Koppen anchors one of the league's best O-lines
Thanks to a strange string of connections, it was almost fate that Dan Koppen was drafted by New England. It's his hard work and smarts that kept him there, writes Michael Smith.
Editor's note: Dan Koppen is the center on Len Pasquarelli's team of Under-the-Radar players.
The day after Dan Koppen signed a five-year contract extension a little more than a month ago, the Patriots center was in North Carolina with his former offensive line coach at Boston College, Dave Magazu, watching Magazu's son's high school football team. Fitting since Magazu had a little more than the usual hand in Koppen staying in New England and becoming a Patriot in the first place.
Magazu, now the Carolina Panthers' tight ends coach, coached at the Naval Academy in the late 1980s with Steve Belichick, Bill Belichick's late father. Magazu's brother, Doug, was Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli's roommate at Central Connecticut State. Dave Magazu's ex-roommate at Springfield (Mass.) College, a fellow by the name of Tony D'Errico, went on to coach at Central and successfully recruited Pioli to play there.
Isn't it interesting how the scouting aspect of the inexact science known as the NFL draft often works? For sure it's not just what you know but who you know and what they know.
So O'Brien, Magazu and Co. assured Belichick and Pioli that Koppen was intelligent, tough, dedicated and passionate about football -- in other words, he was the Patriots' kind of player. The Patriots didn't think other teams had Koppen rated as highly, so they gambled, and waited until the fifth round to select him.
"Dan didn't really need anybody to stand up and pound the table for him," said Magazu, now in his fourth season with the Panthers. "Dan sold himself.
"I was beside myself that he didn't go until as late as he did. In this business, everybody tries to get something for nothing. The Patriots played their cards right, and that's a helluva pick. When you can steal a guy of Dan Koppen's caliber, that's what it's all about."
New England isn't getting the 6-foot-2, 296-pound Koppen, 27, on the cheap anymore, signing him to a deal reportedly worth as much as $20 million and making Koppen the fifth-highest paid center in the game. His salary is reflective of his standing among the game's elite offensive line anchors in the opinion of personnel people.
"He's worth every nickel they're giving him," Magazu said.
Solid, steady linemen such as Koppen tend to remain relatively anonymous -- until contract time, that is. And while he may not be as well known outside of New England, Koppen embodies the team's blue-collar, lunch-pail approach as much as teammates Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, or Mike Vrabel. Koppen's success, much like that of the franchise, is more about intangibles than measurables.
His teammates and coaches rave about Koppen's ability to recognize defensive fronts and effectively communicate blocking assignments to his fellow linemen even in the most chaotic environment. Left tackle Matt Light says Koppen is just cool under pressure. Simply put, in the Patriots' protection scheme, Brady identifies the "Mike," or middle linebacker, and Koppen pretty much takes it from there. It helps that Koppen is probably as studious and instinctive a center as Brady is a quarterback.
"I can tell you what he's going to do before he does it, and he can probably tell you what I'm going to do before I do it," Koppen said of his quarterback.
Koppen was asked early on to anchor New England's line; he was forced into the starting lineup in Week 2 of his rookie season because of an injury to then-starter Damien Woody. No biggie, mainly because of the intangibles. The mental and physical demands of the position didn't overwhelm him. Like a good linemen, you never knew he was there. Koppen would start 46 consecutive games, including playoffs, until tearing a rotator cuff in the ninth game last season. But Koppen was, of course, diligent in his offseason rehabilitation and he's stepped right back in and started every game this season. His speedy recovery is a source of pride for Koppen.
Koppen can't boast about his combine times, but rather it's how little time it takes him to process information that makes him so effective. And he's savvy. He knows how to get good position on opponents, be they larger or quicker.
"He's strong enough to handle the big guys, and little guys have a tough time getting around him," Belichick said.
"My smarts," Koppen answered when asked to name his best quality as a center. "I'm not the biggest guy, but I know what's going on. I know when and where to be to get things done."
Koppen gets the most out of what he has, but don't be fooled: He may not be the most athletic but he gets it done from the neck down, too. He has a quick first few steps. He's agile enough to snap and then pull, which isn't easy to do but something the Patriots like to do with Koppen. His excellent playing strength and use of leverage and technique allows him to get movement off the line of scrimmage far more often than he is moved in the run game. He finishes his blocks well. As far as protection, Brady's one of the best at stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush, and Koppen has a lot to do with that.
"The worst thing for an offensive lineman is to get pushed back, and that rarely ever happens with him," Belichick said.
When it comes to linemen, of course, it's more about the group than the individuals. What's not likely to happen anytime soon is the breakup of the Patriots' O-line -- their starters are all signed through at least 2009. And New England has one of the best offensive line coaches in the game in Dante Scarnecchia.
The anchor, Koppen, has worked himself into being as good as just about anybody at the position.
"Dan's a great guy to have in your locker room and on your team," Belichick said.
Said Magazu: "I believe he's going to play a long time."
Michael Smith is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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