Other than punters and kickers, no other position gets as little respect from fans as guards. Hey, it makes sense. They don't make the spectacular catch, throw or run to win a game. They don't get the crowd riled up with a stop on third-and-short or a big play in coverage. Why, they rarely even get as much love as other offensive linemen. After all, they don't have to protect the edge like tackles and aren't seen as the quarterback of the offensive line like centers.
But while it's easy to dismiss guards as dime-a-dozen players who can be picked up in the later rounds as needed, that just isn't the case. Need proof? How about the fact that five of the six guards who went to the Pro Bowl last year -- Alan Faneca
, Logan Mankins
, Leonard Davis
, Steve Hutchinson
and Shawn Andrews
-- were selected in the first round of their respective drafts. Kris Dielman
, the sixth Pro Bowl guard from last year, was an undrafted defensive lineman the Chargers slowly converted to a guard.
It's also worth pointing out that several teams have drafted tackles in the middle rounds and moved them to guard, like New Orleans did with Jahri Evans
in 2006. And teams can sometimes find pure guards capable of starting in the mid- to late-rounds. It's not easy, but Tennessee did it with Benji Olson
is in the fifth round of the 1998 draft. At that point, there were concerns about Olson's ability to hold up in pass protection. However, Olson ended up being a perfect fit for this team because it has shown a strong commitment to the ground game and placed a premium on mobility at quarterback. As a result, Olson started 140 games before deciding to retire on Thursday.
The bottom line is while teams can find guards capable of developing into starters in the mid-to-late rounds, it's a tough task. Here are three mid- to late-round prospects as well as a small-school prospect from this year's guard class to watch.
Arkansas' Robert Felton
Perhaps the best way to describe Felton is "315 pounds of mean", because he is tough, strong and at his best driving defenders off the ball. He also does a good job of anchoring in pass protection and holds his ground well working against bull rushers. However, most project him to go on in the fifth-round range because he doesn't have great foot speed and has problems keeping one-gap defenders out of the backfield as a pass blocker. Committing too many penalties and wearing down late in games hasn't helped his draft stock much, either.
Oakland is an interesting possibility for Felton because it desperately needs depth at guard and Cooper Carlisle
turns 31 this year. Felton could develop his footwork and work on his conditioning as a backup then compete for a starting job when Cooper decides to step down. In addition, the Raiders need to run the ball effectively with JaMarcus Russell
entering his first season as a starter, and Russell is capable of buying time in the pocket. A strong commitment to the ground game and a mobile quarterback who can mask his weaknesses in pass protection matches Felton's skill set perfectly. Indianapolis, on the other hand, would be a poor fit. Though the Colts should add a guard later in the draft, Felton is a better run blocker than pass blocker and lacks elite lateral mobility so he could have some problems blocking on their stretch play.
Clemson's Chris McDuffie
McDuffie takes too many false steps and doesn't get great hand placement, so he has some problems getting into position and sustaining blocks. Making matters worse, he tore an elbow ligament last year and there are concerns about his character stemming from a 2004 off-the-field incident. However, McDuffie could still get drafted in the later rounds because he has a boatload of potential. The 330-pounder is quick for his size and has the upper-body strength to develop a violent initial punch that can jar defenders at the point of contact. In addition, McDuffie moved from defensive tackle to guard in 2005 and didn't see substantial playing time until 2006, so he is still learning how to play the position. More importantly, there's reason to believe he will progress as he has shown an excellent work ethic and made strides over the course of the last three seasons.
Another AFC West team that should be looking for a guard is Kansas City and McDuffie would do well there for two reasons. First, the Chiefs like to pull their offensive linemen. McDuffie has the range to get around the corner and the size to engulf linebackers in space. Secondly, Brian Waters
went from a collegiate tight end/defensive end to a Pro Bowl guard, so he would be an excellent mentor. However, it's not an ideal fit because the Chiefs need a guard who can contribute early and McDuffie may not be ready. Minnesota, on the other hand, would be a better fit. The Vikings need to add some depth at guard and, believe it or not, Steve Hutchinson turns 31 this year. McDuffie would almost certainly benefit from playing behind Hutchinson and he's talented enough to compete for the starting slot opposite Hutchinson in a year or two.
Meanwhile, the Raiders might not be the right team for McDuffie because of their instability. Oakland's changes in head coaches and offensive coordinators in recent years have forced players to adjust to new schemes far too frequently. While it could come together for second-year head coach Lane Kiffin this year, the tension between Kiffin and team owner Al Davis during the offseason was well documented. Since McDuffie's best chance of reaching his full potential is playing in the same system for at least two years, saying the Raiders would be a good fit for him is too much of a gamble.
UCLA's Shannon Tevaga
At 6-foot-2, Tevaga can get under defenders' pads, get adequate hand placement and is relentless once in position. The 312-pounder also takes sound angles to his downfield blocks so he can get into position at the second level. Still, Tevaga projects as a seventh-round pick or rookie free agent for two reasons. The first is his inconsistent footwork. Tevaga lunges and loses his balance too much at this point. Secondly, his lack of ideal athletic ability is a concern. While he can hold his ground working against bull rushers and pick up the blitz, Tevaga struggles to redirect in pass protection and the team that drafts or signs him will have to help him out in pass protection.
With Stephen Neal
turning 32 and Russ Hochstein
turning 31 this year, New England could stand to infuse some youth and depth at guard in the later rounds of the draft. If the Patriots take that approach, Tevaga would be a good fit. Though he doesn't have great athletic ability, improving his footwork will help dilute that weakness. That's important to remember because Dante Scarnecchia is one of the best offensive line coaches in the league and Tevaga has the work ethic to get better with added experience. Another possibility is Chicago, which could stand to add some depth at guard. On the flipside, San Francisco would not be a good fit for Tevaga now that the 49ers are running new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme.
Small school prospect: Northern Iowa's Chad Rinehart
The 320-pound Rinehart has the burst to get into position quickly and delivers a violent punch that can jar defenders, much like McDuffie, but he's far more consistent. Rinehart isn't just an effective drive blocker, either. He's athletic enough to get into position at the second level and hold his own in pass protection once he improves his overall technique and footwork. But there's the problem. Since Rinehart dominated with his natural ability at the Division I-AA level, he hasn't had to be fundamentally sound and is somewhat raw. Two areas of particular concern are his hand placement and ability to stay low coming out of his stance. With all of that in mind, Rinehart could still go as early as the fourth round.
Scheme-wise, Kansas City would be a good fit for Rinehart because of how well he moves for his size, but as I said before the Chiefs need a guard who can push for early playing time. They will have to decide whether or not Rinehart can make the transition from Division I-AA to the NFL during his rookie year, and the stakes would be high. If they guess wrong and play him too early it could set him back significantly. Pittsburgh's situation may be better for Rinehart. The Steelers are in a slightly different position after signing Justin Hartwig to soften the blow of losing Faneca to the Jets via free agency. With Hartwig on board, the Steelers can afford to bring Rinehart along slower and that could help him exponentially. The Giants are another interesting possibility for similar reasons.
By Steve Muench