NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 Center Market

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2017

NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 Center Market

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    Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 free-agency preview, a series where we'll use the power of the 17-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you in-depth analysis of every NFL free agent this offseason. In this installment, lead scout Doug Farrar and Center scout Ethan Young dive into this year's center class.

    The center position is not a glamorous one. The only time you generally hear about a center is right after he's blown a block—or, in the case of Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack, when it's unclear whether his broken fibula will allow him to play in Super Bowl LI. As it turned out, Mack was able to play, and he played well. He crushed New England's interior defensive line on a lot of the big runs Atlanta had early in the game before everything fell apart. 

    If your team has a center at the Alex Mack level, a lot of things become easier. That level of center can make line calls seamlessly, telling his fellow linemen and the quarterback what he sees regarding defensive alignment and penetration schemes. That level of center can take on a defensive tackle by himself or in combination with a guard and then chip his way up to linebacker level to further help his offense. And that level of center can pull left and right in slide protection, allowing his coaches to throw more things into the playbook.

    In today's NFL, where teams can switch between zone and man blocking in the same drive, having a great center has never been more important. He's the guy watching all the tape to make sure he understands all the tells every defense has. He's the guy making things easier for younger and less experienced linemen. He, as much as anyone, is a coach on the field.

    It's not a position that requires a great deal of athleticism, though that's always a nice plus. Most of all, the best centers are freakishly smart, highly durable and completely relentless. It takes a special personality to survive an onslaught of defensive monsters on your body over 1,000 snaps per season, only to get up after every play and continue your analysis of the defense.

    This year's free-agent class of centers isn't nearly the one we saw in 2016, which allowed the Falcons to land Mack, but there are a few good guys in the bunch.

    Previous Installments

    NFL1000 Free-Agent Quarterback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Tight End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Fullback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Kicker/Punter Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Left Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Offensive Guard Rankings

6. Joe Hawley

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Pro: 15.5/25
    Run Block: 15.9/25
    Power: 15.5/20
    Agility: 13.7/20
    Positional Value: 6/10
    2016 NFL1000 Center Rank: 32/38

    NFL1000 Center Scout Ethan Young

    One of the worst starting centers in the league last year, Joe Hawley has struggled to make a positive impression as a starter in multiple uniforms now. Hawley's biggest flaw is his footwork, as he takes too many false steps in pass protection and is often caught in bad positions to generate leverage. With his average play strength, he isn't strong enough to afford being caught out of position.

    I was surprised Tampa Bay didn't give Evan Smith more of a chance to start last year. Hawley got hurt early on, and Smith got a shot to replace him. Smith graded out a little better but was a slight upgrade at best, and Hawley took the job back shortly after.

    Hawley's play doesn't warrant starter money or even another opportunity to start, but a team like the Bengals could use a depth option to come in and push Russell Bodine, their much-maligned starter. Bodine's struggles are well documented in Cincinnati, and competition for him is needed. Hawley shouldn't be too expensive to acquire, and if Kevin Zeitler leaves, interior depth will have to be addressed anyway.

    The Buccaneers could bring Hawley back, but protecting Jameis Winston with a more competent option should be a priority for a team with playoff aspirations. Bringing back Hawley when you already have Evan Smith is also redundant.

    I would like to see Tampa draft someone like LSU's Ethan Pocic in the second round and let him battle in camp with Smith to earn the center job. Obviously the Buccaneers would want Pocic or whoever they draft that high to win this hypothetical competition, but Smith would be a nice insurance policy if said younger option takes longer to develop.

     

    Doug's Quick Take

    Hawley's worst 2016 game was his two-sack debacle against the Broncos in Week 4, per Pro Football Focus. He did improve a bit in the second half of the season, but he's not a center the Bucs should want to go forward with if they can do better.

    Potential Suitors: Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams

5. John Sullivan

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: John Sullivan did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading. 


    NFL1000 Center Scout Ethan Young

    I was surprised it took so long for John Sullivan to find a home after the Vikings moved on from him last year. Two years ago, Sullivan was considered one of the best centers in the league. Fast-forward to today: Sullivan only ended up being graded in two games for NFL1000 in 2016, and although he looked decent in limited reps for Washington this year, you can see the Notre Dame alum is not the player he was before he hurt his back and missed all of 2015.

    Although it sounds like this paragraph is describing a 35-year-old rather than a 31-year-old so far, Sullivan hasn't played a full season in two years now, and there are legit durability concerns going forward. But even considering all that, with his track record and ability to drive defenders off their spots in the ground game, Sullivan should get some interest as a competitive veteran depth option.

