This is the sixth of an 11-part series on the 2021 NFL draft in which, for the third straight year, Ben Fennell breaks down the draft for The Inquirer. Ben is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor, and researcher across several media platforms, most notably NFL Network and ESPN College Football. This will be his seventh draft for the NFL Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @benfennell_NFL.
The Interior O-linemen
Rashawn Slater started 37 games at Northwestern, including 26 at right tackle and 11 at left tackle.
He didn’t make any starts at guard, but there’s a very good chance that’s where he’s going to be playing when he gets to the NFL.
It happens every year. For a variety of reasons — lack of height, short arms, lack of lateral quickness — some college tackles get kicked inside to guard.
And a good many of them live happily ever after.
Zack Martin was a three-year starter at tackle for Notre Dame. The Cowboys took him with the 16th pick in the 2014 draft, plugged him in at right guard and he’s earned six Pro Bowl invitations in seven years and has been a four-time first-team All-Pro.
Three of the top four offensive linemen on NFL Network senior draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s draft board are tackles that probably are going to get kicked inside to guard — Slater (rated 9th overall), Southern Cal’s Alijah Vera-Tucker (15th) and Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield (27th). The only tackle who definitely will be staying outside is Oregon’s Penei Sewell (12th).
Vera-Tucker played left tackle for the Trojans’ last season, but started 13 games at left guard in 2019. Like Slater, his shorter-than-ideal arms make him better suited for interior close-quarters combat in the NFL. Same with Mayfield, who played right tackle his entire career at Michigan.
» READ MORE: Ben Fennell's NFL Draft analysis: Quarterback
» READ MORE: Ben Fennell's NFL Draft analysis: Running Back
» READ MORE: Ben Fennell's NFL Draft analysis: Wide Receiver
» READ MORE: Ben Fennell's NFL Draft analysis: Tight End
» READ MORE: Ben Fennell's NFL Draft analysis: Offensive Tackle
“There’s going to be several projects from tackle that probably are going to be moving inside,” said Jeremiah’s NFLN draft partner Ben Fennell. Besides Slater and Vera-Tucker and Mayfield, you’ve got Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey, Clemson’s Jackson Carman and Missouri’s Larry Borom. The only one of those who probably won’t be going in the first three rounds is Borom.
“This is a pretty deep interior group when you include the tackles who will be moving inside. You’re going to have a lot of immediate starters. And you’re going to have some developmental projects. There also are going to be some raw, intriguing guys in the later rounds.
“The offensive line collectively this year, including tackle, is really deep. And the league needs it. They were playing guys last season that were straight off the street.”
Eighteen offensive tackles have been taken in the first round of the last five drafts, compared to just five guards and five centers. Just one interior lineman has been a top-12 selection in those five drafts. That was Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, who was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 draft by Indianapolis.
“The Colts took a lot of criticism when they drafted Nelson so high because you’re not supposed to take a guard in the top 10,” Fennell said. “But (Colts general manager Chris) Ballard never hesitated. He said they were going to look back in 10 years and say he was the one they felt the best about and the one they thought had the best chance to become a Hall of Famer.”
The Eagles figure to be in the market for interior linemen in this draft. Center Jason Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks have seven Pro Bowl invitations between them. But Kelce is 33 and retirement is an annual question with him.
Brooks, who turns 32 in August, missed the entire 2020 season with an Achilles injury and dislocated his shoulder the season before that.
Ben’s top five guards
1. Rashawn Slater, Northwestern, 6-4, 304, Round 1
2. Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC, 6-4, 308, Round 1
3. Trey Smith, Tennessee, 6-5, 321, Rounds 2-3
4. Carson Green, Texas A&M, 6-6, 320, Rounds 2-3
5. Wyatt Davis, Ohio State, 6-3, 315, Rounds 3-4
The Best (guard)
Arms: 33 inches
Hands: 10½ inches
225 bench: 33 reps
Fennell’s take: “Some people have Slater projected as a tackle, where he played at Northwestern, and some have him as a guard. I think he’s going to be a guard. My comps for him are Joel Bitonio (Browns) and Zack Martin. Both of those guys played left tackle in college, but transitioned to guard in the NFL. Both of them have been elite guards since Day 1, and I think Slater will be too.
“He’s 6-4, 304, which is a little undersized for a guard. But that allows him to be really quick off the ball. He has excellent lateral quickness. It makes him ideal for zone schemes and cutting off D-linemen and getting to the second level. He has very impressive balance and footwork and is a very technically sound type of player.
“His claim to fame was shutting down (Ohio State’s) Chase Young in 2019. He didn’t allow Young, who had 7½ sacks as an NFL rookie last season, a sniff of the quarterback when they faced each other. But there’s a lot of elite competition at edge rusher in the Big Ten and he’s taken his lumps against some of them. He doesn’t look the part of an NFL tackle. He’s got short arms — 33 inches — and is a little bit of a pear out there at tackle. That’s why I’ve projected him to guard. Some even think he’s going to be a center.
