Centers of Attention

The sports mantra about having strength up the middle is usually reserved for baseball, but it can just as easily be applied to football – especially when it comes to the center position.

Quarterbacks are considered the most important players on the gridiron, in part because they have their hands on the football on every play. But it’s the centers who snap it to them.

In a recent 33rd Team study on organizational tendencies for the most successful NFL teams of the last five years, a common thread appeared when it comes to offensive roster-building: There is clear continuity at the center position.

“These teams may not all have elite centers, but the continuity is there,” said the 33rd Team’s Jack Wolov, who presented the study, which focused on the four teams with the best overall records in each conference since 2015. “Centers (for those eight teams) have been developed and drafted at a higher and more positive rate.”

One of those eight teams was the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has had the same starting center for 11 years. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Sunday that nine-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is planning to retire.

“The one point I would make about the center position is this,” said former New York Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty: “When you look at guys like Pouncey in Pittsburgh, he’s been there so long, and the relationship he has with the quarterback and the intelligence he has, (the communication he has) with the other offensive linemen, I think that’s a big part of that.”

Mike Giddings, who evaluates every NFL player for scouting service Pro Scout Inc., has seen the trend for longer than just the last five years.

“If you look at the last 20 Super Bowl winners,” said Giddings, “16 have had a starting center that we would give a top-tier grade.”

Pro Scout Inc. uses a color-coded system, with the highest-graded players at each position tagged as blue.

“Blue centers,” Giddings said, “turn three-yard runs into seven-yard runs.”

While there has always been a premium on finding plug-and-play offensive tackles, centers are typically taken later in the draft. There were five tackles taken in the first round of the 2020 draft – including four in the first 13 picks – but there was just one first-round center (Cesar Ruiz, 24th overall to the Saints). The next center wasn’t taken until midway through the third round. Overall, there were eight centers drafted. There were 17 guards and 22 tackles drafted.

Still, NFL personnel execs recognize the important role centers play.

“Controlling the interior depth of the pocket is what a lot of these coaches are focused on,” said former Cleveland Browns GM Ray Farmer. “When you get pressure up the middle right away, especially against some of these quarterbacks that are losing their mobility, their ability to avoid the rush, you need to control the interior of your pocket.”

In 2015, Farmer drafted center Austin Reiter in the seventh round. In 2018, Reiter signed with the Kansas City Chiefs and in two weeks he’ll be starting in his second Super Bowl. His counterpart in Super Bowl LV, Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen, was a sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 2013. He didn’t become a full-time starter with Baltimore until 2017, but then he signed with Tampa Bay in 2018 and became the highest-paid center in the NFL. He’s started every game for the Bucs since then.

It’s no coincidence that both teams in the Super Bowl have experienced and successful centers anchoring their offensive lines.

“When I started in the league, I didn’t fully appreciate the value of the center,” said former Eagles team president Joe Banner. “There is a strong correlation between really good center play and winning teams.”

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