Centers may not be the coveted commodities on the open market that left tackles or even guards are, but as the first play of this year’s Super Bowl exhibited, their impact shouldn’t be overlooked. Even once the ball is in the quarterback’s hands, an above-average center can help anchor a line, allowing a team to establish a running game and giving a QB the room to step up in a pocket.
That’s why it’s no so surprise that the Browns’ top priority this offseason is re-signing Alex Mack, the No. 1 center among this year’s free agent class. Mack, a two-time Pro Bowler who is still just 28 years old, represents the cream of the 2014 crop, but there are several other names to watch, particularly since so many teams could use help in the middle of their offensive line.
Cleveland will be in the market for a replacement if they lose their incumbent starter, and the same can be said for the Saints, Packers, Bears, Patriots, and 49ers. The Colts, Ravens, Giants, Falcons, and Rams received subpar production from their centers in 2013 and could be scouring the free agent market for an alternative, while the Jaguars will need to replace Brad Meester, who appears headed for retirement.
Finally, the Dolphins may consider bringing in someone new if they decide to part ways with Mike Pouncey, whose name was splashed all over the Ted Wells report. But given his contract status, his solid play in 2013, and the fact that the Dolphins have a couple fall guys in free-agents-to-be Richie Incognito and John Jerry, Pouncey likely isn’t going anywhere.
Even with the Dolphins not in the mix, we’ve still listed a dozen teams potentially involved in 2014’s free agent market for centers. Let’s take a look at some of the players those clubs will have to consider….
As mentioned above, no other center among this year’s group of prospective free agents is in the same class as Mack, who has graded as a top-10 center in each of his first five NFL seasons, according to Pro Football Focus’ metrics. Designating Mack as a franchise player may not be in the Browns’ best interests, since he’d qualify for the same one-year salary as a left tackle, but Cleveland should still be able to find a way to lock him up.
After Mack, the two most intriguing options at center seem to be Evan Dietrich-Smith and Brian De La Puente. Both remain solidly in their primes at age 27 and 28, respectively, and have experience in two of the most dynamic passing offenses in the NFL. Dietrich-Smith started all 16 games for the Packers in 2013, while De La Puente has been the Saints’ starting center for multiple seasons. Of the two, De La Puente looks like the safer bet, given Dietrich-Smith’s relative lack of experience as a full-time player, but both should be solid pickups, particularly as pass blockers.
Jonathan Goodwin and Roberto Garza are longtime starters that continued to perform at an above-average level in 2013 — both ranked among the top 15 centers according to PFF’s grades. However, considering Goodwin having turned 35 years old in December, and Garza will turn 35 next month, teams may be wary of committing to either player on more than a very short-term contract. Still, for 2014 at least, both players should be reliable starting options, with Goodwin a more effective run blocker and Garza excelling in pass blocking.
Neither Ryan Wendell nor Fernando Velasco had a career year in 2013. After an excellent 2012 season, Wendell had a down year in 2013, grading as the league’s worst pass-blocking center, according to PFF. While he would like to return to the Patriots, a team like New England that relies on a potent passing attack may not be an ideal fit for Wendell, who is a more accomplished run blocker.
As for Velasco, he was cut by the Titans after a solid season in 2012 and caught on late with the Steelers in 2013 when Maurkice Pouncey tore his ACL. Velasco, 29, didn’t match his 2012 performance in Pittsburgh, but it’s reasonable to believe that missing training camp contributed to some of his struggles. If he’s on a roster for a full camp and preseason, Velasco looks capable of being a solid starter in 2014.
While the rest of the prospective free agent centers come with some question marks, there should be some upside among this group too. Dan Koppen, J.D. Walton, and Ryan Cook were all sidelined due to injuries in 2013, but if they’re healthy, they should be capable of starting. Koppen’s age (34) and injury history (he missed virtually all of 2011 as well) are concerns, and Walton hasn’t played since the first month of the 2012 season, so Cook might be the most desirable player of this trio — he played well as Dallas’ center in 2012 and is a former second-round pick.
As for other names to watch? Ted Larsen didn’t play well as a Tampa Bay part-timer in 2013, and Robert Turner wasn’t good in the six games he started for the Titans. But both players received above-average grades from PFF in 2012, so they could still have potential in the right system. Meanwhile, former fourth-round pick Joe Hawley never received an extended run of playing time in his four seasons in Atlanta, but was having a decent season in part-time action in 2013 before a disastrous Week 17 performance. He also won’t turn 26 until October.