VIKINGS' CENTERS — Matt Birk.
VIKINGS' NEED — It should be pretty obvious that the Vikings will have to do something with the center position, since, as of today, Matt Birk is the only center on the 2004 roster. The Vikings have been fortunate in having capable backup Cory Withrow waiting the wings the last few years, but he is an unrestricted free agent and will likely sign somewhere that he'll have a chance at starting — which doesn't appear to be the Vikings. The team has been blessed with finding players late in the draft to groom as linemen. Birk wasn't drafted until the sixth round and became a Pro Bowler after learning behind Jeff Christy. Don't expect the Vikings to jump on anyone too early, but look for them to make some kind of move before the draft is done.
THE CLASS OF 2004 — One of the weakest position groups in the draft (only Jake Grove looks to be a first-rounder), there likely will only be three or four centers taken the first day of the draft and probably no more than a dozen taken in the entire draft. The position was deemed so weak that only 10 centers from throughout the country were invited to work out at the Combine in Indianapolis.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Jake Grove, Virginia Tech, 6-3, 302 — Fifth-year senior…Four-year starter who spent sophomore season playing guard…All-American in 2003 and Lombardi Award finalist…Won the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's top collegiate center…Nice combination of size and strength…Very strong run blocker…Has excellent upper body strength, as displayed with a 490-pound bench press…Serves as snapper on field goals and extra points…Makes the line calls for the O-line…Doesn't have great athleticism and has trouble at times going after defenders up the field…Played through a lot of injuries, but has had too many — including back problems and a broken hand…Did a position-best 31 reps with 225 pounds at the Combine and had the best vertical jump of 35 inches, along with a 5.15 40 time.
PROJECTION: Clearly the most physically dominant interior lineman last year, he is head and shoulders the best in class. It may not be enough to take him off the board in the first round, but he won't last long in the second round if he lasts that long.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Alex Stepanovich, Ohio State, 6-3, 304 — Fourth-year senior…Played both center and guard after becoming a starter in 2002…His predecessor, LeCharles Bentley, was a second-round pick of the Saints…A tough player who loves to get physical and push people around in the run game…Very intelligent in pass protection and assists the guards if they get overmatched…Struggled mightily when the team would go to shotgun formations, eventually being replaced…Isn't overpowering at the snap and will struggle against big nose tackles in the NFL…Ran a 5.21 40 at the Combine with a 25-1/2 inch vertical jump and a Wonderlic score of 21.
PROJECTION: Has the versatility of playing both guard and center and has bulked up since the start of last season, which are two reasons he is expected to go somewhere in the late second or third round.
Nick Lecky, Kansas State, 6-3, 290 — Fourth-year senior who was a high school wrestling champion…First true freshman to start on O-line under coach Bill Snyder…Has versatility to play center or guard…Excellent footwork and technique…Good quickness, which helps in pass protection…Lacks upper body strength, as shown by his position-worst 18 reps at the Combine…Turned some heads — for the wrong reason — at the Combine when he weighed in 20 pounds less and an inch shorter than his listed height and weight…Can get smothered at the point of attack…Ran a 5.21 40 at the Combine with a 27-inch vertical jump and a Wonderlic score of 26.
PROJECTION: His versatility is a plus, but lack of size and functional strength will have him on the board well into the third round…if not longer.
DAY TWO PROSPECTS
Nick Hardwick, Purdue, 6-4, 293 — Fifth-year senior who didn't join the Boilermakers until he walked on 2001 — two years after enrolling…Began as a defensive tackle in '01, played guard in '02 and started every game at center in'03…Good athleticism and is a natural with speed and strength…Has good upper body strength…Very raw with just one full season playing center at college…Doesn't have the type of body build that will naturally allow him to gain 20-30 pounds in the NFL…Improved his stock at the Combine, doing 27 reps with 225 pounds, running a 5.1 40, posting a 32-1/2 inch vertical jump, a 9-6 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 28…His lack of playing time and experience makes him a lock for Day 2, but his athletic ability could have some teams viewing him as a very intriguing prospect.
