The highest picks in the NFL Draft tend to be reserved impact players at impact positions. Teams want players that can make the most individual difference in their win-loss column, usually those guys with the ball in their hands or those getting after them. One area that tends to be overlooked in the first round is the interior of the offensive line and, particularly, centers… though not entirely as most seasons there is at least one talked up as being talented enough to go in the middle or at the end of the first round.
Continuing our look at how the drafted players progress over the first five years of their career, we turn our attention to the guys calling the protections and blocking adjustments on the line every snap. You might expect a top draftee to be a fool-proof pick and a guaranteed All-Pro from Day 1, but is that necessarily a realistic expectation? Though you might hope for that sort of impact it is the exception rather than the rule that sees a highly drafted center come in and be one of the league’s best right off the bat.
Generally speaking, if you get drafted high as a center you’re going to play from the outset. In the PFF era (2007-2013) only Ryan Kalil and Rodney Hudson played fewer than 200 snaps of the 11 centers drafted in the first two rounds, while seven played a full season in excess of 1000 snaps. Coming with that playing time, the expected Year-1 performance is an average center, netting a +0.6 overall grade in their first season.
Centers taken lower down the draft order tend to be developmental players and rarely see the field in their rookie seasons. Jason Kelce’s rookie struggles (-11.0 on 1095 snaps) demonstrate that even centers who do develop into better players down the line tend to struggle upon arrival.
The average center does have a positive development curve, though, with highly-drafted players in particular taking the oft-noted third-year jump. On average, first- and second-round centers produe a +10.3 overall grade in their third seasons which they then tend to sustain in their fourth and fifth seasons as they settle and establish themselves in the league. Lower down the draft some centers will repay their development time and offer up seasons like the one we have just seen from Kelce in 2013, though just as many will fall out of the league without ever fulfilling their potential or even seeing the field.
Best Case Scenario
Times might have been tough in Cleveland during the PFF era but one of the things they have done consistently well is make high picks on offensive linemen count. In Alex Mack they found the exception that is a center who comes in and is a top quality starter immediately and he’s sustained good form throughout his career.
His highest single-season grade is still his rookie season (+25.1) and though he has never quite pushed himself on to the same level as Joe Thomas has among the tackles, you couldn’t help but be delighted to have a consistent performer like Mack at the pivot point on your offensive line. In the first five years of his career Mack’s lowest single season grade was a +10.6 in his third season and he was handsomely rewarded for his metronomic performances this offseason when the Browns fought off competition from the Jaguars to keep him in Cleveland for the foreseeable future.
Were it not for our lack of 2006 data then Nick Mangold would fill this slot. Though his performances have tailed off in the last couple of seasons Mangold’s early-career marks progress in a manner very similar to Mack’s linemate in Cleveland, Joe Thomas, with an average overall grade of +32.3 across his second to sixth seasons.
Worst Case Scenario
Taking a center high up in the draft tends to be a fairly safe pick but it can go wrong on occasion and it certainly did for Samson Satele and the Miami Dolphins in 2007. Immediately put into the starting lineup as a rookie, Satele struggled and, though he improved throughout the first five years of his career, it was a steady development from very poor to poor to just reaching being an average center by the time many of his peers had already established themselves as quality starters.
That progression didn’t sustain for Satele beyond Year 5, either. His fifth-season +6.7 overall grade was backed up by two poor seasons in Indianapolis where he returned to his early-career form. Satele is the clear outlier of the early drafted centers since 2007, though the start to Peter Konz’s career at both center and guard suggest that Satele will not be alone for long in this regard.
The Path Most Trodden
If the expectation of a first-round center is a safe pair of hands and a player who steadily develops into a solid starter, then Eric Wood fits that bill to a tee. It has taken Wood until his fifth year to play a full season of 1000 career snaps, but he did see in his third season the growth that we have seen as a constant among this group of players.
In Wood’s case, but for injury it might have been an ever better year than that earning his +10.9 overall grade in an injury-curtailed campaign that saw him register just 553 snaps. His two seasons since then have fallen a little behind the expected curve, but he has developed into a solid pass-protecting center even if his run blocking hasn’t risen to the same standard.
Though highly-drafted centers cannot have the same individual impact on an offense as some of their peers, the position warrants its reputation as a relatively safe plug-and-play spot if you get your scouting right. That reputation can be overstated at times with draft status often translated into player performance a little too easily, but the successes do outweigh the failures (especially in the first round) and with a solid performer like Wood a little behind the average career progression, it’s clear to see that the rare center drafted in the first two rounds tends to be more than worth his elevated status.
See the progression at other positions:
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