Today’s pro football is the furthest thing from an offensive lineman’s game. With all the rule changes, all the emphasis on passing, it’s difficult for the 330-pound men up front who clear the way for the NFL’s new-age aerial circus to gain attention.
Yet, one lineman, Indianapolis’ Quenton Nelson has managed to crack a dent in the attention hierarchy.
And he’s done it by being the biggest, baddest S.O.B. at the position in years, someone whose combination of power, athleticism and unrelenting effort has helped the Colts jump out to a 2-1 start without the recently retired Andrew Luck. The 23-year-old guard became the first rookie lineman since Zack Martin in 2014 to be named first-team All-Pro and make the Pro Bowl. Greatness this early in his career is drawing comparisons to some of the position’s all-time greats, like future Hall of Fame guard Steve Hutchinson.
“For me to see a kid in 2018 coming out and playing with that edge and learning how to play with knee bend and striking on the rise and driving and finishing and playing nasty to the whistle … it’s kinda nice to see,” Hutchinson told Yahoo Sports. “And then, for him to get the recognition for it [was great].”
Some of Nelson’s highlights over the past 12 months have even gone viral. Take the clip of him letting out a primal yell as he savagely blocked Jacksonville safety Barry Church.
Colts got so much attention for Quenton Nelson’s screaming block vs. Jacksonville - see Twitter - that the NFL fined Indianapolis’ first-round pick $26,739 for leading with his helmet, per source. Nelson is appealing the fine from the play on which no penalty was called. pic.twitter.com/s82oQuIkoO— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 16, 2018
And while the Colts and Nelson maintain the yell was edited in, Nelson’s reputation still precedes him. A week ago, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver dove for the ground instead of facing the consequences for taking on a pulling Nelson.
“He plays with an edge and he finishes,” Hutchinson said. “That’s kind of a breath of fresh air for me because having pretty much focused on the offensive line … I don’t think the current college game is doing the offensive line any favors.”
For as exciting as the spread offense is, Hutchinson noted, you’re seeing fewer prospects who are well-versed and well-schooled in playing in close quarters out of a three-point stance. That’s something Nelson excels at, which couldn’t be more on brand with his reputation as an old-school throwback player, one that also extends to his personality.
“He’s a lineman at heart,” said Browns guard Joel Bitonio, who practiced with Nelson at the Pro Bowl last year. “He’s funny, he’s easy going — it’s just the lineman way. But he plays mean.”
And like many great linemen before him, Nelson also prefers to deflect attention from himself and toward the team. Ask him about his insistence on always playing to the echo of the whistle, he’ll tell you his dad drilled that in him.
Ask him about his habit of always being the first guy to help his running back up after a tackle, he’ll tell you it’s because he wants them to know he has their back.
Ask him about that NFL draft profile that characterized him as an alpha who brings “an ass-kicking mindset into your position room,” he shrugs.
“I wouldn’t consider myself like, an alpha, in the o-line room,” Nelson told Yahoo Sports during training camp. “There really can’t be an alpha because you need all five to be equal and have a say in everything and get s- - - done together.”
But if you ask him what advice he’d have for any young linemen out there who want to perfect their craft, his answers get a little longer, his facial expressions a little more animated. Nelson is unbelievably gifted, has broad shoulders and a 40-42 inch waist, which is insanely trim for a man who is 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds. While he displays elite athleticism for his size, it would be a mistake to assume he got this way by simply winning the genetic lottery.
Nelson is a worker and it started as a youth, when he played multiple sports before college. Between basketball — there’s a viral clip of him whipping a behind-the-back pass on the court — soccer, baseball and lacrosse, the cross-training helped him develop quickness and hand-eye coordination, and he’d encourage others to do the same.
Just found this...Quenton Nelson could BALL in High School 👀🔥 pic.twitter.com/DPtpsmx6mi— Adam Lefkoe (@AdamLefkoe) February 8, 2019
In addition, Nelson also touts his secret training weapon, something he learned when he broke his foot as a sophomore in high school.
“I couldn’t do any legwork, so I was just stretching a ton, like 30 seconds on each thing I was doing and trying to get farther and farther,” Nelson said. “The more flexible [you are], the better your mobility is, the more athletic you’re gonna be, the less you’re gonna get hurt. And I think that’s really important.”
Nelson still practices what he preaches in this area. Not only does he stretch everyday before practice, he says he also does it for at least 10 minutes before he goes in the weight room. Now, he says he can nearly do the splits, something that doesn’t shock Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
“He’s very flexible — you saw it on tape, he could bend in his ankles, knees and hips,” Ballard told Yahoo Sports, before shaking his head. “And look, not everybody’s genetically gifted in the way that he is. Sometimes God just touches you different.”
Hence the reason why Nelson, through three games in 2019, has built on his strong rookie campaign, despite teams now having a full season’s worth of tape on him and giving him their best shot weekly.
“What he’s gonna start realizing is people are gonna start trying to get paid off of beating him,” Hutchinson said. “You’re not just gonna have a regular Sunday 1 p.m. kickoff against [a guy] — you’re not gonna have that. You’re gonna have this kid, who is in his contract year, and if he has two or three sacks against Quenton Nelson, he just made himself coin.”
Hutchinson said he countered this effect by self-scouting; he analyzed himself on film and worked diligently to correct the areas he knew other teams would start attacking, something Ballard said Nelson is doing.
“Quenton’s a second-year player, and he wants to get better,” Ballard said. “He has an inner desire to be the best he can be … everything he stands for in terms of work ethic, passion for the game, love of his teammates, wanting to be great, that will never leave him and that’s who he is at his core.”
This is bad news for opponents, who will be tasked with dealing with the NFL’s strongest, most athletic, most flexible ass-kicker up front for the foreseeable future, something the man to whom he’s most often compared can’t wait to watch.
“You hope [his play] has kind of an infectious result to it, so we see more play like that in the years to come,” Hutchinson said.
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