One of the Detroit Lions bigger needs in the 2014 NFL draft is to find an interior offensive lineman for the future. With starting center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims both entering the final years of their contracts, it's important to have a replacement ready to go for 2015.
Southern Cal's Marcus Martin has emerged as one of the top centers in the draft. He is consistently rated first or second at the position by many prominent evaluators, including:
The Lions have certainly taken notice. As confirmed by Tim Twentyman of the team's official website, Detroit hosted the 6'3", 320-pound behemoth earlier this week:
The #Lions hosted former USC guard/center Marcus Martin for a pre-draft visit today. Martin is Mayock's No. 1 center available in the draft.— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) April 21, 2014
That little tidbit led the ESPN Radio affiliate in Grand Rapids to offer a piece gushing over the possibility of Martin landing in the Mitten State. As espoused there:
Martin is, as mentioned, the top rated center in the draft however he's only projected as a 2nd to 3rd round pick. If Martin is there in the third or late in the 2nd, look for the Lions to make a move to lock up the USC big man.
This led me to do a little more in-depth legwork on Martin. While I had a good familiarity with his game, I hadn't sat down and immersed myself in all things Martin.
With some help from the great cut-ups at Draft Breakdown and a few full games from the DVR, the immersion is complete.
Here are the games watched:
- Notre Dame in both 2012 and '13
- Fresno State (bowl game)
- UCLA in both '12 and '13
From the get-go, it's easy to see why so many scouts like Martin. He's got the ideal build for an interior lineman, naturally bulky with a bubble butt that Sir Mix-A-Lot would envy.
Despite his girth, Martin is pretty light on his feet. He looks very lithe and natural moving on his toes and getting out into space. That's a trait the Lions clearly value, as both Raiola and right guard Larry Warford share the same characteristic.
Unfortunately, he shares another trait with Raiola. Even though both men are agile and fast to get out to the second level, neither is very adept at engaging blocking targets in space. This has been a career-long criticism of Raiola, and it's readily evident with Martin too.
One particular play from the Arizona game is a good example. Check out Martin (No. 66) on the play that begins at the 4:45 mark:
Martin demonstrates excellent initial burst, but he's so anxious to get up the field quickly that he loses his balance and wastes the effort. He has a similar problem on the very next play, where he stays on his feet but struggles to engage the target effectively.
There are examples like this from almost every game. Even though he's quite adept at getting to the second level, he's just not very good once he gets out there.
What's important here is that he does consistently demonstrate the ability to get to the second level quickly. That's something that has helped Cleveland's Alex Mack rank near the top in the Pro Football Focus (subscription required) center ratings annually.
It's also worth noting that new head coach Jim Caldwell ran effective offenses in his Indianapolis tenure with Jeff Saturday as his center. While Saturday was a great player for a long time, agility in run blocking was never his strong suit.
Caldwell understood how to play to Saturday's strengths instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Martin might not be called upon to do as much second-level work under Caldwell as Raiola was under former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
One thing that Martin does consistently well is hand placement. Other centers have more jolt to their jabs and power behind their punches, but Martin makes up for it by landing his hands exactly where they need to hit the defender.
He's got an innate sense of getting into the bottom of the defender's chest pad. Because Martin also has strong leverage from staying low in his stance, the effect of hitting the defender in that spot causes the player to rise up and lose momentum.
Here's an example from the Notre Dame contest, where he's matched up against highly rated draft prospect Louis Nix:
Check the play at the 2:00 mark. Martin understands perfectly how to compensate for his relative lack of strength by using great leverage technique and hand placement.
One of the bigger knocks on Martin, included in this thorough scouting report from Bleacher Report's Alex Dunlap, is that he winds up on the ground too much. A lot of time, this goes in hand with his inability to engage in space.
This is fixable with good coaching and increased repetition. As noted by Kyle Posey of Bolts From the Blue, it's almost always a result of Martin being overly aggressive and trying too hard.
More experience playing center, as well as the patience and savvy that comes with maturity, will help Martin a great deal. Keep in mind that he spent his first two years at USC playing guard, so the center position is a newer development for Martin.
This is why he's such a good fit for Detroit. He needs time to develop and acclimate, and the Lions offer just that. If everything goes well, Martin wouldn't play as more than the top interior reserve in 2014 while learning from Raiola and Sims.
He would get a full year to learn the offensive system without the pressure of having to play through his growing pains. The Lions successfully did this with left tackle Riley Reiff, who mentored under veteran Jeff Backus for a season before taking over in his second campaign.
While Colorado State's Weston Richburg is more NFL-ready and is rated by many (including myself) as the top center in this draft, Martin might make more sense in the draft.
As noted by NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah, if the Lions want Richburg it will cost them the 45th pick in the draft:
I'm not the only fan of CSU Center Weston Richburg. Lot of NFL personnel guys are convinced he'll go in the 2nd rd.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) April 23, 2014
I wouldn't complain at all about taking Richburg there, but it might be more prudent to wait a round and select Martin in the third and use that second-rounder on a higher-rated player at a more premium position, like wide receiver or outside linebacker.
Martin generally projects in the 60-80 overall range in a quick survey of several recent mock drafts. The Lions hold the 76th overall pick. That's on the later end of the range, but as the earlier ESPN Radio article mentioned, the Lions might make a minor move to slide up a few spots to secure his draft rights.
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