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Anyone Here Willing To Take A Chance?

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Chance Warmack of Alabama should be the first interior lineman off the board in April's draft. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Chance Warmack of Alabama should be the first interior lineman off the board in April's draft. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

All positions are not created equal – especially when it comes to the top of the NFL Draft.

This is not news. Of the 50 players taken with the first five picks of the past 10 drafts, 13 have been quarterbacks. There have been eight offensive tackles, seven receivers and six running backs. On the defensive side, there have been five ends, four tackles, three linebackers, two corners and two safeties.

Not counting kickers and punters, teams have spent a top-5 pick on players from every position in the game but one: interior offensive linemen.

In the pecking order of priorities, you can parse that distinction even further. Centers are charged with the responsibility of calling protections, giving them a thick leg up on the most underappreciated player on the football field.

The offensive guard.

No one has taken a guard with a pick higher than 17 since New Orleans drafted Chris Naoele with the 10th pick of the 1997 Draft. Even a kicker has gone as high (Sebastian Janikowski, 2000).

But if ever there were a draft where these monsters of the mid-rounds could allow themselves a little guarded optimism, it would be this year. There are two guards on the board with legitimate top-10 talent: Chance Warmack of Alabama and Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina.

Both might be more ready to step into a starting lineup on Day 1 than either of the top two tackles available, and yet Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher are both being mentioned as possibilities for the Chiefs to select with the #1 overall pick.

Neither Warmack nor Cooper feels blighted by this bias. They understand the perception of their place in the food chain. Hollywood makes movies about left tackles, and the NFL pays them like A-listers. Guards, on the other hand, are invisible to a fan’s eye without the aid of a spot shadow on a cut-up reel.

And, usually, it’s someone else’s cut-up reel. Fans who are screening game video of Eddie Lacy and Gio Bernard, might instead want to turn their attention to the guys opening those inside running lanes for the draft’s top two running backs.

Go to YouTube and find the Alabama-LSU game. Watch how often Warmack got to the second level of a top-10 rush defense. Check out the BCS national championship game; Warmack was all over Manti Te’o well before the national media took its turn.

Check out Cooper’s Combine results. His 35 reps on the bench press were second among the 48 offensive linemen who lifted in Indy. His 40-yard dash, standing broad jump and three-cone drill were all top-10 performances.

Strength and agility. The two traits required to pull guard duty. Can he sink his weight to stop a bull rush? Does he have the quickness to withstand a swim move or some other evasive technique? Does he have the punch to strike and stick to a defender in the run game?

Stopping an interior pass rush is becoming more of a priority in today’s NFL.

“The game has changed. Defenses can’t get there from the outside; the quarterbacks are too fast,” said Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl and the former GM of the Browns. “If a defense wants to really disrupt the athletic quarterback, they’re going to blow up the pocket from the middle of the line of scrimmage.”

Whose job, then, would it be to provide protection at that point of attack?

It’s exactly this kind of inside-out thinking that will open minds to the possibility of drafting a guard early. But the NFL isn’t there yet.

A guard is just not a sexy pick. Warmack acknowledged as much when he admitted to a roomful of reporters at the Scouting Combine, “I’m not a glamorous person.” On the same podium, Cooper said he’s prepared to be a more physical player, “Now that I’ve got a little more butt behind me.”

Defensive linemen hawk healthy sub sandwiches on TV commercials. Guards address the national media and talk about the “sacrifice” of having to “eat pizza.”

That’s exactly the kind of dedication to craft that NFL decision-makers look for in their prospects. And still, they remain reluctant toward taking a guard higher than has been conventional.

But look at this year’s draft order. Whether a team sets its draft board according to value (as all strive to) or need (as many fall prey to), there are several teams with top-10 picks for whom those two philosophies lead to the same place: take a guard.

Philadelphia, for example, needs help all along its offensive line. But Eagles fans once booed the selection of Donovan McNabb. Can you imagine the reaction if the first pick of the high-flyin’ Chip Kelly era were spent on a 317-pound guy who runs a five-and-a-quarter 40?

Why shouldn’t Cleveland think about taking a guard at No. 6, slotting him next to Joe Thomas, and letting them blow open holes for Trent Richardson for the foreseeable future? Especially when you consider the interior defensive linemen the Browns have to face six times a year in division play – Haloti Ngata, Geno Atkins and Casey Hampton – a top-tier guard would make sense.

Same goes for the Jets. What better way to truly commit to ground-and-pound than by taking Warmack or Cooper and lining him up between D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold?

“I don’t think the league is ready to go that far yet,” said Savage. “I’d say we’re still a few years away.”

Maybe so. But with rare guard prospects available like these, maybe someone in the top 10 is ready to take a Chance.