“At 305, he’s not for everybody. Some teams like their guards at 320-plus. Three hundred five isn’t going to fly with the Patriots. It won’t fly with the Ravens or the Raiders. He’s not going to be playing guard for any of those teams. But other teams that focus on athleticism more than size at guard, are going to be very interested in him.”
Round projection: 1 (12-22)
The Riser (guard)
Arms: 32 1/8 inches
Hands: 9 5/8 inches
40-time: 5.10 seconds
225 bench: 32 reps
Fennell’s take: “He played left tackle last year, but has played some left guard. He’s another guy who is the perfect guard projection. His arms are too short for tackle. He’s very flexible, has good range and quickness and is an excellent combo blocker. He’s an absolute assassin in taking out players at the second level. He dominated (defensive tackle) Daviyon Nixon of Iowa in their bowl game last year. Zone schemes are all the rage in the NFL right now, and if you needed a zone-scheme guard for wide zone runs and the outside zone stretch, Vera-Tucker is your guy. Very athletic in space. Quick off the ball.”
Round projection: 1-2
The Sleeper (guard)
Arms: 32¼ inches
Hands: 10 1/8 inches
40-time: 4.89 seconds
225 bench: 25 reps
Fennell’s take: “Green is very similar to Vera-Tucker. Extremely quick off the ball. Is going to be a perfect fit for zone schemes. Can play either guard or center. Can reach three-tech (tackles). Can get up to the linebackers. He can pull to the perimeter. Very, very athletic player.
“He’s a former defensive tackle that moved to guard. He played 2,200 snaps and made 33 starts, so he’s got a lot of experience. He just didn’t have a lot of eyeballs on him because he played at Illinois. Didn’t have many good players around him and didn’t get a chance to play in high-level bowl games to get attention. That’s why he’s my sleeper.
Round projection: 2-3
Ben’s top five centers
1. Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma, 6-4, 302, Rd. 2
2. Landon Dickerson, Alabama, 6-6, 340, Rd. 1
3. Quinn Meinerz, Wisconsin-Whitewater, 6-3, 320, Rd. 3
4. Drew Dalman, Stanford, 6-2, 300, Rd. 4-5
5. Josh Myers, Ohio State, 6-5, 310, Rd. 4-5
The Best (center)
Arms: 32¼ inches
Hands: 9½ inches
40-time: 5.08 seconds
225 bench: 29 reps
Fennell’s take: “Humphrey is very quick off the ball. He can handle any type of nose tackle or 1-tech in front of him. Power guys, speed guys, he can handle both. He doesn’t wow you. He’s just very technically sound. He’s always in position between the defender and the quarterback.
“He’s an experienced player. Played in 39 games for Oklahoma and started 37. He’s been first-team All-Big 12 since he stepped on the field. He was part of Oklahoma’s Joe Moore Award-winning line in 2018 that included Cody Ford and some of those other guys that are in the NFL now.
“He had a really good week at the Senior Bowl. And not to be overlooked is the fact that he has experience with a variety of quarterbacks — Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Spencer Rattler. He’s going to be a starting center for somebody day one.
Round projection: 2
The Riser (center)
Arms: 33¼ inches
Hands: 10 38 inches
225 bench: n/a
Fennell’s take: “He played the last two years at Alabama after transferring from Florida State. He’s started at every offensive line position in his college career. He played tackle at FSU, then came over to Alabama and played both guard spots and was their center last year. He had a great year playing next to (left guard) Deonte Brown and the rest of that prolific Alabama line.
“Tore his ACL in the SEC Championship Game, and that could affect his draft placement. But he was doing cartwheels at Alabama’s Pro Day a couple of weeks ago. So his rehab must be coming along well. If it checks out, I could see him going in the back end of Round 1 to a team that maybe has a center there and is OK with maybe sitting him for a year or a couple of months or however long it takes for his knee to get right.
“At 6-6 and 333, he’s not your prototypical center, which is why a lot of people are projecting him moving back to guard in the NFL. And he can certainly be successful there. Centers that are 6-6 and 340 aren’t for everybody.
“But I like the idea of keeping him at center. He’s as big and physical and nasty as it gets. He’s a guy who looks for work. He wants to finish defenders. He’s great in the screen game. He’s one of those guys who is going make highlight reels for his nasty blocks on every drive.”
Round projection: 1-2
The Sleeper (center)
Arms: 33½ inches
Hands: 10½ inches
40-time: 4.99 seconds
225 bench: n/a
Fennell’s take: “He had his coming out at the Senior Bowl. He got a late invitation and became one of the darlings down there. Not only for showing off his long hair and big beer gut, but for his nastiness. He was a run-through-the-walk-throughs type of player. There were some where they were supposed to go slow and he’s murdering people out there. The very first thing I have written on my sheet under his name is ‘road-grading glass-eater’.
“He has an infectious personality and is going to be a great presence on and off the field for somebody. Wisconsin-Whitewater didn’t play last fall because of the pandemic. But on his tape from 2019, he looked to finish people. He blocked to the echo of the whistle. I have no problem comparing him to Richie Incognito as far as on-field ability. He’s one of those guys, he broke his hand at the Senior Bowl and begged them to let him keep playing. He’s a spit-on-it-and-keep-going guy.”
Round projection: 2-3