Tom Marino and Dave-Te Thomas together bring over six decades of NFL scouting experience to bear. We recently found two articles by these experts which we felt would be a natural fit together. Tom Marino a few months ago offered his perspective on critical qualities for an NFL center to possess. Dave-Te Thomas has studied tape on Alex Mack over his career and has evaluated him on numerous qualities. We felt that putting the two views together would yield some good, objective insight into what Mack brings to the table for the Browns. - Barry
TOM MARINO: I once heard the late Formula One driver Jim Clark describe the dynamics of a Grand Prix race in Germany. If you took a particular turn at 144 miles an hour, the vehicle would be not be able to negotiate the turn, but if you entered that turn at 142 miles per hour, you would ultimately be unable to win the race.
Such is the case at the offensive center; if a particular player is too tall, he will have a very difficult time leveraging the typical wide body nose tackles, but by the same time if your center is undersized he will be run over and physically over matched by bigger, stronger defenders.
The ideal professional center would be in the 6' 2" range and weigh in the vicinity of 290 to 300 pounds . Long time Broncos Tom Nalen, former Saints Joel Hilgenberg, Steve Korte and Tampa Bay center Jim Pyne, were not only four of the very best collegiate centers, but were also excellent professionals. None were over 6' 2 ½" and all struggled to play above the 270 mark (Hilgy never came close).
DAVE-TE THOMAS: Alex Mack is slightly larger at 6'4" and 314 pounds. Mack is a solidly built athlete with long arms, large hands, good bubble, defined upper body muscles in the shoulders and chest, thick thighs and calves.
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TOM MARINO: What were the qualities that made these players special and able to function at a high level for many years? I believe the answer are contained in these four critical factors, which we'll call "QBLI": quickness, balance, leverage and intelligence.
A top center must have the quickness to snap and step effectively, reach the play-side tackle and effectively work to the second level.
DAVE-TE THOMAS: Mack is not really an explosive mover off the snap, but it is good enough for him to move and adjust on his blocking assignment with ease. On the move, he has some hip stiffness when trying to redirect, but takes good angles into the second level. With his low pad level and strong lower base, he is consistent in attempts to gain advantage at the snap, showing decisive movement in his stance. He shows good initial quickness off his snap on both run and pass plays, but will labor some if he has to travel long distances.
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TOM MARINO: A quality offensive linemen and football player is infrequently on the ground. Balance is a critical factor at every position on the football field. I'm going to give you a "scouting point" that will greatly enhance your ability to evaluate offensive linemen. If the athlete plays stiff legged (with no flex in his hips, knees and ankles), I would say he has little or no chance to become a successful professional. Waist benders who consistently get out over their pads lack power.
DAVE-TE THOMAS: With his above average knee bend and newly found strong hand punch, he gets through trash well and does a good job of keeping his pad level proper to leverage on the move. Mack has the balance and body control to quickly get position, but does spend a bit of time on the ground when he gets overaggressive with his hands, as defenders have good success knocking him back when his chest is too exposed.
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TOM MARINO: One's ability to maintain good leverage is also an essential quality. A player who plays high is at a particular disadvantage and will be unable to neutralize a defenders charge, build a fort or get movement on his drive block.
DAVE-TE THOMAS: Despite his tall frame, he knows how to sink his weight, but when he gets tall in his stance, his base narrows and defenders can then walk him back into the pocket. He uses his body too much to lean into his man when space blocking and is slow to recover his balance, making him susceptible to double moves. His low center of gravity has seen him have great success rooting out the defender, as tailback Jahvid Best made a very nice living of hitting the inside rush lanes between center and guard for long gains on the ground in 2008 (see 2008 Michigan State, Arizona, Washington State and Arizona State games), thanks to Mack's ability to keep his pads down and leverage. He is a productive blocker in-line whose balance and leverage allows him to quickly get in the way of a defender.
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TOM MARINO: Intelligence is critical at the center position. On virtually every offensive play, once the quarterback identifies the "Mac" at the line of scrimmage, it is the centers job to quickly locate the "buck:, identify the defensive front and make a line call; all this before snapping the football and executing his block.
DAVE-TE THOMAS: Mack is a highly intelligent athlete with several conference and national academic honors to his credit. He has no problems digesting a complex offense and despite his youth, has called blocking assignments up front since 2006. It is easy for him to learn and retain plays and he knows all of his line mates' assignments, doing a good job of making adjustments up front. He is a very low-rep type who does a fine job locating twists and games. He was the 2008 recipient of the Draddy Award, given to the top scholar-athlete in the collegiate ranks. What separates him from most centers is his good understanding of angles and positioning.
