Rookie Impact: Centers
This week we are focusing our attention a little tighter than a week ago. We looked at the expected progression for players entering the league at each position all last week but this week we are looking at what you can expect from each spot Year 1 alone.
First-round players get all of the ink, but each year contributions are made by players selected all the way down the draft, and what you can expect from those players goes a long way toward determining how successful your season will be. Winning over an NFL season isn’t about how strong your starting lineup is, it’s about how strong the next man up is across the board, and a huge part of that rests in the strength of the rookie crop.
So let’s take a look at how centers perform in their first NFL season.
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Staking Your Claim
Center is an unusual position in the NFL and requires a peculiar skillset, especially for young players coming into the league. Much like a quarterback needs to be something special just to earn playing time because of all that is expected of him, centers are often the quarterbacks of the offensive line – responsible for making line calls and handling things like the silent count.
Looking at the data, ‘rookie center’ is very much a binary state over the past seven years. You are either starting or you are not, and not much changes between draft day and opening day in that regard. Of the eight players to play over 1,000 snaps as rookies, none of them were drafted after the third round and only one (J.D Walton) was drafted after the second.
Because of the mental demands placed on centers, teams often try and get their rookies playing time initially at guard with a view to them becoming the long-term starter at center once they are already acclimatized to the NFL. Eric Wood experienced this career path, starting as a rookie at right guard and only making the switch to center in 2011, in his third season. Despite that concern, if you are a center taken in the first round you are very much expected to start. Since 2007 Wood is the only first-round center not to start at that position and play every game.
In the second round things become a little cloudier and this is where teams have given their linemen a start at guard far more regularly. Max Unger, Stefan Wisniewski, Rodney Hudson, Peter Konz and Ryan Kalil all earned their first snaps in the league at guard and only Samson Satele among second-round centers was playing that position from the outset.
Yes, lower down the draft centers have managed to find playing time in the NFL, but this has likely been by luck rather than design more often than not. Jason Kelce in the sixth round was a full-time starter from the outset and Jamey Richard played 592 snaps for the Colts after Jeff Saturday went down injured during the 2008 season.
Making Your Mark
Starting is one thing, but how well are you playing on those snaps? Center is a tough position to master early on because of the mental stresses it places on players. How many times guys screwed up a line call is something nobody outside of his team meeting room has any way to measure, but we can see how he did from a purely physical standpoint.
The bottom line is perhaps that there is no predictable grade at the position for rookies. While Alex Mack and Travis Frederick, in particular, have graded very well as first-round rookies, Maurkice Pouncey (despite the Pro Bowl nomination) was far more average in his first year. His brother Mike was a little better.
The second-round players feature far more struggles. Though Unger impressed immediately at guard, Samson Satele had a disastrous campaign at center earning a -27.8 grade from his snaps. Walton, Kelce and Ted Larsen all earned significant playing time as rookies from rounds beyond the second, but ended the season in double-digit negative grades.
The Dream Scenario
The initial hurdle any first-year center needs to clear is being trusted with the mental aspect enough to even get on the field at that position. While Maurkice Pouncey may not have had the rookie year everybody seemed to think he did – it is perfectly fair and true to say that being an every-down starter at that position and handling all of the mental challenges that it brings is in itself an impressive achievement which a PFF grade can never reflect.
However, the dream scenario for centers is a little better than Pouncey. Alex Mack cleared the same mental hurdles and achieved the same feat Pouncey did – starting at center as a rookie – but played far better when he got there. While Pouncey ended the season right around average in the NFL with a grade of -0.2, Mack was a +25.1, the fourth-best mark in the league that season.
Mack was a powerful run blocker as a rookie, and though he wasn’t as strong in pass protection, he surrendered just a single sack and 12 additional pressures, averaging less than one pressure of any kind per game. You may never find a center who can step in and be the best in the league from Day 1, but you can find a guy who has a legitimate Pro Bowl-caliber season as a rookie, and that’s about as good as you can hope for.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam