Editor's note: Brandon Thorn of The Scouting Academy and NDT Scouting specializes in offensive and defensive line. This is a guest column in which he addresses the uncertainty of Quenton Nelson's fit with the San Francisco 49ers.
Notre Dame LG Quenton Nelson looks like a sure-fire top 10 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, with several viable landing spots, ranging from 5-10. The 49ers have the 9th pick and are in desperate need for guard help. Nelson comes from a multiple blocking scheme at Notre Dame, predicated on power, G-lead/kick, and pin-pull concepts, with outside/inside zone used as change-ups.
This allowed the offense to feature Nelson in space as a puller several times every game, while also taking advantage of his well-roundedness. Because Nelson was asked to predominantly block power-oriented concepts in college and the fact that he is 329 pounds, it is widely assumed that he is a limited zone-blocker and that he needs to or should be in the same system as a pro.
The reality is most teams vary their blocking scheme to include diverse concepts, and most coaches adapt their scheme to the player. In addition, size and what a guy was asked to do in college aren’t always indicative of the end of their ability. A deeper dive into the film reveals that Nelson did it all at Notre Dame, and there is no reason he won’t be able to as a pro.
The 49ers under head coach Kyle Shanahan have adopted a traditional zone-heavy blocking scheme that serves as the running game’s foundation. Generally, the Shanahan offense favors working towards achieving lateral displacement of the defense in a variety of ways, with a heavy reliance on outside, inside, and split-zone looks. They also mix in concepts such as power in order to keep defenses on their toes, as well as multiple types of screens to get their OL in space.
49ers 2017 Power variations Example 1: 1-back power from shotgun out of 11 personnel
Example 2: 1-back power from under center out of 12 personnel
Example 3: 2-back power from under center out of 21 personnel
The 49ers ran quite a bit of power in 2017 from a variety of alignments, differing personnel, and pulling both guards. If Nelson were to be available with the 9th pick, the 49ers would think long and hard about the possibility of solidifying their 2018 OL (LT Staley, LG Nelson, C Richburg, RG Garrett, and RT Brown) with the addition of perhaps the best player in the entire draft class. This addition would not only allow the 49ers to remain true to their zone-based roots as a unit, but present the opportunity to incorporate added wrinkles to stay unpredictable and fresh. Power is Nelson’s bread and butter, taking advantage of his tremendous ability to pull from the backside (to either side), as well as work a Deuce block on the frontside:
Nelson doubling as part of a Deuce block on the frontside of power:
Nelson possesses a multifaceted skill-set that fits into any scheme. Ideally, he would be inserted into a scheme based around power first, zone second, but the inverse (San Francisco) would minimally diminish his value or worth because of the high-quality zone reps he put on film. Let’s take a closer look at Nelson executing zone-based principles as a run-blocker. Notre Dame loved to use the pin-pull concept, featuring down blocks and pullers, as well as back side scoops/cut-offs typically seen on outside zone runs the 49ers often employ. Here is a clip from the 49ers 2017 season against the Jaguars, running outside zone to the boundary side of the field:
The frontside OG is tasked with the reach block, and the backside OG has to work to scoop/overtake the 1-technique. These blocks are both something Nelson showed throughout his 2017 film. Notre Dame vs. LSU: Outside zone to the boundary, with Nelson working a reach block on the 3T:
Notre Dame vs. Georgia: Nelson had to execute scoop blocks from the back-side of G-kick and G-lead, which was blocked similarly to the backside of outside zone:
Nelson has plenty of tape executing from the frontside of outside zone as well, including these two clips having to reach the 3T:
Notre Dame vs. Temple:
Notre Dame vs. UNC:
Here Nelson has a 3T so his inside is uncovered, meaning he works at an angle to the second level helping to secure the 3T inside as he releases to the LB. Since the LB didn’t flow over the top, Nelson simply sealed off the DT.
If the LB scraped over the top, he would have released off of his block. This is a common scenario OL find themselves in blocking outside zone, and is something evaluators for the 49ers likely want to see from potential OL prospects. Notre Dame vs. USC:
Conclusion As it stands today, the 49ers' top four offensive guards on the depth chart are LG Laken Tomlinson/Jonathan Cooper and RG Joshua Garnett/Erik Magnuson. Nelson would easily upgrade each of these players, giving the unit a true blue-chip player who will be just 22-years old Week 1 of 2018.
At times people tend to focus on what a player is predominantly asked to do on tape rather than evaluating the traits first, pigeonholing guys into a box rather than considering certain critical factor and position specific traits can transcend scheme.
If an offensive lineman has elite traits such as explosiveness out of their stance, precise placement/timing with their hands, and the functional mobility to bend and play with elite pad level (all of which Nelson has), that translates to any block, regardless of scheme. Despite doing it more sporadically, Nelson was still asked to execute reach, scoop, and combo blocks, and did so at a very high level.
Nelson is the caliber and type of OL that should render scheme meaningless, presenting an upgrade at LG for every team picking inside the top 10, none more so than the 49ers. If he were to fall to the 9th pick, San Francisco could remain true to their core offensive philosophy while improving in every facet of run and pass-blocking in the process.
Media courtesy Getty Images