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TOM MARINO: Snapping the football is an under appreciated skill. A snap needs to be hard and automatic and a clean exchange must take place before a center can engage a defender. Take special notice of the arm length (under 32 inches is unsuitable) and the center of gravity (is he short legged) of the center you are evaluating. Short armed player often have a difficult time getting the ball up into a proper exchange position, resulting in an inordinate amount of exchange fumbles while short legged players will often cause a quarterback to alter his stance.
A particular skill set to look for at the snap is a linemen's ability to lead step (stepping with his play side foot). It seems rather elementary, but the next time you critically evaluate a game you may have taped, take note of the number of linemen who are unable to execute this without false stepping.
I have only two qualities to look for when evaluating the gun snap; make sure it's both consistently and accurate. Timing is the most critical aspect of the passing game, and if the quarterback has to reach for or dig the ball out of the ground, it will seriously affect both the rhythm of the route and the timing of the throw.
DAVE-TE THOMAS: Mack is not the team's deep snapper, but shows very good precision and quickness getting the ball back with the laces properly turned on the shotgun.
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TOM MARINO: On pass protection, the center when covered, must have the ability to drop his base and control the rusher with his hands. Initial punch and power recoveries are a must. *** Scouting point: pay particular attention that the pass protector assumes a power position (not up on his toes, but rather his entire foot on the ground).When uncovered, an experienced center will look around with his head on a swivel, and quickly make a decision of which rusher poses the greatest threat and assist. He also must be very conscious of delayed blitzes, and stunts.
DAVE-TE THOMAS: When he plays in control, Mack does a good job of extending and anchoring vs. the inside pass rusher. His anchor is sometimes too soft vs. the bigger opponents, but he has enough punch and slide to stay with his man shooting the gaps. His added strength prevented him from getting walked back into the pocket in 2008, but as a junior, he did struggle quite a bit to anchor vs. the bull rush due to an adequate power base. He just might not have enough strength development to be able to handle the much bigger, more physical nose guards at the NFL level like the Jets' Kris Jenkins or the Vikings' Pat Williams and will have to rely on his guards for help when a defender gets over his head. His biggest problem in pass protection is that he does not have that sudden lateral movement needed to stall the three-tech types or pick up the inside blitz. Even without a punishing hand punch, Mack does a good job of latching on and getting his hands into the defender's jersey to lock out and control. He shows good hip sink to prevent the taller defenders from pushing him back, but could use more strength in his anchor. When he plays in control and does not try to lunge, he is perfectly capable of sustaining and riding out the rusher. He showed in 2008 improvement in attempts to keep his weight back, stay square and slide and adjust. He can anchor vs. the bull rush and shows great alertness to tricks. The thing you notice on film is that when he keeps his hands inside his frame, he can slide and mirror defenders, using his hand placement to defeat swim moves. He showed a better base set to pop and drop, quick hand usage upon initial contact and tenacity in his play as a senior. He plays flat-footed with good knee bend to deliver the full force behind his hand jolt, even if it does not always shock the bigger defenders…
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TOM MARINO: Two final considerations when evaluating a college offensive center; since a center will often battle inside defenders and or nose tackles and give up as much as 40 to 50 pounds, playing strength is an absolute must at the position.
DAVE-TE THOMAS: His overall strength has dramatically increased, thanks to long hours in the training room prior to the 2008 season. He has good athleticism, body control and change of direction ability for the short pulls, but does have some hip stiffness that becomes noticeable when he has to sudden redirect. Despite his good timed speed, he is not really explosive, but stays low in his pads and shuffles his feet well to mirror. He is the strongest player on the team, setting the school power clean record with a 374-pound lift.
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TOM MARINO: Secondly, when evaluating a prospect, never under-estimate the importance of competitiveness in your evaluation. It is a critical factor and essential if a player wants to separate himself from the rest of the pack.
DAVE-TE THOMAS: Mack is the type that will do whatever it takes to finish his blocks. He plays and practices with true aggression and is the type that will play through pain. He has strong leadership qualities on and off the field. He is an intense competitor on the field who loves the game, likes the challenge and will leave his all on the football field. His tenacity is evident and he will not hesitate to throw an elbow to put a defender down (see 2008 Michigan State, Colorado State, Oregon and Stanford games)