Five Former Irish Players In 2020 NFL Top 100, Quenton Nelson Makes Top 30
Quenton Nelson continues to reach heights few guards have seen.
His latest honor is his placement in the 2020 NFL Top 100, the yearly ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players as voted by players. In the 10 years of player voting, no guard has ever earned a ranking as high as Nelson’s.
Nelson, a first-team All-Pro at left guard for the Indianapolis Colts in each of his first two NFL seasons, is the No. 29 player in the top 100. He went from unranked in 2019 to the highest-ranked offensive lineman, and the highest-ranked of the five former Notre Dame players who appear on the list.
Per Pro Football Focus, Nelson was one of nine offensive linemen that allowed zero sacks in 2019. He was the No. 4 player on the PFF50. The Colts had the AFC’s third-best rushing offense in 2019.
“He’s going to finish you, I promise, he’s going to pancake you,” Colts running back Nyheim Hines said. “I remember the first game of the year, we were playing the Chargers, and they had a really good pass rusher [Melvin Ingram]. He spun in, and Quenton just knocked him out.
“Honestly, I don’t care what the read is, I just follow 56. And 95 percent of the time, I’m right.”
The guard ranked behind Nelson is a Notre Dame alum, too. Zack Martin is No. 55 in the rankings, the second highest of all offensive linemen. The Dallas Cowboys made him the league’s highest-paid guard before the 2018 season. He earned his fourth first-team All-Pro selection in 2019, helping him move up four spots from his 2019 ranking.
“He was coached really well,” Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. “There’s something you can tell when a player is coached really well from the beginning. His technique, it has grown with him. He has only gotten better.”
Added Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who faced Martin in his third career game: “He’s going to move you off the ball in the run game and not let you get to the quarterback in the pass game. There were a few plays he got the better of me.”
Former Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith followed not far behind Martin, at No. 64 and the fourth-highest safety. It was a 19-spot jump from last year’s rankings. Smith made his sixth straight Pro Bowl and had 85 tackles, three forced fumbles and three interceptions in 2019.
“It looks like he’s freelancing or improv-ing on a play, but because he’s so into the film, it’s like he has seen it before,” said Stephen Weatherly, a former Vikings teammate. “That’s why he breaks so fast, hits so hard and knows where to be.”
Ronnie Stanley and Nelson are the two highest-drafted players since Brian Kelly became Notre Dame’s coach in 2010. Each was the No. 6 pick, and now both are on the NFL Top 100 list for the first time. Stanley, the Ravens’ left tackle, is ranked 74th. He’s third among offensive tackles — behind the Packers’ David Bakhtiari and the Texans’ Laremy Tunsil — and fifth among linemen.
Stanley was a first-time All-Pro in 2019 and was awarded PFF’s Pass Blocker of the Year award. In 16 games at left tackle, Stanley allowed only six pressures and blocked for the NFL’s best rushing offense. PFF gave Stanley a 93.7 pass-blocking grade, one of the highest it has ever given a tackle.
The Ravens also averaged 206 rushing yards per game, 5.5 yards per carry and ran the ball 596 times. All three of those were NFL bests. Only two other teams cleared 5.0 yards per rush. The Ravens ran 98 more times and averaged 60 more yards per game than the No. 2 team in each category. Stanley was in the middle of it all.
“Special player,” Ravens running back Mark Ingram said. “Super athletic, can run fast, can do all the run blocks…Anything on the left side, you’re confident it’s taken care of. He’s going up against elite rushers every week.”
Jaylon Smith, taken 28 spots behind Stanley in 2016, is the final former Notre Dame player in the top 100, at No. 88 and the sixth-ranked linebacker that plays off the line of scrimmage. It’s a 28-spot drop from last year for the Cowboys’ middle linebacker, despite a 2019 season in which he started 16 games for the second consecutive year, went to his first Pro Bowl and made a career-high 142 tackles.
“His ability to shed blocks, it’s uncanny, and his sideline-to-sideline speed is remarkable,” Bills center Mitch Morse said. “At the same time, he can do some pretty remarkable things in coverage.”
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