Centers tend to be an afterthought during the draft process even though history shows the NFL holds the position in high regard if the right talent is available. Teams have drafted some of the game's best pivots in the first round.
The Atlanta Falcons' Alex Mack, Pittsburgh Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey, Los Angeles Chargers' Mike Pouncey, Dallas Cowboys' Travis Frederick and Indianapolis Colts' Ryan Kelly all heard their names called during the opening frame. A year ago, two collegiate centers, Frank Ragnow and Billy Price, were off the board before the end of the first day.
When a top prospect can be found, teams don't hesitate to invest in the position.
The 2019 class has the potential to feature multiple first-round centers, starting with Friday's standouts at the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. North Carolina State's Garrett Bradbury and Texas A&M's Erik McCoy put their movement skills on display to wow scouts and onlookers. They're just the tip of the potential found at the position.
The scheme versatility within the group is excellent, but Bradbury quickly established himself as the headliner with an exceptional workout.
Prior to the combine, Bradbury displayed certain traits that could lead one to believe he is a scheme-specific talent.
Generally speaking, two kinds of linemen can be found. The first fits a gap-blocking (or man-blocking) scheme. Those systems require powerful blockers at the point of attack to uproot and move defenders off the spot. The other fits a zone-blocking scheme in which lateral agility and athleticism are necessary to make certain blocks while on the move. All teams utilize both approaches, but the type of linemen they prefer is based on which one they employ most often.
Bradbury is a prototypical zone-blocking center based on his ability to reach defenders, make blocks at the second level and identify targets in space. NFL Network's Ben Fennell provided examples of Bradbury's outstanding lateral footwork and his ability to reach and hook defenders:
Everyone got to see how those movement skills translated during his combine workout.
First, the 6'3", 306-pound Bradbury ran an unofficial 4.92-second 40-yard dash, which ranked third among offensive linemen. The high school tight end also finished top-five among his position group in the three-cone drill (7.41 seconds) and short shuttle (4.53 second). These further highlight his lower-body fluidity, as seen below courtesy of Catch Scratch Reader's Billy Marshall:
There were questions about how well Bradbury could handle bigger, more physical NFL-caliber defensive linemen. His 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press—which ranked second overall—indicate a powerful blocker. His tape certainly shows someone who loves to finish blocks.
"I think it says he's freakishly athletic for his size," former Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley said of his center during January's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, per The Athletic's Joseph Person. "He's competitive. He's kind of a team-first guy, and he's got a really good build."
Right now, the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings are potential first-round fits. The Panthers' Ryan Kalil plans to retire, and Bradbury can provide a similar skill set. If the reigning Rimington Trophy winner lasts until the 18th overall pick, he's an ideal option for the Minnesota Vikings, who are implementing a Gary Kubiak-influenced scheme. This means it'll feature heavy zone-blocking principles.
Usually, organizations salivate over the potential top tackle or even guard prospects. Tackles hold a higher positional value. Colts All-Pro Quenton Nelson showed a guard could be a top-10 pick last year. Yet, this year's center class doesn't stop with Bradbury.
McCoy was an early entrant to the 2019 draft class. So, his status took a little time to build momentum. The redshirt junior was allowed to participate in the Senior Bowl since he already graduated, and he performed well. If his all-star performance didn't warrant enough attention, the 6'4", 303-pound center blazed a linemen-leading 4.89-second 40-yard dash.
A lineman will be the first to say running 40 yards in a straight line isn't realistic in relation to what's asked of him in a game situation. However, the overall athleticism and quickness needed to pull, get out in space and make a block do reflect those movement skills, as Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy noted:
Furthermore, the on-field portions of McCoy's workout rivaled anyone else's best. He moved effortlessly throughout the drills and showed good balance and technique.
"I'll say it a hundred times: Erik's the best center there is," former A&M offensive lineman Keaton Sutherland told the Dallas Morning News' Ben Baby. "He's the smartest that there is. To have him playing next to you makes your life a lot easier because he's making the calls, he's letting you know what to do and helping you out."
The Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams are potential landing spots for McCoy in the back end of the first round. The Chiefs' starting center, Mitch Morse, will be a free agent when the new league year beings March 13, while the Rams' John Sullivan turns 34 years old before the start of the regular season. L.A. can save $5.25 million by releasing him.
Or, McCoy could land with his old offensive line coach if he slips into the second round. Jim Turner left the Aggies program to join the Cincinnati Bengals staff under new head coach Zac Taylor.
Bradbury and McCoy alone help make an impressive center class since the position isn't as deep in the NFL (only two centers are needed on each of the 32 teams). More quality options are available.
Mississippi State's Elgton Jenkins is a road-grader. The 6'4", 310-pound lineman is powerful at the point of attack and an ideal fit in a gap scheme. Once Jenkins latches onto defenders, he's overwhelming. He didn't participate in the 40-yard dash, but he provided plenty of pop during position-specific drills.
Three versatile options exist beyond the top three prospects.
Kansas State's Dalton Risner started 13 games in the middle as a redshirt freshman before converting to right tackle. Wisconsin's Michael Deiter also played multiple positions, including 16 games at center. Even Alabama's Jonah Williams, whom most project to tackle or guard, has some teams interested in him as an interior blocker.
Aside from the Panthers, Vikings, Chiefs, Rams and Bengals, three more teams—the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and New York Jets—require center help. The demand may be high, but this is the best class in recent memory.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.