One of the great questions this offseason will be what, if anything, to do about the Center position. That requires two matching debates: (A) how do we evaluate the future version of Kendrick Green, and (B) how do we evaluate the only top center of this year’s draft, Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum?
The Massive Expectations To Be Met
I can remember when Maurkice Pouncey got drafted like it was yesterday. The Steelers went into 2010 with everyone knowing they wanted to draft a new Center. After all, the team had the greatest tradition in NFL history at that position, and was now mired in mediocrity.
Ray Mansfield had been one of the few bright lights of the pre-Noll Steelers. Drafted in 1963, he ended his career as a sort of Hines Ward equivalent playing in the middle of the OL; an all-time Steeler and fringe HOF’er. Mansfield was succeeded in 1974 by a 5th Round pick who surpassed all expectations. Iron Mike Webster studied under Mansfield for two long redshirt years, and then went on to become the widely acknowledged GOAT by the time he retired. Fans should note that Webster repeatedly gave those two years a great deal of credit for his later success.
Webster’s 1988 departure led seamlessly into Dermontti Dawson’s arrival in 1989. Dawson, a 1988 2nd-Rounder, started at Guard in his rookie year in order to study under his great predecessor. Needles to say, the man who eventually became the new GOAT hit the ground running. And left some major shoes to fill!
Stop and think about this. When Dawson retired, this team had spent the last 37 years with only three starters: one fringe HOF candidate, the greatest Center who’d ever played the game, and then the man who succeeded him as the GOAT. Steelers Nation cared about that streak, and so did the organization. So the team went out and made one of its rare free agent splash signings: Jeff Hartings, a 1st round lineman who’d played Guard for four years in Detroit. The team had done its research well. Hartings, like Mansfield, could be a charter member in the Hall of The Awfully Damned Good. His reign lasted through 2006.
43 years in a row.
Then came the years of mediocrity. First there was Sean Mahan in 2007, who wasn’t bad so much as mediocre and easy to forget. The fanbase savaged him relentlessly. Then Justin Hartwig, who was probably an improvement on Mahan but not much more than that. Pittsburghers wailed and moaned like you wouldn’t believe.
Enter the 2010 draft and the selection of Maurkice Pouncey, a 6’4”, 304 lb. phenomenon who the Steelers selected at #18 overall. The plan was to give him a redshirt year or two before starting. We wanted the next Iron Mike or Dirt Dawson, and we knew what that required. Sure, Pouncey had been the best college Center of his generation. That’s why he got picked so absurdly high. But the NFL is a major step up!
And then the word began to leak out of training camp. That Pouncey kid? The pricey rookie we’d see in a year or two when he’d been properly seasoned? He wasn’t just a prospect. The kid was a phenom. He didn’t just outplay Hartwig in the drills, he made the friggin’ line calls! And he did it better, faster, and more reliably than the multiyear veteran! What to do, what to do. The answer came down around the end of July. “Genius makes its own rules; Maurkice Pouncey looked like a genius at his position; and so all the expectations could be trashed.” I do not exaggerate. Those who were there will bear me out.
Maurkice Pouncey, 2010-2020. Which brought the total up to 56 years in a row, minus a mere three of agonizing mediocrity. A full half century of HOF-level play, plus change. I will go out on a limb and say that no other team has had a run like that. At any position, in any sport. Ever.
2021 and Kendrick Green
And now I will go out on limb #2. What in the nine bleeding hells did the Steelers brass think was going to happen to poor Kendrick Green when he entered the league with those kind of bloated expectations hanging over his head? This was the final entry in last year’s Big Board:
|3:24||C/G Kendrick Green, Illinois (RS Junior). 6’1⅞”, 305 lbs. with 32¼” arms and 10⅛” hands. Jonathan Heitritter’s gif-supported, late March scouting report describes a natural Center who spent a lot of his time at Guard, and will probably require a redshirt year in the NFL unless his team can accept blown plays as he learns the trade. Green plays a smart-man’s game as an OL, with excellent burst at the snap and fluid mobility (both supported by good athletic testing), plus a knack for getting his body between the defender and the play. Better at run blocking than pass protection, but will miss defenders in space and could add more nastiness to his game. Lots of room to grow as a technician; but that is to be expected from a DL who crossed over just three years ago, and has gotten steadily better in every season. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile points to problems that basically come down to dealing with special levels of power, speed, or quickness on the other side; a/k/a, the things that require expert technique. The March PFN scouting profile agrees that his best fit will be at Center.|
That’s just about the same weight as Pouncey, but 2⅛” shorter with slightly shorter arms, and not even an appreciable fraction of Pouncey’s starting experience. Throwing that young man to the wolves in his rookie year? It was cruel. As a starting Center? Absurd. As a starting Center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with half a century of GOAT-level greatness hanging over his head? Madness. Sheer madness. And sort of cruel, too, because any moron could guess how the fan base was about to react to all the typical rookie problems he was bound to run into.
