There likely will be just two centers selected during the first three rounds of the draft, with Colorado State's Weston Richburg the favorite to be the first snapper taken, as he displays better production and athleticism than Southern California's Marcus Martin. Arkansas' Travis Swanson was the early favorite to be the first center off the board, and is regarded as this position's best trap blocker, but poor performances at the 2014 Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine has seen his draft stock slide.
One trend that continues in the NFL is to find the bigger, quicker and more athletic center. Gone are the days of short, squat fireplugs like Jim Otto and Mel Hein manning the middle of the field. The change seemed to have begun back during the 1994 draft, when 6-foot-4 Tim Ruddy was selected in the second round by Miami. Many felt he was too tall to keep his pads down, but he would go on to block for Hall of Famer Dan Marino, starting 140-of-156 games during his career.
Richburg probably will be off the board in the second round, with San Francisco, St. Louis, Green Bay and Indianapolis considering the Rams' blocker as a solution for the depth issues that they have in the middle of the field. He has drawn comparisons to former Giants standout Shaun O'Hara, as he is a sound technician with very good initial quickness. He plays with a wide base, but is more of a trench battler than one who can operate in space.
Richburg has experience at every line position and has a keen knowledge for taking angles. He has worked hard to improve his upper-body strength in order to protect his body better from defenders. If a team is looking for performer who isn't flashy but is consistent, Richburg will deliver every game. He is best playing along the line or on short pulls, as he might have good timed speed but seems to labor some when trying to get into the second level. He plays on his feet well and has the first step needed to chip and seal the linebackers shooting the gaps.
Richburg has the upper-body strength to neutralize the bull rush and good balance along with proper hand placement, as he is quick to recoil and reset his hands. He can adjust to movement at the line, and even though he does not appear to have suddenness, he somehow manages to get out and make plays in space. He shows explosive movement going forward, but needs to improve his lateral agility, one of the few weak areas in his game.
Still, he plays with a wide base and will generally win one-on-one battles, thanks to his lower-body strength. Richburg does a nice job of playing on his feet and maintaining balance. He gets a good leg base and generates tremendous power behind his hand punch.
Marcus Martin of Southern California has All-Pro potential and appears to be primed for a long career, but he is a relative neophyte at center. Regarded as the top offensive guard in the nation during his prep days, he played at that position until shifting to center in 2013. He did not perform well in front of NFL decision-makers during postseason agility tests, but I suspect that lack of burst could be attributed to lingering effects from the left knee and ankle injuries that saw him be carted off the field in the 2013 regular-season finale vs. UCLA.
You can see a lot of nastiness in the way Martin plays, much like the attitude that former Bears standout Olin Kruetz took into the trench wars. When healthy, the USC snapper is quite nimble stalking defenders when working in the second level. He is a smart, alert player who does a nice job of keeping his head on a swivel and hands active to stave off the blitz and bull-rush maneuvers. As a pass protector, he has the low pad level and strong anchor to keep his opponents away from the pocket and, with his thick thighs and calves, proved he is highly capable of winning battles with a nose guard lined up over his head.
Martin needs to keep his weight in check, as he has played at over 340 pounds in the past. Moving to center for the 2013 campaign meant that Martin had to trim some "baby fat," and he reported to fall camp checking in at 310 pounds. He started 13 games, earning All-Pac 12 Conference first-team honors. He was selected a team captain and was the recipient of the Trojans' Offensive Lineman of the Year Award. He delivered 119 knockdowns as the team generated 5,599 yards in total offense, helping a running attack that reached the end zone 29 times, a marked improvement from the 12 scoring scampers USC ball-carriers amassed in each of the previous two seasons.
For 50 games at Arkansas, Travis Swanson was one of the best trap blockers in the country. At the 2014 Senior Bowl, he was normally found being crushed by the bull rush. One week in Mobile might have risen more than a few questions, but when you go back and review film, it eases some of those concerns. Those tapes show Swanson's good balance and body control, along with above-average quickness and foot speed to be regarded as the best trap blocker in the nation.
