The physical and mental demands on a center vary from team to team and opponent to opponent. In some divisions, a center can have a fairly “easy” run on things, facing vanilla defenses and a number of 4-3 teams allowing him to work quickly and frequently to the second level against lighter linebackers. While in other divisions, he’ll face more complex fronts and a lot of heavy nose tackles testing his mental and physical agility. The importance of a center is tough to understate and this offseason there is the potential for two of the league’s best to hit the open market.
Centers can be seen as scheme-specific and our top-graded centers may be overlooked by some who feel that they are only of value to a small collection of teams running the right scheme. However, we’re going to go on our grading and, led by our top-ranked center from the 2011 NFL season, present our list to you of the Top 5 centers to be had in free agency. A list not featuring a number of veteran centers who, while reaching the end of their contracts are most likely to either retire or re-sign on a short term deal with their current teams.
1) Chris Myers, Houston Texans
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 30
2011 Grade: +32.6
Key Stat: No team ran off their center more this year than the Texans, 180 times at 4.1 yards per carry.
Behind the Numbers: Myers has played in the shadow of Nick Mangold and Matt Birk for the last two seasons, but with both struggling through injury and Myers raising his game against nose tackles, the Houston starter rose to the top in his contract season to take our first team All-Pro start at center. Myers’ is a perfect fit for the Texans’ zone scheme, but his improvement against nose tackles this season–his run blocking grade was +8.9 against teams who operate some sort of a 3-4 defense compared to -1.5 last season–may just pique the interest of teams running other schemes.
2) Scott Wells, Green Bay Packers
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 31
2011 Grade: +16.0
Key Stat: Has allowed only two sacks every season for the last three years.
Behind the Numbers: Wells has been the Packers’ starter at center ever since we started grading back in 2008 and his lowest season rank among centers came in 2009; he was our 19th-ranked center that year, in spite of a +4.4 grade. Wells’ consistency has seen him end up as one of a handful of Packers players in the running to be tagged to keep him in Green Bay. With the league-wide increase of teams running from the shotgun and spread formations, Wells’ value should only be bumped on the open market and, despite of a disappointing display in the Packers’ playoff defeat (two penalties and three pressures), he is sure to attract interest on the open market. But would you leave that Green Bay team for a bigger pay day?
3) Nick Hardwick, San Diego Chargers
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 30
2011 Grade: +6.8
Key Stat: Hasn’t surrendered a sack since Week 7 of 2010
Behind the Numbers: After briefly flirting with retirement, Hardwick confirmed last week that he will return for another season, but with his play in the run game diminishing the Chargers may look to go in another direction. Hardwick is one of the better pass protecting centers in the league–our highest-graded in that respect this season–and yielded only two hits and seven pressures all year. Also incredibly disciplined, he conceded only three penalties in the last two seasons and, with the proliferation of the passing game, he would provide a solid upgrade for a number of teams if the Chargers choose to move on.
4) Samson Satele, Oakland Raiders
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 27
2011 Grade: +3.0
Key Stat: His run blocking grade of +5.7 was fifth-best amongst centers this season
Behind the Numbers: Satele is part of an apparently dying breed, a run-blocking center. He was one of only eight centers who graded above +5.0 as a run blocker in 2011 and was a capable pass protector, grading -0.5 for the season. However, no center was penalized more last season than Satele who was flagged eight times, with four of those coming on holding penalties and one flag for illegal use of the hands, his discipline fitting right in with the ever-renegade Raiders. If Satele chooses to move to pastures, new a team would need to work on his discipline, but his work from whistle-to-whistle would be of value to a team that runs a traditional, under-center, run-heavy offense.
5) Dan Koppen, New England Patriots
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 34
2011 Grade: +0.8 (+5.6 in 2010)
Key Stat: Played in excess of 1,100 snaps every year from 2008 to 2010
Behind the Numbers: The Patriots have two centers out of contract come March and it seems likely that they will re-sign one of those with the younger Dan Connolly seemingly the more likely to get a new deal in Foxborough. That leaves Koppen fresh from a season-ending injury (33 snaps into the season opener) to try to find a new home as a free agent. Durability shouldn’t be a concern for Koppen, having played more than 95% of the Patriots’ snaps every year from 2008 to 2010. That said, from game to game, Koppen’s level of play has been rather inconsistent over the years. In 2010 his game grades ranged from -4.5 to +5.5 and 2008 saw a dreadful -7.2 against the Jets. Koppen could be a decent stop-gap, but, if the likes of Wells and Myers are locked up before or early into free agency, he could yet see his value rise on a short-term deal.
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