If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were to draft Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson in this year's NFL Draft, Nelson would inherit ample opportunities to go one-on-one in practice with Gerald McCoy, the Buccaneers' six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle. However, it's exactly because of players like McCoy that Nelson might be off the board before pick number seven, where Tampa Bay is currently slated in the first round.
That could occur if any of the team's picking in the top six agree with the line of reasoning advanced by Nelson himself on Thursday. Speaking to the press at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, the 6-5, 329-pound mauler was asked to justify the idea of taking an offensive guard with a top-five draft pick. That's a very rare occurrence in a pick range usually dominated by quarterbacks, pass-rushers and left tackles. Nelson rather persuasively defended his top-five value by reminding everyone of who he would be competing against, and hopefully dominating.
"I think I should be talked [about] in that regard, the top-five conversation, because you have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox, that have just been working on interior guys," said Nelson. "You need guys to stop them, and I think I'm one of those guys. You talk to quarterbacks and they say if a D-End gets on the edge, that's fine. They can step up into the pocket and make a throw; a lot of quarterbacks, if you give them the opportunity, they can do that. That's what I give is a pocket to step up in."
It's important to note that a top-five selection for Nelson may or may not be an unfortunate turn of events for the Buccaneers. None of this is meant to reflect the scouting opinions or strategy of Buccaneers decision-makers Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter or their staffs. Still, any player selected before Tampa Bay is on the clock will either directly or indirectly affect their plans; the same is true of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick.
And it would be a rare occurrence if Nelson is drafted that early. Washington selected Iowa's Brandon Scherff fifth overall in 2015, though at the time there was some scouting disagreement over whether he would end up at tackle or guard, which made the pick seem less surprising. The Redskins have kept Scherff at right guard and he has made the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons. Scherff is the only guard drafted in the top five since 1975, though Arizona did take North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper at #7 in 2013. Unfortunately, that pick hasn't worked out, which could play into the nay-sayers on the concept.
There are plenty of first-round success stories at guard, a position at which it might be a bit easier to project a player's "floor" and thus be more assured of not going bust with the pick. Dallas is certainly happy with having spent the 16th pick on Zack Martin in 2014, while Cincinnati got Kevin Zeitler at #27 and San Francisco nabbed Mike Iupati at #17. The one time the Buccaneers used a first-round pick on a guard, taking Davin Joseph at #23 in 2006, they were rewarded with a two-time Pro Bowler. All of the above are or were stars, and many are the kind of players Nelson wants to emulate, particularly in regards to one of the most common terms found in his various scouting bios: "nasty."
"I would say a lot of guys that have been the best players at their position have had that characteristic of being nasty. Larry Allen, and guys [currently] in the NFL like Zack Martin, Brandon Scherff, K.O. [Kelechi Osemele] – nasty football players. Those are guys that I look up to and I want to be like and play like. I try to emulate that as best as I can. I want to be play nasty; I play clean, though."
It's the idea that Nelson could be drafted higher than any of those players, and higher than just about any guard ever, that inspires the debate. Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer calls Nelson a "generational talent," and he's not the only one to say so. Draft guru Mike Mayock says Nelson is one of the two best players in the draft. Of the seven mock drafts aggregated on NFL.com at the moment, five have Nelson being draft within the top eight picks and three have him off the board before the Buccaneers at #7.
Those same scouting reports rarely find fault in any aspect of Nelson's game. In addition to that clean pocket he hopes to provide, Nelson should give an immediate boost to any team's rushing attack. That latter concern is why those mock drafters who don't have Nelson going in the top five frequently match him up with the Buccaneers two spots later.
"I think I also help the offense establish the run through my nastiness, and establishing the run also opens up the passing game," said Nelson. "I think that would be a good choice to make."
Nelson says he doesn't spend much time thinking about whether or not he'll hear his name called among the top five picks of the draft; he gave his line of reasoning on Thursday simply because he was asked. You can bet that the teams that own those picks, however, will be thinking about that issue quite a bit over the next two months.