This is the sixth part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the interior offensive linemen.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl
The center position got the short shrift at the NFL scouting combine last month. Of the 58 offensive linemen who were invited to the league’s pre-draft event, only five had primarily played center for their college teams in 2021.
The large majority of the 58 were offensive tackles, including many who will be moved inside at the next level. A smaller number were guards.
And then there were the centers.
“I think the center class is really good,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “A lot of experience. A lot of four- and five-year starters with 2,000-3,000 snaps that didn’t get combine invites. The same with many of the guards.
“Why is that? Is the NFL not interested (in interior linemen)? I just think you’ve got so many of those big, hulking tackles that are going to be moved inside to guard that a lot of true guards and centers didn’t get the (combine) invites this year. Whether they’ll pay the price for that in the draft, we’ll see.’’
One center who did get invited to the combine was Tyler Linderbaum of Iowa. Linderbaum, a converted defensive tackle, was a three-year starter at center for the Hawkeyes and is expected to be the first interior lineman selected in the draft, probably in the latter part of the first round.
“He’s a guy people were putting in their top 10 throughout the season,” Fennell said. “It’s now been tempered back a little bit to the back of the first round.
“A lot of people see him landing with Cincinnati at 31. But if he’s still sitting there at 24-25 and I’m the Bengals, I’m going up and getting him because I don’t know if he’s going to make it to 31.’’
Two other interior linemen who could go in the first round are Zion Johnson of Boston College and Kenyon Green of Texas A&M. Both are guard prospects, though Green has played up and down the line, including center.
“It’s a really good interior class,” Fennell said. “A lot of experience.”
Fennell’s top 5
1—Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa, 6-3, 296, Rd. 1
2—Zion Johnson, Boston College, 6-3, 312, Rd. 1
3—Kenyon Green, 6-4, 323, Texas A&M, Rd. 1-2
4—Darian Kinnard, Kentucky, 6-5, 322, Rd. 3-4
5—Sean Rhyan, UCLA, 6-5, 321, Rd. 4-5
Arms: 31 1/8 inches
40 time: 5.14 seconds
225 bench: N/A
Ben’s take: “Another converted defensive lineman. Only a junior. This guy is an athletic, quick-off-the-ball center. He’s excellent in a zone-blocking scheme, whether it’s sealing the big nose tackle or one-tech, or getting up to the second level. He plays in space very well on screens and pulling and hitting his targets on the second level. Great on combo blocks, He can redirect and really battle and wrestle with nose tackles. He actually wrestled against (Bucs first-round offensive tackle) Tristan Wirfs in the semifinals of the state wrestling tournament. He pancaked Wirfs.
“He’s got some issues at times. His athleticism. He overruns things. Two-hand punching gets him in trouble at times. Occasionally has late hands protecting his chest. Lunges occasionally, which is a common problem among offensive linemen in college football. Everyone gets over-eager to get guys and they have a tendency to play outside their frame a little too much.
“Also, being a converted defensive tackle, there’s some raw stuff with him. But he’s been getting better each year. Another issue with him is his length. His arms measured pretty short at the combine. But he’s pretty clearly the No. 1 center in this class, and the highest coveted interior offensive lineman. He’s a first-round pick all day long.
Round projection: 1
Arms: 32 inches
40 time: 5.18 seconds
225 bench: 31 reps
Ben’s take: “Johnson transferred to BC from Davidson. Davidson uses strength and weakness when they line up their offensive line. So Johnson would play left tackle one play and right tackle the next. At BC, he initially played left guard, then moved out and played left tackle, then went back to guard. He went to the Senior Bowl and played center there. So he’s shown a lot of positional versatility.
“He’s another guy that I think you want in a zone-blocking scheme. He’s really quick off the ball. He wins with positioning. Getting in the right spot. Beating people to the spot. Being quick off the ball. He’s excellent on the move. He’s just a little underpowered. His lower half isn’t that defined. Plays a little tight-hipped. He has a little bit of a narrow stance. He’s not going to move people off the ball, but there are a lot of zone-blocking schemes in the NFL that need that quickness.
“His versatility is going to help him. For what it’s worth, he also was on the golf team in high school.’’
Round projection: 1
Arms: 33 inches
40 time: 5.03
225 bench: 31
Ben’s take: “He played some center, played some guard, played some left tackle. He had a great week at the Senior Bowl. He’s a four-year starter with a nasty mean streak to him. Quick off the ball. He has a strong, sturdy base. He can anchor against power. He has positional flexibility and versatility. His hands are always tight and he never beats himself.
“He reminds me a little bit of Browns center J.C. Tretter, who was a fourth-round pick out of Cornell. He played up and down the line. Played left tackle in a pinch and has been the Browns’ center since he got to Cleveland. Strange is expected to be a mid-round pick, and likely will be a center at the next level as well.”