Draft preview: Center analysis

This is a great year for centers, with several athletic prospects who would do well in a zone scheme. Alex Mack and Max Unger top the list, but there is intriguing talent deeper in the draft.

Editor's note: This is Part 5 of our 14-part position-by-position breakdown heading to the April 25-26 NFL Draft. We continue with the centers. The prospects are listed in order based on analysis by Scout.com draft expert Chris Steuber and Packer Report, with the comments that follow them based on the beliefs of league experts and insiders.

The Packers' perspective:

The Packers have three potential starters at center in incumbent Scott Wells, incumbent right guard Jason Spitz and free agent pickup Duke Preston.

Wells has been a solid center during his three seasons as the starter (he started at guard in 2005) but he seemingly hasn't taken the next step. He's agile enough to block linebackers and his intelligence is prized. But he struggles against big defensive tackles, and that's an issue considering the defending NFC North champion Vikings have Pat Williams and Kevin Williams.

Some in the organization think Spitz might be better at center than guard, and a training camp battle could be on the horizon. Spitz's play slipped in 2008, but it didn't help that he started the first three games at center, the next four at right guard, moved to left guard for one game, then back to right guard, split one game at right guard and center and split the season finale between left guard and center.

Preston has similar versatility, and had 20 starts in four seasons with Buffalo. The 315-pound Preston, an all-Big Ten center at Illinois, weighs about 15 pounds more than Wells and Spitz. He started 11 games at center last season for Buffalo.

Nonetheless, this is a superb group of centers. Many have the athleticism to play in a zone and the versatility that the Packers desire.

Cream of the crop:

Alex Mack, California: The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Mack is the biggest of the center prospects, and with the addition of Preston and the selection of guard Josh Sitton last year, it appears the Packers are putting a value on bigger bodies. Mack's the best run-blocker of the bunch, he's athletic enough to get to linebackers and he gives high effort on every snap. Centers must be smart, and there aren't many smarter than Mack, who won the Draddy Award — the academic equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Some teams covet him as a guard because of his size and run-blocking skills.

First-round prospects:

Max Unger, Oregon: How can you go wrong with a guy who started two years at left tackle before moving to center? Unger (6-5, 299) was a first-team All-American the last two years. He's a better pass blocker than a run blocker, and is more athletic than strong. Some teams covet him as a guard, and he could play right tackle in a pinch. With his background as a tackle, he's terrific in space.

Just a notch below:

Eric Wood, Louisville: Wood (6-4, 304) has been the fast-rising player in this group. He started 49 consecutive games and was a two-time all-Big East first-teamer. He's strong enough that he could wind up being a dominant run blocker, and he's a good pass blocker. About the only knock on him is his relative lack of athleticism, although he tested well at the Combine.

Others to remember:

Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas: Luigs (6-4, 302) won the Rimington Award as college football's top center in 2007, when Arkansas had Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in the backfield, and was a finalist last year. Perhaps the best athlete in this class and intelligent. He has no problem getting downfield but sometimes struggles blocking against bigger defensive linemen. Started 49 games in his career, and performed well at the Senior Bowl.

A.Q. Shipley, Penn State: At 6-foot-1 and 297 pounds, he's built like a defensive tackle — which was his position when he arrived at Penn State. Shipley lacks ideal height for a center but is aggressive and stout at the point of attack. His 33 reps on the 225-pound bench press was tops among centers at the Combine, and his 4.40-seconds clocking in the short shuttle tied Luigs for tops at the position. Perfectly suited for a zone scheme. Won the Rimington Award in 2008 as the nation's best center. Unlike the players listed previously, Shipley is only a center.

Jon Cooper, Oklahoma: Cooper was one of the most impressive linemen at the Combine, ranking among the top centers in strength and athletic tests. Has added about 30 pounds since the end of the season to get to 6-2 and about 290. Was the Big 12's lineman of the year over highly regarded teammates Duke Robinson and Phil Loadholt. His quickness makes him a great fit in a zone scheme.

— Cecil Newton, Tennessee State: The 6-foot-2, 300-pound son of former Cowboys safety Cecil Sr. dominated a lower rung of competition and blocked for running back prospect Jarvarris Williams. Didn't allow a sack as a senior and is athletic enough to play in a zone. Was not invited to the Combine but fared well in the East-West all-star game. A four-year starter.

Antoine Caldwell, Alabama: Caldwell (6-3, 307) likely ranks higher on some teams' draft boards than on this list. He's an aggressive blocker who's better suited to a traditional run game than the Packers' zone blocking scheme. He's tough, smart and durable but not as athletic as a zone team would prefer. A four-year starter and first-team All-American.

— Alex Fletcher, Stanford: Lost in the Pac-10 shuffle with Mack and Unger. At 6-2, 297, he doesn't quite have ideal size and he's not a great athlete, but he is strong, tough and plays with a mean streak. Played in a zone scheme taught by a protege of zone guru Alex Gibbs for the Cardinal. Has played all three interior spots in the same game.

Chris Steuber's sleeper:

Rob Bruggeman, Iowa: The 6-foot-4, 293-pounder showed his strength at the Combine with 30 bench-press reps, then did 32 at his pro day. Two torn knee ligaments (ACL, MCL) ruined his chance to start in 2007, but hard work got him into the starting lineup for the first time as a senior. Was a major reason why Shonn Greene ran wild for the Hawkeyes. Not a great one-on-one run blocker but his frame allows him to add bulk.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport


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