I really hope that someone forwards this post on to that young man, because he deserves to know that some of us understand his pain.
Can we get an honest evaluation of Kendrick Green?
I may sympathize with the young man, but that doesn’t mean I was blind to his below-the-line play. The fact that it was both predictable and predicted doesn’t change that reality. It only changes how you and I ought to be evaluating the young man who failed to meet such fantastically grandiose expectations. We need to subtract the emotion and figure out where we think Kendrick Green is likely to be after a year of offseason work and a typical sophomore leap.
Issue #1: Problems snapping the ball. Maurkice Pouncey experienced the same problems, so I’m willing to give him a pass on this. It must be a tougher task than we outsiders assume. And I’m sure it’s only made that much harder by the pressure of trying to read a defense during the early part of your career, before things start to slow down. (That famous line from just about every vet). It cannot be tolerated, but it may have to be accepted as a fact of life.
Issue #2: Getting bullied off the line. That was Pouncey’s main flaw too. Genius? Maybe. I would not be at all surprised to see Pouncey in the HOF some day, and I will be shocked if he isn’t up there getting debated. But every fan who rooted for all those years will confirm that Size XL Nose Tackles gave Maurkice Pouncey fits when they lined up dead in front of his helmet. The reason was simple. Pouncey was 6’4”, 304, with 32” arms. Those monster NT’s run closer to 330 or 350, with 35” arms. He was outweighed, outgunned, and had no way to survive except through extraordinary discipline, anticipation, and technique (“DAT”). And I say “survive” because he rarely, if ever, won those matchups in a dominating way.
Kendrick Green is a shockingly strong young man. That’s an area where he is actually special. But his lack of inches puts him in an even greater natural hole than Pouncey faced. He’s that much shorter in both height and reach, which makes the DAT factors all the more vital. And you know what? Those are the three areas where Green suffered the most.
- Discipline: Ben Roethlisberger has repeatedly cited “passion” as the rookie’s most notable characteristic, for both good and ill. “You can’t have that [fire and passion] at Center; you have to be cerebral and not try to get into fights after every play.” Maybe so, but that is certainly something a young man can learn. And should learn. And will learn, sooner or later, just like the rest of us.
- Anticipation: Everyone recognizes that Kendrick Green was in over his head when it came to making NFL reads, playing at NFL speeds, and doing so against NFL opponents. Again, this is an area where experience and study are bound to make him better. The unknown factor goes to whether Green has the pure intellectual firepower to make all those reads and line calls. Time will tell.
- Technique: This is the one that people worry about the most, and also the one that all us draftniks predicted in advance. “Better at run blocking than pass protection.. will miss defenders in space… lots of room to grow as a technician; but that is to be expected from a DL who crossed over just three years ago…” I’ve no doubt he will improve. Young men come to the NFL, and commence to learn their craft at a whole new level they never knew could exist. It happens all the time. But it can also take some time, and often it takes more than just a single year of study.
If it isn’t clear yet, I believe that Kendrick Green has gotten a bum rap. We know that Center is a particularly hard position to learn. We know it requires a redshirt year or two even for guys who go on to be the GOAT’s. We know that men with limited size and reach require extraordinary DAT to overcome their physical limitations. And we knew going into the year that Green’s big flaws lay in his lack of D, A, and T. So we’ve been unfair, and he has not actually failed to live up to the level we had a right to expect.
But that doesn’t mean he’s succeeded. He hasn’t. And the key question is whether we think he will after having a chance to absorb the lessons of his all-but-disastrous rookie year.
I personally think the odds are pretty good. No one has questioned Kendrick Green’s work ethic, and everyone has praised his passionate desire to be great. Plus there’s the fact that Mike Tomlin is as good as it gets when it comes to bringing out the most that young men have to give. So I hope, and believe (with caution) that our 2021 3rd-Rounder is going to mature into a competent player with another year or two of dedicated work. And maybe even more than that. But what are we to do if Kendrick Green turns out to be one of those (very common) young players who doesn’t really catch on to the nuances until Year 3 or 4? Eek.
Besides: This is Pittsburgh folks! Run down that list of names again! Mansfield; Webster; Dawson; Pouncey; and then…? Are we going to be satisfied if Kendrick Green merely grows to be a Top 10-15 Center? Should we be? Or is it part of the Steelers’ culture to build this offense around HOF-level performance at the core of the offensive line? Should the answer be this: “Yes, we should be fair to Kendrick Green, and no, we haven’t been so far. But we should also spend the assets to give us true greatness at Center That’s our heritage; our tradition; and it matters to me as a fan.”
I may believe in Kendrick Green’s future, but I’m not crawling out on any limbs to compare him with what Pittsburgh fans have known and loved for all these decades. Give the young man his chance to be good. Even very good. But don’t forget that nothing short of HOF greatness is going to fit The Steeler Way.
Looking at Tyler Linderbaum
This year’s class offers a single Center who stands head and shoulders above all the other prospects. There are a few I like in the later rounds, just as I liked Green. But only Tyler Linderbaum has been nominated as a potential HOF’er. But to be honest, I have my doubts. Especially about whether he can achieve his potential in the type of offense that Pittsburgh has started to build.
Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum weights in at 6’3”, 290 lbs. and probably has arms in the same 32” range as both Pouncey and Green. In other words, he is an inch shorter and 15 lbs. lighter than Pouncey, and two inches taller but 15 lbs. lighter than Green (and probably much less freakishly strong). On the other hand, he comes with the same reputation for college-level discipline, anticipation, and technique that Pouncey enjoyed going in to the 2010 draft. Iowa trains them well, and Linderbaum also has a very strong wrestling background going back to High School. He also has the same head-shaking level of mobility that made Pouncey and Dawson so special.
I’ve only watched one of his games, the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky. That isn’t enough to form more than an initial impression, but it was a very good game for that purpose because Kentucky has some enormous NT’s. We’re talking well in excess of 330 lbs., and thus more than enough to gauge whether size is going to be an ongoing issue at the next level. The answer, alas, was a pretty clear yes. Those Kentucky DT’s gave Linderbaum fits. But at the same time, he never quite lost the battles either. He struggled like mad to break even, especially in the trenches, but he did manage to survive.
Thus I have a solid, if very preliminary, opinion on the red flag about this prospect’s lack of size: Physics still works, and putting a 0-tech DT over Tyler Linderbaum’s nose is not a fair fight. Sheer size and power are going to challenge him forever. Especially since those Kentucky players are Size XXXL college kids, and he’s going to find that grown NFL men are a whole level harder to deal with.
At the same time, I also noticed that his opponents regularly got destroyed whenever Iowa lent him a Guard for the double team. That tells me Linderbaum was close to achieving a draw even when he was losing against those beef-fed big boys. His discipline, anticipation, and technique were dead on point even when the opposition had him outgunned. And as for the mobility… Wow. It’s all that’s been advertised. He made one TD happen with a key block 40 yards down the field! And I saw numerous cases where he neatly shifted around to take an angle, or recovered from an initial loss with an elegant reset of his feet.
So my one-game scouting profile ends with strong belief that Tyler Linderbaum is going to be a good, solid pro. It’s just that I also think he’s far better suited for an offense that will use minimize the need for him to face those big NT’s mano-a-mano. A Shanahan style outside zone attack would be ideal. Pittsburgh runs much more of an inside, power oriented game. So I have real doubts about his fit for this particular team. I remain open to the idea, but not sold on it.
Please convince me if you can. I honestly have no objection to reminding Kendrick Green about that long list of names, and explaining that he cannot play in Pittsburgh if he’s “only” a very good pro. He (and Linderbaum) will only be truly welcome when live up to our history, not the standard required by every other team in organized sports.
Please join into a discussion in the Comments if you have any concrete analysis to add. We draftniks really need to dig into these details, because both Kendrick Green and Tyler Linderbaum are going to be focal points of the draft discussion.
I’ll ask you to please refrain if you’re only eager to vent some residual steam over Kendrick Green’s difficult rookie year. I get it. We all do. He was given an impossible task; he failed to live up to an impossible standard; and no one was happy to see his struggles. It hurt us all to watch.
But prior experience does not dictate future results. Especially for rookie offensive linemen, and even more especially for rookie Centers. Maybe Ben is right. Maybe Kendrick Green’s first goal should be to reign in his passions, and approach the job from a higher level of discipline. And maybe we should try to do the same in our evaluation of both him, and the one guy who might be worth drafting at his position in the first half of the draft. [Harumph].