Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Centers
You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’re now ranking the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
Marching through our ‘Ranking the 2014 Free Agents’ series we’ve been through the defense (linebackers, edge rushers, interior D-linemen, corners, and safeties), the offensive backfield (quarterbacks, running backs, receivers) and will now finish off the offensive line by adding centers to the already-discussed tackles and guards .
If your team needs a new starting center, this could be the year to find one through free agency. With a numerous starting-quality players available, multiple teams will be able to address the need.
1. Alex Mack – Transition Tag, Cleveland
2013 Grade: +17.8
2013 Snaps: 1150
Summary: Since Mack entered the league in 2009 he has graded out as one of the Top 10 centers every season, and once in that time he finished inside the Top 5. Mack has never been one of the elite pass protectors in the league, but the past three seasons he has improved his pass-blocking grade to be consistently over +5.0. This past season Mack actually gave up the most pressure in his career, but when you compare that to his grade you realize that some of this pressure is not all down to him.
In the run game Mack has shown himself to be one of the league’s best – in his five seasons he has graded above +10.0 three times. While Mack isn’t one of the game’s elite centers, he is a very good player who hasn’t missed a snap in his career.
2. Brian De La Puente
2013 Grade: +6.1
2013 Snaps: 1305
Summary: De La Puente is a good pass-blocking center; in his three seasons as a starter he has never posted a Pass Blocking Efficiency under 98.2 and has given up a total of 46 pressures in 2144 passing snaps. In his best season has a pro, 2012, De La Puente managed to take his pass-blocking skill set and add to it by drastically improving his run blocking. In 2011 and 2013 he put up a poor combined run blocking grade of -8.5, but showed in 2012 what he was capable of by recording a +13.6.
With De La Puente turning 29 before the season, interested teams will either have to accept the idea that he is simply good pass blocker who struggles in the run game, or bank on him regaining his form from 2012. The team that adds De La Puente to their roster will be getting a reliable player who, in the past three seasons, has not missed any time due to injury.
3. Evan Dietrich-Smith – Signs with Tampa Bay
2013 Grade: +14.2
2013 Snaps: 1137
Summary: It is very possible when we look back from this group of free agent centers that Dietrich-Smith will be seen as the best of the group. In his only season as full-time starter, he managed to post a very strong overall grade of +14.2. Dietrich-Smith came into the league as an undrafted tackle out of Idaho State and the Packers tried him as a guard/center backup in 2011 and 2012 — when he started for them as a guard in 2011 he struggled, grading at -7.6 in only 322 snaps. The move to full-time center in 2013 was a good one for both player and team.
Dietrich-Smith will have a lot of question marks over his head, since he has only played 1,420 snaps at center. In the short time that he played the position in 2012 (155 snaps), he graded out as a league-average run blocker and in 2013 took a step in the right direction, finishing among the Top 15 centers in that regard. The upside of Dietrich-Smith is very high; if he can continue to improve every season he might the steal of the group.
4. Jonathan Goodwin
2013 Grade: +5.8
2013 Snaps: 1001
Summary: Since we have been grading (2008) Goodwin has had seasons that range from just below average (2010 -4.0 overall grade) to two years in the Top 10 (2009 and 2012). When he is at his best, Goodwin is a player who is solid in the run game but average in pass protection — in the past four seasons his Pass Blocking Efficiency has been below 98.0, dipping to second-worst in the league at a worrying 96.4 in 2011.
While the other three centers that are ahead of him here are significantly younger, Goodwin has proven to be a durable player — in the past six seasons he has logged nearly 7,000 snaps. Goodwin could be one of the last starting centers signed, but he is still a solid player who can fill in for the next few seasons.