He keeps his feet on the move and it is rare to see him walked back into the pocket, thanks to a very strong anchor. He displays good snap quickness, whether with the quarterback lined up behind him or executing the shotgun. Swanson gets his hands inside quickly to generate a strong push when locking on to an opponent. He possesses the loose hips to turn, get around and wall off, especially when leading on screens. He is also a highly competitive athlete who plays with good athleticism that he combines with aggression, yet he is as smart as a chess master and won't make foolish mistakes.
Swanson has a bit of a mauler's attitude, but gets his hands inside the defender's jersey quickly. He displays the body control you look for in a center when asking him to reach and shade, along with showing the ability to get his hips around for wall-off activity. He plays on his feet and has the quickness to chip and seal, along with good angle concept when working into the second level to block for the ground game. He uses his loose hips to make plays in space and possesses more than enough strength to turn his man and widen the rush lanes.
After Swanson, the talent pool takes quite a dip when evaluating strictly college centers, even though I do not agree with several talent evaluators that Russ Bodine of North Carolina is better equipped to play offensive guard than manning the middle. He showed at the NFL Combine his tremendous raw power, as league decision-makers all had a "front row seat" and appeared impressed by his performance in the weight room. Bodine was the only player to bench press 225 pounds more than 40 times (42) in Indianapolis. In the last nine Combines, only four players performed better in the bench press than Bodine: Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe (44 in 2012), Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens (44 in 2010), Arkansas offensive guard Mitch Petrus (45 in 2010) and Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea (49 in 2011).
With All-American guard Jonathan Cooper and all-ACC guard Travis Bond having graduated, the Tar Heels leaned heavily on Bodine to provide leadership for a young offensive line in 2013. His average of 10.6 knockdowns per game was the best figure for any interior blocker in the ACC. He also improved his blocking consistency grade to 88.14 percent. With their junior center protecting the pocket, UNC's offense would generate more than 5,000 yards (5,112) for the third consecutive seasons, closing out the year with a victory over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
Two other centers who put on a show in the weight room at the Combine were Tyler Larsen of Utah State and Corey Linsley of Ohio State, who each recorded 36 reps at that weight. For perspective, only nine of the 335 participants reached 35 times on the bench press this year.
Oklahoma's Gabe Ikard has nowhere near the power base that Bodine possesses (22 reps at the Combine), but he is like a chess master playing vs. defenders still trying to understand how to play checkers. He is a savvy blocker in the Matt Birk mold, as the former tight end and defensive end plays with a great attitude and has a punishing punch, along with knowing how to use his active hands to lock on, control and steer defenders away from the pocket.
"Gabe has had a great career here on and off the field," Sooners head coach Bob Stoops said. "He's been a leader up front there and our quarterback at the line of scrimmage. You look at the person he is and everything he's accomplished off the field. He's got a bright future for sure beyond football."
Ikard started 50 of 52 games that he appeared in at Oklahoma — 18 at left offensive guard during his first two seasons and 32 at center to close out his career. He was on the field for a total of 3,410 offensive snaps, as his 329 knockdown blocks were the most for any active offensive lineman in the Big 12 Conference.
The talent pool could add some depth if a pair of blockers at other positions shift to center. Miami's Brandon Linder was scheduled to start in the pivot last year but split the season between guard and tackle, as he has always been more highly regarded by the staff for his versatility. He has excellent athletic agility to make a permanent move to center, as he possesses the loose hips, lower-body flexibility and valid quickness of a tight end, coming off the snap with very good explosion.
Linder has good footwork and the ability to recover when he gets out of position. He plays with a strong base and shows the required knee bend needed to redirect and stalk second-level defenders. He generates adequate speed working in space, making him a good trap blocker, as he does a nice job of bending and rolling his hips. He generates a strong hand punch and shows good hand/eye coordination to battle counter moves, along with the kick slide to mirror speedy edge rushers. He is quick to get out on the edge and shows fluid ankle bend when changing direction.
As a senior, Linder started 10 times at right guard and three more at right tackle, pacing the squad with 84 knockdowns and 11 touchdown-resulting blocks. Miami placed fourth in the conference with 3,452 aerial yards and fifth with 5,536 total yards (425.8 ypg) while averaging 33.8 points per game.
