A lot of the recent discussion about the Cowboys O-line has revolved around the guard position, specifically around David DeCastro as one option for the Cowboys' first-round pick in the April draft. What has gotten a little lost in that discussion is that the weakest link in the interior offensive line was arguably the center position.
I love an underdog story as much as the next guy, and it would have been a great story to see undrafted free agent Phil Costa succeed as a starter for the Cowboys. And as much as I hope for that story to still come true, the chances of that happening are the source of much contentious debate.
Traditionally, the Cowboys have not shied away from improving their O-line via free agency, so that may very well be an option for the Center position next year as well, particularly as free agency promises a bumper crop of free agent centers: Five of the top six centers as graded by Pro Football Focus are entering free agency this year.
After the break, we look at the free agent centers and see whether there really are as many options for the Cowboys as a first glance suggests
In each of the past two years, the Cowboys have brought in two centers for pre-draft visits, versus none in the two years before. Last year, the Cowboys brought in Mike Pouncey from Florida (whose visit went so well he tweeted that he'd 'be shocked' if he wasn't playing in a Cowboys uniform) and Jake Kirkpatrick from TCU, the year before it was Maurkice Pouncey and J.D. Walton.
Eventually, the Cowboys decided to go with Phil Costa, who graded out with a cumulative -9.7 for the season, according to PFF. That ranks him 29th among 35 centers included in PFFs ranking, and can't be what the Cowboys had in mind for the position.
Free agent centers
Below is an overview of the available free agent centers and their performance fo the year. I've included Costa in the table for reference purposes only. Some quick definitions for the table:
Pass Blocking Productivity (PBP) is a fairly straightforward metric developed by Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus that combines sacks, hits and pressures allowed into one simple number. In Khaled's own words: "We added up all the sacks, hits and pressures an offensive lineman gave up (hits and pressures are valued at 0.75 the value of a sack in accordance with our gradings). We then divide this number by the total number of snaps in pass protection before multiplying by 100 to get a solid number."
Splash Plays: Number of sacks allowed and penalties against
NFL rank: Rank among 35 centers by overall grade
||Player||Team||Snaps||Overall Grade||Sacks||Hits||Pressures||PBE||Penalties||Splash Plays|
|3||John Sullivan (re-signed)
Most of the stats available for linemen are about the mistakes they make. But sacks, QB hits and penalties only tell a small part of the picture. And in looking at the table above, they really don't tell the story of a Center's performance. Because if that were the case, with just a few less QB pressures given up, Phil Costa would rank right up there with the best in the league. And that's not really the case.
The offensive line is key to moving the ball, either on the ground or through the air. Yet there are no stats that measure in individual lineman's contribution in moving the ball. The best we can muster in individual performance assessment are the PFF grades. They are not stats, but they're the best we have right now. And as the table above shows, there are significant differences between the available centers. So let's break down those numbers in a little more detail:
||Player||Team||Snaps||Overall Grade||Pass Blocking
||Screen Blocking||Run Blocking||Penalties||Age|
|3||John Sullivan (re-signed)
The table shows that each center has a different skill profile. Some are great run blockers, some are good pass blockers, some do both equally well.
[Update: Two readers separately informed me that John Sullivan re-signed with the Vikings in December for a five-year, $25 million contract extension with $10 million guaranteed. Apologies for missing that.]
But what the table also shows is that this year's free agency class looks like a geriatric society. Of the top rated rated players, none is below 30 years of age. The Patriots' Dan Connolly, who is more of a guard, is 29. He subbed for an injured Dan Koppen (32) at center, who'll also be a free agent this year. Another guard who played center is Will Montgomery of the Redskins (28), and he hasn't hit the 30 year threshold yet either.
The Cowboys have recently shown a propensity for filling holes along the O-line with free agents, but the successful signings were all below thirty years of age at the time they joined the Cowboys:
Outside of John Sullivan, who'll likely be the prize of this free agent class, few of the free agents fit the age profile, so a free agent class that looked deep at first glance turns out to be quite shallow.
The advantage of youth is that young players can be mercurial. They can improve suddenly. They can improve exponentially. But only at the beginning of their career. That makes young players much more difficult to scout and to assess. Phil Costa is such a young player. But how much upside has he got left?
It is worth noting that while Costa graded out with a -10.0 for the first eight games, he came in with a +0.3 for the remaining eight games. But will the man his teammates and coaches call 'Bulldog' continue along that trajectory or has he hit his ceiling?
Those are questions the Cowboys need to answer, and then act accordingly. Of course, with the abundance of free agents, 2012 might turn out to be a buyer's market for centers, where a good center can be had for moderate money, and perhaps even more importantly for these free agents, for a one- or two-year deal.
Who do you think will snap the football for the Cowboys in 2012?