Editor’s note: Along with guys like our own Nate Dunlevy, Brad Wells, the founder of one of our favorite fellow Colts blogs, helped change the way many of us read about our favorite team, whether it was looking at stats differently, or presenting views that don’t always reflect the mainstream sports media. Since this draft has been a topic of heated debate, please remember you don’t have to agree with someone (though I do in this case) to find their writing engaging. Sit back and enjoy. -MD
Chris Wesseling of NFL.com is a super nice guy who also happens to be super smart at analyzing football. He has a knack for finding interesting information that makes you think (and re-think) about the roster moves many teams make.
Case in point: Indianapolis Colts first round draft pick in 2018, Quenton Nelson- OG, Notre Dame.
Quenton Nelson was drafted higher than any guard since the Broncos selected Chris Hinton at No. 4 overall — and promptly traded him to the Colts in the 1983 Elway blockbuster.
Hinton played just one season at guard (in Baltimore) before moving to left tackle (in Indianapolis) pic.twitter.com/uo1HFkdJ8Y
— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) May 1, 2018
Chris Hinton isn’t someone many Colts fans likely remember, unless you’re my age or older. Yes, his name is on the Lucas Oil Stadium Ring of Honor. But, truthfully, Hinton didn’t have a memorable impact in Indianapolis. This is through no fault of his own, mind you. Hinton was a good player, but his name is more associated with spectacular trades involving the Colts.
Spectacularly infamous trades, that is.
The first was the one involving John Elway. Yes, THAT John Elway. The Baltimore Colts had the No. 1 overall pick in the now-famous 1983 NFL Draft. However, the worst secret in the league back then was the Colts were going to move to either Phoenix or Indianapolis. Elway wanted no part of that, nor anything to do with the mess of a franchise then-owner Robert Irsay had made of the Colts. Instead of drafting Elway and forcing him to play – or using the No. 1 overall pick on eventual Hall of Famers like Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, or Bruce Matthews – the Colts traded with Denver at the No. 4 pick and took Chris Hinton, an offensive guard out of Northwestern.
Hinton played one season at left guard in 1983 for Baltimore. The Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984, and Hinton was switched to left tackle. This was likely done because a top 5 draft investment in the offensive guard position simply wasn’t justified. Hinton played 6 seasons in Indianapolis at left tackle. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 5 of those 6 seasons. The Colts made the playoffs only once during his tenure in Indianapolis.
Hinton was then traded again in 1990. He was sent to Atlanta in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick that year. Unlike when they had the top pick in 1983, this time the Colts opted to select a quarterback. The guy they took was Jeff George out of Illinois. Hinton would switch to right tackle in Atlanta, and finish out his career with the Minnesota Vikings in 1995.
The reason for this history lesson is to place into context just how wacky it was for current Colts general manager Chris Ballard to use the No. 6 overall pick to select an offensive guard. History shows us that guards simply are not worth a top 6 selection. Hinton is one such example. Yes, he had a nice career (8 Pro Bowls), but when you take a guard ahead of positions like quarterback, wide receiver, and a true left tackle, you’re setting your franchise back. That the Colts felt compelled to switch Hinton to tackle further conveys just how ancillary guards are when building NFL rosters.
But, Hinton was 34 years ago. The NFL was different then. Some recent examples are more appropriate to make the point:
2012: The highest guard drafted was Kevin Zeitler at pick No. 27 to the Cincinnati Bengals. A good player, but the Bengals passed on more premium positions like S, CB, and LB. Thus, they missed getting Harrison Smith, Janoris Jenkins , and Bobby Wagner, who is arguably the best linebacker in football since 2013. Zeitler has never been selected to a Pro Bowl.
2013: The highest guard drafted was Jonathan Cooper at pick No. 7 to the Arizona Cardinals. A massive bust, Cooper couldn’t stay healthy in ‘Zona. He’s bounced around with the Browns and Cowboys the last two years.
2014: Zach Martin was selected by the Cowboys with the No. 16 overall pick. Martin’s been named First Team All Pro twice in his four years playing, and he is widely considered the best guard in football. He also plays on a line that features LT Tyron Smith (taken 9th overall in 2011) and OC Travis Fredrick (taken 31st overall in 2013), both of whom are considered the best at their respective positions.
2015: The Detroit Lions took the first guard off the board at pick No. 28: Laken Tomlinson from Duke. He played just two seasons in Detroit, and was eventually moved to left tackle for a period. He played left guard for the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. And speaking of SF…
2016: The 49ers grabbed the first guard in ’16 in Joshua Garnett of Stanford with the No. 28 pick. He started 11 games in ’16, but missed all of last season with a knee injury.
2017: Forest Lamp from Western Kentucky is the first guard off the board at pick No. 38 in the 2nd Round to the Los Angeles Rams.
As you can see, even recent history shows that the guard position simply isn’t worth a top 6 selection. Even a truly excellent guard in Zach Martin was taken outside of the top 15 in his draft, and it’s debatable if Martin is making the kind of impact on the Cowboys that a team would need out of such a selection. That’s not a knock on Martin himself, but Dallas already has difference makers on their o-line at left tackle and center. Because they took Martin, Dallas passed on safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, wide receiver Brandon Cooks, and cornerback Bradley Roby. All three are playmakers at positions traditionally more impactful than guard.
If history is our judge, Quenton Nelson’s ceiling is Zach Martin’s career thus far. But, for a Colts roster that has so many holes at premium positions like wide receiver, CB, pass rusher, and even left tackle, inserting a player with Zach Martin-like skills into the line-up simply doesn’t make the kind of impact that a top 6 pick needs to. It’s certainly possible that Indy could shift Nelson to tackle, but that is not his natural position.
In fairness, there is something to be said about the changing nature of NFL offenses and how more teams run things out of shotgun. This creates the impression that guard play is as important as tackle play because interior rushers tee-off on the backfield when the offense is in gun. But, investing a top 6 pick isn’t necessarily the answer to this. Teams like the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles scheme their offenses to get the ball out quick. This takes pressure off the interior linemen.
Oh, and the interior guards for both teams that played in the Super Bowl:
Stefen Wisniewski (48th overall 2011, Raiders) and Brandon Brooks (76th overall in 2012, Texans) for the World Champion Eagles.
Joe Thuney (78th overall, Patriots) and Shaq Mason (131st overall, Patriots) for the Patriots.
Obviously, I hope Quenton Nelson has a great career. It’s hard not to like him as a player. He’s got what you are looking for when it comes to an interior guard. But, the simple reality is his position is not as critical as others, and Colts general manager Chris Ballard may have missed a significant opportunity to select a true difference maker at a premium position.
It’s also interesting that Nelson’s teammate at Notre Dame, Mike McGlinchey, went three spots after Nelson at No. 9 overall to the 49ers. McGlinchey is a 6’8 left tackle.
It remains to be seen what sort of impact Nelson will have with Indianapolis. If history is our judge, he could very well be the next Chris Hinton. And, if you asked yourself “Who’s Chris Hinton?” when you first started reading this article even though Hinton was a pretty good player… that’s sort of my whole point.