North Carolina G Jonathan Cooper talks to the media at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday.
INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to the NFL Draft cognoscenti, conventional wisdom says it’s taboo to spend a top 10 draft pick on certain positions.
Perhaps no position, save for kicker or punter, is more off limits for that lofty draft status than offensive guard. The thought process is that guards are big, mauling types who play in a phone booth and can be found and developed in just about any round.
But the 2013 NFL Draft figures to put that theory to the test. According to most draft experts and wannabe experts, there are two guards with a chance to break the mold and burst into the exalted territory of the top 10 where usually only quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, tackles, cornerbacks and pass rushers reside.
“To be honest with you, there are two beautiful players sitting there,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I mean, Chance Warmack from Alabama is the best football player I saw on tape this year. And Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina is just a tiny notch behind him.
“I could care less about whether or not that's a position of value or not.”
Ah, yes, the “V” word, a word that generally drives the public perception of how where players might go in the draft and where teams put players when they stack their boards.
As a general rule, the “value” of an offensive guard hasn’t exactly been matching up with first round picks, particularly in the first 10 players taken in the past 15 or so years.
In fact, the last guard taken in the top 10 was Chris Naeole, who went to New Orleans with the 10th selection in the 1997 NFL Draft.
Since 2000, only 11 guards have been drafted in the first round at all and most of those players have found themselves going in the latter part of the round. The highest drafted guard of recent vintage is Mike Pouncey, who went to the Dolphins with the 15th pick in 2011.
But, to hear, many of the experts tell it; Warmack and Cooper have the goods to make the NFL world rethink their position on the value of a guard.
“We’ve got two guards this year that are just in the elite category,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “You don’t see guys like Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper come around very often.”
If ever you were going to find a head coach in the NFL willing to defy conventional wisdom and spend a precious top 10 pick on an offensive lineman who doesn’t play left tackle, it’d be Tennessee coach Mike Munchak.
The Hall of Fame guard was taken eighth overall by the old Houston Oilers in 1982 and went on to appear in nine Pro Bowls.
Munchak not only has some inherent sense of positional loyalty but he’s also seen an evolved version of the NFL game that puts added emphasis on guard play.
During Munchak’s career, most ends were bigger guys with less speed, allowing guys to play tackle who might normally fit at guard. Now, more ends are smaller and quicker than ever, placing even more emphasis on tackles, particularly on the left side, who can keep up athletically.
And while Munchak understands the need for top-notch pass protectors at tackle, he also sees the need for having top talent at guard.
“I think when you have guards, there are more of them so you obviously you push that back a little bit but when you have someone special that you think is really good that kind of gets thrown out the window and you kind of have to decide where you want to pick a guy like that,” Munchak said.
You’d be hard pressed to find a guard that fits the “special” description better than Warmack, the physically dominant guard who was the driving force behind the Crimson Tide’s vaunted rushing attack in 2012.
The 6’2, 317-pound mauler was so impressive on film that Mayock rates him as the best player in this draft, regardless of position.
Munchak signs off on calling Warmack a special talent.
“On film, yes, there is no doubt,” Munchak said. “Warmack, obviously was great watching him in the SEC and seeing a lot of him play. He’s one of those guys that is no doubt getting a lot of attention and a guy that is special in what he does. He’s been very good and very successful. He knows how to win so there are a lot of things he brings to the party that if you are going to decide you need a guard, that’s the kind of guy you are going to think about taking anywhere in the draft.”
Warmack was a unanimous All American last year after leading Alabama in pancake blocks (39) and posting just two penalties while working as a team captain. He started 40 games in his career and has been the picture of durability for the Crimson Tide.
While it’s unlikely Warmack will go first overall, it is possible he could find his way into the top 10. The Rams have a need at guard but if Warmack does what is expected of him here this week, he could easily cement his spot outside of their draft range at No. 16.
“He just needs to keep dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s and run fast and work hard and be good in the interview room," Mayock said. "He’s a top-10 pick for me."
Warmack has been so impressive in his career and the run up to this combine that Cooper, his top competition as the best guard in the draft, can’t help but find himself in awe of his SEC counterpart.
“He is a big guy,” Cooper said. “I was glad I got to see him in person for the first time and see that he is a human. After all that I hear about him, they just make him seem unstoppable. But he is a big guy, he’s a powerful guy, he usually gets on his lineman and dominates him. He gets to the second level well and he was on a national championship offensive line so obviously they are doing something right and he’s doing well for himself.”
Of course, Cooper isn’t exactly lagging behind when it comes to impressing NFL teams. Although he’s more likely to be available when the Rams take their turn on the clock, Cooper brings an exciting skill package of his own to the table.
Known for his athleticism and ability to block in space, Cooper is the type of guard who might actually be better suited as a left guard in the NFL. At 6’2, 312 pounds, Cooper is expected to put on a show when he works out for scouts here on Saturday.
“If I was Jonathan Cooper, I'd be excited,” Mayock said. “If there is anything he is, he's one of the most athletic guards I've ever seen. So he's going to get out there in a pair of gym shorts and have a chance to show people how athletic he is. All the combine should do for this kid is help him. This should be right up his alley. I think this is a showcase for Jonathan Cooper.”
Growing up, Cooper was too big to play Pop Warner football but he quickly made up for lost time when he finally got the chance in seventh grade. He’s spent the time in between working hard to get in shape and improving his technique.
Coincidentally, Cooper actually found himself in the new predicament of needing to add weight after the Tar Heels switched to a high-tempo offense that had him shedding enough pounds to get down to 285 pounds.
Now, he’s up to 312 pounds and, with experience in both zone and power blocking schemes, has the versatility to be used in more ways than Warmack.
“I do think I could convince teams that I can be a No. 1 pick,” Cooper said. “And I go about that by just being the best player I can and for them to just go back and look at my character, look at my history, look at my film and then from the combine just doing the best I can whether it’s doing the most bench press reps up that I can, running well and showing my athleticism and how much it can help their team.”
Cooper said he won’t be devastated if he’s not the first guard taken but as a competitor would prefer to have that next to his name. Even if he’s not, he does plan on going as high in the draft as possible.
And, as far as Cooper is concerned, teams shouldn’t have any position bias when it comes to how they draft, offering that they shouldn’t be scared to take a guard in the top 5, let alone the top 10.
“I dare say so,” Cooper said. “Being a guard, I feel like if he can make an immediate impact and you really need that position then why not spend a top 5 pick on it?”
Whether Warmack, Cooper or any other interior offensive lineman goes in the top 10 remains to be seen. But if nothing else, it seems general managers and coaches around the league will have to reconsider the value of a guard for the first time in awhile.
“I think it can be a value,” Tennessee general manager Ruston Webster said. “I think it needs to be a player you see coming in to your team and making a difference, upgrading you and possibly being an outstanding player at the position. I have never been one to say you don’t take a guard in the first round or whatever. I’ve never looked at it that way. If there’s somebody there that is a special player then we will take a look at him. They are very good players, for sure.”