NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock knows it’s not a popular opinion but in his view, Alabama’s Chance Warmack is the best prospect in the NFL draft.
That raised eyebrows not because Warmack, the former Westlake High School star, isn’t a top prospect. He almost certainly will be selected within the top 15 picks.
The controversy is over Warmack’s position.
“People will tell me I’m crazy that a guard can’t go No. 1,” Mayock said. “I think he’s the best player in the draft, so I would argue that.”
Mayock can find plenty of people to take him up on that debate.
The perception is that guards are a dime a dozen in the NFL and there’s no value in selecting one early in the draft. Conventional wisdom follows that tackles that don’t pan out can move to guard, where a deficiency such as poor footwork isn’t as problematic because guards don’t have to pass block in open space.
But there appears to be a shift in thinking about the value of guards as passing becomes the focus for more teams.
As elite edge rushers are squeezing the pocket from the outside, better athletes on the interior defensive lines are pushing from the middle. Teams have responded by investing more in their interior blockers.
“If you look at the guard market over the last few years in free agency, it’s gone up for a reason,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “As you see the way teams play on defense, if your quarterback can step up in the pocket, it’s easier to step up and throw than run around. Sometimes when you run around, you’ve got to stop and figure it out.
“You look at the Saints. I think the Saints have invested well in guard and (quarterback) Drew Brees was one that would step (up) and has had a lot of success”
In 2012 the Saints signed guard Ben Grubbs to a contract that included $15.9 guaranteed, including a $10 million signing bonus. They’d already given guard Jahri Evans a $12 million signing bonus in 2010 and base salaries of $7 million in 2010 and $3 million in 2011.
The top free agent guard this offseason, Andy Levitre, signed a five-year contract with the Bills that included $27.5 million guaranteed. The Chargers recently signed guard Louis Vasquez to a four-year contract with $13 million guaranteed.
Warmack is poised to take advantage of the trend. Draft analysts rate him as either the top guard or No. 2 behind North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper. Either player could be selected within the top 10 and both should be off the board before the 20th pick.
“It’s widely known that guards aren’t drafted that high,” Warmack said. “If that did happen, that would be an honor.”
It also would involve risk for the team that takes the chance. Not many have done it in recent years.
The last offensive guard to be selected in the top 10 was Leonard Davis, whom the Cardinals took with the No. 2 overall selection out of Texas in 2001. But Davis also had the size and skills to play tackle and has switched back and forth between the two positions throughout his career. Warmack and Cooper are considered strictly guards.
The 2001 draft was the last that saw two guards selected within the top 20 picks. Since then, there have been four drafts in which a guard wasn’t even selected in the first round.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said a team that drafts a guard early should be confident it is getting a “difference-maker” but also shouldn’t shy away from the player because of his position.
“For us, we want to make sure we’re evaluating the players and not downgrading them for the particular position they’re playing,” he said. “We want to take the best player.”
Mayock thinks Warmack fits that bill in this draft. He said Warmack is the most impressive player he evaluated on game tape. None of the skill position prospects crack his list of top 10 prospects.
Warmack said he’s taking Mayock’s praise in stride.
“It makes me feel good to get the level of respect in that manner,” Warmack said. “But at the same time, I don’t really pay attention to that too much. I know where I came from, I know where I started and that’s the same mentality I have now.”