    Teams like the Browns and Jets come to mind as likely landing places. Cleveland could use competition for a struggling Cam Erving, who is in a make-or-break year. New York makes sense if it misses out on some of the top draft options and wants proven competition for Wesley Johnson, who came out of nowhere last year and emerged as a startable option at center. I really liked what I saw from Johnson on tape this year, but given that he has almost no track record before this year, interior depth is definitely needed in the Big Apple.

    The Redskins could be an option as well. They have been looking for an answer at center for a while now, but they could bring Sullivan back as depth if they don't fully address the position with a younger alternative like Brian Schwenke.

    Of those three destinations, Sullivan's best chance to start is in Cleveland, but I worry the Browns may overlook Sullivan because of his age. The Browns' current front office has preferred to acquire young players. I get the allure of wanting to stay young, but given that the Browns don't match up schematically with many of the younger options on the market, I hope they don't try to fit a square peg into a round hole for the sake of bringing in younger pieces.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Sullivan has been one of the best and most consistent centers over the last half-decade, but it appears age and injuries are taking their toll. If he can make a full comeback, it will likely be in a power-based scheme, and perhaps in a rotation.

    Potential Suitors: Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Washington Redskins

4. Ted Larsen

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Pro: 15.9/25
    Run Block: 15.6/25
    Power: 15.7/20
    Agility: 13.7/20
    Positional Value: 6/10
    2016 NFL1000 Offensive Guard Rank: 62/78

    NFL1000 Center Scout Ethan Young

    Another Bears depth interior lineman with some history at center, Larsen will need to play up his versatility if he hopes to differentiate himself from other depth options discussed so far. Larsen played guard almost exclusively last year, but he offers more value at center in free agency, as this is a pretty bad center free-agent class.

    It's likely the Bears will look to bring back one of Larsen or Eric Kush for depth purposes, and my money would be on Larsen given his track record, even though he is the older of the two and looked worse on tape over the course of the year.

    If there is somewhere Larsen shines, it's from a consistency standpoint. The Position Adjusted Variance (PAVAR) of his weekly NFL1000 grades was 16.90, which comes in second-lowest among free-agent guards, behind only Larry Warford. It's worth noting that while he's consistent, his performance was consistently below average. But that consistency and lack of valleys in his performance may be attractive in a depth capacity.

    Larsen has bounced around thus far in his career. If he hits the open market again, two NFC West teams that ProFootballTalk's Josh Alper reported were interested in him last year, Seattle and San Francisco, make sense in depth capacities. It's not all that surprising that Pete Carroll- and Chip Kelly-led teams were among the most interested in Larsen considering he was a converted college defensive lineman. Even though the 49ers have a completely new regime this year, the Falcons were the only other team that were reportedly interested in Larsen last year. Because Kyle Shanahan is headed to the Bay Area, that link is there.

    At this point in his career, Larsen is a lot more substance than flash or potential, but he is a scheme-versatile player, and his quickness off the snap and initial punch can surprise you.

     

    Doug's Quick Take

    That Larsen's overall performance, especially in run-blocking, took a hit as injuries decimated Chicago's starting guard duo of Josh Sitton and Kyle Long tells you a lot about the player. He's not the kind of blocker who will transcend those around him, but he's decent in the right scheme. Any team acquiring him had better have a lot of strength around him, which would seem to leave Seattle and San Francisco out in the cold.

    Potential Suitors: Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers

3. Brian Schwenke

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: Brian Schwenke did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading.

    NFL1000 Center Scout Ethan Young

    Brian Schwenke has had an up-and-down first few seasons, but he is one of the youngest options available in an interior offensive line market that craves depth and versatility, two other boxes he checks pretty well.

    We've talked a bit about the Titans and what the "Exotic Smashmouth" crew may do at guard long-term, with both Larry Warford and Chance Warmack as potential fits, but from a depth perspective Schwenke doesn't have much use either. The Titans have Dennis Kelly, Josh Kline and last year's sixth-round pick Sebastian Tretola (who mostly fell that far because of his scheme limitations) as quality depth options going forward. They don't need to pony up for Schwenke when they can draft a young depth center late on Day 3.

    The best chance for Schwenke's return to Tennessee is if the Titans don't address guard and let Warmack walk, pulling Kline from the depth group to become a full-time starter. A veteran depth option on the interior would be a much bigger need at that point.

    From a traits perspective, Schwenke is scheme-limited. He doesn't win with quick reactions or mirroring ability, but rather with strength and anchor. He's an ideal fit for gap scheme-heavy teams, which limits his value in today's schematic climate. That said, the center market is barren, so teams that want to feature any sort of gap scheme looks may be forced into competing for Schwenke.

