Todd McClure is getting up in age (33), and the time may be ripe for the Falcons to draft his replacement.
Although it might not be necessary because the Falcons have Brett Romberg for antoher year. And while Romberg isn’t exactly a young man (he’s only two years younger than McClure), he’s shown himself to be a solid backup center this past year.
So Romberg isn’t really a strong option to replace McClure long-term, but because of his lock on the backup center position, anybody the Falcons would likely draft this year probably won’t play. So that means if the Falcons want their rookie center to contribute, then he’d probably have to possess the versatility to contribute as a reserve at another position like guard.
But because of Romberg’s presence they could still potentially draft a center prospect that is a bit more raw and could spend a year on the practice squad and not hurt the team’s depth.
1. Intelligence – This is the No. 1 trait a center must have because he has to coordinate what his four other linemates must do as well as himself and help the quarterback. The beauty is that with Matt Ryan, the Falcons have a quarterback that does a good job reading the defense, as opposed to during the Vick days when the center was solely responsible for blitz adjustments. Intelligence often comes with experience. So the longer a guy has played center in the college, usually the better.
2. Strength – The flaw of McClure is that he isn’t very strong, and gets pushed around by bigger tackles. Now, because of the fact that there are fewer 3-4 teams in the NFC than there are in the AFC, the Falcons have been able to get away with this for the past decade that McClure has been the starter. But there is a growing number of 3-4 teams in the NFC, so adding a more physical center would certainly benefit the Falcons in the long run.
This isn’t a particularly strong class of centers, unlike last season. The highest ranked player in this year’s class is Florida’s Maurkice Pouncey, a junior. Pouncey has experience playing both guard and center. He made line calls for the Gators, showcasing his intelligence. And he has rare size for a center (6’5″ 318), with strong potential and ability as a run blocker. Centers usually don’t go in the first round of the draft, but some have said that Pouncey is as good as any center from last year’s class which included two centers (Alex Mack and Eric Wood) that went in the first round.
Most rank Baylor’s J.D. Walton and Boston College’s Matt Tennant as the next best centers.
Walton was a three-year starter for the Bears, and is known as a tough, physical interior mauler. Tennant also was a three-year starter in college, with his first being Matt Ryan’s final year at BC. He could be labeled more of a finesse blocker in comparison to Walton, but that shouldn’t imply that he lacks toughness or mean streak. He comes from a program that has churned out a steady stream of solid NFL blockers, including centers Dan Koppen, Tom Nalen, Damien Woody, and Pete Kendall. So even if Tennant is the worst of the group, he’d probably still be a pretty solid NFL player.
Two next tier prospects that also can potentially play guard are USC’s Jeff Byers and Notre Dame’s Eric Olsen. Byers played mostly guard for the Trojans, but has the size that is more in line with an NFL center. He only got 1 start at center, so there may be some adjustment. But he offers the ability to contribute as a reserve guard right away and then be developed as a center. The same can be said of Olsen. Olsen has a lot of mean streak. He started this past year in the pivot for the Irish after two years as a starting guard. He’s got good size and strength is the type of center that AFC teams often target because of his potential to match up with 330-pound nose tackles.
Another bigger center is Sean Allen (East Carolina). He’s a solid run blocker, but needs work in pass protection. But Allen offers the size you like in the middle to match up with size. He’ll need some polish, but could also contribute as a guard right away.
Ted Larsen (N.C. State), Kenny Alfred (Washington State), Jim Cordle (Ohio State), and John Estes (Hawaii) are also worth mentioning as potential late round options.
Larsen has only limited experience after moving from defensive tackle as a sophomore. But his experience on defense gives him a good, scrappy mean streak that Paul Boudreau likes. Alfred isn’t very big, and is more the same type of finesse center that McClure is, but is smart and polished. Cordle played a multitude of positions for the Buckeyes, playing at all five positions. This past year he played both tackle spots. Most of his experience at center came as a sophomore. But his versatility could make him an asset on the line. Estes isn’t very big, but he’s a four-year starter (three coming at center), smart, scrappy, and stronger than he looks on paper. But coming from Hawaii he’ll have to adjust to a pro offense.
I should also mention that Mitch Petrus and John Malecki, two players I mentioned in the guard section should also be worthy of consideration.
The Final Verdict
The beauty of centers is that they rarely are drafted high. So unlike other positions, you can find value in the late rounds. A center in the seventh round often compares to a fourth round pick at most other positions. While Pouncey would be the best option, I’m not sure the Falcons would use a first round pick on a center. But the value of Pouncey is that he can contirbute right away as a guard, and then be moved to center down the road.
After Pouncey there is a significant dropoff in talent. Walton and Tennant probably will third or fourth rounders simply because of the void, not necessarily because they are that talented. Walton and Olsen probably make the most sense if the Falcons wanted to get more physical at the position. Tennant’s past experience with Ryan also helps bolster his stock with the Falcons. And because Olsen can contribute as a guard, it probably makes him a more versatile option.
None of the other players offer anything special to make them especially attractive. And because of that, one would think the Falcons could afford to pass on them and wait another year for a better center prospect in 2011. But that’s what individual workouts are for, and it’s possible one could emerge from the pack as a good heir apparent to McClure.