Position Analysis: Center

The center position rarely gets much attention in the NFL draft because quality centers can be found in the late rounds, as the Vikings have proved with Matt Birk and John Sullivan. Still, there are a few possibilities (likely for other teams) in the first two days of this year's draft.

POSITION OVERVIEW: Centers are rarely given a draft-day priority because, at the NFL level, centers can be found from the college game or converted guards. Since every team has just one starting center, they are a rare species at the early stages of the draft. When a team locks down a center, they tend to stick with him. The Minnesota Vikings for example, have drafted two centers in the last 15 years – both in the sixth round. They landed two Pro Bowl players in Matt Birk and John Sullivan. Birk started for more than a decade with Minnesota and Sullivan is expected to do the same. Most teams in the the league have a center they like, which makes it difficult for new players to break through, which is why there may only be four or five centers actually drafted this year.

VIKINGS CENTERS – John Sullivan, Joe Berger.

VIKINGS NEED – With Sullivan playing at a Pro Bowl level and Berger a valuable swingman who can play center or guard if needed, the Vikings don't have an immediate need and likely won't have a pressing need for years to come unless Sully develops chronic injuries.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Travis Frederick, Wisconsin, 6-3¾, 312 – Fourth-year junior…Played his first two seasons at guard…Missed eight games as a true freshman after starting the first four games with an ankle injury in 2009 and redshirted in 2010…Started all but one of his 32 games, playing all 14 in 2012 at center…The first true freshman to ever start a season opener on the O-line in school history…Is huge and prototype size for an NFL center…Has excellent anchor strength and can neutralize big defensive tackles…Extremely smart, which will help his draft stock because he reads defenses well and can make good line calls…Has a strong hand punch…Is a mauler in the run game and consistently steers linemen to create a hole…Very strong technician…Leans forward too much and will have to improve his balance at the next level…Doesn't have elite agility to make blocks at the second level with consistent success…Needs to set up quicker because quick-burst defensive tackles can get a step on him and force him to grab…Ran a 5.58 40 at the Combine with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 28½-inch vertical jump and an 8-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: Frederick has just 16 career starts at center but has all of the intangibles to be a dominant NFL center for the next decade. His lack of experience will drop him well into the second round at the earliest, but he could be the first center off the board.

Barrett Jones, Alabama, 6-4½, 306 – Fifth-year senior…Was granted a medical redshirt (shoulder) after playing a reserve role in three games as a true freshman in 2008…Started all 50 games he played in his final four seasons, missing two games in both 2010 and 2011 with ankle injuries…Was named All-SEC playing right guard in 2010…Was an All-American in 2011 playing left tackle, winning the Outland Trophy as the nation's dominant lineman…Won the Rimington Award, given to college football's best center, in 2012…A versatile player who excelled at all three positions he played…Is very intelligent and has extremely good technique…He is a student of the game and works to perfect his fundamentals, which show on the field…Uses his hands and his feet well to gain leverage…Very quick out of his stance in pass protection…Versatility is a huge plus and will inflate his draft stock…Seals off defenders well…Has a thin lower body and has been susceptible to multiple ankle and lower leg injuries…Isn't dominant in terms of pure physical strength…More of a neutralizer than a glass-eater who pushes defenders until they go down…Isn't effective blocking at the second level…Has average side-to-side lateral agility…Did not work out at the combine after having surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury, which could impact his draft stock. PROJECTION: The most decorated offensive linemen in the draft, Jones has been an effective jack of all trades, which is saying something considering that he plays in the SEC. His lack of long-term experience at center may hurt his draft stock a little, but a case can be made that he should be the first center to come off the board – Baltimore looks good with the last pick of the second round and looking to replace Matt Birk.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Khaled Holmes, USC 6-3¼, 302 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who started all of 36 games he played his last three years…Is the brother-in-law of NFL great Troy Polamalu…Graduated in 2011 and spent last two years working on his Master's degree…Has good size and exceptional arm length (35¾ inches)…Has good foot quickness…Finishes blocks when he gets his hands on defenders…Schooled in a pro-style offense that translates well to the NFL…Has a strong hand punch and uses it to jolt D-linemen…Intelligent and works hard to improve his game…Doesn't have ideal leverage and will get too high at times…Has good upper body strength but struggles against power defenders…Gets pushed back into the pocket too often…Doesn't have ideal base anchor strength…Injuries are a concern…May be limited to teams that use a zone blocking scheme…Did not work out at the combine after injuring a pectoral muscle preparing for the weightlifting portion of the drills. PROJECTION: He was abused by Utah DT Star Lotulelei, which may be the film a lot of NFL decision-makers will look at first and leave them with a bad impression. Holmes is a good technician, but his limitations are critical, which should drop him very late into the second day of the draft.

