We continue our series on Cowboys draft prospects with a look at the guard position.
Guard is generally given a lower priority within the offensive line hierarchy. That's because their pass responsibilities are less difficult than those for tackles. They block "in a phone booth," meaning they have only the areas between the tackle and the center to handle. A guard may be required to pull and block in space a lot, depending on the system, but speed and lateral quickness is not as important to their jobs as it is for OTs. Teams can move a good tackle who's lost a bit of quickness inside; guards rarely move outside with the same degree of effectiveness.
Consequently, tackles go much higher than guards in the draft. Since 2001, only six guards have been selected in the 1st round, and only 21 have been taken in the first two rounds. That's an average of just two per year in rounds 1-2.
Guard, in the Cowboys view, is a power position. A good prospect has to get movement in the run game. The Cowboys don't simply want guys who can lock on and hold their space. They want dominators, in the Nate Newton, Larry Allen mold. They also want big guys -- every Cowboys starter has topped 320, in recent years, with the exception of Kyle Kosier.
On passing downs, guards need to anchor against the bull rushers they're likely to face, in the form of NTs and DTs. They're responsible for pocket depth, meaning they cannot surrender ground, or the quarterback will have no room to move to avoid pressure off the edge.
Lastly, the guard has to be intelligent. Dallas plays in the NFC East, where two teams, the Eagles and Giants, play the Jim Johnson pressure 4-3, which runs a lot of stunts into the A gaps outside the center, and a lot of twists off the edge, where DEs crash the B gaps between the guard and the tackle. Washington is shifting to a 3-4 under new DC Jim Haslett, which means the guards will have to handle blitzes from safeties and inside linebackers.
The Cowboys have two guards, Kyle Kosier and Leonard Davis, who each satisfy part of the ideal template. Kosier is tough, active and quick on his feet. He can pull very well; Dallas runs most of its running back screens to his side, because Kosier can get into space, lock on and sustain his blocks on linebackers and safeties. He's a good run blocker when he gets center help. He's a bit lighter than the prototype Cowboys guard, however and big DTs like Albert Haynesworth can push him back into the pocket. He's also had periodic trouble with twists. In '05, he and Flozell Adams were foiled by repeated twists off their edge in a road loss to the Eagles.
Right guard Leonard Davis checks off the power component of the resume. He's a legit 365 lbs. and is very effective blocking straight ahead. He's also surprising good getting to the edge. He turned in my favorite play of the season vs. the Saints. He led Felix Jones on a toss play right and met New Orleans' MLB Jonathan Vilma on the edge. Bigg hit Vilma square, blasting him airborne and backwards; Vilma landed on his stomach four yards upfield; Jones gained eight yards in the Davis-created crease.
What Davis provides in power, he misses in lateral agility and in recognition. He frequently misses stunts into his gaps and struggles with really quick interior linemen. The Ravens Ray Lewis ran delayed blitzes through Davis' lane all night in the Texas Stadium finale and Davis never once caught on.
The Cowboys clearly want an upgrade inside, with left guard being the priority, as Kosier has just one year left on his contract. The team drafted Robert Brewster in the 3rd last year and he was on his way to challenging for the LG spot before he tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights and missed the season. He's back and lists at a stout 320 lbs. Jerry Jones complemented Brewster's conditioning recently and hinted that he may be ready to resume his pursuit of playing time. How close is he? I doubt anybody outside of Hudson Houck has a firm idea, thought I heard last spring that the team was optimistic about his skills. Brewster played right tackle in college and has good feet for the role.
Idaho guard Mike Iupati has frequently been partnered with Dallas by the mockers. He's certainly the highest rated guard in several years and looks like a first round prospect. I think, however, that we should keep his skills in perspective. Iuputi is a pure guard. He worked out at tackle at the Senior Bowl and struggled. Michigan's Brandon Graham ran over him in pass rush drills, though in Iuputi's defense, Graham made all the OTs in Mobile look silly.
Compare Iututi's skill set to Larry Allen's. Allen was picked 37th overall in '94, right at the top of the 2nd round. He fit the ideal guard profile. He was strong, he was active and he could run. He played right tackle when Erik Williams was out in '94 and he played a full season at left tackle in the season after Mark Tuinei's retirement and Dallas acquisition of Flozell Adams. Allen played extremely well at left tackle. He destroyed Simeon Rice at a time when Rice was rated one of the game's best rushers.
Iuputi can't do these things. That's not to say he doesn't have value, but that value will come exclusively inside. The bigger question is whether he'll reach pick 27. I put those odds on par with Earl Thomas', i.e. slim. Iuputi is most frequently sent to Pittsburgh in the mocks and I tend to agree. Very few teams pick guards in the first, for reasons I have outlined. The Steelers do. In fact, they've taken two of the seven guards picked in the first since '98. They snagged Alan Faneca 26th in '98 and Kendall Simmons 30th in '02. They need interior linemen badly. Steelers QBs have been sacked 99 times the last two seasons. That's right -- 99 times. Poor guard play has contributed to this frightening stat. The mockers miss more often than they hit but I think they're on target here.
If Iuputi is gone, I think the traditional pattern holds. One or two more guards may go in the 2nd round, and Dallas may go for one if Alabama's Mike Johnson or Mississippi's John Jerry are available at 59. If the Cowboys feel good about Brewster, however, they will probably wait until the 3rd or 4th to scratch the guard itch.