In spite of the Miami Dolphins’ failure to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill in 2013, center Mike Pouncey produced his third solid season in as many years. At just 24 years old, Pouncey is already the leader of the Dolphins offensive line.
As a unit, the offensive line allowed 58 total sacks, prompting Miami to overhaul the position. Although an expensive venture, the Dolphins successfully acquired four potential new starters this offseason. Among the $64 million spent, which includes a first- and third-round pick, the Dolphins did not invest in a center to challenge Pouncey.
Considering his on-the-field play only, that was a smart decision. The 2011 first-round pick was the lone bright spot for the Dolphins offensive line last season.
But is Pouncey elite?
That’s the question the Dolphins have to ask themselves as his rookie contract is ending. The Dolphins exercised his 2015 option, but that is an ungauranteed season that can easily be voided later. After the team's disastrous locker room issues in 2013, Pouncey has only continued to find himself in trouble situations. Since Pouncey is likely to ask for a similar—or larger—contract than his brother, Maurkice Pouncey, signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami has to evaluate his on-field value.
Let’s take a look at the film to see where Pouncey excels and struggles, and then decide if he’s a top-five center in the NFL. To earn such a distinction, Pouncey would need to be very good to excellent as a pass- and run-blocker, as well as showing pre-snap recognition ability and leadership.
Considering the Dolphins offense passed the ball 63 percent of its 943 snaps last season, let’s start with Pouncey’s ability in pass protection. Based on raw data, Pouncey excels as a pass-blocker. He allowed just two sacks and nine hurries in 572 pass attempts.
It’s accurate to say Pouncey’s greatest strength is his ability as a pass-blocker. With his tremendous athleticism, he contained some of the more powerful nose tackles in the NFL last year. He accomplished this success with his feet.
In the GIF below, you’ll see how Pouncey overcomes a bull rush from the defensive tackle.
He gets shoved back into the immediate area of Tannehill, but he still earns a “win” for this play. By keeping his hands active and churning his feet, he allows the play to develop and his quarterback is unscathed.
Pouncey wasn’t challenged one-on-one in passing situations often last season for a few reasons. The first was because of how bad the other linemen were, so defenses sent extra rushers outside of the tackles. The other major factor was that Pouncey mirrors attackers with great precision. When the blitzers cannot get around Pouncey, they tend to give up on the play.
As a help-blocker, Pouncey is fantastic at coming over to double-team defensive linemen. He’s very effective at the execution of his blocks because he plays with great leverage and his hands are strong.
In the picture below, you’ll see how Pouncey pancaked a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defender. It’s a run play, but his leverage translates.
To highlight his athleticism, the Dolphins featured Pouncey as their lead pulling lineman in screens. His combination of quickness and agility is absolutely rare for an interior lineman. In a sense, he’s more of a guard because of his unique ability.
In the picture below, Pouncey is about eight yards downfield and smothering a defensive back.
As stated before, the Dolphins chose to use Pouncey as a pulling center because of his capability to seal blocks downfield. He has tremendous fluidity for a 6’5”, 305-pound man, which allows him to get to the second level of defenses with ease. When he gets there, he does a good job of finding a defender to block.
He’s not a dominant force in that regard, but he’s effective.
It’s easy to find examples in every game of Pouncey being downfield, making a potential impact block.
As great of an athlete as Pouncey is, his quickness comes at the expense of strength at the point of contact.
That’s not meant to suggest he’s weak, but his functional strength at times leaves him vulnerable to speed-to-power moves. For example, take a look at the GIF above. You’ll see Pouncey lose right away to a powerful swim move by the nose tackle. He loses so badly it takes three blockers to overcome his poor hand use.
Predictably, his struggles continue as a run-blocker when lined up against nose tackles as well. In the next GIF, you’ll see the defender using Pouncey to trick the running back into running toward his lane. When the back approaches, the defender simply tosses Pouncey aside and makes the tackle.
Even when he gets to the second level of the defense, Pouncey’s hand placement and balance is inconsistent. He’s bigger and stronger than the linebacker he attacked, but he is shoved aside with ease, eventually allowing a pressure.
The more troubling issue for Pouncey is his lack of awareness. Football IQ is impossible to measure, but repeated mistakes in similar situations are revealing.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins offense, Pouncey had numerous mental breakdowns last season. Some mistakes were pre-snap, which allowed the defense to quickly disrupt the play. Others were post-snap, leading to Pouncey missing key blocks and missing out on potential big plays.
As a pass protector, Pouncey doesn’t make many mistakes. The picture below, however, shows how Pouncey is prone to making poor decisions. As this play unfolded, Pouncey never looks back to his left, leaving his guard in a high-pressure situation and without help.
Unfortunately, the results in the run game were worse and easier to find.
In the GIF above, Pouncey’s job is to chip the defensive tackle shading to his right, then get to the middle linebacker to seal the block. If he makes the block, the running back has a clear path to the secondary. Instead, Pouncey spends too much time with the guard, and then he scrambles to the linebacker.
The Buccaneers have a fast group of linebackers, but this is a reasonable play to make for a player with such great physical traits.
As the lead puller, Pouncey faces a lot of pressure. He has to snap the ball and nearly instantaneously sprint to the edge of the tackle box to hit a defender. It’s a tough gig, but to be considered elite, it must be executed. Finding the biggest threat to end a play prematurely is the primary purpose for the lead blocker.
As you can see above, Pouncey is vulnerable to overrunning a defender, leaving the ball-carrier as an easy target.
At 24 years old and still on his rookie contract, Mike Pouncey has significant upside left in his development. Right now, Pouncey has been able to become one of the better centers in the NFL with his rare combination of athleticism and great pass-blocking ability. If that were all that were needed to be an elite center, Pouncey would already be a top-five player at his position.
As of today, with the way he struggles impacting the ground game and his mental gaffes, Pouncey shouldn’t be considered an elite center.
The competition is fierce around the league for such a distinction. To reach that plateau, more consistency is needed. When he returns from hip surgery midseason, he’ll have to show improvement to deserve the blockbuster contract he’s likely seeking.
I would comfortably put Pouncey in the top 10 centers, but not yet in the top five.