Positional Analysis: Centers

If the Vikings are able to trade Cory Withrow, they probably will be looking for a mid- or late-round replacement to develop behind Matt Birk. Here is a look at the good and the bad of the top 10 centers in this year's draft.

VIKINGS CENTERS – Matt Birk, Cory Withrow, Kenny Sandlin.

VIKINGS DRAFT EXPECTATIONS – Under ordinary circumstances, the Vikings would have to no use for a center in this year's draft. However, by the time draft day rolls around, Withrow could well be gone. He's currently signed to a one-year deal but has asked to be traded. Playing behind Birk – a Pro Bowler with a bright and long future ahead of him – Withrow likely won't get much of a chance to play in Minnesota. He would likely start for a dozen or more other teams in the NFL, which makes his current situation something that could have a large bearing on the draft process with a center. If the Vikings trade him for a mid-round draft pick, taking a center late in the draft becomes a necessity. If a trade isn't worked out, the Vikings and Withrow may agree to a long-term deal or simply ride out the final year of his contract and let him become an unrestricted free agent. While center may not currently be on the team's draft radar, if a deal is struck to move Withrow somewhere that he can start, center takes on more importance on the second day of the draft.

THE CLASS OF '03 – Center typically isn't a deep position on draft day and this year is no exception. Jeff Faine of Notre Dame is viewed as the only center who might go in the first round, and less than a handful will be taken in the first day. If the Vikings do move Withrow, they'll have plenty to choose from on the second day, whether they use an early pick or one of the sixth rounders. The Class of '03 has a definite Big 10 twist to it, since the top 10 centers on our draft board include players from Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue.

FIRST ROUNDERS

Jeff Faine, Notre Dame, 6-3, 298 –
Fourth-year redshirt junior…Started every game the last three years…Rimington Award finalist in '02, which is given to the best center in the country…Weight-room warrior who has a strong upper body…Solid run blocker who has made great improvement to his pass protection…Good hand puncher…Started 36 straight games…Team leader…Doesn't have overpowering size and will struggle against mammoth nose tackles…Isn't punishing in short-yardage/goal-line situations…Did 25 reps with 225 pounds at the Combine. PROJECTION: Will be the first center off the board, perhaps to Oakland with one of its two picks at the end of the first round or, if not there, early in the second round.

SECOND/THIRD ROUNDERS

Al Johnson, Wisconsin, 6-3, 305 –
Fifth-year senior who was a high school shot put champion…Three-year starter…Rimington Award finalist…Had a very strong showing at the Senior Bowl…Good mechanics…Has a mean streak and likes to deliver punishing shots to DTs…Good upper body strength…Not nearly as effective in pass blocking as run blocking…Doesn't have extreme lower body strength…Convicted of DWI in 2001 and arrested for DWI again last October…Hurt his stock at the Combine by doing only 18 reps with 225 pounds – one of the lowest totals among centers. PROJECTION: Has the skills to be a solid NFL center, but some teams will shy away because of his alcohol-related arrests. Still, he should be a second-round choice to someone looking to replace an aging veteran in a year or two.

Bruce Nelson, Iowa, 6-5, 295 – Fifth-year senior who was a walk-on tight end…Played left tackle as a redshirt freshman, left guard as a sophomore and center the last two seasons…Finalist for the Rimington Award…Improved his stock at the Senior Bowl…Has good technical skills…Durable and versatile…Has shown improvement on getting to the second level and taking out linebackers…Has been viewed as being too lean and not bulky enough for the pros, but added 20 pounds since the end of last season in anticipation of going to the NFL…Will have problems against huge nose tackles in the pros...Did 21 reps at the Combine. PROJECTION: As a solid run and pass blocker and with the versatility to be patched into different positions along the offensive front, he will likely be a Day One selection and used as a stop gap player early and develop into a starting role.

