Grading the pro potential: Guards

Three of the top four players with guard potential at the NFL level were tackles in college, and some of them might continue to be tackles. NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas gives his opinions on the possibilities at a position where the Vikings are expected to invest in this draft.

Like most drafts, slow-footed college offensive tackles are usually converted to the offensive guard position in the National Football League. While that appears to be the case again this year, the tackles likely to shift in-line come with impressive resumes, as four of the more notable position-change candidates have received All-American recognition.

Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin heads this group, and with teams split down the middle where to play him, we have the Irish blocker, along with Nevada's Joel Bitonio, North Dakota State's Billy Turner and Boise State's Charles Leno, rated as guards and tackles. Miami's Brandon Linder split time at guard and tackle, but is receiving serious attention as a potential center. Small-college standout Dakota Dozier of Furman is another tackle that has a better opportunity to start as a guard in the NFL.

With a record-breaking 102 underclassmen declaring for the draft, four of the better juniors to declare are in this guard group, led by UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo, who will give Martin a run for his money to see who is the first guard drafted. Louisiana State's Trai Turner flew under the radar and has not gotten the media attention other guards have received, but every time you watch game film of Jeremy Hill scoring, it is usually because of a block thrown by Turner to spring the ball-carrier.

The media hype earlier in the year had David Yankey of Stanford being considered in the same breath as Green Bay Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer. Watching film of Yankey from the second half of the season, he should be compared to Kramer from "Seinfeld" fame instead. Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming is the "new eye candy" when NFL position coaches visited campus to work out their draft-eligible linemen.

Injuries will play a major factor at this position on draft day. One of the top blockers in the 2014 draft, Clemson's Brandon Thomas, blew out the ACL in his right knee during an early April private workout for the Saints and will go from a potentially early second-round pick to the third day of the draft.

All season, folks kept wondering why Alabama's Anthony Steen was struggling so much in pass protection. Turns out he was doing his best "one-armed bandit" to help the team before finally succumbing to the knife after the regular season to repair a torn labrum and has not worked out for teams.

Nebraska's Spencer Long, one of the better trap blockers in the Big Ten Conference, has been missing in action since he suffered a left knee injury in an October meeting vs. Purdue. Notre Dame's Chris Watt went to the sideline with an assortment of injuries before being felled by knee problems vs. Stanford that kept him out of postseason action.

Cincinnati took a double hit at the guard position, as Sam Longo is still hobbled by ankle problems and Austen Bujnoch has been stalled with foot woes. Teams also are not convinced that Michigan State's Blake Treadwell is fully recovered from 2012 knee surgery.

While it is clear that the best offensive line talent resides at offensive tackle, where Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan can all be gone within the first dozen picks, the next lineman that should hear his name called is Notre Dame's Martin. The question is, does he go into the league as a tackle, his college position, or shift to guard, where he captured a lot of attention while dominating there at the 2014 Senior Bowl?

Martin has the strength, speed, quickness, body control and change-of-direction agility to mirror defenders in pass protection and an explosive burst off the snap. He shows very good sustained speed to get into the second level and has exceptional acceleration for a lineman. He is very good at sustaining and demonstrates a nice feel for blocking angles.

Martin brings power to his game when driving for movement and will generally finish, possessing the loose hips to adjust on the move. He is a good mauler who gets a terrific push with his hands inside his frame. He excels at initiating contact and uses his leg drive well to move the defender off the ball, but could use further lower-body development (will need to do so to handle traps and pulls at the next level if he is to shift to guard).

UCLA's Su'a-Filo has a very powerful upper body with long, thick limbs, big back and well-proportioned thighs and calves. He possesses a thick lower-body frame with wide hips, good bubble, thick thighs and a squat build that can carry at least another 20 to 25 pounds without any loss in quickness (timed at 5.04 seconds in the 40-yard dash). He has the good arm length you look for in making reach blocks and comes off the ball with good leg drive and hand punch to shock and jolt. He generates good hip rotation when redirecting on the move and knows how to use his size to get leverage on the defender.

