The next guard for the New Orleans Saints might not even be a guard at all.
Or at least he wasn’t a guard full time at the college level.
New Orleans, like a lot of teams in need of a guard in the upcoming NFL draft, finds itself combing the ranks of a draft full of players like Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, a left tackle for the Wildcats last season who just might end up being the best guard in this draft.
“It’s just a little different, a little different set, getting in a three-point stance, more than likely,” Whitehair said. “I feel like it’s been a smooth transition.”
Whitehair is the best of a wide group of players who might be asked to make the transition from the exterior to the interior.
The reason for all the shifting from the college to the NFL level is simple. In college, a player like Whitehair or Baylor left tackle Spencer Drango is often the most athletic lineman or the best overall blocker on his team, so the coaching staff puts him in the offensive line’s premium position.
But a player like Whitehair, Drango, Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi or LSU’s Vadal Alexander might not be in the same class athletically as some of the freakish players who handle the tackle position in the NFL.
Whitehair, at 6-foot-4, 301 pounds, doesn’t have the long arms or the overall size needed to man the left tackle position in the NFL.
Drango is 6-foot-6, 315 pounds, but his foot speed and athleticism don’t match the talents of somebody like Saints left tackle Terron Armstead, who ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at more than 300 pounds at the NFL scouting combine.
For some of the players asked to make the transition inside, the hardest part is mentally saying goodbye to a position they’ve played their entire careers. Drango spent four years at Baylor as a left tackle; the interior feels foreign to him.
“I see myself as a tackle,” Drango said. “I think I’ve shown that I can play there, but if the team needs me to move to guard, to center, and I need to learn how to snap, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
A player who has already moved around the offensive line in college, like Whitehair or Alexander, has an advantage.
Whitehair spent most of his first two seasons at Kansas State at left guard. Alexander played left guard at LSU as both a sophomore and junior.
A move to the inside doesn’t feel so out of place to them.
“I would say (I’m best suited to) guard, but at the end of the day, I think I can play both guard and tackle,” Whitehair said.
Drafting a former tackle to play guard in the NFL also adds a layer of emergency versatility to the offensive line that college football teams rarely have to worry about developing.
A college team carries so many linemen that all five positions on the field have a dedicated backup, making it easy to sub somebody into the spot if an offensive lineman goes down because of injury.
In the NFL, teams traditionally carry only seven or eight linemen on the 53-man roster, and if a rash of injuries hits a position, teams need guys who can shift into other roles. New Orleans asked rookie tackle Andrus Peat to make four starts at guard last season, and the team views Peat as a true right tackle.
“I know a lot of teams like that about me, my versatility and having experience in the SEC playing multiple positions,” Alexander said.
Bringing in college tackles to play guard has paid off in a big way two years in a row for the Dallas Cowboys. In 2014, the Cowboys drafted Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin and inserted him into the lineup at right guard, and Martin nearly won Rookie of the Year honors at the spot, an unheard-of honor for an offensive lineman.
A year ago, Dallas convinced former LSU left tackle La’el Collins to sign with them as an undrafted free agent after a tragic situation involving a former girlfriend caused him to drop out of the draft, and Collins started 11 games as a powerful, highlight-reel level blocker.
Now, with the draft fast approaching, teams like the Saints are trying to figure out if Whitehair, or another one of the many candidates to make the move, could provide the same kind of payoff as Martin or Collins.
“I feel like I can use what I learned at Kansas State to really be successful there in the league,” Whitehair said. “I feel like I’m a tough player, I’m a consistent player, and I can help a team out (right away).”
No matter what position they want him to play.