guard pass block, but let me tell you, Nelson has some exciting aspects to this part of his game. While Nelson makes the most of his strengths, there are holes in his game, most notably against speed.
Nelson at left guard:
Quenton Nelson gets fooled on this play, he never sees the guy coming. Watch Nelson’s left foot come forward after making contact with the DT. He steps forward right as the 3-tech quickly loops around. Nelson is off balance and is discarded like a much lesser player. If that left foot stays back he is able to anchor and this isn’t a GIF on Stampede Blue.
Nelson against speed:
Nelson tries to give his center help and gets caught going the wrong way. 31 comes on a blitz and he’s fast. Nelson does a good job recovering, getting his hands on the defender and pushing him wide. The QB does have a place to step up and a better player probably gets a throw off. 82 is open.
I’ve shown you two pretty rough plays from Nelson, please understand these aren’t the norm. I had to look pretty hard to find failures and when you do find them you’re probably going to find an interior linemen who struggles against speed. That shouldn’t be shocking. There’s nothing about his pass blocking that scares me.
Advantage: Zack Martin
Zack Martin’s biggest weakness in pass pro is his length, he doesn’t struggle with speed as much. Martin, in my opinion is a better pass blocking prospect than Nelson for this reason.
Round Three Score:
Zack Martin: 10
Quenton Nelson: 9