More athletic interior offensive linemen in demand

4/22/2006 - NFL

Seventeen of the 32 starting centers in the NFL last season were players who entered the league as fourth-round picks or lower. There were four times as many starting centers who entered the NFL as undrafted free agents (eight) than as first-round choices (two). And one of those two first-rounders, Jeff Hartings of Pittsburgh, actually was drafted by the Detroit Lions as a guard.

So, the longtime practice of rating centers somewhere between slugs and afterthoughts in the personnel pecking order pretty much continues, right?

Maybe not.

Although it's true that only 13 centers have been chosen as first-rounders since 1970, two of those, Jeff Faine of Cleveland (2003) and Seattle's Chris Spencer (2005), have come in the last three lotteries. Since the 2000 draft, 14 centers have been chosen as first-day picks. That average, 2.3 first-day centers in the last six drafts, could increase this year with the presence of highly regarded snappers like Nick Mangold (Ohio State), Chris Chester (Oklahoma), Greg Eslinger (Minnesota) and Jason Spitz (Louisville) in the pool.

That league scouts suddenly are viewing those first-day prospects as centers of attention is reflective of an increasing sense that, with the changes on the defensive side, franchises can no longer give short shrift to the interior of their offensive line.

"More teams are playing 3-4 fronts, and so you've got a defender lined up right over the center, and that matchup is always going to be critical," said Mangold, universally ranked as the top center in the 2006 draft pool and a player with a chance to be chosen in the late part of the first round. "Even in four-man fronts, you've got a tackle in that three-technique position that you have to worry about. Plus, from what I keep hearing, [defensive] tackle play has really improved in general, and you're seeing a lot more athletic guys at tackle now. So, offenses sort of have to [counter] that, I guess."

Indeed, as more teams build defenses from the inside out, with tackles as the cornerstones, centers are no longer on the outside looking in. Teams are increasingly seeking not just centers who can serve as anchors inside but blockers with more athleticism. The preponderance of zone-blocking schemes around the league has fueled the urgency to locate such players.

Chester is an intriguing prospect in that regard. A player who began his college career as a tight end, the Oklahoma star moved to center as a junior, excelled there except for some injuries, and is one of the real risers on draft boards. Chester can get out in front on screen passes, pulls well on sweeps, and will get downfield and block at the second level.

"You get a guy as mobile as him," one NFC offensive line coach agreed, "and you can do a lot of things. A player like him gives you some important options on offense."

In fact, the importance of having a strong interior offensive line extends beyond just the center position, and includes guards, as well.

Consider this: Two of the most crucial moves of the free agency period were the relocations of center LeCharles Bentley (from New Orleans to Cleveland) and guard Steve Hutchinson (Seattle to Minnesota). Even discounting the landmark contracts each veteran blocker received, and those blockbuster deals are all but impossible to ignore, the moves were significant because of the players involved and the positions they play. Clearly, the profile of interior offensive linemen has been enhanced, as have their paychecks.

The trend is apt to be reflected in the draft, too. Headlined by in-line mashers such as Davin Joseph of Oklahoma, Max Jean-Gilles of Georgia, Southern California's Taitusi Lutui and Pittsburgh's Charles Spencer, the guard contingent in this draft is one of the strongest in years. Joseph is a superb player, a guy who actually moved to left tackle last year to fill a need but is a prototype guard who might squeeze into the first round.

As with centers, there aren't many guards taken in the opening stanza of any draft, but that is a trend slowly changing, as well. Four of the last five drafts have featured a guard in the first round, and there have been 24 guards chosen in the first three rounds of the past six drafts. It will never be a position nearly as important as tackle, but the guard spot has gained in prominence.

"If you're going to run the football against the monster tackles everyone seems to have now," said Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm, a former standout guard, "you better have good [guards]. It's not just a 'plug in' position anymore, where you're kind of taking leftovers, guys who don't fit anywhere else, and just hoping to stick them into the lineup and develop them."

This year's guard contingent is very deep, and teams will still find solid blockers -- players like Rob Sims (Ohio State), Fred Matua (Southern California), Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg State) and Mark Setterstrom (Minnesota) -- in the third round and beyond. What is notable is that guard is no longer viewed as strictly a second-day position, a spot where teams load up after the third round.

One veteran scout noted that, in the last few years, he has discerned a tendency to "nudge" guards up a round, to take them a full stanza earlier than most clubs would have in the past. That trend is pushing more guards and centers into the first three rounds. Since 1994, when the NFL adopted the seven-round draft, 30 of the 90 centers selected and 60 of the 174 guards taken went off the board on the first day, a much higher quantity than in the past.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.