INDIANAPOLIS – There’s nothing sexy about picking a guard in the NFL draft, but if you’re the Green Bay Packers, the opportunity to add a shiny new earthmover to the middle of the offensive line should be very alluring.
As critical as it is for general manager Brian Gutekunst to devote a good number of his dozen selections to help rebuild the defense, one of the strengths of the 2018 draft class is interior offensive linemen.
The Packers are unsettled at right guard and right tackle with aging guard Jahri Evans a free agent and tackles Bryan Bulaga (knee), Jason Spriggs (knee) and Kyle Murphy (foot) all coming off serious injuries. If they are committed to keeping quarterback Aaron Rodgers healthy, they’re going to have to build a line in which Justin McCray, Lucas Patrick and Murphy are trusted backups and not starters.
There are some subtle signs the Packers are thinking along these lines.
One agent with several offensive line clients at the NFL scouting combine this week said he noticed Gutekunst paying special interest to offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl.
In addition, the Packers used one of their 30 personal interviews allowed each team at the combine on Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, who by most estimates will be off the board long before the Packers pick at No. 14.
Take both things for what they are: small nuggets of information that will become relevant only if the Packers take a guard in the first two days of the draft.
But it would be foolish to think Gutekunst and coach Mike McCarthy haven’t thought about what it would be like to have the 6-5, 325-pound Nelson form the final piece of an interior that consists of established starters Lane Taylor and Corey Linsley.
Having two run blockers as good as Taylor and Nelson could transform the Packers' offense into something special, while at the same time helping to protect the franchise. If anything, Gutekunst and McCarthy should want Rodgers to have a fortress in front of him so he doesn’t have to elude the potential season-ending hits of an Anthony Barr.
According to reports, Nelson checked in with an arm length of 33¾ inches, a wingspan of 82 5/8 inches and hand size of 10 3/8-inches. During testing Thursday, he bench-pressed 225 pounds 35 times.
By comparison, second-team All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari had a measured arm length of 34 inches, a wingspan of 81¾ inches and hand size of 9½ inches at the combine in 2013. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times.
In other words, Nelson has the size of a guard with some added tackle features.
It’s possible a team will draft him to play tackle, which he probably can do, but he was dominant as a guard in college and said no team had talked to him about playing tackle. If the NFL views him as a guard, the next question is whether the 2018 draft will reflect that.
Over the past 10 years, only two college guards were selected in the top 10 and both — Arizona’s Jonathan Cooper (seventh in ‘13) and Tennessee’s Chance Warmack (10th in ’13) — were washouts. Neither is on his original team.
The next highest-selected guard, Mike Iupati, was taken 17th in 2010. Pittsburgh’s David DeCastro, a three-time Pro Bowl and two-time first team All-Pro selection, was taken 24th in 2012.
It’s natural to think Nelson could go to Chicago at No. 8 because the Bears recently cut former Packers guard Josh Sitton and have a need at right tackle. But they also need wide receivers and a defensive end and could fill their offensive line needs in free agency.
Given his size, clean record and bench-press performance, Nelson is a combine winner. Coming out of this week, pundits will declare him as moving up the board and positioning himself to be picked in the top five.
But it’s a long way from the Indiana Convention Center to draft day.
It’s hard for NFL teams to change their stripes and when it comes time to make their picks, the old adage that you don’t pay for guards will resurface in the consciousness of many a draft-day decision-maker.
“I’m always open to good players at whatever position they come,” Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said. “Guards are getting paid a lot in free agency. We found that out with (Kevin) Zeitler. Whether they change your fortunes or not as a team is the debatable point.”
In the Packers’ case, he could be the missing piece of the puzzle on their offensive line, a player who complements existing talent rather than serves as a building block. When the Dallas Cowboys added former Notre Dame tackle Zach Martin and put him at right guard, he transformed their offensive line from very good to dominant.
One of the things working against Nelson this year is competition.
“I think there’s some pretty good offensive linemen, especially in the interior of the offensive line,” Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “And there’s good depth.”
Thus, if you’re a team who loves Nelson and wants an interior lineman but has other, more pressing needs, you can circle back and get a guard or center later in the draft. Among those guards who should be available in the late first and into the second round are UTEP’s Will Hernandez, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn, Auburn’s Braden Smith and Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow.
Still, if Nelson breaks the mold and becomes a rare top-five guard pick, a lot of people won’t be surprised — least of all him.
“I think I should be talked in that regard, the top five conversation because you have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox, that have just been working on interior guys and you need guys to stop them,” Nelson said Thursday. “And I think I’m one of those guys.”
More than likely, the Packers will use later picks to address the guard position. They have mined interior starters like Sitton, T.J. Lang, Corey Linsley and JC Tretter with middle-round picks and with the depth of this class can afford to wait.
But if they think Nelson is special and he starts to drop, the Packers are going to have to think hard about moving up and getting him. Even though they can pick up a guard later in the draft, they have a chance to invest something big in the long-term health of Rodgers and the short-term outlook of their running game.
The fact Gutekunst has 12 picks this year would allow him to trade up in the first round and chase Nelson if he starts to drop within the Packers’ sights. As much as the Packers need help on defense, they need to see the guard position in a different light.