We resume our series of position profiles with center, a vital position which is often overlooked, but which has been undermanned in recent years.
When the Cowboys drafted Andre Gurode in 2002, team officials were ecstatic. Gurode had been an All-American guard at Colorado his senior year and displayed in-line power and pulling ability. He looked like a possible successor or partner for the aging Larry Allen. Gurode had also played center in college and Jerry Jones wondered aloud if he might be more valuable in the pivot. Mark Stepnoski had just finished a distinguished 13 year career and the Cowboys needed help there as well. Gurode seemed like the ideal candidate to fix Dallas' interior line woes.
Andre has fulfilled his potential, but it took him a while to find his niche. He started a guard his first three years, but didn't play up to his college billing. Dallas didn't consider him at center at first; Bill Parcells drafted Al Johnson to play that role with his high 2nd rounder in 2003. Gurode got a shot inside when Johnson was sidelined by a microfracture knee surgery but the Tuna didn't express much confidence in Gurode. Parcells wailed that Gurode was a player "he couldn't figure out." He had talent, but lacked consistency. He had power, but missed assignments. He would whiff on linebackers when he tried getting up field, to the 'second level" as the scouts call it. People recall that he had a lot of trouble in '06 and '07 with shotgun snaps.
Dallas remained patient and has gotten some quality play from Gurode in recent years. He fits the ideal size profile for a position which seems to demand two different types of player.
There are four qualities the Cowboys value in a center.
- He must be intelligent. Centers make the protection calls for the offensive line, so the center must be able to recognize fronts and set his mates properly. He has to recognize blitzes, stunts and shifts.
- He must have the power and balance to anchor on pass plays. The A gaps around the center represent the shortest path to the quarterback and if a center can't recognize and negate blitzes in these gaps, or prevent a big defensive tackle like Albert Haynesworth from bull rushing him back into his QBs lap, the passing pocket will crumble, and quickly.
- He must have power to move interior linemen in the run game.
- He must, at the same time, have the quickness to get upfield and cut down middle or inside linebackers in even fronts.
These last two qualities seem counter intuitive and are the undoing of many center prospects. You'll often find a center big enough to handle the straight ahead blocking but who lacks the quickness to reach LBs in space. Or, you may have a center with the movement skills who lacks the ballast to anchor against the Pat Williams or Ted Washingtons of the world. Former C Clay Shiver fits this last profile. He was a high 3rd rounder in '96 who projected as Ray Donaldson's heir, but he couldn't handle power rushers, so the Cowboys brought the aging Stepnoski back for a second go-round.
Size profiles would usually dictate a bigger center prospect. Look at the centers who have started in recent years: Gurode is 318 lbs; backup Cory Proctor is 311 lbs.; Johnson was 305 lbs.; Donaldson was 311 lbs.
I say usually because Stepnoski played at 265-275 lbs. during his career. Step was an anomaly, a former wrestler who combined uncommon strength with an understanding of leverage. Centers like him do not appear often.
Center may seem like a lower priority to some but the team clearly needs one. Proctor has problems with power rushers, despite his size, and the Cowboys running game has sputtered when he has covered for Gurode. There's also the question of Gurode's longevity. Good centers can play well into their 30s, but its not a given that Gurode will emulate Donaldson, Stepnoski, Bruce Matthew or Kevin Mawae.
Gurode turned 32 on Saturday and even if he has another two to three premier years in him, it makes sense to put his eventual replacement into the pipeline soon. Because of the blocking call duties, centers often take a little time to develop. Older hands will recall that Stepnoski started as a rookie and had a lot of trouble with interior pressure. Troy Aikman suffered a few concussions his first two years and Step took his share of the blame. Stepnoski finally settled in about halfway through his second year and was a rock going forward, but no center candidate should be considered an immediate starter.
This year's crop has a high tier, which is three deep, and then a dropoff, according to most of the bigger name analysts. Florida's Markice Pouncey tops the list. He listed at 318 lbs. as a senior but weighed 303 lbs. at the Combine. That seems a bit low, but consider that Max Unger, the player Dallas hoped to get in the 2nd last year, listed at 299. Baylor's J.D. Walton and B.C.'s Matt Tennant fill out this group.
Centers traditionally fall, but highly-rated Cs will go in the first. Tampa Bay took Jeff Faine 21st in '03, Seattle picked Chris Spencer 26th in '05, the Jets took Nick Mangold 29th overall in '06. Last year, Alex Mack went 21st to Cleveland and Buffalo took Eric Wood 28th overall.
Will another C sneak into the last third of this year's first? Pouncey might. He's rated as highly as Mangold and Mack. It's not Dallas' way to look for interior linemen in the 1st. They haven't taken one that high since '79, when Gil Brandt turned in Tennessee C Robert Shaw's card. Shaw looked like a player, until a severe knee injury wiped out his career.
A lot will depend on Pouncey's grade. If Dallas' scouts agree with Pouncey's supporters, and give him one of the last 1st round grades, he may be a value too good to pass up, if the top FS and OT candidates are gone. On the other hand, if Pouncey gets a 2nd round grade, chances are the Cowboys will wait, looking to other candidates in the 2nd or 3rd. That's more their style and I think a player like Walton will be a player of definite interest in those rounds.
If you're looking for a tell, consider the 2nd round tender Dallas gave Proctor last week. He may not be the most appealing player, but you don't release a player until you're certain you have his replacement in house. Proctor's high tender tells me the Cowboys are not sure they'll get somebody good enough to knock him off the roster high in this year's draft.