Season in Review: Center

The center position in the NFL has evolved through the years. When Cory Raymer went down early in the year, not many believed the Chargers could recover. Jason Ball stepped in to take his spot, and not only did he deliver, he shined. Raymer is now well on his way to a full recovery and if the past is any indication, next year could be his best yet.

Cory Raymer signed a five-year deal on March 7th, 2002 worth $10.5 million dollars that included a $2.5 million bonus. The former Washington Redskin was acquired to shore up the offensive line by providing veteran leadership and stability from the center spot.

A former University of Wisconsin standout, Raymer made a solid comeback last season after missing the entire 2000 campaign because of a knee injury. He started all 16 games in 2001 and returned to his pre-injury form, proving again to be an effective run blocker. He showed no effects of the torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered during the 2000 training camp. Raymer was the Redskins' second-round choice in the 1995 draft.

During preseason the 6-3, 300 pound Raymer showed he was ready to make an immediate impact. He was by far the best lineman at that point and the season looked bright for him and the Chargers.

Then in a week three win vs. Arizona his season abruptly ended. He was hurt in the first quarter and had surgery the next day on his ruptured left Achilles tendon. He was placed on injured reserve and is now recovering fine.

Raymer will be ready for mini-camp in late April. His best season oddly came after a knee injury plagued 2000, and the Chargers hope the trend continues. The question remains where will he play?

Raymer is a natural center that can pull and lead toss sweeps to either side. He also gets out in front to be a lead blocker on screen plays. The emergence of Jason Ball has tainted the situation. Raymer is a better run blocker than Ball at this point in his career. He can call upon his experience and quick hands and aid the Chargers in the running game. Believe it or not Ball may be a better pass blocker, but we will explain that shortly. What to do with two starting caliber players then? Read on.

Rookie Jason Ball, an undrafted free agent out of New Hampshire, replaced Raymer and started the rest of the season in his place, including the relief outing in Arizona.

Perhaps the funniest quote of the season came right after the Arizona game when Coach Marty Schottenheimer said, "The young man from New Hampshire did a pretty solid job being thrust into that thing like he was. That's about a tough a situation as you can get into."

I think we all know Schottenheimer learned his name after the strong performance the 6-2, 301 pound Ball provided the rest of the way. No other center was ever signed to the active roster. Two dotted the practice squad, but none made it to the NFL level. That is a testament to the guts, hard work and commitment Ball had to handle the job.

The biggest concern I had when he arrived was the center to QB exchange. No small feat really and when a quarterback is not used to working with his center, mishaps will happen. Guess what? I should have put my worry in something else. Once all season was there a bad snap that caused a fumble. ONCE!

The communication he provided at the line turned out to be perfect as the offensive line churned like a well-oiled machine. Ball quickly got recognized for his nose to the grindstone play and ability to block, and block well.

Ball is still raw, that is the amazing thing. He progressed nicely as the year went on, pulling for toss plays, and using his quick feet to get in good position to make a key block.

Drew Brees said. "I think to Jason Ball's credit, he did a great job coming in that kind of situation. For a guy who's a rookie to come in and do something like that was pretty impressive. I think it caused the whole line to pick up and help each other out and communicate more. I thought it was good."

So what is next for Ball? He will continue to develop into a solid center is what will happen. As a rookie he was voted the Chargers Lineman of the Year, an award he received for his solid play on the line that limited opponents to 24 sacks this year, fifth fewest in the league, and springing LaDainian Tomlinson to the finest season by a running back in franchise history.

This is the toughest decision the Chargers face in the offseason. Do they cut Raymer, now that Ball has excelled? Do they keep them both and move one outside to guard or tackle? Who gets moved if that is the case? Well, we will answer those questions right now.

Raymer stays… Ball stays. Is that definitive enough?

It is not fair to have Ball move outside of the center position. Why? He is a rookie who has just picked up the nuances of the guys he will face for years to come. Above all he is still a rookie, until next season at least. Getting command of one position is vital to his future. So far, the rewards have been fruitful. Imagine taking a guy away from something he is just really learning, and placing him in position to fail. Now take the veteran leadership of a Cory Raymer and place it next to Ball at the right guard position or even at the tackle position where Raymer can use his hands and quickness to combat speedy ends.

It makes sense to move Raymer outside to the tackle spot. He is still relatively cheap and with four years remaining on a deal he can be a viable option at right tackle. It will come at the expense of Vaughn Parker, but the Bolts save money. Raymer is the same size as Parker, and cuts need to be made anyway. Ok, ok, we are getting ahead of ourselves here, we don't talk about the tackle position for a few days yet, but the groundwork is laid.


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