Plenty of depth at center position
While it's a down year overall for offensive lineman in the draft, there is a lot of depth at center.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It has always rated as the most anonymous position on the historically most anonymous unit, but, in a year when the talent level of the offensive line prospects in the draft has been assessed as thin, the center spot appears surprisingly deep.
"Trust me," said North Carolina snapper Jason Brown, "there aren't many people who keep track of the center crop to the extent that I do. I mean, these guys, for me, are the competition, you know? And I'm telling you, there are a lot of great centers here, man."
And with good reason.
Brown, who began his college career at tackle and moved inside to the hub in his second season with the Tar Heels, hasn't allowed a sack since his sophomore campaign. He is bright, competitive, has terrific recognition skills and, at 6-feet-2 3/8 and 310 pounds, possesses excellent size for the position. Watch him on tape, against even the premier defensive tackles in the ACC, and his opponents rarely penetrate into the backfield.
Amazingly, he might not even be the top center prospect.
Scouts spoke Thursday of Brown, who has slimmed down considerably since playing at an ungainly 336 pounds in 2003, in glowing terms. But they lavished praise on Chris Spencer of Mississippi, who appeared legitimately taken aback when apprised of some of their comments. One regional scout from an AFC franchise suggested Spencer could be one of the best centers to come into the league in the last 25 years.
In the past 15 drafts, only four centers -- Bern Brostek (Rams in 1990), Steve Everitt (Browns, 1993), Damien Woody (Patriots, 1999) and Jeff Faine (Browns, 2003) -- were selected in the first round. The first snapper off the draft board last year, Jake Grove, was chosen by Oakland in the second round, with the 45th overall selection. Chances are, there could be a couple of centers gone by the middle of the second round this year, even though none currently project as first-round choices.
It used to be that playing center was like being sent out to man the right-field spot for your Little League team. The position was, in the eyes of many, a spot where a team put a marginal athlete and hoped for the best. The game has changed, however, in recent years. And the sudden re-emergence of the 3-4 defense, in which a center has a nose tackle right on top of him, has changed the approach to the hub spot on an offensive line.
Ray Willis, OT, Florida State: One early riser is Florida State offensive tackle Ray Willis, who sometimes got overshadowed by Seminoles teammate Alex Barron, but who is viewed as a very solid second- or (at worst) third-round pick. Willis checked in at 6-feet-5½ and 317 pounds on Thursday, was in very good shape, and has impressed scouts in interviews. "He just looks the part," said one scout. "And when you watch him on tape, you can tell the guy is a really hard-worker."
With no on-field workouts yet, no one has slipped.
Truth be told, scouts are actually looking at players from other positions, usually guard, to move over to center. Baas played guard much of his career at Michigan, and there are some teams that still project him there, but most regard him foremost as a center prospect now. Like several of the other centers here, Baas is a former high school shot-putter and champion weightlifter. But he acknowledged that, with defenses so complex at the NFL level, brains are just as important to a center as brawn.
None of the coaches, scouts or personnel directors surveyed Thursday disagreed.
"You'd better have a smart guy playing [center] or things can fall apart for you pretty quickly," said New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. "With the sophistication that so many defenses are showing now, jumping in and out of fronts, center is a key spot."
A spot that many teams, judging by the keen interest in centers here on Thursday, will seek to either fill or augment in this year's draft.
"What's that old song, 'Born to Run'? Well, that's me. I'm just a natural runner and I always have been." -- Miami [Fla.] tailback Frank Gore
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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