Quenton Nelson’s comfort level with labels about his playing style and lofty projections of his draft status comes from having a stellar career at Notre Dame that has made him one of the most highly rated guard prospects in recent years.
Tackles are the hottest commodities on the offensive line, but Nelson’s dominant play makes him the leader of a group of guards and centers who have risen to the top this year.
He doesn’t mind being called nasty on the field.
“As a blocker, my mindset is being dominant,” Nelson said at the Combine. “I want to dominate all my opponents and take away their will to play the game.
View photos of NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock's top five offensive tackles and interior linemen in the 2018 NFL Draft.
“Yeah ... I would consider myself a nasty player.”
Top five draft pick? No argument.
“I think I should be talked about in that regard,” he said.
Top 5 or soon after, Nelson is almost certain to be the first offensive lineman drafted in a year with a relatively week class of tackles.
Following includes how the Lions stand on the offensive line and their draft priority, key stats, the continuing makeover and GM Bob Quinn’s draft history, the Top 5 linemen and the spotlight.
Offensive line draft priority: Moderate, based on additions the last two years and 2018 offseason.
Offensive line makeover: It is a completely new unit under Quinn. All 11 players on the 2018 roster were brought in since Quinn became general manager in 2016.
Stats: Injuries on the offensive line that forced lineup changes contributed to Matthew Stafford being sacked a career-high 47 times and the running game ranking last in the league in 2017. The Lions used 10 different combinations of starters on the offensive line, and they had their projected starters on the field together for only 95 snaps.
Depth chart: Returning starters (end of 2017) – LT Taylor Decker, LG Joe Dahl, C Graham Glasgow, RG T.J. Lang, RT Rick Wagner.
Backups -- T Brian Mihalik, T Corey Robinson, T Dan Skipper (practice squad), C Leo Koloamatangi.
Additions: C Wesley Johnson, G Kenny Wiggins, signed as free agents.
Top 5 players
1. G Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame: It’s easy to get carried away with where Nelson projects as an overall prospect. He’s clearly at the top among all offensive linemen, and he’s probably among the top three at all positions excluding quarterbacks. He’s a walk-in starter at left guard for the team that drafts him.
Bio/stats: A four-year player and three-year starter, Nelson spent the 2014 season as a true freshman on the scout team. He took over at left guard in 2015 and started 36 of 37 games from 2015-17. The video that surfaced of him dunking a basketball was impressive because of how easily he did it. He looked like a beefed-up version of Charles Barkley. At 6-5 and 325 pounds, Nelson is strong and quick with a nasty demeanor on the field.
2. T Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame: It comes down to splitting hairs – or maybe some luck of the Irish – to put a tackle in the second spot ahead of a group of interior linemen with similar ratings. Tackle is a premier position, and McGlinchey wins out because of position flexibility. He’s played both sides.
Bio/stats: At 6-8 and 308, McGlinchey probably needs to bulk up – especially if he’s going to play right tackle, his likely spot in the pros. He started at right tackle for the Irish in 2015 and left tackle the next two years. More of a finesse player than a power blocker.
3. G Will Hernandez, Texas-El Paso: At 6-2 and 327 pounds, he’s a pure guard who performed well at the Combine – 37 reps in the bench press and a 40 time of 5.15 seconds.
View photos of NFL prospect Will Hernandez.
Bio/stats: Hernandez made a mark for himself with consistently strong play, starting all 49 games at left guard. As a freshman in 2014 he played on a line that gave up only 13 sacks to help the Miners make it to the New Mexico Bowl. Hernandez persevered on bad teams. The Miners were 0-12 in 2017 and 18-43 in his five seasons at UTEP, which included a red-shirt 2013 season.
4. C James Daniels, Iowa: Head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff send offensive linemen at all positions to the pros, and Daniels is the next who could be a first-round pick. With only 21 reps in the bench press at the Combine, he needs to get stronger, but he’s quick with long arms for the position.
Bio/stats: Primarily a backup and special teams player as a 2015 freshman, Daniels got some playing time at guard before taking over at center in 2016. He started all 23 games he played in, which included wins over some big rivals – Michigan in 2016 and Ohio State in 2017. Daniels showed enough athleticism as a three-year player to project as the No. 1 center.
5. T Connor Williams, Texas: He lined up at left tackle for the Longhorns but is projected as a guard in the pros by many analysts.
Bio/stats: Smart and an excellent athlete who broke in quickly as a true freshman in 2015 by starting all 12 games at left tackle. He remained the starter through the first five games of 2017, when his season – and, ultimately, career at Texas – was ended by an injury. It was a surprise to many that he declared for the draft.* *
Others: G Isaiah Wynn, Georgia; C Billy Price, Ohio State; T Kolton Miller, UCLA; T Tyrell Crosby, Oregon; T Orlando Brown, Oklahoma; C Mason Cole, Michigan; T Jamarco Jones, Ohio State; C Frank Ragnow, Arkansas; C Martinas Rankins, Mississippi State; G Braden Smith, Auburn; T Geron Christian, Louisville. Spotlight -- T Chukwuma Okorafor, Western Michigan: There was a falloff in won-loss record for the Broncos in 2017 from their magical 2016 season, but there was no decline in Okorafor’s performance. He was one of six semifinalists for the Outland Trophy, awarded annually to the best interior college lineman on offense or defense.
Okorafor has traveled a long road with his family to be one of the top tackle prospects in this year’s draft. He was born in Nigeria and lived in South Africa and the Republic of Botswana before his family moved to the United States. He grew up playing soccer and took up football at Southfield High School.
“I’m blessed to play the sport I love,” Okorafor said at the Combine. “Looking back at where I came from, most people would say it doesn’t make sense how far I’ve come in such a short time. I’m just blessed to be here.”
A three-year starter, Okorafor played right tackle as a sophomore and left tackle the last two seasons. The Broncos went 13-0 in the 2016 regular season, winning the Mid-American Conference and posting two nonconference wins over Big Ten opponents Illinois and Northwestern. They made it to the Cotton Bowl, where they lost to Wisconsin. They dropped to 6-6 in 2017.
At 6-6 and 330 pounds, Okorafor has the prototype build to play tackle in the NFL. He has to work on some technique issues, but most projections rate him as a mid-round prospect – perhaps as high as the third round.