Any discussions regarding the NFL's best center would certainly revolve around the New York Jets' Nick Mangold, Carolina Panthers' Ryan Kalil or Pittsburgh Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey. But a new name needs to be added to the list.
New York Giants center Weston Richburg is quickly developing into one of the game's elite blockers.
"Every competitive person wants to be the best," Richburg said. "My goal is to be the best. That's what it was in college, and I feel I achieved that my senior year.
"Being here in the biggest platform, I want to be the best. I think I'm surrounded by the right people to get me there. I'm on the right team with the right teammates to get me there. It's just up to me to never be content and continually strive to be better. Once you become content, that's when you stop getting better. Throughout my career, I want to continually learn and strive to be better than I was the day before."
Richburg's quest to become the best started at Bushland High School in Bushland, Texas. Despite being honored with first-team all-district honors, very few FBS programs were interested in the two-way star. The talented lineman eventually chose to attend Colorado State over Texas Christian University. He couldn't have made a better decision.
After a redshirt season during his true freshman year, Richburg went on to start 50 straight games for the Rams. Most of them came at center, but he also spent time at left guard as a redshirt freshman and two games at offensive tackle during his redshirt sophomore season.
Within three years, the young lineman realized the NFL was a legitimate possibility.
"My sophomore year was my second year in the system, and I really started to gain confidence," Richburg said. "It was the year where I thought, possibly, I could play a while in college, make it to the next level and maybe even start in the NFL."
As a senior, the Mountain West Conference standout developed into the nation's best center despite not being recognized as a Rimington Trophy finalist.
Others took notice, though.
Well before the 2014 NFL draft, LeCharles Bentley, a former Pro Bowl offensive lineman and owner of LeCharles Bentley O-Line Performance, developed a special interest in Richburg.
While working on another piece at the time, I contacted Bentley to discuss the matter. He then informed me that the best offensive lineman in the upcoming class was Richburg. Bentley had never met the Colorado State center, but he immediately saw traits that translated to the next level.
"It was the way he moved," Bentley described. "You could see on film how he took control of the offense. He had a level of mastery at the position without actually knowing exactly what he was doing. That's when you know, especially at the offensive line position, a guy has 'it.'"
The center wasn't a refined prospect at the time, but he checked off all of the boxes for Bentley.
"First is strength," the former member of the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns mentioned. "This is the most important facet. Why do I mean by strength? I'm not talking about weight-room numbers. I didn't even know what Weston could do in the weight room. I didn't have any of those numbers. But I knew when he delivered a blow, the defender moved. When he sat on a bull rush, he stopped it. I knew at that point, he was strong at the key places."
The former lineman knew he wanted to work with the young man just by watching his film.
|Centers selected in 2014 NFL draft|
At the time, Richburg wasn't considered an early-round prospect by the general public. It wasn't until the yearly Senior Bowl, which features the country's best upcoming NFL talent, Richburg finally received the recognition he deserved. After his performance in Mobile, Alabama, the center started to draw plenty of attention.
As the draft neared, buzz built around the center as a potential late first-round pick, according to DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline.
The Giants eventually selected Richburg in the second round with the 43rd overall pick. He became the first center off the board in an absolutely loaded offensive line class.
Many overlooked the Texas native because of the depth and instant impact of the class. Guards Zack Martin and Joel Bitonio were among the league's best in their first year. Fellow centers Russell Bodine, Bryan Stork and Corey Linsley started as rookies on three of the league's best teams. And the offensive tackle class featured high-profile names such as Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan—all of whom were selected within the first 11 picks.
Before Richburg even stepped on the field, though, a strong bond formed between himself, Bentley and the Richburg family with the goal of making the young man the absolute best player he could become.
"He's been my support," the second-year pro said. "He's been a role model for me even though he had his career cut short due to freak circumstances. But that guy was an unbelievable player and excellent center. He's someone that I really want to model my game after.
"The relationship we formed with him and with my entire family has been really cool."
