What to Look at When Evaluating NFL Offensive Guards
Our look at the intricacies of each position in the NFL continues and with this article we get to the real heart of the game—deep in the trenches with a look at offensive guards.
Last time we analyzed what to look for when watching offensive tackles play, and in truth, we all understand inherently what traits you need in an elite pass-protector at that position, but things get a little more esoteric in the middle, away from the edge defenders.
Guards were once an unheralded part of the offense, plugged in and seen as replaceable components that you didn't need to focus much attention on. If you lucked your way into a great one, that was good, but nobody was going to go out of their way to bring in an elite guy with big money. That changed with the blockbuster deal the Minnesota Vikings handed Steve Hutchinson to pry him away from Seattle (with the aid of a poison pill in the contract). That contract signaled the new wave of money that teams were prepared to spend on the interior of their offensive line and it paved the way to some serious dollars being thrown around.
All of that money has highlighted that even NFL teams seem extremely unreliable when it comes to accurately evaluating the play of interior offensive linemen, and some extremely average players have seen some crazy inflated contracts since that explosion of money.
But let's take a look at the traits those teams are looking for when they try and identify a stud guard.
Offensive guards are the engine room of the running game. They are the guys that will be opening the majority of the holes and have to be capable of physically dominating 300 lb defensive tackles who want nothing more than to shut them down.
As such, the first thing you need to look at for these guys is raw, brute strength. It's certainly not the be all and end all, and some players have been able to overcome relative lack of strength with a combination of other skills and techniques, but almost all great guards have monstrous strength.
Top guards today are well over 300 lbs of raw strength and muscle. They have size, a wide base and the ability to withstand a barrage from defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers without retreating backwards towards the quarterbacks.
Guys like Carl Nicks are man-mountains who are relied upon to generate movement at the point of attack and be able to open up gaps for running backs. You can still be a successful guard at a smaller size, especially in zone blocking schemes where a premium is placed on quickness and athleticism, but it is far harder, and those guys will struggle far more in pass protection against today's monster defenders.
Footwork and Balance
Whether your team runs a power man or zone blocking scheme up front, you need your guards to have good footwork, foot speed and balance because he isn't just going to be blocking in a straight line every play, he is going to be asked to move laterally, and move around in tight spaces at speed to get into the right position.
Even the most basic of blocking schemes will require a guard to have quickness to get across the face of a defensive lineman and execute a reach block or trap blocks on occasion, and most schemes utilize some degree of pulling guards—a tactic made famous by Vince Lombardi's Packers and still leaned on today.
Guards need to be able to execute these moves quickly and reliably in order to get into position to use their strength. Part of what makes Evan Mathis such a great guard is his precision and speed with his footwork and quickness. He has impressive strength as well, but he puts himself in great positions to make his blocks more than any other guard, and that allows him to make mundane blocks on the back side of plays or at the second level when most guards are just mailing it in or never quite make it into position to execute.
Though guards require monstrous strength to dominate, the ability to get into position quickly and maintain balance is as important, and without that you can easily render monstrous strength almost irrelevant. The league has had its share of high profile busts from players that could lift a house in the weight room, but never had the footwork and agility to make use of it in games.
Awareness and Vision
Over the years defenses have developed tricks and techniques to try and penetrate what could easily become a brick wall of linemen if they were forced to just attack head-up all day long. A modern guard has to be able to deal with stunts, twists and blitzing defenders rather than just the guy who starts off in front of them.
In pass protection guards need to have excellent awareness and be able to identify what pressure is coming and where it is going to come from, rather than focusing their attention on the wrong part of the defense and allowing a free rusher to blow past them because the center or tackle next to them has been already occupied.
You often see guards in pass protection sitting back in their stance with nobody to block but looking for the danger that may be coming late. It is important that they have the ability to recognize where that pressure will be coming from and not simply jump into a double team with the player beside him because there was nobody to block immediately.
Doing that can open up a huge hole in the pass protection for a delayed attack, or even invite a blitz from a player that wouldn't have been coming otherwise, and nothing is a quicker route to a broken offense than a quarterback dealing with unblocked pressure up the middle on a regular basis.
Today's guard need to have an awareness and intelligence beyond their physical skills.
Leverage at the line of scrimmage is all about pad level. Both players trying to win at the point of attack are often over 300 lbs. In the middle they can both be over 330 lbs, and both will be in possession of towering strength, so which one wins comes down to pad level.
You will have heard the old maxim of 'low man wins' countless times before, but it has survived so long because it holds true. The guy who can get lower will almost always win the battle of strength because he has better leverage on the player in front of him.
It sounds easy, but for guys that weigh 330 lbs and stand over 6'3", getting lower than the lineman they are trying to block is no mean feat, and takes some serious practice, repetition and discipline. Linemen have to work regularly at maintaining that pad level and leverage, because it dictates their movement in the run game and their ability to absorb a bull rush in pass protection.
Mike Iupati is a great example of a player battling with this area of his game. When he maintains his pad level and plays with discipline in that area, he blows people out of his way with supreme strength, but when he gets sloppy and allows himself to straighten up he will be beaten at the point of attack and can surrender negative plays that people tend not to notice.
Strength is vital, but pad level is the great equalizer.
Much as it was for offensive tackles, consistency is vital for guard play in the NFL. The landscape today is less about what players can do at their best than what they actually do game-in, game-out.
Maybe you have a guard that can take Justin Smith and pancake him...once. But if he surrenders a hat full of sacks and is beaten at the point of attack by every other player he comes across over the course of that game, is that high-point of performance much good to you?
On the other hand, you may have a player that doesn't give up sacks, is rarely beaten, but will never be able to match the power of Justin Smith at the point of attack and will always have to yield ground. At least that player's consistency allows you to know what you are going to get and plan around it, even if his high water mark is lower.
In essence you need to be able to see a player show the same play over and over again over his snaps. His level needs to be repeatable, otherwise is it just glimpses of potential. The ability to limit mistakes and cut out negative plays is huge in offensive line play, because it is those plays, far more than the positive ones, that define those players.
Nobody watches linemen every snap, but they will remember clearly the occasions in the game they got beaten to allow a sack. Being consistently able to avoid those negative plays is huge, even if it comes at the cost of spectacularly positive plays.