Notre Dame’s generational left-side offensive line pairing of Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey set once-in-a-generation NFL draft marks in the first round Thursday evening. It had been 27 years since the top-two offensive linemen drafted came from the same school. Nelson became the highest guard drafted since 1985 when the Indianapolis Colts took him at No. 6, and McGlinchey, a tackle, went three picks later to the San Francisco 49ers.
Four Irish offensive linemen have now been selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the last five years, with Nelson and McGlinchey joining Zack Martin (No. 16 in 2014 to the Dallas Cowboys) and Ronnie Stanley (No. 6 in 2016 to the Baltimore Ravens).
After trading back from the No. 3 slot, the Colts focused their hopes on Nelson, defensive end Bradley Chubb from North Carolina State and running back Saquon Barkley out of Penn State, per general manager Chris Ballard. The latter two were gone by the Colts’ pick, making the decision a simple one.
“My first impression was that this is the best offensive lineman I’ve seen coming out in the draft in a while and just thinking about the first time talking to [Ballard] about this,” Colts coach Frank Reich said in a conference call. “Our mutual consensus was that this is where we’ve got to go. We want to build the fronts, and that’s what wins. We want to be dynamic in our skill positions in the pass game and in the coverage, but in the long run, you’ve got to be good up front to sustain and to get where you want to get to.”
Nelson started 36 games for Notre Dame, including all 13 of 2017 on his way to earning unanimous All-American honors. His was the only pro day which Ballard attended, although that was admittedly largely due to the proximity. Nonetheless, Nelson’s display in South Bend in March caught Ballard’s eye.
“I could feel when I watched Adrian Peterson come out. I’ll never forget standing on the sideline and him running by me,” Ballard said. “… Same thing with Dez Bryant. When Dez Bryant was at Oklahoma State, I’ll never forget a kid running by me, and I could feel it. You can feel Quenton Nelson the same way.”
Obviously, Nelson’s professional career will begin not far from where he spent his collegiate days. For that, he is grateful.
“I’m jacked up,” Nelson said. “My parents bought a house in Indiana when I committed to Notre Dame, and they don’t have to move. They’re going to go to every Notre Dame game on Saturday, and then be at my NFL games on Sundays. They’re jacked up.”
Nelson getting drafted before McGlinchey is a sign of the changing times in football. The past two decades or so have been spent worrying about quarterbacks’ blind sides, creating a strong need for tackles and left tackles in particular. As offenses have taken to spread schemes relying on shotgun snaps, that importance has diminished. At the same time, defensive tackles have become equal pass-rush threats as defensive ends, increasing the need for dominant interior offensive line play.
“I would say three-tech [defensive tackles] are getting more athletic each and every year,” Nelson said. “They’re being very disruptive in the run game and the pass game with pressures and sacks, so the value for offensive guards has gone up.”
Nonetheless, McGlinchey clearly did not fall far behind Nelson. The two-time Irish captain and consensus All-American started 39 games over the last four seasons, of which 25 in the last two years were at left tackle. With Stanley starting at left tackle in 2014 and 2015, McGlinchey worked at right tackle, where he will return for the 49ers due to the presence of 11-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley, according to 49ers general manager John Lynch.
“I feel I mastered both sides and I’m ready to go at either one,” McGlinchey told Bay Area media over a conference call from his draft watch party back in Pennsylvania.
Lynch said McGlinchey was the organization’s top prospect from the ninth slot.
“He’s got a special presence to him,” Lynch said. “He’s real, he’s authentic, and he’s a badass. We like that.”
Including Stanley’s and Martin’s time at left tackle, 101 of head coach Brian Kelly’s 103 games at Notre Dame have included a first-round draft pick at left tackle. The two exceptions came in Kelly’s debut year, in 2010, when right tackle Taylor Dever suffered a hamstring injury. Martin moved to right tackle and Matt Romine started in his place at left tackle.