Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.
Important Want = should improve rather than could.
Need = a missing starter.
This series will look at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds. Earlier posts:
- Offensive Tackle Analysis (as of January 12)
The Situation at Center
The Steelers have a better tradition of all star Centers than any other team in history. Full stop. Mike Webster and Dermontii Dawson occupy the top of this Mount Rushmore, followed by Maurkice Pouncey and then Jeff Hartings, an all star in his own right. We fans are as spoiled as spoiled can be, and have been since the 1970’s.
What makes a great Center? I touched on this in an article from back in early December. It starts with an amazing football IQ to read defenses and make the line calls. The great ones also possess the leadership and communication skills to keep the OL in sync as a unit, while also coordinating with the Quarterback. Then… well, I suppose something physical would come in next. Perhaps the edge-of-nerve quickness to snap the ball and then get into the opposing DT before he can get going. After that you get to all the other physical attributes, such as the ability to anchor, power to drive block, mobility to pull, athleticism to catch and pin shifty LB’s and Safeties in space, and balance to stay in phase despite the best efforts of your NFL opponents to yank, shove, and juke you out of position.
The point being, it’s mental first, mental second, and only then the things that you and I can try to see on film. Please take that planet sized asterisk into account every time you see me talk about draft grades and pro projections.
Okay, let’s move on to the current roster.
- Maurkice Pouncey, 6’4”, 304 lbs., will turn 32 in July, which qualifies as senior but not old in OL-years. Rumors run rampant about whether he will return for the 2021 season, and he is no doubt taking some time to think about it. I personally believe that he most likely will be back. Why? (A) he has one year left on his contract, (B) he’s repeatedly said that he plans to retire at the same time Roethlisberger does, and (C) he is still playing at a high levele compared to most Centers. The brains, leadership, and amazing mobility are all still there. Yes, the fan base resents the fact that he is only a fringe HOF’er rather than Dawson or Webster #3, but the only thing he really lacks is what he always has: size. Truly massive NT’s can bully Maurkice Pouncey when his superior quickness fails to gain an early edge. Anyway, if we take the man at his word, Pittsburgh is still going to require a new Center in the next year or two, which will coincide with the moment when someone like Mason Rudolph has to take over as the new QB. Not a good combination. This is not a stand pat situation.
- J.C. Hassenauer is Pouncey’s 6’3”, 295 lb. backup. He came out of Alabama as a UDFA in 2018, spent a year on the Falcons practice squad, moved over to the short lived AAF, and then landed in Pittsburgh for 2020. The team seems to like him well enough as a backup, and used him as an emergency Guard in 2020. He played like… well, like a 295 pound, slightly undersized Center being asked to step in at a position normally played by 320 pound, ogre sized behemoths. Projects to be a long term backup you can rely on in a pinch but hope you won’t have to.
Translation: Center is an Important Want if Pouncey will be back for 2021, and an actual Need if he retires. So what is available in the draft?
Center is a subtle and hard position to scout, and would be nigh on impossible if the rumor mill wasn’t so loud about college Centers who display those all-important above-the-neck factors. But even the loudest rumor mills can only be trusted so far, and the 2021 class does not include any prospects accompanied by the whisper of being a generational talent. Good, yes. Several of them. Special, no.
OTOH… Matt Feiler is due for a decent sized payday on the free agency market. That means the Steelers will have the same depth issues at Guard as they will at Center. Several of this year’s Centers profile equally well at both positions, which is rare. Getting that kind of twofer, especially in Round 2 or 3, could make a lot of sense and provide a lot of draft flexibility in the years to come.
Here are the best 2021 Center prospects of the draft, with a bonus summary of a prospect who will either be a great developmental prospect for this year or a name to remember for 2022.
