Years ago, left tackles were the premier players among offensive linemen with most serving as the blindside pass protector for their club's right-handed quarterbacks and often facing opponents' top rusher.
Defenses are much more complicated in today's game with some of the NFL's most effective sack artists now gap-splitting defensive tackles or edge rushers looping inside after initially lining up on the outside. The straightest line to the quarterback, after all, is right up the middle.
As such, difference-makers along the interior of the offensive line have become very nearly as valuable as tackles in the modern NFL. This is especially true for blockers like Nelson, who not only are effective in pass protection but dominant run blockers, as well.
Nelson redshirted his first season at Notre Dame but has more than lived up to his prep All-American billing since, starting every game but one over the past three seasons at left guard, allowing zero QB sacks (or even hits) over the past two years and helping the Irish average an eye-popping 6.4 rushing yards per attempt in 2017.
Generally, running backs get most of the credit when teams run the ball this effectively but it was Nelson who was voted team MVP during the awards banquet. Nelson was just the third blocker for the Irish to ever be so honored in the school's 97-year history and the first since guard Al Wujciak in 1975.
Massive, mobile and mean, Nelson is a prototypical guard who will be expected to not only make an immediate impact for his future NFL team but compete for future Pro Bowls, much like his predecessor with the Irish, current Dallas Cowboys' second year All-Pro Zack Martin. Just like Martin - the 16th overall pick in 2014 - Nelson ranks among the safest prospects in the 2018 NFL draft.
Highly regarded prep prospect ranked as a Second Team USA Today All-American and honorable mention Parade All-American. Played both the offensive and defensive line for a Red Bank Catholic squad which finished 9-1 in 2013 and averaged 279 rushing yards and 43.5 points per game with Nelson recording 61 tackles and three sacks on defense. Missed just one game (Navy, 2015) over his college career due to an injury (ankle). Redshirted in 2014.
STRENGTHS Possesses a thick, burly build well-suited to playing in the trenches with broad shoulders, a barrel chest and anvils for limbs. Generates rare power at the point of attack, consistently driving defensive linemen off the ball with an explosive pop on contact, rolling through his hips to finish, delivering more pancakes than a busy server at IHOP.
Terrific initial quickness out of his stance on down blocks and when pulling, showing light feet and balance to escape, scrape and get to the second level. Takes efficient power steps, not over-extending himself in a blind pursuit of speed to get to linebackers and leaving himself unbalanced. An intimidating blocker on the move, arriving with a plan and anticipating where defenders are headed.
Good speed for a man of his size to get to the second level and can adjust to moving targets, generating some wicked hits on linebackers to clear big rushing lanes. Eases out of his stance in pass protection, showing confidence in his lateral agility to mirror defensive tackles. Keeps his butt down and knees bent, absorbing bull rushers by winning the leverage battle and controlling opponents with excellent hand strength and placement. Looks for work when not covered up, keeping his head on a swivel to help his left tackle and center. Shows a secondary burst to close on surprise blitzers and stunts, getting a powerful shove on defenders to buy ball-carriers extra time. Durable performer with just one missed start due to injury (2015). - Rob Rang 12/11/2017
Flanked by a top 50 NFL prospect in left tackle Mike McGlinchey and therefore is afforded protection few other top guards in this class received. A bit inconsistent with his initial get-off and can be a step late off the ball. Got away with extending his arms to grab cloth and "catch" defenders and was given the benefit of the doubt by college officials but could get flagged for holding against stronger, quicker NFL defenders who won't be so easily slowed. Above average athlete in space but does not possess the straight-line speed to wow in workouts. -- Rob Rang 12/11/2017
COMPARES TO: Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, Oilers. Athletic, powerful and highly aggressive, Munchak earned the No. 8 overall selection in 1982 and became an immediate standout at left guard for Houston, earning invitations to nine Pro Bowls over his 12 NFL seasons. A similar blend of consistency and immediate impact potential could earn the even-more imposing Nelson a top 10 grade, as well.
IN OUR VIEW: It isn't often that an interior offensive lineman warrants top 10 consideration but Nelson is an exceptional talent, as the fact that he was named MVP for Notre Dame in 2017 suggests. Nelson's blend of prototypical size, sheer power, efficient athleticism and finishing mentality suggest an immediate impact and future Pro Bowl votes.
--Rob Rang, 12-13-17