April 17, 2009
By Donald Starver
This is part 3 in a series. If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below.
BTW guys, if you have a wife or girlfriend who watches the games with you, but doesn’t really understand the game, you might want to have her read this series. It is meant to be a primer for novice football fans. I have gotten feedback from several women who have told me how informative they’ve found this series and the previous series “The 3-4 And The Steelers’ Draft“.
In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we talked about the offensive tackle and guard positions. In this installment, we will be looking at the center position.
While left tackle may be the most physically challenging position on the offensive line, center is probably the most mentally challenging. The center position consists of more than just snapping the ball to the quarterback.
Centers often act as coaches on the field. While the offensive linemen must be set prior to the snap, the defensive linemen are allowed to move. Thus, the center must watch the movements of the defense, analyze what they are likely to do, and quickly call out adjustments to his fellow offensive linemen. If the center is unable to coordinate the line’s blocking assignments, someone is likely to get through to the quarterback.
Beyond being intellectually challenging, the center position is also more physically challenging than it may seem. Centers must possess exceptional quickness. The center has to successfully execute two motions before the defensive lineman can execute one. Specifically, the center must snap the ball to the quarterback and then quickly reset himself and get his hands up to block the on-coming defender before the defender can get by the center.
Because the center often doesn’t have a man playing directly above him (e.g. if he is facing a 4-3 front), the center must also be able to play in space. The center must be able to get to the second level and make cut-off blocks to help clear a path for the running backs. Centers who are able to run and pick off linebackers on screens, draws, or traps are quite valuable.
In addition to intellect and quickness, the ideal center will also have a great base and exceptional strength. This is particularly true in the AFC where they are likely to face many 3-4 defenses with 320+ pound nose tackles. Solid college centers like Arkansas’ Jonathan Luigs, TCU’s Blake Schlueter, Penn State’s A.Q. Shipley, Alabama’s Antoine Caldwell, and LSU’s Brett Helms are just not ready to face NFL nose tackles at this point in their development. They may add bulk and strength later, but expecting them to be able to combat nose tackles during their rookie year is probably asking too much of them.
Because most centers are not able to contribute right away, few centers are ever taken in the first round. Few teams feel comfortable using a 1st round pick on a player who isn’t going to be able to play right away. The New York Jets’ Nick Mangold was the last center to be taken in the first round back in 2006. In 2008, the first true center wasn’t drafted until the 6th round. The Indianapolis Colts actually drafted 3 centers last year, but they used Mike Pollack and Steve Justice as guards. Other centers taken before the 6th round like the 49ers Cody Wallace and the Broncos’ Kory Lichtensteiger were also used primarily as guards.
California’s Alex Mack stands head and shoulders above all of the other centers in this year’s draft. He may even join Nick Mangold as a 1st round draftee. If he is available, the Steelers may even consider drafting him at pick #32.
The Steelers will need to draft a center to replace Justin Hartwig when his contract expires in 2010. As I mentioned earlier, few centers are able to start during their rookie year, so to find a replacement for 2010, he probably needs to be selected in 2009.
A player like Alex Mack could start immediately for the Steelers at guard (in Darnell Stapleton’s spot), and then move to center in 2010.
The class of 2009 has only one star caliber center, but lots of quality players. Here are a few of the most noteworthy.
Alex Mack (6’4″, 312 lbs.), California. Mack has all the qualities needed to become a great NFL center. He has exceptional athleticism and delivers a hard initial blow. He excels in both pass blocking and run blocking, although he will need to get stronger to handle mammoth NFL nose tackles.
Max Unger (6’5″, 299 lbs.), Oregon. In my opinion, Unger does not excel as a center. He is competent, but not exceptional. In fact, I don’t believe that he is among the top 5 centers available in this draft. However, Unger’s flexibility will get him rated much higher on some teams’ boards than his skills as a center might otherwise dictate. Unger started his career at Oregon as a left tackle, and later made the transition to center. He can also play guard. This ability to play every position on the line will work to his advantage.
Jonathan Luigs (6’4″, 302 lbs.), Arkansas. Luigs has excellent quickness for the position. He may be the best center in the draft at playing in space and getting to the second level. As I mentioned earlier, he won’t be able to handle larger NFL defenders right away, but he could start right away in a zone blocking scheme.
Eric Wood (6’4″, 304 lbs.), Louisville. A team captain in college, Wood is an intelligent player who excels at making line calls. He’s a hard worker who should have a long NFL career.
Antoine Caldwell (6’3″, 307 lbs.), Alabama. An aggressive blocker with good athleticism. He struggled at the Senior Bowl, and will need to get a bit heavier and stronger at the next level. Better at drive blocking than playing in space. He has the potential to be a quality center or guard.
A. Q. Shipley (6’1″, 297 lbs.), Penn State. Shorter and lighter than teams would ideally like to see. He also has somewhat short arms. However, he gives tremendous effort, and uses his low center of gravity to maintain leverage. Shipley is simply a tough S.O.B. who doesn’t let his physical shortcomings prevent him from playing well. Shipley won the 2008 Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center.
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