Scott Wells, Tennessee, 6-2, 300 — A fifth-year senior and four-year starter who made 49 starts for the Vols…Makes the line calls…Has very good upper body strength as displayed by his 31 reps at the Combine…Tough player with good work ethic and leadership skills…Is viewed as a bit undersized — he was the second shortest center to work out at the Combine…Isn't a very strong downfield blocker…Ran a 5.21 40 at the Combine with a 31-inch vertical jump and a Wonderlic score of 30…His experience vs. big-time competition makes him a prospect, but his physical limitations will probably have him still on the board in the fourth or fifth round.
Josh Sewell, Nebraska, 6-2, 301 — A fifth-year senior who transferred from Indiana State in 2001 and played just one full season for the Cornhuskers…Makes all line calls…A weight room warrior…Likes to push around defensive tackles in the run game…Good upper body strength, his 30 reps at the Combine was the third highest total for any center…Inexperienced at the position and will need time to get better…Needs work on his technique…The shortest center in the Class of '04…Isn't explosive off the line at the snap…Had a 5.03 40 at the Combine — second best among centers — along with a 30-inch vertical jump and a 25 on the Wonderlic test…Isn't ready to step in immediately, but could be a developmental project.
Scott Jackson, BYU, 6-4, 300 — Fifth-year senior who took a two-year Morman mission…Two-year starter who missed time his freshman and sophomore years with a broken leg and a knee injury…Gained 40 pounds of muscle and bulk during his college career…Has a great work ethic…Married…A leader on the field who made the line calls…Age and durability are both concerns…Is one of the tallest centers in the draft…Helped his cause tremendously at the Combine with 28 reps, a position-best 4.93 40, a 30-1/2 inch vertical jump (third best among centers) and a 29 Wonderlic score…Before the Combine, his downsides — age, injuries, etc. — were viewed as draft killers, but his performance in Indianapolis could get him taken in the late rounds.
Toby Cecil, Texas Tech, 6-4, 297 — Fifth-year senior and four-year starter who made 50 career starts…Good quickness and technique…Experience is his primary selling point…Makes all line calls…Can adjust when blocking at the second level…Has a mean streak and stays with his blocks…Solid in pass protection and picking up blitzes…Is seen as undersized and a potential liability vs. mammoth NFL nose tackles…Had the second lowest number of reps (21) among centers at the Combine and ran a 5.28 40 with a Wonderlic score of 30…His experience is what will likely get him drafted, since so few college players have 50 career starts, but it will still come late on the second day of the draft.
Rex Hadnot, Houston, 6-2, 323 — Fifth-year senior and three-year starter who didn't allow a sack in two years despite the Cougars throwing more than 800 passes in that span…Has very good football smarts…Excellent awareness in pass protection since Houston threw so often during his career…Good upper body strength…Doesn't have great quickness or speed…Isn't in good shape and wears down as the game goes on…Doesn't have the footwork to adjust when a middle blitz comes…Had an up and down Combine performance — his 27 reps with 225 pounds and Wonderlic score of 27 were among the best for interior linemen, but his 5.49 40 and 24-1/2 inch vertical jump were among the worst…Another late-round developmental prospect, his experience in the passing game is something many linemen don't have when they head into the NFL.
Dave Pearson, Michigan, 6-2, 295 — Fifth-year senior who came to Michigan as a defensive tackle…Switched to center in 2002 and started all 26 games since…Has a non-stop motor and intensity…Smart player who knows how to use angles and leverage…Doesn't have great upper body strength, footwork or technique…Unlike most Michigan linemen of years past, he is more of a finesse player than a mauler and that, combined with his lack of weight and bulk, could drop him to the seventh round or off the board completely as a street free agent.
Positional Analysis: Centers
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