Dan Koppen, Boston College, 6-3, 297 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter and two-time All-Big East selection…Hasn't missed a start in three years…Smart player who uses technique and opponents' aggression to his advantage…Strong upper body…Does very good job of picking up stunts and blitzes…A little smaller in build than scouts like, especially in his lower body…Will struggle at times vs. big nose tackles…Did 27 reps at the Combine – one of the better numbers for centers this year. PROJECTION: Experienced and intelligent, but not a great athlete, so he will likely be around late in the third round.

DAY TWO PROJECTIONS

Brett Romberg, Miami, 6-2, 295 –
Fifth-year senior…Began college career at guard…Spent last three years as starting center for the Hurricanes…Two-time All-Big East…Won the Rimington Award in 2002…Allowed only two sacks in three years…Is a versatile player who saw time at center, guard and tackle…Very intelligent…His strong suit is making line calls and was rarely fooled by blitzes or stunts…Durable player who didn't miss a game in three years as a starter…Loved by coaches and teammates for leadership ability…Is a little undersized…Won't overpower DTs in the run game…Has good upper body strength, as evidenced by doing 27 reps at the Combine…Got a lot of notice while playing for the successful Miami program and will likely be an early selection on the second day of the draft.

Wayne Lucier, Colorado, 6-4, 301 – Fifth-year senior…Played two years at Northwestern before joining coach Gary Barnett when he moved on to Colorado…As a true freshman, started at both tight end and guard for the Wildcats…Was a full-time starter at guard as a sophomore…Two-year starting center with Buffaloes…Earned All-American notice last year as well as first-team All-Big 12…Works hard and was loyal to his coach…Has good upper body strength, but not good lower body strength…Isn't a long-snapper, which could have helped his draft status…Gets pushed back by bigger DTs and nose tackles…Did not lift at the Combine…Has experience, but doesn't have the pure complete body strength most coaches want, which should drop him to the fourth or fifth round.

Austin King, Northwestern, 6-4, 299 – Fourth-year senior who became a full-time starter as a true freshman…Only missed one start in his last 44 collegiate games…Tough, physical player…Adept at making line calls…Good footwork…Is a bit undersized physically, especially when matched up with big nose tackles…Did 20 reps at the Combine…Durability and good footwork will help him get past some of his size limitations and will likely make him a fifth or sixth-round selection on Draft Day.

Ben Claxton, Mississippi, 6-3, 301 – Fifth-year senior…Forced to redshirt as a freshman after injuring his left knee in 1998…Broke his left ankle as a third-year sophomore…Was a starter the last two years and remained healthy for the most part…Good upper body strength…Has excellent strength in confined areas, especially in short-yardage situations…Presented the Sportsmanship Award at the Senior Bowl…Has trouble as an anchor vs. big nose tackles…Did not lift at the Combine…Limited athletic ability will hurt him, but knowledge of the game and how to take proper angles will likely make him a late-round pick and a decent longshot to make a roster.

Gene Mruczkowski, Purdue, 6-3, 297 – Fifth-year senior…Four-year starter who spent his first two years at left guard and the last two seasons at center…Team captain who displayed a lot of good leadership qualities as the anchor of the offensive line…Plays with a lot of fire and intensity…Rarely blew a line call, despite coming to the center position later than most…Excellent upper body strength, as evidenced by being one of the top centers at the Combine – doing 28 reps…Played a lot out of the shotgun and has a good snap release from that formation…His weight-room strength doesn't always translate on the field, where he can look awkward at times…Wide lower body, but not proportional, so he gets overpowered at times by bull rushing DTs…Has a lot of good intangibles but may be a push for making an NFL roster because he doesn't excel at any one facet of the game. Seventh-round flyer-type pick.

Todd Wike, Maryland, 6-3, 305 – Fifth-year senior…Came to Maryland as a tight end…Spent three years playing guard before moving to center as a senior…First team All-ACC last year…Very tough and durable, missing only one game in four years due to injury…Played through injuries…Very smart player who minimizes mistakes…Doesn't have ideal bulk…Doesn't play with good speed or balance…Did not lift at the Combine…Gives an added plus having had experience and played well at both guard and center, but doesn't have the look of an athlete. Some scouts rated him as a late-round selection, while others don't think he'll go off the board on draft day.



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