When Steve Hutchinson defected from Seattle to Minnesota and signed a $49 million "poison pill" contract in March 2006, it was a sure indication that the guard position had gained importance and traction in the NFL. Throughout the new millennium, that's certainly been the case, and in 2013, three guards were selected in the first round of the draft -- North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper by Arizona with the seventh overall pick, Alabama's Chance Warmack with the 10th pick to Tennessee, and Oregon's Kyle Long with the 20th pick to the Bears.
In the 2014 draft, there are two players who appear to be relatively surefire first-round prospects, though one stands above the rest, at least in this writer's humble opinion. From there on down, this guard class features several interesting players with different levels of potential who will be picked off throughout the entire draft process.
Note: An asterisk denotes a player who primarily played tackle in college, but will most likely switch to guard in the NFL.
1. Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA: Put simply, as far as I'm concerned, the 2014 draft class at guard consists of Su'a-Filo and a few tiers of Everybody Else. There's nobody else who possesses his combination of root strength, understanding of technique and agility to the second level. He has the versatility to play left tackle -- which he did for the Bruins at times -- but at his heart, Su'a-Filo has the nasty streak you like in an elite guard. Basically, he's an ass-kicker, and he's proud of that.
“Honestly, I don’t watch a whole lot of guys who kind of remind me of me," Su'a-Filo said at the scouting combine. "I watch a lot of the guys I try to pattern my game after. I watch a lot of Logan Mankins, left guard from the New England Patriots. I think Logan, he was a high draft pick, but he’s physical. He’s a bad-ass, he started from Day 1 in New England, and I love how nasty he is, something about his game that I really try to implement."
It all adds up to a guy who should hear his name called in the first 20 picks, and the most exciting guard prospect I've seen since Stanford's David DeCastro.
Draft projection: Mid-Round 1
2. David Yankey, Stanford: Like Su'a-Filo, Yankey has played left tackle and left guard for an elite Pac-12 program -- in fact, he replaced Jonathan Martin at left tackle in 2012 and allowed just one sack all season. He doesn't have Su'a-Filo's power, and that shows up at times on tape -- he's not as definitive when locking into defenders, and he can be bulled back at times. But he's an excellent technician who would be an asset to any power zone team. He understands gap concepts and pulled from left to right quite often in Stanford's offense. Yankey clears the way in run-blocking more through his knowledge of angles than by thrashing people with strength, and I'm a bit concerned that Stanford's tight-line splits may have covered deficiencies when he was in space. But he has the potential to be a franchise guard in the right system. Some teams may think he's too tall to be a guard -- at 6-foot-6, 315, he's right on the cusp.
Draft projection: Late-Round 1
3. Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: Jackson is the best of the pure maulers in this class. At 6-3 and 331, and running a 5.51 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, he's not going to blow anyone away with his pure athleticism. He has a lot of good tape against SEC defenses, was a key cog in an offense that set a number of school records in 2013 and his tenure as a three-year starter implies consistency.
However, there are causes for concern, and these may keep him out of the first round. Jackson tends to come off the snap a hair late at times, forcing him to adjust against defenders instead of dominating. And when he is blocking in space, he gets lost as much as he hits the point, leading to times when he's physically overwhelmed more than a man his size should be. An NFL team with an emphasis on man-blocking and good coaching could turn him into a superior inline blocker.
Draft projection: Round 2
4. Dakota Dozier, Furman:* Dozier played left tackle in college, but was moved to guard for the Shrine Game, and he might be the most intriguing guard prospect in this class. One thing is clear -- a lot of bigger schools missed the boat with him. Dozier has the frame (6-4, 313) and strength to excel at guard in the NFL, and the athleticism to hit the second level and pull with authority. Yes, he needs technical refinement, but he locks onto defenders impressively and his footwork is outstanding. When he gets a wide base going, Dozier is very tough to get around. Concerns about level of competition can be erased by his Clemson tape. Someone's going to get a steal here.
Draft projection: Round 2
5. Cyril Richardson, Baylor: Richardson earned Big 12 Lineman of the Year honors in 2012 and protected Robert Griffin's blind side the season before. He's a huge presence on the field at 6-5 and 329, and he brought a lot of power to one of the nation's most prolific and snap-heavy offenses. However, he may be limited in the NFL because of specific issues -- he struggles to redirect in zone blocking concepts, he tends to be late to the party when asked to block a target upfield and he'll let defenders through on either side. Richardson is an estimable drive-blocker, but you'd expect that at his size. To be a reliable starter at the next level, he has some work ahead of him.
Draft projection: Round 3
6. Trai Turner, LSU: Turner is a limited player, but he's very good at what he does well, which is taking defenders and rocking them back with impressive strength. He projects best as a right guard in the NFL because he struggles with his footwork when pulling, and he's not the most agile fellow, though he clocked in under five seconds when running his 40 at the scouting combine standing 6-3, 310. But he'd be a major asset for any right-handed, run-heavy NFL team.
Draft projection: Round 3-4
7. Kadeem Edwards, Tennessee State: Some have Edwards lower due to strength of competition, but when you isolate his skillset and project him as a developmental prospect in the NFL, there's a lot to be excited about. The first player from his school to be invited to the Senior Bowl since Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in 2008, Edwards held his own in Mobile, Ala. And when you look at his tape, you see what you want to see from a small-school player -- complete dominance against lesser opponents. Edwards drives forward with impressive strength (though he needs to be more consistent with his pad level). He has nice footwork and an impressive hand-strike when pass-blocking, and he's agile enough to move from one defender to another when in a zone concept. And if you're into the whole "student-athlete" thing ... well, Edwards made the President's List, the All-OVC Academic Team and became a National Football Foundation Student Athlete. NFL teams that dig deeper to find players from less prominent programs will be all over Edwards in the middle rounds, and they should be.
Draft projection: Round 3-4
8. Brandon Thomas, Clemson:* Thomas unquestionably has the pure athleticism to play NFL guard in any scheme, and at 6-3, 317, that's where he best projects. He played nine games at guard in college, and that's where they wanted to see him at the Senior Bowl. But when he makes that transition, he'll need to be more aggressive with his hands -- he tends to lose contact with defenders at times, and I'd like to see him use more of his power by getting under pads and pushing people back. If you want a guard who can move from gap to gap, pull with agility and kick-slide in pass pro, Thomas is an interesting prospect.
Draft projection: Round 4
9. Anthony Steen, Alabama: Steen will be drafted because he logged 36 starts in three seasons for a premier program, and he shows all the technical and mechanical efficiency one would expect. But there are limitations that will likely push him to the third day -- he was a right guard for the Crimson Tide, and he lacks the kind of power and agility most left guards have in the NFL. Steen is a relatively ready-made player with a low ceiling, and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as the team drafting him understands what it's getting -- and what it's not.
Draft projection: Round 6-7
10. Jon Halapio, Florida: Of all the draftable guards I've watched this year, Halapio has the most frustrating divide between potential and output. At 6-4, 323, he has all the physical traits to be a dominant guard at any level, but he has some pretty serious spatial awareness issues (I've seen him get flat-out lost at the line of scrimmage when following a block), and he gives up inside pressure to elite competition too easily. Florida's offense was a hot mess last season, and Halapio's issues could well be related to coaching. In that case, some NFL team looking to put in the work will have its right guard of the future in Halapio. Draft projection: Round 6-7