NFC North Offensive Line Analysis: Centers
While each team in the NFC North has its own storyline going into training camp, there is one thing they all share to some extent: the offensive line.
While some are worse off than others, all four lines have question marks hovering over them.
This week, the NFC North blog takes a closer look at these lines to see which team has the best across the board players in the North.
Using a combination of my own game watching as well as resources like Pro Football Focus and Matt Miller's exhaustive B/R 1000, I'll break down who really has questions, who has answers and what could happen this year.
We start with one of the two most important positions on the offensive line; the center.
The center position on the line is a critical—he calls out defensive schemes, adjusts blocking on the line accordingly and is the focal point of keeping the quarterback upright.
Chicago Bears: Roberto Garza
I can't say as though what I saw made me feel any different. That being said, the unknown here is the new blocking scheme. Mike Martz is out, Mike Tice is in, and things have been simplified, or at least that's what we've heard.
The Bears feel as though they have the required talent already on the line. To be quite honest, we've no idea how the adjustment will really help the players already there.
I don't think Garza is a particularly good center, but he may crawl up to decent with less seven-step drops and simpler blocking.
So right now he's the worst of the four starting centers, but I wouldn't be completely shocked to find out he is better under Tice than he was under Martz.
Detroit Lions: Dominic Raiola
Miller has Raiola at 23rd overall, pointing out that, while he was good for some time, his last few years have been mediocre at best. Pro Football Focus didn't have him ranked at all in their efficiency study, though he did get a mention in this study of the past three years of pass blocking for centers.
The initial mention isn't glowing—he's given up the second most pressures in the last three years. PFF writer Khaled Elsayed is quick to point out that 1) Raiola pass blocks far more than most centers in the league and 2) just total pressure numbers are misleading and can be read wrong.
When they apply their pass blocking efficiency rating metric, Raiola's name disappears. He's not bad, he's not good, he just is.
Ultimately, his play has fallen off the last few years and it has made him a bit inconsistent. His numbers are inflated by the massive amount of passes the Lions have thrown the last three years, but as Miller points out in his piece, he isn't great at run blocking and has received more than his fair share of flags.
The Lions are going to have to replace him soon, but he will be able to keep Matt Stafford upright a few more seasons before he becomes a complete liability.
Still, if Garza really bounces back due to Mike Tice's new scheme, Raiola will be the guy he leapfrogs.
Green Bay Packers: Jeff Saturday
Losing Scott Wells is a blow and a downgrade—there are no two ways around that.
If you're going to replace him with someone though, Saturday is a good choice.
Yes, he's aging and yes he's been banged up, but he played all of the 2011 season, and while he may have lost a step to age, you won't find a more wily veteran at the position. The guy is smart and will make this line all the better for his presence.
Miller has Saturday ranked as his fourth-best center, citing age as a negative but that intelligence and strength as huge pluses. Pro Football Focus drops him at three in their PBE rating with just nine pressures in 633 pass-blocking snaps. They also rate him as their No. 1 center in PBE for the last three years.
So far it sounds as if Saturday is fitting in perfectly with the Packers' offensive line. The team doesn't do a ton in free agency, but you have to like this addition.
Minnesota Vikings: John Sullivan
Sullivan is proof that you don't need to find your starting offensive lineman in the first round or two. A sixth-rounder in 2008, he's done well enough to earn himself an extension last year (for five years) and I love the thought of him with Matt Kalil and Charlie Johnson on the left side.
Pro Football Focus didn't have Sullivan on either of their studies, though they did point out that his 11 sacks allowed is more than any other center in 2011.
Like Garza, though, Sullivan may have suffered from last year's circumstances. Donovan McNabb was bad enough, but it was clear rookie Christian Ponder was nervous behind the line and likely took some sacks he shouldn't have.
Another year under center, a true offseason as well as some patience will have Ponder taking a lot less sacks, which will help Sullivan.
Miller loves Sullivan, ranking him just behind Saturday as the fifth-best center in the league. I won't go nearly that far, though I like him quite a bit. I think he could be just hitting his stride and is a huge asset to both the development of Ponder as well as the continued excellence of the run game.
The Call: Green Bay Packers' Jeff Saturday
As much as Saturday has lost a step, I still see him as the best center in the division. This isn't to take anything away from Sullivan, who is nipping at his heels, just that I will take Saturday's experience over Sullivan's raw skill.
In short order, Sullivan will pass Saturday, but not this year.
A very close 1-2 though.
Raiola is slipping but isn't quite in trouble, while Garza is the X-factor here, and totally dependant upon how his scheme pans out, so until I see more in camp and on the field, he's the fourth-best.
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