Analysis of the 2012 Center Class

Wisconsin's Peter Konz is the only first-round player in this year's class, but his injury history is one of the trouble spots. Georgia's Ben Jones, Baylor Philip Blake, the Big Ten's Michael Brewster and David Molk and Mississippi State's Quentin Saulsberry are battling for position.

Even though they rarely get any recognition, those who subscribe to the Paul Brown (former Browns and Bengals coach) and Chuck Noll (Steelers) game plan know that the center position is the most pivotal on the offense. While the left tackle seems to be the most glorified of the offensive line performers, the center not only is responsible for protecting the quarterback from an immediate onslaught but is assigned the task of calling blocking assignments on the front wall.

Yet, one look around the league and you will find quite a few former offensive guards residing at center, thanks to the lack of development by these center prospects at the collegiate level. Most centers are used to operating in a spread offense and from the shotgun, as size and strength give way to quickness at the collegiate level.

Suddenness off the snap is critical for a center, as he generally will have to get out in space immediately to neutralize the oncoming linebackers, so smooth foot agility is a must for anyone trying to play the pivot. They need to be adept at angle blocking while showing the foot-shuffling skills to retreat quickly in pass protection.

When gauging a center's agility tests, teams will put more emphasis on that player's 10-yard dash time (explosiveness off the snap) and shuttle drills (lateral movement) than on what they are timed running the 40-yard dash. With the defensive linemen becoming more agile, teams are shying away from that fireplug-type center, favoring one with the athleticism of a Nick Mangold (Jets), regarded by many as the measuring stick for future pro centers.

With that in mind, some teams consider Wisconsin's Peter Konz to be the top center in this limited class. While he is an impressive looking athlete, there are several red flags, including medical, that concern me. This is a player with less-than-adequate natural strength. Was he hidden behind the Badgers' quality offensive guards like Kevin Zeitler and John Moffit (Seattle) in the trenches?

I can't be pleased about a medical report that tells me this is a player with lots of issues, starting with blood clots in his lungs in 2009, a severely sprained ankle in 2010 and a left ankle dislocation in 2011 that sidelined him for far too many games. If anyone on my front wall needs to be out there on every offensive snap, it's my center. Continuity with other blockers on the line and chemistry with the quarterback are vital, concerns that make me wonder how that can be accomplished if I draft this kid and the injury bug continues.

Konz does a nice job of playing on his feet and maintaining balance. He shows good body control with impressive quickness to get through to the second level. Despite lacking ideal strength, he can get out of his stance and adjust on defenders working over his head. Even with his leg issues, he can bend his knees and play at a good pad level to prevent defenders from attacking his feet.

Konz gets a good leg base and generates adequate power behind his hand punch. His legs are not really thick, but he cans get enough explosion out of his stance and into the defender. He shows consistency playing over his feet and under control when sliding in pass protection. Even without top-end strength, he does a good job of getting out on the edge, where he can impact, run and seal off.

Konz will flash aggression with his hands into the defensive tackle and has the functional pop to sometimes put his opponents on their backs. The thing that really concerns me, at least for matching up vs. the bigger nose guards in the NFL, is that he just lacks ideal strength. He does not exhibit sudden force with his hand punch, and at times, those hands get outside his frame and he fails to strike into his defenders in the short area. His other problem arises when he starts to lose his stamina late in games, as he will revert to leaning and pushing rather than gaining position.

A model of consistency is Ben Jones of Georgia, who reminds me a lot of Baltimore's Matt Birk. He's never going to be a dominant road grader, but his strong concept for recognizing defensive schemes and getting into position are what makes Jones a better value pick in the mid-rounds, rather than the risk and reward a team will get by taking Konz in the earlier stages of the draft.

Jones has a thick upper-body frame with wide waist and hips, good bubble, thigh thighs and calves and a squat build that can carry at least another 15 pounds without any loss in quickness. He comes off the ball with good leg drive and hand punch to shock and jolt. He generates good hip rotation when redirecting on the move and knows how to use his size to get good body lean into the defender.

Jones has some stiffness running long distances, but in the short area, he shows good balance and a fluid running stride. He is quick in his retreat setting up in pass protection and has the functional flexibility to get back into the action on the move, taking proper angles to neutralize second-level defenders. He plays flat-footed with his hands properly inside his frame to gain leverage.

Jones might not generate great initial explosion, but he is much more effective delivering pop on contact when on the move. He is an efficient drive blocker who combines strength and mass to sustain as an in-line blocker. He generates a strong punch in pass protection, but is sometimes slow to recover to speedy edge moves.

The Bulldog seems to be much more comfortable blocking on the move than when in tight quarters, as he has the balance and body control to take good angles in attempts to neutralize second-level defenders. He has the loose hips to turn and get back into the action when playing in space.

Jones can do a nice job of adjusting to movement and generally finds his targets, especially on short traps and pulls. He has improved his body control on the cutback. When he plays with his knees bent and over his feet, he is consistent keeping his balance on the move.

Protecting a mobile quarterback like Robert Griffin III, you need to have an equally mobile center. The Baylor Bears' success passing and running the ball was because of the stellar interior blocking skills of Philip Blake. He has a stout, compact frame with good upper-body muscle thickness, broad shoulders, thick neck, thighs and calves, good bubble and tree-trunk-like legs.

