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Broncos Film Room: Is Quenton Nelson really worth a top-five pick?

Andre Simone Avatar
April 18, 2018

The great debate amongst Denver Broncos fans leading into the 2018 NFL Draft, has been lead by those who want a quarterback of the future, and those who want a player who can help new QB Case Keenum and the rest of the team right away. Of course, one of the leading candidates for those who want a non-quarterback is Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson.

Nelson is one of the few seniors in this draft who is seen as a potential top prospect and has been said to be a once-in-a-generation talent at guard.

Because of all this, we just had to dig into the tape to see if the hype is real.

Here’s what we found. 

Strengths

Nelson is a big guard with elite size who plays with a nice combination of athleticism and power. You’ll see that athleticism on pull blocks, where he can be devastating, and he won’t shy away from finishing defenders off in space.

He’s a terrific run blocker who shows lots of power in-line. He plays with natural bend, gains ground with ease and blows defenders out the way with regularity. He’s fun to watch when punishes opponents and then takes defenders for a ride down the field, often finishing them off with some nastiness. 

Nelson plays with violent hips which he uses to slam defenders to the ground with vicious blocks—as illustrated by this block below against LSU.

The Notre Dame captain is really strong at the point of attack; he simply mauls guys in both the run game and pass game. He’s very talented in pass protection, anchors well and shows great balance.

It’s easy to notice Nelson compared to other O-line prospects, in that he’s never sloppy. He’s always in control and doesn’t overextend or get thrown off-balance, that’ll go a long way for him, as he already shows great polish added to high-level technique. 

The Notre Dame left guard has a contagious compete level. A great example is the Miami game, where he and the Irish didn’t start off well at all. The slow start made him mad and lead to him punishing defenders as the game progressed. He has a definite mean streak in him, a must for a prospect in trenches. Even when he plays with an edge, and tries to finish off defenders on every single snap, though, he’s always under control.

The unanimous All-American selection has a high IQ and shows very nice awareness, and when you combine that with his athleticism, it allows him to pick up blitzes and transition from one block to the next with great efficiency. He possesses good lateral mobility to transition from one block to the next.

 

With his polish and a really nice set of skills as a run blocker and pass protector, Nelson has a really high floor. He should be a high-end starter in the NFL at the very worst.

Weaknesses 

Before ever putting on the tape, there are a few questions that pop up with Nelson when considering him to be an elite prospect. The first being, why didn’t he play tackle in college, when he has the size and athletic traits to do so. Also, most of the candidates that go in the top 10 are almost always juniors, so why didn’t Nelson declare as a junior himself? Is his senior tape that much more impressive?

When digging into the tape, we got answers to the first question, as Nelson isn’t necessarily the elite athlete that other top guard prospects we’ve studied in the past were—often converted tackles. This is shown in how he can get beat to his spot on pulls at times, especially by smaller, more athletic players.

Because of this, he allowed more tackles for a loss than I’d like to see when having to make blocks on the move. He needs to set better angles on pulls and finish guys in space with more consistency—an elite guard prospect should be just about perfect, and you’ll see more negative plays on tape than expected with Nelson.

As much as he’s labeled as this perfect prospect who can do no wrong, Nelson had his off-plays too. He wasn’t great in the red zone against USC, struggled to start the game against Miami, had issues to start the game versus North Carolina State, and Georgia’s athletic front gave him trouble as well. Against the best defenses he faced, he wasn’t perfect, and that’s a concern with his transition to the league.

Playing left guard prevented him from having to take on very many single blocks in pass protection. It won’t be so easy in the NFL, where he’ll likely be asked to play right guard, a tougher position to play as it requires a lot more one-on-one blocking assignments.

Playing on the right side will be an even bigger test of his athleticism in handling elite defensive tackles as a pro. You can see him get beat off the snap at times by NFL level lineman in college, which is a definite concern. See the play below, as NC State’s Justin Jones beat him off the snap and Nelson tripped him despite having help from his center.

 

It isn’t talked about enough, but Nelson benefited from Notre Dame being up in a lot of games and mostly running the ball. In the NFL, when he’ll be asked to pass protect up to 50 times a game, without the benefit of as much help from his center on the right side, he’ll be truly tested.

Though he’s run blocking, below is another example of how he can get beat when blocking high-end athletes.

Nelson’s nastiness and finishing ability might be a bit overrated, too. This is shown when he allows guys who he’s already blocked to get by him in space because he doesn’t bury them, allowing the defender to recover and make a play.

I’d like for him to be nastier in pass pro, showing violent hands more consistently at the point of attack, as he sometimes lets guys slip buy because he doesn’t do this. Blitzers with a head of steam can get through him, as well, he needs to be better in his anchor when defenders come at him at full speed.

The biggest question is, what’s Nelson’s ceiling? His floor is really high, he’s likely a very safe pick, but how much room does he still have to grow? It feels like what you see is what you’ll get.

In conclusion

Nelson might be a tad overrated. He’s a really good guard but not the greatest prospect at the position of the last 10-to-20 years. Maybe not even the best of the past five years when comparing him to Brandon Scherff, Zack Martin or some of the NFL’s other highest-paid guards. 

He’s an extremely safe pick, and while he does have negative plays, there are things that can be corrected, especially him taking advantage of plays in space by taking better angles. The biggest concern is his true athleticism, and how he’ll handle elite NFL athletes, that question will define him as a potential Hall of Famer or simply a really good starter.

Nelson is a great prospect who can do lots of things, and he would be a big upgrade for the Broncos, but in a deep class for guards, a top-five pick feels simply too rich.

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