The NFL guard market is exploding – the top five, led by Cleveland’s Kevin Zeitler, will average $9.2 million in base salary in 2018 – it makes much more sense to grab a top prospect early in the draft rather than breaking the bank to address the position in free agency, particularly if you’re the Bengals who don’t typically operate that way on principle.
Of course, the Bengals don’t typically go after guards in the first round. Zeitler was the only one in franchise history.
And with Trey Hopkins, who played well in his first year as a starter, slated as the starter at right guard and Boling at left, the Bengals don’t have a glaring need there.
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But there are three guards with first-round grades in this year’s draft class, and with new offensive line coach Frank Pollock’s track record of developing young talent during his time in Dallas, the Bengals could grab a guy at 21 they think would be capable of battling for a starting job as a rookie.
Here is a look at the top four guards available.
Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame (6-foot-5, 329 pounds)
A five-star recruit out of high school, Nelson is one of the best guard prospects to come along in a long time and could be just the second guard since 1975 to go in the top five (Brandon Scherff went fifth to Washington in 2015). He was voted the Notre Dame team MVP last season and was the highest rated lineman by Pro Football Focus. He will be long gone by the time the Bengals pick at 21.
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Lance Zierlein, NFL.com: "Elite guard prospect with outstanding size, rare power and a block finisher who can make tape room sessions uncomfortable for most opponents. Nelson is technically sound and is unlikely to face a long adjustment period once he gets into the league. Nelson may need to make sure and keep his play speed high and prevent against taking his eyes off of his target when coming off the ball. Nelson has the traits and talent to become an All-Pro guard for years to come."
Isaiah Wynn, Georgia (6-foot-3, 313 pounds)
Aside from his Georgia pedigree, another reason Wynn could be a target for the Bengals is his versatility. He played guard and tackle for the Bulldogs, and even practiced some at center. He’s probably too short to play tackle on a regular basis, but the option of being able to go to him in a pinch would be a luxury. A three-year starter in the SEC, Wynn made a number of first team All-American lists as a left tackle his senior year and earned an invite to the Senior Bowl.
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Dane Brugler, NFLDraftScout.com: Balanced pass-sets to effortlessly mirror rushers…agile feet with natural knee bend to drop his hips and anchor mid-shuffle…rangy puller to advance and take out defenders downfield…relaxed, coordinated punch to initiate the meeting with rushers…flexible coil and resets well to answer counter moves…strong hands to seal blocks…squares as a run blocker, engaging, rolling his hips and running his feet…finishes blocks and plays fundamentally-sound through the whistle…shorter than ideal, but functional arm length…durable and missed only one start the last three seasons (41 career starts) …dominant senior season against numerous NFL-caliber defensive linemen in the SEC.
Will Hernandez, UTEP (6-foot-2, 327 pounds)
Unable to qualify academically coming out of high school, Hernandez missed out on offers from numerous Pac-12 schools but UTEP saved a spot for him and he qualified in the spring after signing day. He was a four-year starter for the Miners and earned first team All-American and first team All-Conference USA honors last fall, along with an invite to the Senior Bowl.
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Charlie Campbell, Walter Football: "At the combine, Hernandez had an impressive workout with a faster than expected time in the 40-yard dash. Hernandez looks like a lock for the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and he has a shot at sneaking into the first round. He is a bulldozer in the ground game, routinely pushing defenders out of their gaps. Hernandez is very strong at the point of attack with a heavy base to help him get movement at the point of attack. He is shorter and lacks length compared to a lot of starting guards in the NFL, but he makes up for it with overwhelming strength. Hernandez could use work on his pass protection for the NFL as he can have issues with speed and length.:
Braden Smith, Auburn (6-foot-6, 315 pounds)
A state champion in the shot put and discus in Kansas, Smith was the top-rated guard in the country coming out of high school. He played in 13 games as a true freshman at Auburn and was a three-year starter after that. Some scouts believe he could play tackle or guard given his size and power.
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Todd McShay, ESPN: "Smith doesn't have great natural tools as he is on the lighter side for an offensive guard prospect and he has short arms (32 and 5/8 inches) for a tackle prospect, yet there's reason to believe he'll overcome his deficiencies to develop into a starter on the inside. He's a highly intelligent player and effective positional blocker who creates seams in the running game, wins most one-on-one matchups in pass protection and consistently blocks to the echo of the whistle. Smith projects as a versatile backup who has the smarts, toughness and enough natural ability to develop into a starting guard most likely in zone heavy scheme."