Okobi among Steelers' many options at center
Because of recent retirements, injuries and coaching changes, several teams will enter training camp with an open competition at center, writes Len Pasquarelli.
Indicative of a franchise that exemplifies stability from the top of the organization on down, it has been more than 40 years since the Pittsburgh Steelers embarked on a season with a new head coach and a new center in the same year.
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When the Steelers travel to Cleveland for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener, rookie Mike Tomlin will be calling the shots from the sideline as Bill Cowher's successor and only the third coach employed by Pittsburgh since Chuck Noll took over the team in 1969. The identity of who will be calling the blocking assignments and the protection adjustments as the Steelers break the huddle and approach the line of scrimmage, however, remains undecided.
Since Mike Webster replaced Ray Mansfield as the starter at the start of the 1977 season, the Steelers essentially have featured just three full-time snappers. Webster is in the Hall of Fame. His successor, Dermontti Dawson, should be. And Jeff Hartings, who retired earlier this spring, was good enough to have been named twice to the Pro Bowl, despite not moving from guard to center until six years into his career.
The trio, in fact, appeared in a total of 18 Pro Bowl games over the past 30 years.
In a city once known for the enormous influence of its labor unions, the center position in Pittsburgh was like a closed shop, and a hub lineman had to be exceedingly talented simply to qualify for an apprenticeship. But the center spot for the Steelers is more like a free-for-all competition this season, and less than three weeks before Pittsburgh reports for training camp, no one can say with certainty who will supplant Hartings.
Led by Chukky Okobi, who has been groomed for the No. 1 job for six years and who will go to camp as the nominal starter, there are at least four contenders to fill the vacancy that was created by Hartings' retirement. Maybe five, depending on how the new coaching staff decides to use second-year tackle Willie Colon, who bounced all over the line in the spring workouts, but could force himself into the lineup somewhere if he demonstrates he is one of the top five blockers on the roster.
Sean Mahan, a four-year veteran and part-time starter in Tampa Bay, was the Steelers' lone veteran free-agent addition of consequence. He can also play guard, but when he signed, Mahan basically was promised the opportunity to compete at center. Starting right guard Kendall Simmons, entering the final year of his contract, took some snaps at center in the spring. So did Colon, who has never played the position. And while Marvin Philip didn't play a snap as a rookie in 2006, the former sixth-round pick is still viewed as a youngster with promise.
For onetime heir apparent Okobi, it's apparent he'll have to work hard to impress new line coach Larry Zierlein and finally collect on his presumed inheritance of the starting job.
"Obviously, it's a great tradition to uphold," acknowledged Okobi, whose résumé includes seven career starts. "There's a lot of history, a ton of pride, connected to the position here, and it's going to take a great effort to [win the job]. But if you're the starter at center with the Steelers, you're part of something special. It's a great fraternity. I mean, guys get into the lineup, and they just don't leave. With this team, it's unusual to have a change."
But this is a season of transition at center in the NFL, and that there is a turnover taking place in Pittsburgh certainly magnifies that unusual occurrence leaguewide.
Only three years ago, the 32 top centers in the league averaged nearly six seasons of starting experience. But attrition has taken a toll, notably with the retirements of a half-dozen starters since the end of 2004, and the average tenure for a starting center this season will be reduced by roughly one-third from what it was three years back.
As many as 11 franchises could have new starters in 2007. It's a long shot, but all the teams in the AFC North and NFC West could enter this season with centers different from those who opened last season for them.
A position historically defined by anonymity will command plenty of scrutiny around the league this summer and provide some intriguing training camp competitions.
"Other than left tackle, [center is] probably the most critical spot on the the line, and every team wants stability there," Washington offensive line coach Joe Bugel said. "It really is a position where you usually get [longevity], you know? But this isn't the old days, either. It used to be you plugged in a guy at center and didn't mess with the position for 10 years. It's not like that anymore. But to have as much change as there has been recently yeah, that really is unusual."
Some of the turnover is the result of changes in coaching staffs, and thus, in philosophy. In Arizona, for instance, the Cardinals, under first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt and new offensive line coach Russ Grimm, prefer a stouter, more physical snapper than the team has had in recent years. And so the Cardinals signed former Dallas starter Al Johnson this spring as an unrestricted free agent. In Miami, new coach Cam Cameron decided Rex Hadnot, who started at center in 2006, is a better fit at right guard. That creates a vacancy expected to be filled by rookie Samson Satele, a second-round draft pick out of Hawaii.
Another former starting center moving to guard is Richie Incognito in St. Louis. For the Baltimore Ravens, second-year lineman Chris Chester, who started four games at right guard in 2006 but was regarded as one of the best center prospects to come into the NFL in several years, will push veteran Mike Flynn for the starting job in the middle.
Beyond the Hartings' departure from Pittsburgh, the retirements in Seattle and Cincinnati of 13-year veterans Robbie Tobeck and Rich Braham, respectively, have forced changes. Highly regarded two-year veteran Chris Spencer is the projected new starter in Seattle. Eric Ghiaciuc, who started 13 games when Braham was injured last season, probably will inherit the No. 1 job, but faces competition from former Arizona starter Alex Stepanovich.
Two veteran centers who missed all or much of last season, and could return in 2007, might also precipitate changes for their teams.
Cleveland center LeCharles Bentley, a two-time Pro Bowl performer whose career appeared over after he sustained a catastrophic patella tendon injury last summer on the first day of camp, announced he will report to camp later this month and attempt to play in 2007. The admirable effort of Bentley aside, he still faces long odds, and Hank Fraley probably will remain the starter.
More certain, it appears, is the return of Justin Hartwig to the Carolina Panthers' lineup. A former Tennessee Titans starter, Hartwig was a key unrestricted free-agent acquisition in 2006, signing a five-year, $17 million contract with Carolina. But he sustained a season-ending groin injury in the opening game. Although not fully rehabilitated this spring, Hartwig was able to participate in some of the individual drills during minicamps, and if healthy, could reclaim his No. 1 job.
The three-way battle for the starting job will be one of the more compelling elements in Carolina's training camp.
Geoff Hangartner, who started 15 games in place of Hartwig in 2006, is in the mix. Perhaps a more viable contender for the starting job, though, is former Southern California snapper Ryan Kalil. Universally regarded as the top center prospect in this year's draft, and viewed by some scouts as arguably the second-best player at any offensive line position, Kalil for some reason slipped into the late second round.
In the days following the lottery, several talent evaluators suggested Kalil might have rated as the biggest steal of the entire draft.
Still, in a summer in which the various competitions for starting hub jobs around the NFL will be highlighted, Kalil is one of just several centers of attention.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.
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