     

    Doug's Quick Take

    Since his days at Cal, Schwenke has been a limited player from an agility standpoint. As a result, he's been more vulnerable to speed-rushes to either side than you'd like a center to be, and he's not dominant when heading to the second level. He's a decent power player who needs good guards around him and would fit best in a power-based scheme or a team that runs more inside than outside zone.

    Potential Suitors: Washington Redskins, New York Jets, Tennessee Titans

2. A.Q. Shipley

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Pro: 16.3/25
    Run Block: 15.9/25
    Power: 15/20
    Agility: 14.7/20
    Positional Value: 6/10
    2016 NFL1000 Center Rank: 29/38

    NFL1000 Center Scout Ethan Young

    Shipley has turned into a solid veteran and serviceable starter during his time in Glendale. Although he is 30, he should generate interest given his technical prowess in pass protection.

    Shipley is not the biggest or strongest player. He arguably has the worst size measurables of all offensive linemen in the league, coming in at 6'1" with 29 ¾-inch arms. He's got about as squatty a frame as you'll see in the league. But even at 30, he displays good short-area quickness and mental processing ability, allowing him to diagnose fronts and get in good position in the run game. Given the importance of movement to his game, though, age may affect him more than it does other linemen.

    Arizona got hit with offensive line injuries harder than any team in the league last year, having to give starter reps to their ninth and 10th offensive linemen on the depth chart at times. Shipley was the closest thing the Cardinals had to a stabilizing force up front, and I doubt they want to lose him for what will likely be Carson Palmer's last hurrah, when pass protection will be vital.

    As fun as it was to watch Taylor Boggs slide in at guard last year, you have to think general manager Steve Keim will want to overcorrect in terms of bringing in offensive line depth. Losing Shipley would make that task even harder and would cost the Cardinals any sort of continuity up front, which will be important with many new faces likely to enter that position group.

    Luckily for the Cardinals, not many teams will see Shipley as a big enough upgrade to their lines to drive his price up. The Rams could conceivably get involved and would have extra incentive as divisional foes. But with his skill set at 30, Shipley may be seen as a short-term solution, and the Rams are a year or two from being ready to push for a playoff spot with their new coaching staff.

     

    Doug's Quick Take

    Shipley's short arms show up on tape. He tends to lunge when dealing with enemy rushers, and if he's not completely technically sound with his footwork, he'll get out of place and become entirely beatable in a hurry. He sees the field well and is good for the first couple of steps, which would lead to the correct assumption that he's best-suited to a gap-scheme team in which agility is less important than short-area leverage.

    Potential Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns

1. JC Tretter

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Pro: 17.7/25
    Run Block: 16.4/25
    Power: 15.3/20
    Agility: 16/20
    Positional Value: 6/10
    2016 NFL1000 Center Rank: 11/38

    NFL1000 Center Scout Ethan Young

    Far and away the best center option on the market this offseason, JC Tretter should see a ton of interest in what is ultimately a poor center draft class and free-agency group.

    There is no question Tretter put up good tape for Green Bay. While I hate to criticize players for things they can't control, it's a little scary that we can't say with certainty that Tretter was even the best center on his own team, yet he's clearly the top option of the entire group. That tells you a lot about the scarcity at the position.

    Luckily for interested teams, the demand at center isn't great either. You can thank an influx of talent at the position, due in part to a great rookie center class last year (led by Ryan Kelly and Cody Whitehair) as well as a few young players' taking big steps in 2016 (Justin Britt and Travis Swanson stand out). While the need for centers is scaled back overall, the few teams that need one may still drive up the price on the available options. Tretter should see the benefits.

    As a player, Tretter is a smooth athlete with great feet. His ability to slide and mirror in pass protection is among the best in the league, and his skill set should be desirable to teams that feature a lot of zone-blocking looks. Tretter doesn't necessarily win with raw power but is able to generate efficient leverage when needed due to his hand placement and ability to set a strong base.

    I would be shocked if he returned to Green Bay considering Corey Linsley is already in the fold, but the 49ers seem like an obvious fit. With their cap flexibility, need at center and new outside zone scheme under Kyle Shanahan, Tretter would be a huge upgrade over Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Of Green Bay's two centers, Tretter is more athletic than Corey Linsley, and he'd be an ideal fit for any pass-heavy team in need of a center who can flare out to deal with different fronts and stunts and drive up to linebacker level on combo blocks. He'd work well in a power-based offense with the right kinds of guards around him, but it's his agility that will sell Tretter to whichever team signs him next.

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers