Baas heads strong crop of centers


In a manner hardly befitting his well-cultivated image as a tough guy, University of Michigan star offensive lineman David Baas a couple years ago transferred his unusual vocal abilities from shower to showplace.

Baas sang at his sister's wedding. He tackled the national anthem twice in public settings, and he began working on a wide range of stylings that included such disparate efforts as Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" to old R&B standards, to hip-hop. Suddenly, it was as if the Wolverines' kamikaze kid had gone karaoke krazy.

But not to worry, NFL personnel directors, because Baas has tempered his renditions with a healthy dose of reality.

"It's not like it's going to be my career," Baas acknowledged.

That's for sure. A three-year starter, and the latest in a long line of standout Michigan blockers, Baas still figures to earn his keep by banging out the ear-splitting ditty that NFL scouts of all ages still rate at the top of their hit list, The Anvil Chorus, for a lot of years. Unless the assessments of his football abilities are totally off base, he'll spend the next 10 to 12 seasons crushing defensive linemen, not crooning to them.

Which doesn't mean just because Baas prefers smacking people to serenading them, he won't still be center stage.

In a league where the snapper spot has emerged over the last few seasons as a priority, after decades in which it was the most anonymous position on the offensive line, Baas is one of the several centers of attention in the 2005 draft. A starter at left guard for most of his tenure in Ann Arbor, for 30 straight outings, in fact, he was moved to center following the first three games in '04. And while Baas would have been a terrific NFL prospect had he remained at guard, the switch has definitely enhanced his draft stock.

"Once I got over some of the initial doubts, I really liked it, liked it a lot," said Baas, a blue-collar masher who has been on a steady rise up draft boards around the league, at the combine workouts two months ago. "I mean, you still get to bang on [defenders], just like at guard. And it's given the scouts another thing to consider with me. Some teams still say they want me to play guard, but it seems like most of them see me as a center now. And that's fine with me. I'm finding out just how important center has become."

Fortunately for Baas, and the other premier prospects in what appears to be one of the deepest center classes in recent memory, that epiphany arrived three or four years ago for league coaches and personnel directors. Not all that long ago, center was regarded as the Rodney Dangerfield of offensive line positions, but that isn't the case anymore.

The game has changed in recent years and the sudden reemergence 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.

Consider this: In the past three drafts, a period that roughly corresponds to the increase in 3-4 fronts, there were 27 center prospects selected. In the three drafts right before that, there were, excluding players chosen principally as deep snappers, just 13 centers picked. The average for the past three years represents a one-third jump over the mean number of centers chosen in the 1994-2001 draft classes.

There were 10 centers picked in each of the 2003 and 2004 lotteries. Given the overall quality at center this year, where the position might be the deepest of all of the offensive line positions, that number might be exceeded.

Certainly, the offensive tackle landscape has improved in the last couple months, after having been regarded as weak around the time of the combine. In February, ESPN.com opined that only one offensive tackle, the freakishly gifted Alex Barron of Florida State, might be chosen in the top half of the first round. That isn't the case now, with perhaps as many as three tackles poised to be among the top 15 selections.

As usual, there likely won't be any center prospects picked in the first round, but there is nothing new about that.

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. But think about this as progress: One prominent NFC personnel director suggested this week that at least three centers will be off the board by the middle of the second round this year.

"You can't play anymore with just some grunt guy at center," acknowledged Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "The defenses, especially with all the 3-4 fronts now, are too complex. Play a team like New England, with all the movement they do, and you better have a center with great recognitions skills or you won't have a chance. All over the league, we're seeing a lot better player, a lot better athlete, at center now."

In fact, Donahoe's center, Trey Teague, is a good example of how the position has evolved. The seven-year veteran began his career as a left tackle in Denver, then moved to center when he signed with the Bills in 2002 as an unrestricted free agent. Now three years later, if Buffalo can't acquire a left tackle to replace Jonas Jennings, who defected to San Francisco in free agency, Teague is the top candidate to fill the vacancy.

It would have been anathema, just a few years ago, to even suggest that the skills set for the two polar positions could be merged. But that is reflective of how some teams now view the significance of having a standout athlete, a guy whose brawling skills somehow have combined with solid athleticism.

As the position has evolved, so has the pool of prospects at center, it seems.

"Trust me, there aren't many people who keep track of the center crop to the extent that I do," said North Carolina center Jason Brown, another of the top snapper candidates in the 2005 draft. "And I'm telling you, there are a lot of great centers [this year], man."

Brown, who began his college career at tackle and moved inside to center in his second season with the Tar Heels, did not allow a sack after his sophomore campaign.

But he isn't the top center prospect.

In recent weeks, scouts have spoken glowingly of Baas and love his toughness and grit and the fact he plays with such obvious passion. Chris Spencer of Mississippi was just a one-year starter, but is viewed by some as one of the best center prospects in the last 25 years. Another player on the rise, despite some off-field issues, is former Nebraska center Richie Incognito, who opened a lot of eyes at the combine sessions.

Among the other names to watch: Dylan Gandy (Texas Tech), Ben Wilkerson (LSU), if his knee is deemed sound, Ray Preston (Illinois), Vince Carter(Oklahoma), Junius Coston (North Carolina A&T) and Eric Ghiaciuc (Central Michigan). Some scouts feel there are guards, such as Alabama's Evan Mathis, who like Baas could make the move to center at the NFL level.

"I think the fact teams are actually looking to move players from another position and in to center shows how important it really has become," said Baas. "I mean, I never would have believed it, you know? My first reaction, when the coaches asked me to make the move wasn't a real positive one. At the time, I wasn't sure it was the best thing."

These days, well, Baas is singing a different tune.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.