INDIANAPOLIS — When the Indianapolis Colts selected guard Quenton Nelson with the sixth-overall pick in last year's draft, he was known as a guy who turned into a grizzly bear on the field, mauling defenders who dared to challenge his teammates.
However, that was college football. People questioned whether he was going to be able to play like that same behemoth when he got to the pros, as his opponents would all be bigger, faster and stronger than those he faced before.
After a year in the pros, Nelson is still known as that nasty lineman who turns grown men into rag dolls.
If you've followed along on here since Nelson was plucked away from Notre Dame up the street in South Bend, Ind., then you know he gets gets an award or is named to some sort of "best of" or "All-NFL Team" list about every week.
Well, it's time for more accolades.
Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire has been compiling his lists of the best players at each position in the NFL, and the pad-popping Nelson comes in as the second-best guard in the NFL after just one season.
"There are those who believe it's unwise to select a guard in the first 10 picks of a draft no matter how good that player may be. Those people may want to revise their opinion based on Nelson's 2018 tape. Taken sixth overall by the Colts in the 2018 draft out of Notre Dame, Nelson immediately took a skill set that had me thinking he was the most talented player in his draft class regardless of position right to the NFL. In his rookie season, Nelson gave up two sacks early in the season and none thereafter, with 24 total pressures.
"It doesn't matter how aggressive the defender is Nelson's facing; he can match that aggression and force a draw with a solid base and aggressive hand movement. He's also great at the second level, and when he engages a defender and starts bulling an opponent back, things can get weird for the defender in a big hurry. Ask Jadeveon Clowney about that."
Like Farrar mentioned, it can often be unpopular to select an interior offensive lineman as early in the draft as the Colts did, but don't tell that to Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
"Look, I learned early, if you think a guy has got a chance to be a difference maker at any position, it doesn't matter, you take him. You take him," Ballard said before taking Nelson in last year's draft.
The truth is, Nelson was one of the highest-graded linemen in recent NFL Draft memory, so he is actually living up to the hype so far.
Nelson's value paid up right away, earning First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in his first year — becoming the first Colts offensive lineman to make the all-star game since 2010 and the first rookie lineman to do it since 1983. Nelson even became the first interior offensive lineman in league history to be named NFL Rookie of the Month when he won the honor in October.
The Colts' turnaround up front was spearheaded by Nelson's addition, as they turned from one of the weakest units in the NFL to one of its best by season's end.
On the heels of Farrar's rankings is an honor that speaks even higher of the man with many nicknames.
Inspired by the recent selection of the 2019 NBA Draft's No. 1 overall pick, Zion Williamson, NFL.com Columnist Adam Schein broke down who he thinks will be remembered as the best pick in each of the last nine NFL Draft classes (2011-19).
"How about this class? Consider that I voted for Nelson, Giants running back Saquon Barkley (No. 2 overall), Chargers safety Derwin James (No. 17 overall), Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (No. 19 overall) and Colts linebacker Darius Leonard (Round 2, No. 36 overall) to be first-team All-Pros -- as rookies! Nelson, James and Leonard won the honor, while Leonard was also the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (No. 1 overall) could've easily been Offensive Rookie of the Year instead of Barkley. And I still think the other quarterbacks selected in the first round -- the Jets' Sam Darnold (No. 3 overall), the Bills' Josh Allen (No. 7), the Ravens' Lamar Jackson (No. 32) and No. 10 overall choice Josh Rosen (now with the Dolphins but drafted by the Cardinals) -- have greatness attached."
"But here's my early prediction for Nelson: He'll be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And I'm not just overreacting to a rookie year in which he gave Colts QB Andrew Luck time; this is consistent with a prediction for him that a GM gave me when Nelson was coming out of Notre Dame. It's only been a year, but Nelson has shown he has the physical and mental tools to become one of the best offensive guards to ever play in the NFL. What a steal by GM Chris Ballard, nabbing a building block like that after five other players had already come off the board."
Nelson was the only Colts offensive lineman to start all 16 games and play all 1,136 offensive snaps in 2018. While there are very few official stats for offensive linemen, we can let analytics and other national experts do some more explaining.
"Running backs gained 2.5 yards more per rush in the areas Nelson was closest to in 2018 than average," according to NFL Network Analytics Expert Cynthia Frelund. "Which means the Colts rookie's mark is +2.5 yards, the best for any left guard last season."
According to Pro Football Focus, Nelson graded out as their fourth-best run-blocking guard in the NFL.
The Colts' run game was much more consistent and productive in 2018 than we're used to seeing since the mid-2000s. Although they finished 20th in the league (107.4 YPG), they had nine games with more than 100 yards rushing, including the playoffs, as well as three games over 200.
They posted back-to-back 200-yard rushing performances (Weeks 7-8) for the first time since 1985, and their 200 yards against the Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round (the first 100-yard game Houston allowed all year) is now the franchise postseason record.
"This year it's all about being consistent with the run game, calling the plays, and then us executing," Nelson recently told reporters in response to head coach Frank Reich wanting the Colts to be a top-five rushing team in 2019. "So I think bringing everybody back on the offensive line this year, having a year of experience together and a year of Coach Frank and Coach (Nick) Sirianni's offense, that we're definitely going to be capable of doing that."
On 730 pass-blocking snaps, Nelson allowed just two sacks, four quarterback hits and 17 hurries, which graded him out as the top rookie offensive lineman, second-best left guard and the sixth-best overall guard in the league (74.3), according to PFF.
Among guards who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps, Nelson was one of only 25 players who allowed two or fewer sacks, and only one of 24 who allowed 23 or fewer total pressures.
"As for passing downs, Nelson was second best among left guards at limiting defenders from coming within five feet of his quarterback (achieved on 22.2% of passing downs)," Frelund continued. "Nelson got better as the season went on and will be a big factor in my Andrew Luck stat projections for next season."
Although an offensive lineman's physical edge really shines in the run game, the Colts were even better in pass protection. ESPN even considers them the best pass-blocking line in the league.
After allowing the most sacks in the league in 2017 (56), the Colts were dynamite when it came to protecting Andrew Luck in 2018. They gave up the fewest sacks in the league (18), and had the lowest sack rate (2.7 percent).
The Colts' line went from Weeks 5-12 — 239 consecutive passes attempts and five straight games — without allowing a sack, both of which rank third in NFL history.
As a player, the future looks incredibly bright for Nelson and the rest of the line.
He appears to just be getting started and craves getting better. Although he accomplished about all you can as an individual lineman in 2018, he knows there is definite room for improvement.
"We'll be watching film of last year, and on a bad play, I'll know exactly how I got beat or exactly what I did wrong before the play's even recorded," Nelson said. "But it's definitely good not to just put an emphasis on the bad. I mean, you've gotta focus on the good and the bad, and it's awesome to just know that you can get better and there's so much room for improvement this year. And I feel like with the coaches we have and, again, being with the same group for another year, (it's) definitely possible to do that."
This offseason, the Colts hired Chris Strausser as the new offensive line coach as well as Howard Mudd as senior offensive assistant. Both are considered specialists in teaching the fundamentals and mechanics of offensive line play, which Nelson felt he needed to improve upon even as a dominant rookie.
"I like them a lot," Nelson said. "They really harp on the fundamentals and do a great job teaching. They are very detail-oriented and what they're teaching; I feel like I have already seen results in myself and my teammates too. So it has been awesome being coached by them and they're doing a great job."