5. Roberto Garza – Re-signs with Chicago
2013 Grade: +7.2
2013 Snaps: 1070
Summary: In 2011 the Bears moved Garza from guard to center. As a starting guard he was always an above average run blocker who could struggle in pass protection. When he was shifted to center, he has found it tough going, never showing the same ability in the run game that he consistently showed before the switch. He has improved drastically from 2011, however, where he was the third-lowest ranked run-blocking center (-16.0), ranking 15th in that category in 2013 with a grade of +0.8.
In the past six seasons Garza has played over 1,000 snaps every season and the improvement he showed in his contract year might be appealing for a team looking for a starting center.
6. Fernando Velasco
2013 Grade: -4.9
2013 Snaps: 758
Summary: In the 2013 preseason it was a shock to see the Titans release Velasco after a very good 2012 campaign. After Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey tore his ACL in Week 1, the Steelers added Velasco as a replacement and, while he did not perform anywhere near the same level he showed in 2012, he put in admirable work considering the situation.
Velasco’s final season with the Titans was a very good all-around effort. His biggest strength was as a run blocker but he struggled in that department with the Steelers. It is possible that with another change of scenery Velasco could reproduce the quality play he showed in 2012.
7. Joe Hawley – Re-signs with Atlanta
2013 Grade: -0.6
2013 Snaps: 530
Summary: Joe Hawley has been the Falcons’ backup swing G/C for the last couple of seasons and only in 2011 did he receive any significant playing time before 2013. In that 2011 stint, Hawley only played 230 snaps at center, however, and had a tough time to say the least, grading out at -9.1 in four games at the position. Resurfacing in 2013, Hawley was significantly better, playing in seven games and grading out just below the league average mark.
With Hawley only being 25 years old, he could very well continue to improve and become a viable long-term option. He is, however, still something of an unknown quantity and may have settled to his level already.
8. Ryan Wendell
2013 Grade: -17.1
2013 Snaps: 1,351
Summary: The New England Patriots put converted guard Ryan Wendell into the starting center spot in 2012 and he responded by producing a Top-5 type of season. He was unable to replicate that feat in 2013, though, and finished as our third-lowest ranked center. When Wendell was at his best he was a dominating run blocker, grading above +2.0 in six games in 2012 and landing in the top spot among all centers with a +24.7 run blocking grade. The follow-up season, however, saw his run blocking slip and he was flatly a liability in pass protection, notching the worst pass-blocking grade at the position and the 33rd-ranked (out of 35) Pass Blocking Efficiency mark of 95.6.
The fact that he has shown that outstanding run-blocking ability surely will lure suitors and it will be interesting to see the kind of year he posts as an answer to the 2013 drop off.
9. Ryan Cook
2013 Grade: N/A
2013 Snaps: 0
Summary: Ryan Cook is trying to return from a back injury that kept him out of the 2013 season. When we last saw him, Cook was starting for Dallas after Phil Costa went down in the 2012 season also with a back injury. Struggling to crack the starting lineup at any point along the way while being shuffled between tackle, guard and center, Cook’s 2012 performance was as an above average starting center where he showed particularly well in the run game. Cook might have to sign on as a camp body and fight his way onto a roster… that is, if he gets a shot as a 31-year-old with limited starting experience and coming off of a serious back injury.
10. J. D. Walton – Signs with the New York Giants
2013 Grade: N/A
2013 Snaps: 0
Summary: Walton spent 2012 as the starting center for the Broncos, but in Week 4 he suffered a dislocated ankle and has not seen the field since. In his first two seasons he finished as the fourth- lowest graded center in 2010 (-15.9) and the lowest-ranked in 2011 (-31.9). A subpar pass blocker in both seasons, allowing 52 total pressures in that time, his run blocking grade of -23.2 in 2011 was the worst we’ve given to a center.
In the four games he played with Peyton Manning, Walton improved (either with the help that Manning brings to an offensive line or through his own doing), and graded out at +5.1 in 256 snaps with positive marks in both run and pass blocking. The team that signs Walton will be bringing him to camp with fingers crossed, seeing what he has to give.
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