Another player who is being strongly considered at center is Vanderbilt's Wesley Johnson, a consistent drive blocker who works hard to finish. He has the strength and athletic ability to adjust on the move (when he keeps his pad level) and recover when he gets out of position. With his combination of quick footwork, impressive strength and tireless work effort, he can easily move the defender off the ball and create big rushing lanes.
Coming off the snap, Johnson is quick to get his hands into the defender to lock on and control. He has good forward body lean to maintain the rush lane and can move the pile when he uses his legs to drive hard and gain leverage. With added bulk, he could be exceptional as a drive blocker. He has the feet to stay on blocks and sustain and shifts his weight well for a player of his size
Johnson delivered 79 knockdowns with 13 touchdown-resulting blocks as Vanderbilt joined the league's elite with a 9-4 campaign. In four seasons, he produced a remarkable statistic for an offensive lineman — well, actually, it was a non-statistic. Through 3,378 plays, the team captain was never flagged for holding. He started all 51 games he played in at Vanderbilt, with 39 at left tackle, three at right tackle, two at left guard and seven at center.
Johnson's 51 starting assignments established a school career-record. He made 252 key blocks/knockdowns and was credited with 50 touchdown-resulting blocks and produced 172 blocks that led directly to Commodore first downs.
Injury issues will see Utah State's Larsen and Matt Armstrong of Grand Valley State still around in the later stages of the draft and either could end up on the free agent market. Bryan Stork of Florida State, Jon Harrison of Florida, James Stone of Tennessee and Ohio State's Linsley are all third-day/late-round candidates. Some sleepers popping up on draft boards are Demetrius Rhaney of Tennessee State, Zac Kerin of Toledo, Matt Paradis of Boise State, Dillon Farrell of New Mexico, Khalil Wilkes of Stanford, Gus Handler of Colorado and Chris Elkins of Youngstown State.
MY PERSONAL LIST
CREAM OF THE CROP: Weston Richburg (Colorado State)
BEST OF THE REST: Marcus Martin (Southern California)
MOST UNDERRATED: Travis Swanson (Arkansas)
MOST OVERRATED: Bryan Stork (Florida State)
SUPER SLEEPER: Brandon Linder (Miami)
|RICHBURG, Weston||6:03||298||5.1||25||25 1/2||08'10"||4.63||7.93||6.4||3|
|SWANSON, Travis (OG)||6:05||312||5.28||20||26||07'11"||4.65||7.73||6.2||4|
|BODINE, Russell (OG)||6:03||310||5.18||42||29||09'01"||4.66||8.26||5.9||5|
|LINDER, Brandon (OG/T)||6:06||311||5.35||30||26 1/2||08'04"||4.71||7.77||5.6||5|
|JOHNSON, Wesley (OG)||6:05||297||5.11||26||29||09'03"||4.64||7.4||5.5||6|
|%LARSEN, Tyler||6:04||313||5.17||36||23 1/2||08'06"||4.7||8.22||5.3||7|
|STORK, Bryan||6:04||315||5.2||20||25 1/2||08'02"||4.71||7.81||5.1||7|
|STONE, James||6:04||306||5.17||22||27 1/2||08'09"||4.63||8.16||5||7-FA|
|%ARMSTRONG, Matt||6:02||302||5.36||35||25 1/2||08'01"||4.71||7.89||4.9||PFA|
|KERIN, Zac||6:05||310||5.21||30||25 1/2||08'01"||4.8||7.98||4.8||PFA|
|HANDLER, Gus||6:03||295||5.19||26||25 1/2||08'04"||4.77||7.67||4.7||FA|
|FINCH, Jay||6:02||285||4.92||28||31 1/2||09'03"||4.7||7.33||4.6||FA|
|ALLEN, Josh||6:03||309||5.26||25||26 ½||07'06"||4.65||7.69||4.6||FA|
|Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.|
|7.6-8.0||Star Quality||Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.|
|7.0-7.5||Impact Player||Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.|
|6.5-6.9||Eventual Starter||Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.|
|6.0-6.4||Potential Starter||Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.|
|5.5-5.9||Roster Player||Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.|
|5.0-5.4||Project||Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.|
|4.6-4.9||Develop- mental||Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.|
|4.1-4.5||Camp Player||Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.|
|3.5-4.0||Reject||Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.|