Centers surprisingly in high demand

2/26/2009 - NFL

At one time, not all that long ago, center was the most anonymous position on an otherwise anonymous offensive line unit.

No more.

Because of changes in the game, particularly the number of teams that play 3-4 defenses, the center spot has grown rapidly in importance. It is rare anymore to see a productive offensive line without a very good center. Certainly, the position has gained newfound respect around the league.

For whatever reason, the unrestricted free agent market this year features an unusually high number of very good centers. Here are a few of them:

Jason Brown (Baltimore Ravens)

Despite being only a two-year starter, Brown is among the hottest offensive players in early free agency. The fact that multiple teams -- Miami, Jacksonville, Washington and St. Louis -- are already bidding on him is certain to drive up his price tag to between $7 million-$8 million. The four-year veteran has started at both guard and center. His size (340 pounds) makes him able to handle 3-4 nosetackles effectively. With 13 franchises set to feature some principles of the 3-4 defense in 2009, Brown will be very highly coveted.

Jake Grove (Oakland Raiders)

The former first-round draft pick has yet to reach his full potential and also has battled some injuries. Grove has played some guard, and teams like his versatility. Like Brown, he already seems to have multiple suitors in free agency, which could improve his leverage. The five-year veteran has started 46 games, but at age 29, some teams may be hesitant.

Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis Colts)

A three-time Pro Bowl player, responsible for many of the blocking calls on the Indianapolis line, especially in pass protection, Saturday is an excellent pass-protector, and very good at picking up the odd blitzer. Colts officials would love him back, in part for his leadership qualities and importance in the locker room, but it probably will be too expensive. The 10-year veteran still has some good football left for the right team and the right system.

Matt Birk (Minnesota Vikings)

For a lot of years, Birk set the standard at the position. At 32, he still has about three good seasons left in him. Good run-blocker, and a standout in pass protection. An 11-year veteran , Birk has gone to the Pro Bowl six times. He has played in 144 games in his career, starting 123 of them. The Vikings want him back, and made a three-year contract offer last week, but Birk probably will test the unrestricted free agency waters for at least a few days.

Brad Meester (Jacksonville Jaguars)

Because of injuries, Meester is regarded by some teams as an old 31. However, he should draw solid interest if he is healthy. He has started just 21 games the past two seasons, and his injury history could make him risky. Somewhat undersized at 295 pounds, Meester struggles against more physical nosetackles.

Jeremy Newberry (San Diego Chargers)

A series of injuries, especially two knee surgeries, probably have robbed Newberry of a career that would have featured a lot of Pro Bowl appearances. He went to two Pro Bowls before injuries started to pile up. At 32, Newberry will have to prove himself to teams before anyone takes a chance on him. He had excellent in-line technique and showed good athleticism early in his career. He has played with San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego, appearing in 120 games and starting 107 of them. However, due to injuries, he has played double-digit games only seven times in 11 league seasons.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.