Believe it or not, offensive guards were once considered relatively fungible players by most NFL general managers. That started to change in 2005 when former Green Bay Packers guards Marco Rivera(notes) and Mike Wahle(notes) received large contracts from the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers, respectively. With two new guards, the '05 Packers went 4-12, and Brett Favre(notes) threw a career-high 29 picks trying to avoid all the pressure.
Before the 2006 season, the NFC North got its own back when the Vikings signed ex-Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson(notes) to a seven-year, $49 million contract. This was a sum previously unheard of for the position; twice the value of the Rivera and Wahle contracts. What followed seemed to be fiscal insanity, as nearly every free-agent guard with a lick of talent got their own versions of the Hutchinson contract. Derrick Dockery(notes), Eric Steinbach(notes), Leonard Davis(notes) ... things got really odd for a while with this trend, as matching seven-year, $49 millionish deals went to some decidedly replacement-level talent.
But when the New Orleans Saints made Jahri Evans(notes) the highest-paid guard in NFL history with a seven-year, $56.7 million deal announced this week, few experts were surprised -- that's simply how good Evans is. Like Hutchinson at the time of his deal, Evans is the best guard in the league, and there isn't too much of a question about it. According to Football Outsiders' 2009 Adjusted Line Yards metrics, the Saints ranked second in the league in ALY per carry in the mid/guard area, eighth in the right tackle area, 18th around right end and 31st to left tackle. Strong enough to hold the point against any defender and agile enough to head up to the second level to deal with linebackers, Evans was a crucial part of the Saints' run to the NFL championship.
The best part of the story is that Evans was no SEC superstar coming out of college -- he was the product of New Orleans' unparalleled ability to scout small-school talent. Evans was a Division II sleeper pick from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. Scouted by many larger colleges, Evans missed his senior campaign after a basketball injury, which limited his recruiting options. Now, after four seasons of excellence, he's walking around with quarterback money -- the deal includes $19 million in the first year. Not bad for a guy taken in the fourth round of the 2006 draft.
"I think that for any player, if he gets invited to the (Scouting) Combine, even if he's from a small school, he's clearly someone everyone's aware of," Saints head coach Sean Payton said at the 2009 Combine. "The challenge in the first part of the process, grading film, is that the players are going up against a different level of competition. You're trying to measure the success he's had and how that will transfer into our league. That's a challenge. We've had some success with guys like Jahri Evans from Bloomsburg and Marques Colston(notes) -- those are second-day selection that obviously worked out very well. But I think that when a player from a smaller school has an opportunity to come to the Combine, that's kind of a coming-out party for him because he gets that exposure."
Even when you're presented with that information, you still have to be prepared to take action. The Saints have that ability, and Jahri Evans has benefitted -- perhaps beyond his wildest dreams.