Brian Schwenke, Cal, 6-3, 314 – Fourth-year senior…Played his first season as a backup guard before starting his final 36 games – 24 at guard (16 at left guard, eight at right guard) and the last 12 at center…First Team All-Pac 12 as a senior…Has very good initial quickness to get in position off the snap…Has solid anchor strength…Has a low center of gravity and uses that to gain and establish leverage…Plays with a mean streak and fights to finish plays…A smart player who was loved by his teammates and coaches…Has a strong hand punch…Doesn't have a lot of experience at center…His arms are very short (less than 31 inches) and will struggle to keep defenders away from his body…Not adept at shotgun snapping and has had some problems…Doesn't have lateral quickness and can only defend a small piece of space in the middle…Gets backed up by big, physical DTs…Doesn't look natural in the open field and will lunge too often at the second level…Ran a 4.99 40 at the combine with 31 reps of 225 pounds, a 26½-inch vertical jump and a 9-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: A converted guard, he has enough intangibles that he will likely get a shot at some point to be a starter. But he will need time to correct his flaws, which typically drops a center into Day 3 of the draft.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Braxston Cave, Notre Dame, 6-3¼, 303 – Fifth-year senior…Started all 35 games he played in his final three seasons…Missed four games in 2011 with a torn ligament in his left foot…Received some All-American attention as a senior…Has a strong core and fights off the snap…Has good fundamental technique, especially in the run game, and can steer defenders away from the hole…Has good anchor strength to hold his position…Has good visual awareness and spots blitzers quickly…Has a lot of center experience compared to most of the other top center prospects…Has very short arms (30½ inches) and will struggle to push defenders away…Has inconsistent footwork when on the move and struggles at the second level…Ends up on the ground too often…Isn't a consistent finisher on blocks…Doesn't play with consistent tenacity from one game to the next…Struggled badly at the Senior Bowl…Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 5.33 40 with a 25½-inch vertical jump and an 8-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: An experienced starter at a big-time program, he has been watched by every scout in the country, but it has also gone to shine a light on his weaknesses. As a result, he will still be on the board well into the final day of the draft.

P.J. Lonergan, LSU, 6-3¼, 304 – Fifth-year senior…Became a starter late in his redshirt freshman season and started his final 38 games…Has very good feet and is strong and active when pulling…Is adept at reaching the second level and opening running lanes…Respected for his toughness – he played through a high ankle sprain (missing only two games) and a back injury in 2012…A smart player who was good at making accurate line calls…A student of the game…Has less-than-ideal lower body strength and will struggle against NFL nose tackles…Has short arms and defenders get into his body too easily…Gets pushed into the backfield too often on pass plays and will force his QB to move…Is not dominant off the snap and has to fight to maintain an early advantage…Didn't jump at the combine but ran a 5.38 40 with 25 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: A battle-tested SEC center is always respected by draft analysts, but he has a lot of improvements to make. He could be the type that serves as a backup for a couple of years with a chance to compete for a starting job, but he will likely still be on the board when the draft hits the final round.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Mario Benevides, Louisville, 6-2¾, 279
Mark Clampitt, Idaho State, 6-2, 285
Dalton Freeman, Clemson, 6-4¼, 286
T.J. Johnson, South Carolina, 6-4¼, 310
Lamar Mady, Youngstown State, 6-2, 317
Graham Pocic, Illinois, 6-6¼, 309
Mark Stankiewitch, Penn State, 6-2¾, 302


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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