The guard is one of the most anonymous positions in sports — lost in 22-player chaos, overshadowed on the offensive line by the center who snaps the ball to initiate each play and the blind side-protecting left tackle — but it is being valued like never before. Over the last few years, contracts have ballooned and teams have used premium selections on them in the NFL draft.
Scherff said offensive linemen don’t think about their skyrocketing value, but he pays attention. He listed guards helping raise the tide, including Jacksonville’s Andrew Norwell, who this offseason signed a five-year, $66.5 million deal that was record-setting for the position.
“I have no idea what’s happening,” Scherff said. “I’m just happy it is.”
Scherff is not alone in being unable to pinpoint the league’s sudden love affair with a position long thought to be of low importance in NFL roster-building. But experts cite several reasons for this recent guard revolution — including one theory that it is due, at least in part, to a mistake.
In 2015, two of the NFL’s best guards, Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda and Arizona’s Mike Iupati, signed contracts that paid them roughly $8 million per year. The next offseason, Oakland signed guard Kelechi Osemele away from Baltimore on a deal worth nearly $12 million annually, and the Raiders justified the spending by saying they didn’t see it as a guard contract, because they were prepared to move Osemele to left tackle if their starter, Donald Penn, left in free agency.
Later, when Penn unexpectedly re-signed in Oakland, the Raiders kept Osemele at guard and unwittingly reset the guard market. Six months later, top-tier guards in Chicago’s Kyle Long and Pittsburgh’s David DeCastro inked extensions worth $10 million per year, and a spending spree at one of football’s least glamorous positions was on.
“The guard market exploded,” said Mark Dominik, a former NFL general manager.
Dominik added that the megadeals like the one Zack Martin received in a contract extension from the Cowboys ($14 million per year) are reflective of the NFL becoming a more pass-heavy league. The increase in disruptive interior pass rushers has meant that teams have to prioritize more than just their left tackle, which has long been considered the most important offensive line position because it is tasked with protecting a quarterback’s blind side.
“It used to be conventional wisdom that the tackles were key to protecting your quarterback,” said Joe Banner, a former NFL front office executive. “We got out of that delusion after watching [defensive tackles] like [Fletcher] Cox and [Aaron] Donald take over games. If you combine them with this shortage of talent at [guard], people are putting a real premium at the position.”
For Geoff Schwartz, a former NFL guard and current SiriusXM host, the increased importance of guards became obvious when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl following the 2011 season.
On third downs, the Giants lined up their pass-rushing defensive ends inside, over the guards, to create an athletic mismatch and generate consistent pressure on New England quarterback Tom Brady. Schwartz started seeing similar “goofy” defensive looks around 2008, as the league became more pass-happy and defenses placed a higher priority on linemen who could get after the quarterback, including from the interior.
“People used to be afraid to play smaller guys on the inside of the defensive line,” Banner said. “[Coaches] thought they’d get overpowered. That didn’t happen.”
Schwartz saw the change happening right in front of him.
“Defensive linemen used to kind of just run into you,” Schwartz said. “Now, there are more elaborate pass rushers inside. They line up wide of the guard and try to get past you. … The importance [of guards] is a reaction to the defense.”
Another reason the league’s best guards have found themselves in high demand is a perceived drop-off in the quality of offensive line play leaguewide. Executives and players alike have said there are fewer surefire offensive line prospects coming out of college, as a result of the proliferation of spread offenses that don’t translate well to the professional game.
This has caused guards to be selected with higher picks in recent NFL drafts. As recently as 2012, teams neglected the position until, at the earliest, the latter stages of the first round. Since then, four guards (including Scherff, though he was initially announced as a tackle) have been picked in the top 10, including this year’s sixth overall pick by the Colts, Quenton Nelson.
The previous logic had been that tackle, played in space by bigger, better athletes, was more difficult than guard, played in “a box,” and therefore tackle was the only line position worth a high draft pick. Now, with defenses probing a pocket to find its weak link, there’s more fluidity. Players with tackle bodies who played the position in college, such as all-Americans Scherff (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) and Martin (6-foot-4, 309 pounds), can move to guard in the NFL and excel. The increase in pass sets leans into their strengths, and their tackle background provides familiarity with and effectiveness against techniques, such as a bull rush, employed by interior rushers.
“Tackles are shifting to guard because the pro game is just so different from college,” Schwartz said. “You can get by without the ideal [guard] traits because they have the skill set.”
One telling example of the draft dichotomy between guards and tackles, between production and projection, happened in back-to-back drafts. In 2014, left tackle and superlative athlete Greg Robinson went from Auburn’s spread offense to the Rams as the No. 2 overall pick. Consensus: Good pick. The next year, a smaller tackle, Scherff, went from a pro-style offense at Iowa to the Redskins at No. 5. Consensus: That high for a potential guard?
In 2017, the Rams briefly tried to shift a struggling Robinson to guard before declining his fifth-year option. He now plays for the Cleveland Browns.
“Some people questioned Scherff that high at the time,” Dominik said, “but now they say, ‘Wow, he’s the best guard in the NFL.’ In that situation, would you rather have Brandon Scherff or Greg Robinson?”
Scherff is scheduled to make $12.5 million next season before he becomes a free agent. He brushed off the thought of signing a large contract extension — “You can’t really control that” — but it is overwhelmingly likely that, barring injury or a significant drop in performance, Scherff’s next contract will be bigger than his teammate at left tackle. Trent Williams, who earns $13.6 million annually on a deal that runs through 2020, was once the NFL’s highest-paid player at his position.
“It’s all going to follow the quarterback,” Dominik said. “As long as they get paid, the guards will get paid.”
Oakland knows this all too well. In this year’s draft, the Raiders used their first-round pick on Kolton Miller, a left tackle from UCLA. From everything happening in training camp, it appears that whenever Penn moves on, the Raiders have found a rookie-contract successor. They won’t need to move Osemele. Guard, at his price, seems to be right where he’ll stay.