Positional Analysis: Centers

The center class of 2009 is stronger than last year, but there could still be some quality players slipping into the second and third rounds just because centers aren't usually selected high in the draft. John Holler analyzes and summarizes the top of the class all the way down to a center or two that might not get drafted.

Vikings Centers – John Sullivan, Ryan Cook.

Vikings Draft Outlook – The center position is one of the few real unanswered questions heading into the 2009 season. Can Sullivan be the man full time in replacing Matt Birk? Will Cook be moved from tackle to center, where he played in college? Will the Vikings look to the draft, which looks to have considerably more talent in the early rounds than last year's draft? Those are all questions that make it worth giving this year's draft class a serious look.

The Class of 2009 – Last year, only four centers were taken in the draft and only one was taken prior to the sixth round. That will change this year. Alex Mack has a chance at cracking the first round and, by the time the third round is over, as many as five center prospects could be gone. As always, there won't be a lot of teams looking for a center, so perhaps only six or seven may even be drafted. That being said, there is talent to be had in the first three rounds that will make this a position to watch as the draft unfolds.


CREAM OF THE CROP

Alex Mack, California, 6-4¼, 307 –
Fifth-year senior … Was a top wrestler as well as football player in high school … A three-year starter who started all 39 games played in that span … Won the Morris Trophy, given to the top offensive lineman in the Pac 10, in both 2007 and 2008 … Holds the school weightlifting record in the power clean at 374 pounds … Is big with long arms and big hands … Is extremely quick from the snap to getting up in his stance … Very intense and never takes a play off or gives a half-hearted effort … Has a good hand punch … A team captain who led by example on the field and in the weight room … Durability unquestioned … Not powerful or blessed with great strength … Doesn't blow defenders up on the snap too often … Will get out of position and ends up on the ground too often for a top-tier player … Loses much of his strength when put in motion … Ran a 5.11 40 at the Combine with just 20 reps of 225 pounds, a 28½-inch vertical jump and an 8-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: Really built his stature at the Senior Bowl. His flaws aren't enormous red flags, giving his intensity and game smarts enough credit to perhaps make him the last pick of the first round to the Steelers or into the top end of the second round.

Max Unger, Oregon, 6-4½, 306 – Fifth-year senior … Played his first two seasons at left tackle and the last two seasons at center … Started 51 career games without missing a game … A team captain … High-intensity player who uses his hands very effectively to punch defenders … Has good footwork and can take on linebackers on sweeps effectively … Extremely tough and has played through injuries to maintain his iron man streak … Sustains his blocks consistently … Is thin for an interior lineman in the NFL … Comes up high out of his stance and can struggle when DTs jump the snap count … Is not a top end athlete that has prototypical intangibles … Arms are a little shorter than expected for his height and defenders can get into his body more readily than longer-armed centers … Doesn't have top-end run blocking strength … Doesn't recover extremely well if off-balance on contact … Ran a 5.20 40 at the Combine with 22 reps, a 24½-inch vertical jump and a 7-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: He certainly will have a place in the NFL, but too many questions about his current strength or odds of improving will likely keep him in the bottom half of the second round at best. His lack of functional strength will hurt his draft stock, but he could be a starting center for the next decade. A hit-or-miss type pick.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Eric Wood, Louisville, 6-4, 310 –
Fifth-year senior … Started all 49 games of his college career … A team captain … Has good height and girth … Has very good footwork and leads sweeps with bad intentions … Has good upper body strength (see below) and uses it to maintain leverage … Had a strong performance at the Combine … Doesn't lose power when his feet are moving forward … Has the ability to be a guard at the next level as well … Technique needs some serious tweaking … Comes out high of his stance and will allow defenders to get under him … Doesn't have great lower body strength and likes to bang defenders rather than sink in and anchor … Has short arms which hurt against huge defenders, as well as quick ones … Ran a 5.19 40 at the Combine with 30 reps of 225 pounds, a 30½-inch vertical jump and an 8-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: He came to the Combine with unquestioned durability and experience and showed better agility than expected. He is a fast riser who most viewed as a third or fourth round prospect, but he has a chance to sneak into the second round and be a reliable, but probably not great, starter.

Antoine Caldwell, Alabama, 6-3¼, 310 – Fifth-year senior … Four-year starter … Started 11 games at left guard and one at center as a redshirt freshman...Moved full-time to center as a sophomore and started the next 20 games there before moving to left guard for one start … Missed time with an ankle injury and an NCAA suspension for improper receipt of textbooks … Started all 14 games at center last year … Graduated in just three years – making him the first football player to accomplish that at Alabama … His very long arms (34 inches) and doesn't let defenders easily into his body … Has good lower body strength and can anchor well in pass protection … Gets out of his stance quickly to take on defenders … A two-time team captain who earned the respect of his teammates … Looks a little doughy and has trouble moving gracefully in space … Doesn't have a strong hand punch and rarely blows defenders off the snap … Has difficulty getting good blocks on linebackers at the second level … Doesn't play as nasty as many centers … Will lose sight of blitzers and has difficulty recovering quickly … Ran a 5.24 40 at the Combine with 23 reps, a 28-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: He was viewed as a candidate for the top center spot, but had a poor week at the Senior Bowl that exposed some flaws. He is a center that needs to stay in a confined area to be effective, which will drop him into the middle rounds, more likely the third than the fourth.

Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas, 6-3¾, 300 – Fifth-year senior … Four-year starter who made seven starts at guard and three at center as a redshirt freshman and all 39 games the Razorbacks played at center over the last three seasons … Won the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center, as a junior … Intelligent player who makes all the line calls and leads by example … A team captain … Has good agility and uses his feet very well in both leading sweeps and in pass protection … Aggressively seeks out contact at the second level to extend plays … Has good upper body strength … Has short arms and defenders can get into his body too often with a speed rush … Pops up too high at times and can be knocked off his base … Won't be able to take on big nose tackles like Pat Williams by himself … Looks awkward when not in control of defenders … Doesn't sustain blocks as long as he should … Ran a 5.14 40 at the Combine with 26 reps, a 31-inch vertical jump and an 8-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: A guy who blocked for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones has to have some credibility with NFL scouts. If nothing else, they've seen a lot of film on him. His downside is that he is viewed as a center exclusively and, because of his lack of base power, he will likely be confined to being taken by a team that zone blocks. That alone should drop him into the later rounds.

BEST OF THE REST

Edwin Williams, Maryland 6-2¼, 308 –
Fifth-year senior … Three-year starter who made all 39 of his starts after being a part-time player as a redshirt freshman … Team captain as a senior … Already earned his degree … Has good agility and keeps his feet under him consistently … Has good size and lower-body mass … Will snap his legs into anchor position and stop almost all defenders for at least a moment to give his quarterback time to drop and throw … Uses his footwork to get out the second level consistently … Durability and commitment to the game aren't concerns … Doesn't have explosive strength and has difficulty consistently finishing his blocks … Has trouble with quick defensive tackles and is slow to recover when beaten off the snap … Doesn't use a hand punch to jolt defenders … Will get lazy at times and not use the proper technique … Ran a 5.41 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 28½-inch vertical jump and an 8-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: He has a lot of experience and has been durable, but he has some serious physical limitations. He has the chance on greatness, but he's a roll of the dice pick that will likely come off in the fifth or sixth round.

Cecil Newton, Tennessee State, 6-1¾, 300 – Fourth-year senior … Became a starter for four games as a true freshman and started 33 of his 34 games in the subsequent three years … Team captain as a senior … Has very good mechanics and technique … Has a body capable of adding muscle and weight … Has a quick punch that can jolt a defender off the snap … Gets from snap to stance quickly … Has good lateral movement to slide with the angles of pursuit … Is effectively at the second level taking on linebackers to spring holes … Has small hands for a center, which can lead to both shotgun snap problems and not being able to jolt bigger defenders with a hand punch … Faced sub-par opponents for making the jump to the NFL and may need more time to make the transition … Looks only to be a center and won't be viewed as a swingman type who could play center or guard as a backup … Ran a 5.13 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, a 25½-inch vertical jump and an 8-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: He's got a lot of "if's" about him. He has great technique on film, but with his lack of meaningful competition at college, his lack of explosive speed or strength and his poor showing at the East-West Shrine Game, he will be fortunate if someone takes him during the draft and doesn't wait until after the free agents starting signing.

Brett Helms, LSU, 6-2, 286 – Fifth-year senior … As a redshirt freshman, he started two games at left guard before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury … Moved to center the following year and started the last 40 games of his college career … An intelligent player who makes the line calls and isn't fooled very often … Has excellent quickness off the snap and agility in pulling mode to the second level … Sees blitzes and stunts and reacts quickly … Has shown a lot of durability for a big-time college program … Is short and lacks the bulk weight needed for the NFL … Has short arms and defenders can get into his body too easily … Gets pushed backward too often because defenders can get into his body … Will lunge and get off-balance … Needs help against nose tackles … Looks to provide a team a center only, not someone with the versatility to play guard as well … Ran a 4.89 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, but did not jump. PROJECTION: He has achieved a lot in his college career and brings a lot of intelligence and experience to the table. His options may be limited to a zone-blocking team, where his lack of size, bulk and strength aren't as big a liability. He will make a team because of his smarts, but he may bounce around the league for years and never become a starter. Likely won't be drafted, but signed quickly afterward as a free agent.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Rob Bruggeman, Iowa, 6-4, 293
Mike Dent, West Virginia, 6-1¾, 294
Keith Gray, Connecticut, 6-1¾, 273
Blake Schlueter, Texas Christian, 6-2¾, 283
A.Q. Shipley, Penn State, 6-1¼, 304
Ryan Shuman, Virginia Tech, 6-2¾, 300


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