Stories of the Season: Taking Center Stage
Stories of the Season: Taking Center Stage
For the last three seasons, two players have dominated the top of our rankings for the center position. Nick Mangold and Matt Birk have been a class apart so far as centers go in the NFL since 2008, with Mangold ranking first overall every season except for last year when he was a close second to Birk. As run blockers they look as dominant as the best guards, and in pass protection they show the footwork to pick-up stunts, the base strength to anchor against the bull rush of the top nose tackles, and the smarts to pick out late blitzing linebackers. In essence, they have it all.
This season, however, injuries have struck both players, leaving a new class of centers to emerge and stake their claim as the league’s best. Mangold and Birk are not a million miles away (sixth and eighth respectively in our rankings), but there’s a group ahead of them that deserve their due.
The Inspiration for this article
Currently topping our rankings for the center position is a player who has been primed to take advantage of any slip from Messrs.’ Mangold and Birk for a while now, Houston center Chris Myers (+18.9). Myers was our third-ranked center last season and ranked on a par with Birk and Mangold in terms of his run blocking ability, but was let down by his pass protection. This year he has elevated his play as a pass protector without losing any of his fine play as a run blocker in the Houston zone scheme that he fits so perfectly. Denver should be absolutely kicking themselves that they let him get away back in 2007 as the gulf in class between him and their current center J.D. Walton (-13.6) couldn’t be wider with Walton our bottom-ranked center on the year. Needless to say, he isn’t one of our “centers of attention”.
Center is an extremely tough position to play and possibly more so than any other position on the line, how well you fit and how well you play is dictated by the schemes you face during the season. Myers will only face two “true” 3-4 defenses, along with the Ravens who play some 3-4 but operate with a nose tackle on most plays, and those tests are behind him. For the rest of the season Myers faces the sort of 4-3 defense that he excels against, working laterally to pick up and pass off blocks from guards and work to the second level.
One of the measures of Myers’ improvement this season comes in regard to his play against those nose tackles. Last season his three worst games – games that cost him being considered on the level of the top two centers – came against Dallas, San Diego and the New York Jets. Three teams that operate nose tackles, three nose tackles (Jay Ratliff, Antonio Garay and Sione Pouha) that Myers struggled to handle one-on-one. Wind the clock on twelve months and you see a frame shift in Myers’ performances against NTs. This year two of his best performances as a run blocker came against Miami and Pittsburgh where going one-on-one with Paul Soliai and Casey Hampton he showed that he was no longer the soft touch he had once been in this regard. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say this jump in form against nose tackles has seen Chris Myers elevate himself to that highest plateau, alongside Nick Mangold and Matt Birk as the three best centers in the league today.
Another Packer deserving credit
It’s not just Myers raising his game to fill the void left by Mangold and Birk’s injuries. Another example of a center elevating his performance levels in 2011 is Green Bay’s Scott Wells (+11.0). Last year’s eighth-ranked center started his 2011 season with a bang, clicking immediately with Josh Sitton and new starter T.J. Lang to get the Packers off to a flying start. He was the centerpiece of an interior offensive line that dominated a new look Saints’ interior defensive line to pave the way to the Packers’ opening day victory.
Last year, Wells was also let down by his pass protection, giving up 12 pressures which was in the bottom half of the league in that category. This season he has only given up two pressures, both coming in the second quarter of the Packers’ victory in Atlanta. That’s improvement and he’s done it without surrendering his strong play in the run game. His block on Shaun Rogers in the Thursday night curtain-raiser to open up John Kuhn’s walk-in touchdown illustrates perfectly what he’s capable of. If there was a “block of the year” award, that would be one of the early clubhouse leaders.
Redemption, thy name is Sullivan
One name that is sticking out like a sore thumb at the top of the rankings in a “what are you doing there?” kind of way is John Sullivan (+7.5) of the Minnesota Vikings. In two seasons since taking over from Matt Birk in Minnesota Sullivan has ranked 28th (in 2009) and 26th (in 2010). His poor play as a run blocker, along with most of the rest of the offensive line has been a thorn in the side of the Vikings. The poor play of Sullivan and his fellow linemen has limited the impact Adrian Peterson has been able to have the last two seasons, which makes what he has achieved all the more impressive. This season however, Sullivan has very quietly raised his game and at the midway point of 2011, Sullivan is our third-ranked run blocking center.
In years past, Sullivan has struggled even against the worst defensive tackles in the league but this Sunday he showed the extent of his progress, claiming a season high +2.5 run-blocking grade against the Panthers’ subpar interior defensive line. The Vikings averaged 5.3 yards per carry on runs off his left hip and on 35 rushes off of his right hip this season the Vikings are averaging 7.9 yards per carry. Those sorts of numbers would have been unheard of around Sullivan in years past, and backup the notion that to this point Sullivan is a leading candidate for the most improved player in the league.
Best of the Rest
Rounding out our Top 10 centers through 10 weeks we have an eclectic mix of savvy veterans, heralded youngsters and one surprise name who has split time between guard and center this season. Casey Wiegmann (+4.9) and Jeff Saturday (+6.5) are both rolling back the years on Chiefs and Colts teams headed in opposite direction, both performing particularly well in pass protection where they have yielded four and six total pressures respectively. Joining Sullivan on the list of surprise names in our current top group is Washington’s Will Montgomery (+5.7); he started the season strongly at center but has since moved to left guard where he has struggled badly. His replacement Erik Cook (-4.4) is a long way outside our Top 10 and the Redskins need to look at a way to get Montgomery back to center. Finally, at opposite ends of this 10-man list, we have two centers from the 2009 draft, Eric Wood (+6.8) and Max Unger (+4.9), putting in excellent displays to recover from injury disrupted starts to their careers in Buffalo and Seattle.
In summary a nice mix of old and new, all of them trying to make a positive impression.
And why not, with the landscape likely to change even more at the center spot in the NFL over the next few years. Mangold may have a long time to go in his career, but players like Birk and Saturday won’t be in the league for too much longer, so opportunity is knocking. Center is one of the positions that seems to send players year after year to the Pro Bowl on name, ignoring any potential fluctuations in player performance. In that respect it’s vital that Pro Bowl voters challenge the status quo approach when they feel that they are just being spoon-fed bad information. It is only just and right that those players putting in the best performances are given the reward of a trip to Hawaii and a Pro Bowl on their career résumé. You see, whenever you have the right to vote you have an obligation to try and get it right. An obligation to give credit where it’s due. An obligation to vote in players who play like Chris Myers. Maybe then these players won’t just be the focus of an article on PFF, but rather taking center stage when the Pro Bowl kicks off in Hawaii on January 29th.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.