Richburg even followed the same career path as Bentley. After being selected in the second round by the Saints, Bentley started at left guard during his first season. The same can be said of Richburg.
In fact, the Giants lineman started all but one game at left guard. Since the rookie hadn't played the position for three years, it clearly took him out of his element.
"The move to guard was difficult," Richburg said. "I was more than willing to do it, because I wanted to play and contribute. I didn't want to be on the sidelines not doing anything. You would think the offensive line is so similar, but each position has its nuances. Guard is different from center, which I played the majority of my career. There was a lot more space to deal with between you and the defender. Through trial and error, I had to learn to work with that space. The run-blocking angles are different. You really need to change, and I had to change everything I was doing as a center to help myself at guard.
"Throughout that process, I was able to learn a lot by playing against the best in the world. In the end, I think it greatly helped me with my transition back to center. I understood what guards had to deal with on a play-by-play basis.
"It wasn't always pretty, but it helped me grow. I got thrown into the fire in college my redshirt freshman year. The same thing happened my rookie year. I got thrown in, and I had to figure it out and find out what was expected of me."
Ultimately, those missteps and being forced to learn a new position helped Richburg become a more complete player.
"We discussed it, and I explained to him how critical that first year was in being able to gather as much experience as you could that first season," Bentley said. "Weston is extremely hard on himself. At times, you had to get him over the hump. He'd say he wasn't playing at a high level when he was. Was it the level he wanted to play at? No. What he was able to take from that experience at guard when moving back to center, he took the learning curve and easily pushed it ahead by two or three years.
"Weston was so far removed from his comfort zone he had to adapt or be broken. He adapted. In that adaptation once he moved back to center, it makes it so much easier."
As Richburg prepared for his second season, the Giants didn't inform him that he would make the transition back to center until OTAs. But he had a good idea the move would occur after the organization cut the previous year's starter, J.D. Walton.
While his understanding of the entire offensive line was much greater, it wasn't a completely seamless transition back to his natural position.
"The biggest thing I wanted to work on was my pass protection," Richburg said. "It's a different animal being a center. I worked a lot of pass protection and pass sets to make sure I had everything down. Even though I did it in college, I just came off a season playing guard. I needed to get reacclimated to playing the center position."
If pass protection was Richburg's primary goal, he achieved what he set out for this season. Bentley provided an example on social media of the center's effectiveness as a pass-blocker:
His effectiveness can be quantified by his ability to keep his quarterback, Eli Manning, clean in the pocket.
Pro Football Focus' Nathan Jahnke provided a simple statistic on Oct. 26 that shows how dominant Richburg has been at center so far this season:
Pro Football Focus currently ranks Richburg as the game's third-best center. He only trails the two centers named first-team All-Pro, Ryan Kalil and Travis Frederick, after the previous two seasons.
One can argue Richburg is already the most complete center in the league right now, but it took a little time before he lived up to such lofty praise.
Bentley identified Richburg's greatest weakness prior to entering the league and the area where he wanted him to improve the most.
"The biggest thing for him—and I remember writing this in a report I did for myself—was his hips, hip extension and playing all of the way through his full range of motion," Bentley said. "He had to add that to his resume. Once he was able to get that done, everything else was going to be a seamless transition."
Even at this point, one would be hard-pressed to find a center in the league with a better combination of technique, intelligence, strength (6'3", 298 lbs) and athleticism.
Bentley provided another example of Richburg's play. In this particular video, it's easy to see Richburg's stellar footwork and strong base. The center also squares up to his block, brings his hips and jars the defender upon initial contact:
Attitude can also take an offensive lineman a long way in realizing his full potential.
The 24-year-old blocker's nasty streak isn't often discussed. Some linemen are simply born with it. Others aren't. And Richburg relishes the opportunity to bury his opponents. This is obvious just by watching some of his film.
In the video provided below by OL Watchdog, Richburg's athleticism as a downfield blocker is only trumped by his desire to drive his opponent into the ground:
To truly be considered the best at a position, smart football players continue to hone their craft.
Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas (6'6", 312 lbs) isn't the game's best left tackle and a future Hall of Fame inductee because of overwhelming physical traits. The eight-time Pro Bowl blocker won't blow anyone away in the weight room, but his natural strength translates to the field. And he continues to use it to his advantage by being the most consistently sound technician in the game.
Repetitive technique is what separates good offensive linemen from great ones.
This is where Richburg strives to improve.
"I need to work on my consistency," the Giants center admitted. "Being a center, you need to be able to move in both directions. You need to reach block to the left as well as the right. At left guard, I only had to reach block to the left and cutoff block to the right.
"I need to reach both ways in pass sets as well. I need to pass set to both the left and right. I want to make both of those blocks look the same and be very efficient going either way. I don't want to be better at one side and lacking at the other. That's something I'm constantly looking at on film and working to get better. I hope to get better year after year with my consistency."
In order to better understand Richburg's insistence on being as good to his left as he is to his right, OL Watchdog provided two examples of the center effectively executing reach blocks to both sides.
As a natural right-handed player, the first example is to the center's dominant side:
Now, his left side:
These are two perfectly executed reach blocks against the same defender shaded to each side of Richburg.
It's rather clear both blocks look the same and are efficient. Mission accomplished. It now needs to be extended from a play-to-play basis to a game-by-game performance and, ultimately, year-by-year consistency.
As a center, though, more comes into play than simply executing one's blocks.
"The entire offense is run between me and Eli [Manning]," Richburg said. "I'm responsible for letting everyone know whether it's a four- or three-down front. From there, I need to let the guys know where the linebacker is. If Eli wants to change it, we change the line call from there. It's a ton of responsibility. Being a guard last year showed me what it took, and it helped get me ready for this season."
Despite averaging 14.7 fewer yards per game this season compared to last, there is a growing comfort level in the second year of Ben McAdoo's offensive scheme with Richburg in the middle of the offensive line.
But the Giants proved to be quite inconsistent through the first eight games of the season. New York's offense eclipsed 300 or more yards in five of the team's contests yet failed to reach 290 yards in the other three.
A lot of the team's success and failure rides on its quarterback, but Manning already earned the complete trust of his teammates despite his up-and-down performances.
"It's unbelievable," Richburg said. "I heard from guys on other teams who have rookie or inexperienced quarterbacks. It just sounds like a nightmare. I have the pleasure of playing with a quarterback who has 10-plus years of experience, two Super Bowls and two Super Bowl MVPs. He's so knowledgeable. He's at such an advanced level of knowing this game that it just makes my job easier. He's able to change protections according to pressure, change runs and things like that which is really valuable for us."
With Manning signed through the 2019 season and two more years remaining on Richburg's rookie contract, the Giants' battery will only continue to grow together and become more effective with each passing week.
While Manning already established himself as one of the league's best, Richburg is still fighting for that recognition.
However, the second-year pro exemplifies the entire center package. All of the physical tools are apparent. He's a strong technician equally adept at run and pass blocking. And his dedication to his craft cannot be questioned.
But has he already established himself as the NFL's best center?
In order to provide an answer, I asked Bentley this exact question. Clearly, there might be a natural bias toward one of his disciples, but no one studies offensive line play, its history and respects the league's best blockers more than the Cleveland native.
"Removing any bias: I do believe Weston Richburg is the best center in the NFL," Bentley said. "I believe that.
"With that, I still need to pay homage to the other guys around the league. Maurkice Pouncey is injured. Alex Mack isn't the same as he is used to be. Jason Kelce is very good, but he fits a certain style of offense. If you look around the league, Rodney Hudson is making a lot of money, but he's a good but not great player.
"I believe Weston Richburg is the most well-rounded and complete center around the league. In terms of the next generation and the next group of guys, he's leading the pack."
All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.