Evolution of guard position has thinned once-talented ranks

Larry Allen (left) played most of his career at guard north of 300 pounds. Evan Mathis has to watch his cheeseburger intake these days.

Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

As a member of an offense led by a coach known for his trend-setting ways, Evan Mathis understands how quickly things can change in the NFL.

So as he went back to watch some clips of great linemen from the recent past – namely those of the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, he pondered a thought that might be considered by many football purists to be downright blasphemous.

"Were they really that good or were they just good at what they did?" the Philadelphia Eagles’ guard wondered. "Were they getting to the backside linebacker? Were they doing the things we’re asked to do?"

The player Mathis probably watched most closely was Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen – a bulldozer of a guard for those great Cowboys teams. Allen was an outstanding all-around athlete, but like many guards of that era, he was best known for his straight-ahead run blocking as he and his linemates paved the running lanes for Emmitt Smith on lead draws.

But as offensive schemes have changed, so have expectations for guards. Not to mention the quality of the players at the position.

No longer are NFL guards mostly thought of as road graders. They must be athletic enough to get to the second level and pick off linebackers who are getting slimmer and faster, as well. They need the cardiovascular stamina to rush to the line of scrimmage during a hurry-up attack.

They have to be able to deal with the speed rushes from the increasing number of athletic defensive tackles. And they must be strong enough to make their blocks while in some cases playing with smaller frames than their predecessors at the position.

Though the best offensive tackles continue to be behemoths with outstanding feet, guards have been slimming down in recent years as they try to find the best mix of power and agility.

Case in point: Mathis says his ideal playing weight is in the high 290s – about 30 pounds less than what used to be considered the norm for NFL guards.

The position is changing at roughly the same speed as the schemes these guys are asked to run.

"They have to have great mobility and athletic to do more things than just 1-on-1, move a man off the line of scrimmage. They have to be able to combination block, release on screens, be able to read for protection purposes," Chargers offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, considered by many to be among the best in the business right now, said in a phone interview. "Years and years ago, when San Fran was so good and Coach (Bill) Walsh was there and Bobb McKittrick was the line coach, you had a whole different style of offensive linemen, really athletic linemen, and they did a lot of those same things. It’s almost like it’s making a circle, coming back to that."

During this transition, teams are seeing an overall dip in talent at the guard position. Most personnel evaluators polled for this story believe guards who can do it all — run block, pass block and get to the point of attack faster than they guy they’re blocking — are at a premium.

"I would say the position across the league does not (provide) a surplus of high-level graded starters," one AFC director of personnel said. "It’s supply and demand. Your best athletes are at tackle and I just think (guard) is a position you can get by with a ‘get-by’ guy."

The notion the position is thin on talent could be due to a number of factors.

The first is the subtraction of three very good guards, due to the retirement of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Carl Nicks and the New York Giants’ Chris Snee this summer, as well as former Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito being cast into exile following his involvement in the Jonathan Martin bullying fiasco.

Incognito, despite his baggage after last season, has received inquiries from multiple teams, with sources telling FOX Sports the Oakland Raiders are among those who have been keeping tabs on him. The interest in Incognito is perhaps the best indication of how thin teams believe the talent is at the position.

Another factor raised by several NFL personnel evaluators is the increase in the number of teams running spread offenses in college. Guards at that level, therefore, aren’t developing the full set of skills they used to need at the next level.

And since they’re not asked to be the more rounded players of years past, many potentially elite guards are either moved to tackle or center — or they’re bumped to defensive line where they can instead create havoc for opposing guards.

Other NFL coaches and front-office types believe the CBA-mandated limits on contact and practice times during the spring and in training camp are affecting the technique of guards who aren’t getting the amount of work one would get during two-a-days. Though the same goes for the guys they’re trying to block, coaches say offensive linemen must have better technique than defensive players who can often get away with imperfect form while rushing the passer because they’re the aggressor in that situation.

Still, some believe there are plenty of good guards out there. It’s just a matter of learning what they look like now.