THE TOP CENTERS
- T/G/C Rashawn Slater, Northwestern. (Senior). 6’4”, 315 lbs. Draftniks argue that his arm length will limit Slater to Guard or Center, but your humble author cries BS. The talents include excellent mobility, very good hands, and a blue-collar type of play that will appeal to both the city and its team, and the best position flexibility in the draft. Dermontii Dawson played Guard in college. If there is a player in this draft who could shift position to become the next Dawson, it is Rashawn Slater. But my favorite part? Slater may never be the biggest or longest dog in the fight, but he’s going to be the scrappiest, fightingest dog anywhere close to the neighborhood. That matters. Down at the very root he is a Football Player who your humble author believes will excel at any OL position. Center may be the only one where he’ll really struggle. It should be noted that he’ handled top talent successfully out at LT, including a fantastic 2019 game against no less than Chase Young. Slater isn’t likely to be available when the Steelers pick in Round 1, but I will be doing my draft day DeCastro Dance if he falls far enough for the team to pull that trigger. EARLY TO MID-1ST GRADE AS AN OL, NOT JUST A CENTER
- C/G Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma. (Senior). 6’5”, 316 lbs. The spiritual and physical core of an Oklahoma team that’s given the league a series of top OL picks for the past several years, Humphrey is a Center who’s more in the Mike Webster mold than a miracle athlete like Dawson or Pouncey. Smart, tough, and fully capable of playing Guard when he isn’t snapping the ball. A worthy heir to Pouncey, and a fine backup to all three interior line positions until that day arrives. ROUND 2 GRADE
- C/G Josh Myers, Ohio St. (RS Junior). 6’5”, 312 lbs. He’s got everything you want, and at NFL levels. But do any of his assets rise to “special”? The anchor may already be better than Pouncey’s, but Steeler Nation tends to take inhuman mobility levels of mobility for granted. He’s mobile enough, sure, but he ain’t no Pouncey or Dawson. OTOH, he can play all three interior positions and has a very solid floor at each of them. Any player who’d provide quality depth behind DeCastro, Pouncey, and Dotson all at once should definitely be on our Day 2 radar. ROUND 2 GRADE
- C/G Landon Dickerson, Alabama. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 325 lbs. Don’t sleep on this one Steeler Nation, even with the medical red flag for a torn ACL at the end of the season. Dickerson is an experienced Center who’s proven his ability to lead an elite offensive line, but he’s built like a stereotypical power Guard, and blocks like one too. If you want an interior lineman to get down low and dig people out, this is your man. The limitations show when he’s asked to pull and to move in any direction but forward. That makes him an ideal backup for all three interior line positions, which just happens to be a perfect description of what this team could use. A heck of a leader too: he was Alabama’s chosen captain for the championship coin toss. ROUND 2 GRADE (MAYBE LATER DUE TO THE ACL INJURY)
- C/G Trey Hill, Georgia. (Junior). 6’6”, 330 lbs. Turns 21 just before draft day. ‘Tis the year for smart, experienced Guard-sized Centers with great anchors, power moving forward in the running game, and much less mobility that Steeler Nation is used to from its Centers. That is Trey Hill in a nutshell. ROUND 3 GRADE
- C Alec Lindstrom, Boston Coll. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 290 lbs. His father was an NFL pro, his brother is a pro, and it shows in his technical skill and smarts. Good mobility, which stands out in this class, and also has some experience as a long snapper. Gotta love that piece of versatility, especially since he lacks the size to be more than an emergency Guard. Like Pouncey and Hassenauer, his overall anchor is up to snuff unless he loses the initiative against one of those monster NT’s. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does the lack of extra size can get him put on skates. ROUND 3-5 GRADE
- C Drake Jackson, Kentucky. (RS Senior). 6’2”, 310 lbs. A solid, sturdy Center who plays at his best when allowed to do his main job: snap the ball and coordinate with his linemates on both running downs and pass plays. Not the greatest athlete out in the open, though he isn’t exactly bad. Gets a slight discount for lacking the extra size and length to play Guard as well. ROUND 4-7 GRADE.
THE BONUS SUMMARY
- C Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa. (RS Sophomore). 6’3”, 288 lbs. He could legitimately dream of being a Round 1 pick in 2022 or 2023 if all goes right, but will deservedly fall for both rawness and lack of bulk if he comes out in 2021. Linderbaum the sort of target to look for if you want a Center in the Pouncey mold, but he just isn’t there yet. The upside includes tremendous, even startling mobility, a great sense of leverage from his HS wrestling background, experience as a DT, signs of being a quick study, and the appeal of unformed clay. But he is even smaller than Hassenauer, and one can only hope that he has the frame to pack on extra mass while keeping his mobility. Linderbaum only transitioned to Center in 2018 and is still learning the nuances, but the potential is hard to beat.
It is hard to see a situation where one of these players will end up getting picked by the Steelers in Round 1. There’s just too many exceptional talents at Tackle, RB, Corner, Edge, and even ILB. The exception is Rashawn Slater, who would probably be picked more with Tackle in mind, and isn’t likely to fall out of the Top 15 anyway. The sweet spot is Round 2, with Round 3 as the fallback. Round 4 would probably be too late.
But there are some other factors to consider. First, remember what I stressed above: Centers are notoriously hard for amateurs to scout because so much of the equation has to do with above-the-neck factors. The grades listed above will be tentative even in April, and they are very tentative now. Then there’s this.
I’ve been doing this long enough to remember back in 2013, when the Dallas Cowboys spent a 1st Round pick on a Center that the public consensus firmly put in the Round 2-3 range. We all laughed at the time, but Travis Frederick turned out to be a darned good investment. Humphrey, Myers, or Dickerson could all make that exact same leap up Pittsburgh’s board – properly – if the team determines that he is as special as Frederick in the upstairs department.
Then there’s the Steelers history of prioritizing OT the middle of the line over the emphasis that most teams place on bookend Tackles. Go back 50 years and you will see only three Round 1 Tackles picked by the Steelers. The first was Leon Searcy at #11 overall in 1992. He qualifies as a significant disappointment for such a pricey selection. The next two were basically busts: Tom Rickets at #24 overall in 1994, and Jamaine Stephens at #29 in 1996. No Tackle has been picked in Round 1 since in the quarter century since then.
Centers, by contrast, have been the heart of Pittsburgh’s O-Line philosophy since the 1970’s. See the list above. Between Faneca, DeCastro, Colon, the Big Ragu, and now Dotson, we’ve been spoiled almost as badly when it comes to Guard. Thus the team may care more about these Center prospects than most people think, with less priority on the much more extensive Tackle class.
Ask me next May and I’ll be able to give you a much more accurate take.