It’s not often that a six-time Pro-Bowler can be classified as underrated, but that’s exactly what seems to have happened to Matt Birk. Birk, selected to back to back Pro-Bowls on three separate occasions in his career, hasn’t made the postseason all-star game since 2007, but just may have been the best center in the league last year.
“Crazy talk!” I hear you scream, because everybody knows Nick Mangold is the best center in the league, and has been for some time. While we’re not going to argue that Nick Mangold is clearly the best center in the NFL, we’re happy to stand by the statement that Matt Birk matched him, and maybe even surpassed him in 2010.
It’s worth mentioning that Mangold was hampered by an injury early in the year that clearly led to a slow start. The interesting thing is that when looking at our grading, even when he was healthy he wasn’t able to overtake Birk at the top of our rankings down the stretch – the Ravens lineman maintained his lead over the final games with some very strong performances.
Keeping the QB Clean
The center position is not an easy one to evaluate from a casual glance; they’re rarely involved in huge plays one way or the other. By the nature of pass protection and blocking schemes, the center is often helping on blocks and is seldom exposed to being beaten badly for a sack. As if to illustrate this, Mangold and Birk combined to allow just two sacks on the season (one each). Beyond that, Mangold allowed one additional knock down of the quarterback and a further six pressures, while Birk allowed just another five pressures.
Birk’s mark of total pressures was the lowest in the league among 16-game starters (or anybody with more than 600 snaps for that matter), and the pair combined to allow pressure on just 1.06% of their pass-protecting plays. Both were as good as it got as pass protectors in 2010 and neither one of them was allowing much to bother the quarterback.
But when you’re dealing with such a small number of pressures, it’s difficult to be satisfied with the sample size and claim Birk did better on the year, even if he was able to edge the pressure numbers. How about in the run game?
A Pile of Positives
Nick Mangold has a certain special ability that is difficult to define, but it’s what you see now and then from great players – the ability to manhandle and rag-doll other 300lb+ behemoths. His strength has been his dominance in the run game and the ability to move people out of holes for the Jets’ running backs. If anything will show the gap he has over the rest of the league, including Matt Birk, this is it.
But before we get to the numbers we need a little explanation of where they’re coming from. We recorded the graded blocks from both players against their defenders and listed them as either Dominant, Positive, Marginal or Negative blocks for this purpose. Any block that was essentially a stalemate by both the blocker and the defender is graded as a zero, and isn’t looked at in this data beyond being counted as a run blocking play. When we give percentages here, they are of graded blocks, not of total run blocks.
Mangold does indeed beat Birk comfortably in the number of ‘Dominant Blocks’ from last season – Birk accounted for only one, and Mangold totaled eight – but after that, the numbers don’t split the way you might expect. Each player recorded more than 53% positive blocks (Birk 53.9, Mangold 53.5), and while Mangold recorded fewer ‘Marginal Blocks’ (24% to Birk’s 36.3%), he was responsible for ten more ‘Negative Blocks’ than Birk (12.4% of his total to Birk’s 5.9%).
So what does all of that mean? Essentially it means that, though Mangold was able to record some more crushing blocks on defenders last season, he was also beaten badly more often than Birk. The fact that the two players posted near identical ratios of positive blocks shows just how close they were in terms of performance. What to value more, the superior brute strength of Mangold or the steady consistency of Birk is debatable, but it’s clear from any numbers you can look at that the two players were not separated by much last season.
Given the pedestal that Mangold has been on almost since he played his first down in the NFL, that’s a remarkable achievement for Matt Birk, now 34 years old and often something of an afterthought. Birk was once a dominant Pro-Bowler himself, and when he left Minnesota in free agency, it seems he passed from the forefront of people’s consciousness as a player with superior ability.
The point of all this? Matt Birk is a six-time Pro-Bowler. 2010 should have made it seven. Whether you think he can keep up with the dominant play of Mangold or not (and there’s a very valid argument to be made that if Mangold is healthy for all of next season he will avoid much of the negatives of 2010), Matt Birk is still capable of being one of the league’s best centers, and all too many people seem to have forgotten that.
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