2008 NFL draft/positional analysis: Center

The 49ers will be on the lookout for offensive linemen in this year's draft, but not necessarily at center where they have Eric Heitmann entrenched as their starter with two others also able to play the position. Here, we break down the top eight centers that have a chance to be drafted with an in-depth review of their assets and liabilities, measurables, statistics and more.

POSITION ANALYSIS: Technically, Tony Wragge is listed as Heitmann's backup on the depth chart, but David Baas also has experience at the position. Baas is now the starting right guard, so the 49ers will be looking to bring in an offensive linemen with interior skills who may be able to swing to both guard and center. There likely won't be a center coming off the board until about the fourth round. There is no center with first- or second-round talent like the Jets' first-round selection of Nick Mangold in 2006. When all is said and done, it won't be surprising to see only six or seven centers drafted over the entire weekend.


THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Mike Pollak, Arizona State, 6-3¾, 300:
Fifth-year senior…Started 10 games his first two seasons and all 26 games over the last two years…Two-time team captain…Good size for an NFL center…Gets into blocking stance quickly off the snap…Very good at blitz recognition…Makes solid line calls and identifies stunts to alert other linemen…Good at pulling and trapping on sweeps and can get to linebackers at the second level…Durability is a strong plus…Had a great postseason with very impressive performances at the Senior Bowl and the Combine…A good student, he graduated last fall…Doesn't play with a mean streak to dominate and flatten defenders when he has them off-balance…Doesn't have long arms to keep defensive tackles from getting into his body…Will struggle against big power rushers because his weight-room strength doesn't always translate to the field…Doesn't have a big hand punch to jolt and slow down D-tackles…Will come up a little high on the snap and leave himself open to losing leverage…Had a very strong Combine effort (although it should be noted that only seven centers took part in the testing) with a 5.02 40 (second-best among centers), a second-best 30 reps of 225 pounds, a 25½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 long jump.
Projection: A prime example of why scouts attend events like the Senior Bowl and the Combine. Pollak made a big impression at both places and got on the radar of a lot of teams that are looking for a center. He has the skill and experience to be a solid NFL starter, but could use some coaching up to improve his technique and functional strength. Could go off the board as early as the third round, with the Vikings being a consideration with two picks currently in the third round.


THE NEXT LEVEL

Johnathan Sullivan, Notre Dame, 6-3½, 302:
Fifth-year senior…Prep star who was named to the USA Today All-American team and was named Gatorade Player of the Year in Connecticut…He was also a standout wrestler who had a 138-6 career record and won three state individual titles…Started 43 of the 47 games in his college career, missing only two games in four years due to a knee injury as a senior…Quick with hands to jolt and slow down defensive tackles at the snap…Has good lower-body strength to anchor and hold his ground…Can force defenders away from the running lane and seal them off…Has a mean streak, especially when he's got defenders tired late in games…Student of the game who is strong at making line calls…Has good balance and keeps his knees bent…Doesn't have good speed to pull on sweeps…Allows too many defenders to get in on his body quickly and will get tossed aside by speed rushers too often…Doesn't have great lateral speed to pick up blitzers when uncovered at the snap and asked to slide left or right…Doesn't finish off all his blocks…Had too many bad or inaccurate snaps out of shotgun formation last year…Ran a 5.37 40 at the Combine with 22 reps, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 8-6 broad jump.
Projection: Didn't play as well as a senior, but was flanked by a pair of freshman guards on a Fighting Irish team that really struggled. However, he may have learned more from that season than the successful ones he had previously. He has the chance to be a good pro and would be ideal for a team with an aging center that still has a couple years left so he can increase his learning curve and be ready to go in two or three years. He likely will be a priority pick for a team like that on Day 2 – likely in the fourth round.

Jeremy Zuttah, Rutgers, 6-3½, 303: Fourth-year senior…Started five games as a freshman – one at LT, two at LG and one at RT…Started nine games at left guard as a sophomore and the last 26 games of his career at right tackle…Is good in pass protection and can slide effectively to help out and fill gaps…Very good upper-body strength (see below)…Has a good hand punch…Excellent blitz recognition and pickup skills…Is a hard worker who gives his all in games, during practice and in the weight room…Has the foot quickness to get to the second level and take on linebackers aggressively…Looked very polished at the Senior Bowl…Has spent most of his career at right tackle, but projects to be either a center or guard at the NFL level…Will need to refine much of game because he is sure to move inside – whether it be center or guard…Doesn't have enormous size, girth or long arms of the prototype interior linemen…Has an attitude and has rubbed some scouts the wrong way…Durability is a concern because he has missed time with ankle problems in three of four seasons…Ran a 4.99 40 at the Combine with position-best 35 reps of 225 pounds, a 26½-inch vertical jump and a 8-10 broad jump.
Projection: Zuttah will take time because his college experience is on the outside and there is little chance he will play there in the pros. However, his ability to play center, guard or right tackle makes him a valuable commodity that could potentially save a team a roster spot due to his versatility. If he can stay focused and not be too cocky, he could be a solid backup along the line initially and eventually develop into a solid starter.