Philip Blake
Jerome Miron/US Presswire
Blake has the loose hips to change direction and flow down the line, as he shows classic knee bend and plant-and-drive agility to redirect. He has good body control and a strong base to neutralize the bull rush. He will get a little off-balance working into the second level, but when stationary at the point of attack, he does an excellent job of using his hands to defeat counter moves.

Blake is a naturally strong player who has demonstrated an exceptional hand punch to shock and jolt the defender. He moves athletically retreating to protect the pocket and shows good explosion on contact. He is an alert player with good vision and awareness, especially when locating stunts and blitzes.

The Baylor center knows all of the line's blocking assignments and is smart enough to make the calls. He picked up the nuances of playing center quickly and was able to make a smooth transition to that position. Few drive blockers show the initial quickness he possesses.

Blake comes out of his stance with good urgency, getting into his blocks with hands properly extended, legs wide in his base and his pad level low. He is especially effective at gaining advantage on scoop and reach blocks. He is fluid in his kick slide and pass set and is always in blocking position, as it is rare to see him overextend and lunge to make the play.

There seems to be a lot of bad bloo" between Big Ten Conference centers Michael Brewster of Ohio State and Michigan's David Molk, fueled by the media awarding the inaugural Wolverine the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year Award honors in 2011. Neither are in the class of Konz, but Brewster might go a round or two earlier than Molk, as the Michigan pivot is concerning a few teams with his right knee injury.

Brewster has a taller frame than Molk, with an even-proportioned muscle tone, a bit of a straight-arm effect, average shoulder thickness, good-sized thighs and calves. He has large hands and is a good athlete with the feet, balance, agility and flexibility to play with leverage. He has adequate timed speed, flashing functional strength. I do question his foot speed working in space.

Brewster shows consistency firing off the snap quickly into his blocks. He lacks ideal foot speed, but is quick enough to make the reach block. His snap quickness allows him to gain position in order to gain advantage. He may not be an explosive fire-off-the-ball run blocker as you would like, but he shows enough strength at the point of attack to win most battles.

The Buckeye gets good movement in the short area, but tends to narrow his leg base when moving in space, preventing him from getting a good piece of the linebackers. He shows good hand placement. In 2011, he displayed much better punch/pop against the defensive lineman in pass protection, as he showed much better quickness when he recoils his hands.

Molk has a compact frame with a thick chest, broad shoulders, wide hips, thick thighs and calves, good bubble and a strong lower body, along with a frame that has room to add more bulk. But he had problems with his agility when he tried to add to his frame earlier in his career. Still, his raw strength and powerful hand punch will be more than enough to compensate for size issues, as long as he does not need to play with a defender constantly over his head.

He has good foot quickness, agility and balance, as Molk shows flexibility changing direction, but needs to gain additional bulk to prevent the larger defenders from defeating his pop and explosion. He is athletic for the position, but needs work on his technique to correct his penchant for overextending with his hands.

Molk has above-average mirror skills. He shows ease of movement working down the line and is quick to get out in front on pulls and traps. When he is used as a zone blocker, he displays his solid lateral movement. The center will get into the defender quickly with decent hand placement to sustain.

Even though he excels in the weight room, that strength does not translate to the field vs. the larger defenders due to his lack of ideal bulk. He compensates by being the type that will position and turn his man rather than driving them off. But he does have the speed and tenacity to get out on linebackers.

One sleeper at this position is Mississippi State's Quentin Saulsberry, who is the most versatile blocker in the center class. With patient coaching, he could develop into one of the draft's steals. What has set him back is that the 2011 season was his first at center, starting at right tackle as a freshman before moving to left guard in 2009 and then to right guard as a junior.

Saulsberry has good short-area quickness, showing good balance protecting the pocket. He builds his acceleration nicely and has good retreat agility to protect the pocket. He has the power behind his initial burst to lock on and gain advantage. He is nimble with his feet when adjusting in the short area, but lacks the loose hips to suddenly change direction.

The Mississippi State product plays with good base and balance when stationary, but will sometimes get narrow in his stance when blocking on the move (susceptible to low tackles). He is more of a sudden-burst type off the line than one who will redirect and recover working down the line. With his thick lower body, he plants himself firmly to stymie the bull rush, but is limited in his change-of-direction adjustments.

When working in-line, Saulsberry is effective at gaining position to wall off the defender. He comes off the snap with strong leg drive and base, but does get too narrow in his base when blocking in space. He is better served when he can angle and adjust to in-line movement, but does manage to get out and reach the three-tech. He stays on the defender with good aggression and works hard to finish.

Saulsberry has a keen understanding for positioning and hand placement and is active with his hands in attempts to widen the rush lane. He has the retreat quickness and arm extension needed in pass protection and stays low in his pads while driving hard with his legs to lock on and sustain. He has a functional kick slide and keeps his head on a swivel to combat counter moves.

The center can bend his knees and gain instant hand position when he plants himself firmly in the middle of the line. You can see on film his ability to sink his hips and use his lower body strength to anchor up and sustain.

Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.

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