When a player like Allen was rag-dolling a defensive lineman or blowing up a linebacker while pulling to get to the outside, it was obvious he was a special player. These days, when a guard chooses to play at or under 300 pounds, it’s not as easy for him to pancake a guy. He can move a defender and finish his block, for sure, but he’s not the force he’d be while playing at a much heavier weight in more of a downhill scheme.

"I know my strength will never be a problem. If I’m faster than that guy and stronger than that guy, I’m obviously set up well there, and now I just out-prepare him on and off the field and I’m in a good situation," said Mathis, who has tried to play as heavy as 320 pounds. "I love to be able to move fast, get where I need to get, and what you sacrifice being a leaner guy is you’re not literally a road grader. But I can take guys where I want to take them, make them do what I want to make them do, and I can get to the second level way better than a road grader can. I think the style that I choose to play is a much more efficient version across the board. There’s nothing I can’t do."

It’s supply and demand. Your best athletes are at tackle and I just think (guard) is a position you can get by with a ‘get-by’ guy.

AFC director of personnel

Mathis was a first-team All-Pro selection last year, yet when he made a push for a new contract this offseason, the Eagles stood firm. He admitted he contemplated holding out but instead showed up to camp with the intention of playing at his scheduled base salary of $5.15 million this season.

Other guards who hit the market as free agents this year found it to be rather bare. Zane Beadles’ five-year, $30 million contract was the biggest one, though the Jacksonville Jaguars guaranteed only $12.5 million over two years. Other free-agent guards were relegated to getting $4 million to $5 million per year maximum.

Meanwhile, San Francisco 49ers guard Alex Boone continues to hold out. A source told FOX Sports the team has offered an extension that would pay him close to the $6 million per season Beadles received but only on three "new" years from 2016-18. Boone’s camp calculated the offer by including the $3.6 million he was slated to receive over the next two seasons and thus considered the five-year proposal to be well below his value.

But what is a guard’s value anymore?

The highest-paid guard in the league on a per-year average is the New England Patriots’ Logan Mankins at $8.5 million. That’s only $1.5 million higher than what Steve Hutchinson got from the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.

For comparison’s sake, note that the highest-paid tackles at the time of Hutchinson’s deal were making only a few hundred thousand more per year than the top guards at the time. But now, the gap has been widened to nearly $4 million, with the Dallas Cowboys’ Tyron Smith ($12.2 million per year) and the Cleveland Browns’ Joe Thomas ($11.5 million per season) leading a list of six tackles with contracts that average over $10 million per year.

Point being, the money trail will reveal where teams are placing an emphasis. And given the fact Mankins and the New Orleans Saints’ Jahri Evans are still the highest-paid guards on deals signed in 2011 and 2010, respectively, the waning importance and/or talent level of guards obviously has teams tightening up their checkbooks.

"I can see there being change, and I do think teams do feel like the position is more like a, ‘Plug someone in there for a little bit and you pay your tackles a lot of money and pay your center a lot of money,’ but there’s a lot of guards who are good," said Geoff Schwartz, a converted tackle who signed a four-year, $16.8 million deal with the New York Giants this spring. "(The Detroit Lions’ Larry) Warford and (the Chicago Bears’) Kyle Long are good. There’s a lot of young guards coming up."

But even Schwartz admits the guards these days play at an average weight of 310 to 315 pounds and don’t "move guys off the ball" the way guards of the past did. Thus, perhaps the reduction in pancake-type blocks has changed the perception of what a dominant guard is.

"The defense has evolved into a lot of pass rushers," Schwartz said. "The D-linemen get their big deals off their sack numbers. That’s where the game is moving, and a smaller, quicker guard is what you need right now. Back when you used to get under center and pounded the ball, you wanted bigger guards because you had more double-teams and pulling and stuff like that. Now there’s a lot of zone scheme, a lot of no huddle. That’s just the way it moved."

Mathis isn’t fighting the change in perception. Rather, he’s embracing it.

"I’d like to be part of the group that’s able to reprogram that position," he said, "just being an athlete and doing things you don’t expect me to do."