Korey Lichtensteiger, Bowling Green, 6-2½, 297: Fifth-year senior…Is married and has a small child…Started all 48 games of his college career…Team captain as a junior and senior…Played through a shoulder injury his senior year that required surgery after the season…Quick out of his stance and into blocking position…Keeps his knees bent and, when he does, he plays with very good leverage…Has good initial hand punch that can neutralize defenders off the snap…Hard worker and team leader…Holds his ground against bull rushers…Doesn't have ideal size…Played against competition that was viewed as inferior in most matchups…Will have problems against speed rushers at the next level…Inconsistent with his hands and will blow some plays…Often stops moving when he makes contact and clogs up running lanes…Didn't lift at the Combine because he was rehabbing a shoulder injury, but ran a 5.33 40 with a 22½-inch vertical jump and an 8-7 broad jump.
Projection: An experienced player who needs to add some bulk to be effective at the pro level. However, his shoulder injury will require four months of rehab and many teams won't use a mid-round pick on a player who is damaged goods. He could slip to the very end of the draft and could be a low-risk, boom-bust project late.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Steven Justice, Wake Forest, 6-3½, 294:
Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who started the final 38 games of his college career…First-Team All-Atlantic Coast Conference the last two years…Smart player who never lets up until the play is over…Blocks with good leverage and can slide side-to-side effectively…Has good technique coming up from the snap and making initial contact…Has a nasty temperament and will drive defenders into the ground to prove a point…Has good agility to get to the second level and chip linebackers…Has neither the size nor anchor power to move defensive tackles consistently in the run game…Will struggle against pure nose tackles to get them to even move…His lack of lower-body strength allows strong DTs to push him back into the quarterback too often…Will get a little too high in his stance at times and doesn't sustain blocks because he loses balance…Ran a 5.25 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 21½-inch vertical jump and a 8-1 broad jump.
Projection: Justice has a lot of experience, but the one thing he can't learn is size. If he can add some upper-body strength and more girth, he could develop into a starter, but he also might never be able to accomplish that, which makes him a late-round pick at best with the potential for upside later.

Cody Wallace, Texas A&M, 6-3¾, 291: Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who started the final 37 games of his college career…Team captain his final two years…A good athlete who can reach the second level effectively and block in space…Very good size and strength combination…Gets out of the snap quickly to block…A hard worker who leads by example…Is inconsistent and will look great on one series and pedestrian on the next…Slow to react to blitzes…Gets knocked backward by power rushers…Does not have a good hand punch…Played his worst against top competition…Did not have a great week at the Senior Bowl and seemed overmatched at times…Ran a 5.17 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, a 31-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump.
Projection: Has a lot of good intangibles, but is undersized and may never become a starter at the pro level. He likely will get taken late by a team that can wait a little while on him, but he will need to add bulk and refine his game to be a factor in the NFL.

Jamey Richard, Buffalo, 6-4¾, 296: Fifth-year senior…A three-sport star in high school who wrestled and threw the shot put on the track team…A three-year starter who made starts in the final 37 games of his college career…Team captain his final two seasons…Is a hard-working player who plays with a real mean streak…Very good lower-body strength to push defenders and anchor in pass protection…Quick to get into blocking position after the snap…Can slide laterally to pick up blitzes and help out when uncovered after the snap…Does not have consistently good blocking technique and will get out of position with his body too often…Tends to stop moving his feet when he goes chest-up with defensive tackles…Is tall for a NFL center and allows defenders to get into his body too easily…Doesn't have a power punch or a follow-up punch to stop defenders at the snap…Ran a 5.21 40 at the Combine with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 26½-inch vertical jump and an 8-10 broad jump.
Projection: Has a fiery disposition that will catch the attention of scouts and likely get him drafted late, but he never played top competition and his future as an NFL center is far from certain because he will need to refine his game and may only be an effective starter if he gets drafted by a team that operates out of a zone-blocking scheme.

Fernando Velasco, Georgia, 6-2½, 308: Fifth-year senior…Redshirted in 2005 at the request of the coach, who anticipated Georgia would have a building program that could compete for a national title in 2006-07…A two-year starter who started 13 games at left guard as a junior and 13 games at center as a senior…Two-time team captain…Has good upper body strength and big hands…Likes to muscle-up on DTs and push them around…Has a big body, good anchor strength and spent a lot of time in the weight room to build his upper-body strength…Has problems slowing down speed rushers who have more athleticism…Not nifty running in space and has problems getting to his target when pulling…Can get burned by blitzers…Doesn't have a wealth of experience at any given position…Plays high and will let defenders into his body…Will lunge too often and ends up on the ground…Was not invited to the Combine – much to the surprise of his coaches.
Projection: The lack of an invite to the Combine has to have some questioning whether the things they like about him are as they seem. He has some good intangibles, but with so few centers going on draft weekend, his best hope may be to wait by the phone for a call when the post-draft signing of undrafted players begins.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Kyle DeVan, Oregon State, 6-1¼, 301
Marcus Lipsey, Virginia, 6-3, 280
John Masters, Michigan State, 6-2¾, 286
Adam Spieker, Missouri, 6-2¼, 310


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