When looking at the Bears biggest offseason needs, a number of position groups come to mind immediately. Wide receiver, pass rusher, and the defensive backfield require improvement in 2018.
But what if I told you one of their biggest areas of need was actually a strength for the Bears in 2017?
It may come as a surprise, but offensive guard has sneakily become a need this offseason.
Kyle Long has been a great, albeit oft-injured, offensive lineman since he was drafted in 2013. Those injuries have begun to catch up to him and he is scheduled for three additional surgeries this offseason. That is an extremely difficult situation from which to return, and his Week 1 status should be in question. While I am hoping for the best, there is no guarantee he will ever regain his Pro Bowl form.
The Bears’ other guard, Josh Sitton, will be 32 next season and has dealt with nagging injuries in his two seasons in Chicago. Throw in the fact that he has an $8.572 million cap hit next season – with only $666,000 in dead money – and he could easily become a cap casualty. Sitton has been a good signing for Ryan Pace, but his best years are almost assuredly behind him.
Beyond those two, the Bears have some journeymen guards and last year’s fifth-round pick Jordan Morgan. Maybe the Bears really believe Morgan will take a big step in season two, but relying on him to contribute after not seeing the field in Year 1 is a fool’s errand.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Long or Sitton, if not both, are not starting Week 1.
How can the Bears potentially replace these players?
Well, look no further than the best player in the 2018 NFL draft: Notre Dame offensive guard Quenton Nelson.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Steve, the eighth pick is way too high to pick a guard. How’d you even get this job?”
But what if I told you that since 2005 a third of all guards taken in the first round have become All-Pros, 57 percent became Pro Bowlers.
Still not convinced?
Take a look at the recent contracts given to guards over the past few seasons. Before last season, Kevin Zeitler, a former first-round pick, signed a five-year, $60 million contract that included $23 million guaranteed according to spotrac.com.
The year before, the Raiders signed Kelechi Osemele to a similar contract. If you look at the highest paid offensive linemen, 40 percent of the top 25 are interior linemen. The casual fan might not value guards, but the NFL certainly does.
So now that I have your attention, let’s take a closer look into Quenton Nelson.
The first thing that jumps out at you when watching Nelson run block is his elite athleticism. No 6-foot-five, 330-pound human being should be able to move the way that he does. His ability to pull and get to the second level is unrivaled in this draft class.
Take a look at this clip from his bowl game against LSU:
He pulls, locates the defender, and turns his body to create a seal and a big lane for the running back. His athleticism to simply get to the linebacker is impressive by itself, but he also shows the footwork to get into the right position and create the hole.
Nelson couples that athleticism with elite technique and strength. He comes out of his stance low to create leverage and consistently drives his defender out of the play.
Here’s a great example of this from his game against Georgia:
Nelson pushes his defender all around the field to create a giant hole. Now, the play goes for negative yards, but he couldn’t have done his job any better. This was consistent all game as he dominated one of the better defenses in the country from start to finish.
Given his size, you would expect Nelson to be a big mauler in the run game. While this is true, his pass protection is equally as impressive. His footwork and technique are on display every play.
Nelson is strong enough to anchor against a bull rush and quick enough to counter any pass rush move. He uses his hands extremely well and once he gets a hold of a defender it’s difficult for them to disengage.
In the video below, Nelson uses a strong two-handed punch to negate the initial rush. The defender tries to counter with a spin move but Nelson is able to stay with him and get him on the ground.
Now, there have been a number of big, strong, athletic offensive linemen over the years that have not panned out. Just look at our beloved Bears for proof.
I still have nightmares of Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams attempting to pass block, but what propels Nelson from a good NFL prospect to an elite NFL prospect are his intangibles. His ability to diagnose exotic blitzes and stunts is why he is deserving of a top-10 pick.
The following play is my favorite of his because 99.99 percent of college offensive linemen simply don’t make it.
This should have been an easy sack on a free blitzer, but Nelson diagnosed the blitz pre-play and when he had no one to block on his side, and used his above-average lateral quickness to get to the other side of the ball and pick up the blitz.
Nelson is as close to a perfect prospect as I’ve seen since I started evaluating prospects. He’s smart, athletic, strong, and he has a mean streak great offensive linemen need to have in order to succeed.
Plugging him in at left guard instantly takes the Bears’ line from good to great. Nelson is the rare prospect who can improve both the run and pass game immediately.
Yes, Mitch Trubisky needs a true number one wide receiver, but unfortunately there just isn’t one in this draft class.
So why not get him the next best thing and solidify the offensive line for years to come?