Evaluating the top guards in the draft from a Titans perspective

As I've tried to make very clear here, I strongly believe the Titans will be spending a high pick, possibly as early as the 10th pick in the first round but in any event no later than the third round, on a player they intend to compete for and win the starting right job position. Among other things, that player will have to be able to block J.J. Watt.

There are three offensive guards that are generally considered to be selected in the first or second rounds: Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina, a first-round prospect; Larry Warford from Kentucky, a second-round prospect; and Chance Warmack from Alabama, a first-round prospect. To get a better feel for what the Titans might do, I watched the available videos of those players and tried to assess how I think the Titans might view them as possible fits.

I should stress that this is decidedly an amateur evaluation. The finer points of offensive line play and hand technique are beyond my ability to competently evaluate. Other people are good at evaluating these things, and you should listen to them. If, for instance, my Football Outsiders colleague Ben Muth says something that contradicts something I write in this post, he is right and I am wrong. Further, in evaluating these players I was looking for a right guard. Warford is a right guard. Cooper and Warmack are left guards. Right guards do not necessarily have the same responsibilities as left guards. To some extent, I'll feel more comfortable in my evaluation of Warford's potential for the Titans than I will for my evaluation of Cooper or Warmack, simply because he plays the position they're looking to fill and does a lot of the same things.

 

 Chance Warmack is the player you've probably heard the most about, given that he was probably the standout player on the standout unit on the best team in college football. A lot of people whose opinions I respect have him as the best guard prospect in the class, a better draft prospect than David DeCastro was last year, and overall one of the several best players in the draft. He won't be drafted in the top three, but that's because quarterbacks and pass rushers are bigger difference-makers than guards, even great ones.

I don't watch as much college football as I used to compared to six or seven years ago, but that just means I'm glued to my couch Saturday afternoons and evenings instead of "whenever there's college football on," so I still saw plenty of Alabama. Finally sitting down to really study Warmack, though, a couple things stood out to me. First, he's phenomenal at just physically overwhelming smaller players. If you get him to the second level, the linebacker is getting crushed. You saw this most prominently in the BCS championship game, when he made Manti Te'o look like an underdeveloped weakling.

Second, he moves really well for a power player. Most players who have functional strength approaching Warmack's have a hard time actually translating that to overwhelming those second level players because they have trouble hitting them. That's not the case with Warmack, whose foot quickness is a lot better than I thought it was.

Third, I sometimes struggled to see the same power Warmack demonstrated on power players when he was matched up with bigger players. Playing left guard, he wasn't necessarily singled up in pass protection very often. Instead, a defensive lineman more frequently lined up over center Barrett Jones or left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo, and Warmack's job was to assist them and be prepared for twists and stunts. This is not unusual for a left guard, and it's part of why I have trouble projecting him. There just aren't as many good examples of how he fares against NFL-type competition 1v1 in pass pro for untrained me to be entirely comfortable saying he'll be the kind of right guard worthy of the top ten pick; his more average performance against Georgia and players like heavyweight defensive tackle John Jenkins in the SEC championship game leaves me uneasy.

I'm not saying he's not a first-round pick. I still think I like him as much or more than David DeCastro (I'd have to rewatch DeCastro to really say, and I'm not going to). Given the choice between a top defensive lineman and a third-round guard or Warmack and a third-round defensive lineman, though, I'm taking the top D-lineman and the lesser guard, even given the Titans' immediate need.

When it comes to Jonathan Cooper, Greg Cosell of NFL Films called him "the most purely athletic guard" he's seen in the eight or nine years he's been seriously evaluating college prospect. That athleticism comes out clearly on tape. I noted Warmack had better foot quickness than I expected a player with that kind of power to demonstrate. Well, Warmack moves well but Cooper is on a different level. When I wrote up Andy Levitre v. Watt, I noted his foot quickness in getting out to block. Cooper is probably even quicker, and you can see it any time he moves.

Like most offensive lineman who move well, though, Cooper does not play with anything like Warmack's functional power. Cooper gets to the second-level players better, but he's not nearly in Warmack's class when it comes to completely eliminating them from the play. He gets the job done, but when you're moving from college to the NFL and blocking players like  255-pound Brian Cushing, I'm less confident in Cooper's ability to take them out. I know, Cooper had 35 reps on the bench press at the Combine, but I don't see him play with the kind of plus strength you'd expect. It's adequate for a left guard, and I think the kind of thing that would improve in the NFL. Also, while I noted I wasn't sure Warmack displayed the same functional strength against bigger players, I don't think Cooper looked weaker, necessarily. He wasn't physically dominating them, even at the ACC's somewhat lower level of competition, but he was more in the good enough category. 

Had the Titans not signed Andy Levitre, I would feel very comfortable slotting Jonathan Cooper into a position as a starting left guard for the Titans. As far as my conception of the position goes, he fits well exactly what they're looking for. Right guard for me is more of a projection. Overall I like him as a left guard probably more than I like Warmack, but as a right guard and J.J. Watt foil, I'm worried about him getting beat with strength and power.

It does not factor into my evaluation of him at all, but Cooper has a background as a wrestler. Both second-round pick Zach Brown and third-round pick Mike Martin last year had wrestling backgrounds, so it seems reasonable to surmise the Titans view that kind of thing as a positive. Given how much of wrestling is hand movement, that's not a surprise. Keep it in mind on draft day.

I should stress that with both Warmack and Cooper, I'm not saying I would starting yelling and screaming if the Titans draft them with the 10th pick. They're both excellent prospects who project to be very good NFL players. I personally am just not comfortable enough with either player as a right guard to say I want the Titans to draft him with that high pick.

Larry Warford is normally the kind of player I hate, a slower-footed mauler. I hadn't watched Kentucky much, but what I read of him led me to expect a player I'd struggle with. When I got to watching the cutups of him, though, I liked him a lot more than I thought I would.

The first thing that really stood out for me was, unsurprisingly, the strength. Warmack physically dominated smaller players. Warford did well even against bigger players, and even when he was the only thing Kentucky had going. The Florida game stands out for me in this regard. Kentucky's offense was just overpowered, to the extent where I think it would take them about three games to actually score. Warford was matched up a lot with Sharrif Floyd, who's widely (though not universally) regarded as a top ten pick, and I thought he looked very good in that matchup. The aforementioned John Jenkins of Georgia, another very big player, was another player against whom Warford had some success, particularly in the running game. He didn't necessarily move him five yards downfield, but he was able to beat him to the side and did enough to create a running lane.

When it comes to movement, Warford isn't nearly in Warmack's class, let alone Cooper's when it comes to foot quickness. Watching him pulling on power plays, well, he's not the kind of player you could do that with. He can get to the second level-I saw him hit a guy with the punch to help out the right tackle, then move to take on a linebacker, but he's not in Warmack's class when it comes to really getting on the move and destroying a smaller player, even though I think he plays with even better functional strength than Warmack. Still, I wrote in the Levitre-Watt piece about how a late career Steve Hutchinson lacked the necessary foot quickness to pull effectively. Warford is in the same category.

The question then becomes how much that will bother the Titans. If they're looking to implement a true zone blocking system like the Texans run, then I think Warford goes one to three rounds before he's a realistic option for the Titans. If the Titans were looking for a left guard who can do the kind of things Andy Levitre does, I'd take Jonathan Cooper at 10 and a defensive lineman at 40 way before I'd take a defensive lineman at 10 and Warford at 40.

Ruston Webster indicated in a radio interview that the left guard will do most of the Titans' pulling, leading me to believe the Titans won't be requiring that the right guard be a very athletic mover. I think the Titans may be for a Benji Olson-like right guard with excellent strength who's more just good enough when it comes to athleticism, which makes Warford a very realistic option for them. Given the degree of need at right guard, I would even be willing to move up a little bit to secure Warford. This is a topic for another post, but my guess is not all of the nine picks the Titans have will make the team. Since they have those untradeable late round compensatory picks, I think they could consider dangling some of their natural later picks and seeing if a team with a need for depth like the Jaguars at 33 would be willing to move back.

Other Options
I have a hard enough time with projecting left guards to the right side that I'm not going to pretend I can properly evaluate tackle conversion projects. Brian Winters' functional strength was very impressive, albeit against MAC level competition, but he'll be kicking inside from tackle. Justin Pugh is another tackle, one who might be a good mover but probably needs a year in an NFL strength program before he can be a decent starter. Dallas Thomas is a guy I don't feel like I have a good grip on even though I should. D.J. Fluker and Kyle Long will probably be drafted to play tackle at spots in the draft before I think the Titans would consider them at guard. Then again, if Fluker falls like Cordy Glenn did last year he might be a player for the Titans to consider at 40. Naturally, I'm probably leaving off at least three three players the Titans like more than players I've listed.

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