Commentary

Hikers enjoy spike in draft attention

Originally Published: April 27, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Mack/Wood/UngerGetty ImagesCenters Alex Mack, Eric Wood and Max Unger were all selected within the top 50 picks in this year's draft. The popularity of the 3-4 defense has increased the importance of the center position.
The newfound popularity of the 3-4 defensive front, with a dozen teams projected to employ it this season, definitely forced some offensive choices in the NFL draft.

Uh, you mean defensive selections, right?

Nope, several offensive picks as well. Particularly at center.

It wasn't a coincidence that two centers, Alex Mack of California (to Cleveland) and Eric Wood of Louisville (to Buffalo), were chosen in the first round Saturday. It marked the first time since 1968, when Cincinnati grabbed Bob Johnson of Tennessee and San Francisco chose Forrest Blue of Auburn, that two centers went off the draft board in an opening round. In fact, in the previous five drafts, there were only two centers taken in the first round, and there have been three since 2000.

Dating back to 2000, the only centers tabbed in the first round were Jeff Faine (Cleveland, 2003), Chris Spencer (Seattle, 2005) and Nick Mangold (New York Jets, 2006).

Blame the re-emergence of the 3-4 front, which will have at least three new converts in 2009, for the renewed high-round attractiveness of the center position. The 3-4 defense isn't as popular as it was in the '70s, but its resurrection has changed the thinking of how teams evaluate their defensive prospects, and offensive line positions as well.

Offenses now require a stout snapper and blocker who can hold up against the 3-4 front, and handle, oftentimes one-on-one, the opposition's nose tackle. Because of the 3-4 defense, there aren't many centers in the league who weigh less than 300 pounds. Fact is, the 300-pound center has become the norm, rather than the exception.

There is no doubt that Cleveland chose Mack and Buffalo took Wood because both are exceptional players. But an element in the rationale is that the teams play in divisions in which the 3-4 defense is the rage. In Cleveland's division, the AFC North, the best two teams -- Pittsburgh and Baltimore -- employ the 3-4 defense. In Buffalo's division, the AFC East, all three of the Bills' rivals -- New England, the Jets and Miami -- are 3-4 teams.

The first order of business for any team is to be able to compete in its division, and for the Browns and Jets, that requires being successful against the 3-4 fronts.

Ever since two-time Pro Bowl performer LeCharles Bentley suffered a devastating knee injury during training camp in 2006, after signing with Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent, the Browns have experienced problems filling the center position. Cleveland tried eight different centers that season, before dealing for Philadelphia's Hank Fraley, and he has started the past 48 games. But Fraley is 31 years old, and not as big or physical as the Browns would prefer, so Mack might have a chance to start as a rookie. Buffalo opted not to re-sign veteran Melvin Fowler and lost Duke Preston to Green Bay in free agency. The Bills signed former Carolina blocker Geoff Hangartner in free agency, and he is projected as the starter. But Wood should get a chance to contribute as a rookie.

Beyond their physical capability as blockers, centers usually are responsible for calling out all the blocking changes to counter various defensive fronts, and that requires a football-smart player.

How important is the center position in divisions where the 3-4 is predominant? One example: Although he started all 16 games in each of his first two NFL seasons, the Miami Dolphins traded center Samson Satele to the Oakland Raiders this spring. The primary reason was the Miami staff felt Satele wasn't effective enough against the nose tackles he faced in the AFC East. The Dolphins replaced Satele by signing unrestricted free agent Ben Grove from Oakland, in large part because they felt his in-line strength was more conducive to succeeding against the AFC East's nose tackles.

''When a center has that kind of toughness and that kind of smarts, you've got to go after him," said new Cleveland general manager George Kokinis, explaining the Browns' decision to choose Mack with the 21st overall selection.

That philosophy reflects the recent sea-change thinking about the center spot.

Traditionally, centers tended to be "grunt" players, and most personnel directors did not rate the position as a premium spot. The thinking was that a team could acquire a center candidate in the middle or late rounds of the draft. Last year, there were nine starting centers who originally entered the NFL as undrafted college free agents. Of the 23 centers who were drafted, the average level of entry was between the third and fourth rounds.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame includes 11 centers, but only five of them -- Jim Langer, Jim Otto, Jim Ringo, Dwight Stephenson, and Mike Webster -- are from the game's modern era. Two of the five were chosen in the second round or higher, but Webster was a fifth-round pick, Ringo a seventh-rounder and Langer an undrafted free agent.

Since the 2000 draft, there have been 70 centers selected, but only 15 came in the first two rounds. By comparison, 27 center prospects were chosen in the final two rounds, including 14 in the seventh round.

The old thinking that teams could treat the center position almost as an afterthought, with late-round draft picks predominant, has changed dramatically in the past few years. And the primary instrument of change has been the increased deployment of the 3-4 defense.

There were only seven centers chosen in the seven rounds this year, only five after Mack and Wood in the first round, and just three after the fourth round. It marks the eighth time in 11 drafts that fewer than 10 centers were chosen; but that's still right at the 7.0 average for the past 10 draft classes. And what the latest draft again lacked in quantity at the position, it made up for with quality candidates.

Some of the center prospects, like Wood and Antoine Caldwell of Alabama, might be projected at different offensive line positions in the NFL. But they gained their reputations by playing center, and at worst will add quality depth to the position for their respective teams.

"He's a strong in-line guy, a terrific worker and blocker, and he gives us depth at two [offensive line] spots," Buffalo personnel man Tom Modrak said of Wood. "Centers tend to be pretty strong and pretty smart guys, and you certainly can't overlook them these days."

In the NFL, it seems, for every action there is a reaction. And the sudden importance of the center position is basically the league's response to the spiraling increase of late in the number of 3-4 defensive fronts around the league.

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