Su'a-Filo might generate great initial explosion, but he is much more effective on the short pulls than when running long distances. He gets a strong initial surge on contact and is a classic mauler with a brutal hand punch to shock and jolt. He is especially effective helping out his center and is a dominating drive blocker who combines strength and mass to sustain as an in-line blocker. His impressive upper-body power lets him consistently shock defenders. When he sinks and rolls his hips, his explosion in the short area is excellent.

Like Martin and Su'a-Filo, Nevada'a Bitonio is a college guard whose quickness and shorter-than-ideal arms make him a better guard prospect than to man left tackle at the next level. He displays very good initial quickness, getting his hands up and in the defender's chest on the rise, in order to control and position. He is light on his feet for a player his size, ideal for the short pulls and traps (see 2012 South Florida, Hawaii and New Mexico games). With his explosive burst and low pad level, he easily gains advantage on the defender. He has the balance and change of direction agility to get out front on traps and pulls.

Bitonio has the footwork and strength to anchor and hold his ground at the point of attack. He is quick off the snap, usually getting advantage on the defender due to his ability to stay on his feet. He stays low in his pads, works for position and uses his hands well to lock on and finish. With his balance and footwork, he has excellent mirror ability. Even with his quickness, he shows good patience to sustain blocks. When in pass protection, his footwork in retreat allows him to get back and protect the pocket from edge rushers.

Continuing the trend of college tackles moving to guard is Turner, the small-college standout from North Dakota State. He generates very good initial quickness out of his stance on run and pass plays. He labors to get to the second level (lack of sustained speed), but in the short region, he can generate suddenness and snap quickness to gain advantage. Despite his tall frame, Turner has good lateral movement and ability to redirect and recover. He also possesses good feet and lateral quickness in his slide.

Turner shows very good pop and an explosive punch, especially when helping out on combo blocks. Run blocking is one of his better assets and a major reason scouts feel his future lies at guard in the pros. He is a very good in-line blocker who can scoop, reach down and seal block. He does a solid job of staying low in his pads and is able to use his hands to lock on, as he shows a keen understanding for positioning.

The first true guard to come off the draft boards is likely to be Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson. One of the most decorated offensive linemen in school history, the two-time All-American and four-time All-Southeastern Conference selection has been a mainstay at the left guard position ever since he made his collegiate debut (52 games ago). The massive drive blocker capped off his four years as a Bulldog with perhaps his finest season, as he was credited with 20 touchdown blocks on the 29 scoring runs by the grounds game, which was the second-highest total of touchdowns by a running unit in MSU annals.

Jackson shows excellent initial quickness off the snap, especially on the down block. He does a much better job of opening and rolling his hips on drive blocks than he does in pass protection. He is a good player in space, where he uses his power and size to drive through into the second level. He comes off the line with a good flat-back motion and proper hip snap, using his hand punch with force to stun.

With his long arms (33 1/2-inch arms, 82 1/8-inch wing span), he is capable of quickly resetting his hands. He is light on his feet moving forward and looks like a dancing bear mauling smaller second-level defenders. When he gains position off the snap, he uses his strength well to sustain. In the second level, he has a good concept for angling, and you will never see him get lazy with his feet if he has to execute a long pull.

The next pure guard likely to be drafted is one of my favorites, LSU's Turner. He has that exceptional quickness and sustained speed to consistently get out in front on traps and pulls. He has very good balance to recover and uses his hands well to lock on and control. He has the athleticism to stay up and play the game on his feet and shows steady ability to come off the snap smoothly to pull.

Turner excels at initiating contact and following through with his hand placement and leg drive to sustain. He looks very comfortable and sudden coming out of his stance and will hit with a thud when making contact. He is very aware of his surrounding when working in space and fluidly adjusts to the moving targets.

Clemson's Thomas would have been an early second-day selection if he did not hurt his knee in an early April workout. Even though he was a very capable left tackle, he is more suited for the guard position, as he plays with good balance. He has the foot quickness and knee bend to easily mirror and slide to challenge edge rushers, along with good overall flexibility. He is smooth and sudden coming out of his stance and has above average lateral range. He maintains balance on the move, especially when having to redirect and recover working in-line.

Thomas is a classic knee bender who is effective generating anchor to slide and protect the back side. He shows good patience working on the edge, letting the rusher come to him rather than lunge and over-extend. He has a good concept for angling and can redirect well. His ability to recover in his pass set is superior to most offensive tackles. He shows good ability to sink his hips. In the past, he would get a little inconsistent with his punch (takes lazy sets), but as a junior, he got to the collision point very effectively..

As mentioned in my center report, Miami's Brandon Linder has a lot of Chris Myers and Kevin Boothe in his game – very effective playing any position on the front wall. While MVP stands for Most Valuable Player, which Linder was on the 2013 Hurricanes team, it could also apply to Most Versatile Player, where the lineman is concerned, having seen action at every position on the front wall during his college career.

He backed up center Tyler Horn, replaced Harland Gunn at left guard for two games and lined up in five starting assignments in the team's "jumbo pack" that featured an extra lineman during his freshman season. As a sophomore and junior, he started at right guard, but would line up at right tackle and left guard when teammates needed a breather. As a senior, he started the first five games and last four contests at right guard, sandwiching those calls to duty around three starts at the right tackle slot in 2013.

Linder is a hard object to move out when he plants his feet firmly at the point of attack. He has a strong hand punch and is very active using those hands in attempts to sustain. He does a solid job executing reach blocks and maintaining position when working in-line. He could use more bulk to clear out and maintain the rush lanes, but shows quick feet in his kick slide. For some reason, he seems to struggle when he does not get low in his stance to generate leverage on the move, but he has the reach and extension ability to cover defenders up at the line of scrimmage.

Furman's Dozier has continued his steady climb up draft boards, especially after his solid showing vs. the "big boys" when he manhandled major college defenders at the 2014 Senior Bowl practices. He made a triumphant return to the field in 2013, overcoming a knee problem that sidelined him for several games and limited his mobility the second half of his junior campaign. While he has capably manned the left tackle position throughout his college career, Dozier's trap blocking and ability to work on combo blocks will likely see him shift inside to guard at the professional level.

Dozier has enough lower-body strength and mass when he comes off the snap with a flat back, but because of back issues, will not roll his hips much. He has the quickness and blocking angle technique to make the cut off at the second level. He might overextend some, but can recover and drive the defender off the ball.

His quickness and kick slide allow Dozier to make reach blocks and he certainly has the balance and feet to mirror. He has improved his base and hand usage to compensate for a lack of ideal knee bend. When he gets his hands into a defender, he will stun his opponent. His long arms and ability to rest his hands consistently lets him keep edge rushers at bay.

In the fourth and fifth rounds, expect Baylor's Cyril Richardson and Yankey to end their frustrations about not hearing their names called during the first two days of the draft. Leno, Steen, Watt and Florida's Jon Halapio should follow in Round 6.

While I expect Penn State's John Urschel to be drafted, it probably will not happen until the final round. Look for John Fullington of Washington State, Kadeem Edwards of Tennessee State, Ryan Groy of Wisconsin, Andrew Norwell of Ohio State, Zach Fulton of Tennessee and Long to be Round 7 considerations.

MY PERSONAL LIST

CREAM OF THE CROP: Zack Martin (Notre Dame) and Xavier Su'a-Filo (UCLA)

BEST OF THE REST: Joel Bitonio (Nevada) and Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State)

MOST UNDERRATED: Trai Turner (Louisiana State) and Brandon Linder (Miami)

MOST OVERRATED: Cyril Richardson (Baylor) and David Yankey (Stanford)

SUPER SLEEPER: Brandon Thomas (Clemson): I am very convinced that he will fully recover from his knee injury and be an impact player by the 2015 season.

PLAYER HTWT 40225 VJBJ SH3C PRORND
MARTIN, Zack (OT)  6:04308 5.2229 2808'10" 4.597.65 72
#SU'A-FILO, Xavier   6:04307 4.9726 2608'07" 4.447.6 6.82
BITONIO, Joel (OT) 6:04302 4.9722 3209'06" 4.447.37 6.72
TURNER, Billy (OT) 6:05315 5.1625 2809'00" 4.717.92 6.43
JACKSON, Gabe   6:03336 5.5130 2909'00" 4.787.91 6.33
#TURNER, Trai   6:03310 4.9325 27 1/208'06" 4.778.1 6.24
DOZIER, Dakota (OT)   6:04313 5.4223 27 1/208'05" 4.898.14 63
RICHARDSON, Cyril   6:05329 5.2330 25 1/207'07" 4.837.7 5.85
#YANKEY, David   6:06315 5.4825 3008'07" 4.697.81 5.65
LINDER, Brandon (OC) 6:06311 5.3530 26 1/208'04" 4.717.77 5.55
%THOMAS, Brandon   6:03317 5.0935 2908'03" 4.757.83 5.55
LENO, JR., Charles (OT)   6:04303 5.2521 31 1/209'04" 4.47.57 5.45
HALAPIO, Jon   6:04323 5.3430 2708'04" 4.838.26 5.36
%STEEN, Anthony   6:03314 5.22NL 2508'10" 4.717.95 5.16
WATT, Chris   6:03310 5.529 28 1/208'08" 4.767.67 5.16
URSCHEL, John   6:03313 5.1930 2908'06" 4.477.55 57
FULLINGTON, John 6:05300 5.3930 28 1/208'08" 4.77.7 5PFA
EDWARDS, Kadeem   6:04313 5.2526 2708'03" 4.827.95 4.97
GROY, Ryan   6:05316 5.1926 26 1/209'00" 4.477.49 4.97
%LONG, Spencer   6:05320 5.1628 2908'10" 4.777.76 4.87-FA
NORWELL, Andrew   6:06315 5.2822 2808'09" 4.938.09 4.87-FA
FULTON, Zach   6:05316 5.1625 24 1/208'02" 5.167.87 4.77-FA
SHATLEY, Tyler   6:03300 5.1740 30 1/209'02" 4.667.95 4.7PFA
CLARKE, Brian   6:02305 5.0133 2908'10" 4.77.58 4.7PFA
BURNETTE, Chris   6:03306 5.2329 2908'04" 4.97.98 4.7FA
BOFFELI, Conor   6:04298 5.321 2508'05" 4.617.44 4.6FA
HOPKINS, Trey   6:03305 5.2428 2809'02" 4.748.06 4.6FA
WALKER, Josh   6:05323 5.1923 27 1/207'09" 4.778.01 4.6FA
MARTINEZ, John   6:02315 5.1942 24 1/208'03" 4.878.21 4.6FA
%LONGO, Sam 6:05304 5.2647 33 1/208'09" 4.747.99 4.5FA
LEE, Dallas   6:03302 5.1533 27 1/208'02" 4.717.94 4.5FA
BARTON, Karim   6:02310 5.6424 2608'06" 4.737.69 4.5FA
SIMMONS, Will   6:05329 5.45        4.5FA
WALTERS, Mason   6:05320 5.22        4.5FA
WENTWORTH, Austin   6:04315 5.18        4.4CMP
DANSER, Kevin   6:05312 5.86        4.4CMP
LOWERY, Antwan   6:03355 5.46        4.4CMP
HALL, Marcus   6:05312 5.6        4.4CMP
%BUJNOCH, Austen   6:03305 5.14        4.4CMP
%TREADWELL, Blake   6:02312 5.23        4.4CMP
MORRELL, D.J. 6:05327 5.55        4.4CMP
RODRIGUEZ, Andrew   6:05336 5.6        4.4CMP
ELLIS, Jamal 6:03300 5.06        4.3CMP
KASPAR, Nicholas   6:03304 5.63        4.3CMP
PATRICK, Ronald   6:02315 5.34        4.3CMP
PIKE, Eric   6:04298 5.36        4.3CMP
JACKSON, Will   6:03295 5.14        4.3CMP
IRWIN, Bronson   6:04316 5.23        4.3CMP
FRANCE, Daniel 6:06303 5.45        4.3CMP
LATU, Will 6:03319 5.41        4.3CMP
BRYANT, Kyle 6:06321 5.88        4.3CMP
TAYLOR, Keenan (OC) 6:04292 5.22        4.3CMP


RATING CATEGORYEXPLANATION
8.1-9.0Franchise
Player
Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.
7.6-8.0Star Quality Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.
7.0-7.5Impact Player Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.
6.5-6.9Eventual Starter Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.
6.0-6.4Potential Starter Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.
5.5-5.9Roster Player Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.
5.0-5.4Project Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.
4.6-4.9Develop- mental Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.
4.1-4.5Camp Player Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.
3.5-4.0Reject Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.
 


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