Centers are becoming a premium position and the 2022 NFL draft class can provide teams with the pivot they need
Latest NFL Trends Make Centers More Important Than Ever
The NFL is a never-ending cycle of evolution, with coaches constantly searching for their next edge. It's been popular to document the West Coast/Shanahan frenzy which has taken down the single-high safety defenses - such as the Legion of Boom - that were dominating in the past decade. Recently, we've seen defenses fight back, countering with two-high safety shells to take away the deep ball and other Shanahan-favorite concepts.
This recent defensive progression focuses on a versatile and morphing secondary that looks to disguise coverages and confuse quarterbacks, but there's another aspect on the front end which is just as important. Defenses are looking to create more interior pressure than ever and throw multiple looks at the interior of the offensive line, knowing that the constant confusion will lead to communication mishaps and thus sacks.
Las Vegas Raiders general manager, Mike Mayock, preaches how important interior protection is “Over the years, I’ve talked to almost every top quarterback in the NFL and have asked them all the same question. What bothers you the most? Almost every one of them says the same thing: immediate pressure up the middle."
This has placed increased emphasis on the center position to constantly be aware of exotic pre-snap alignments which transform post-snap and they must react accordingly when defenses throw the kitchen sink their way. Looking at the premium defenses around the league, we can see just how much mental stress is put on these centers, who must be perfect in their calls and keep the entire offense on the same page.
Brandon Staley was the hot defensive name throughout the 2020 season, leading the Rams' unit to an elite year and being praised for utilizing 2-high shells to minimize deep concepts. That luxury is only made possible because of how he incorporated odd 3-4 "Tite" fronts which uses two 4i defensive tackles and put a quicker-than-usual nose tackle head up versus the center.
That alone puts increased stress on the center to have their hands ready quickly after the snap, but nose tackles are no shiny new toy - it's the simulated pressures and blitzes that Staley loved to use to get into the quarterback's head that really hurt offenses.
As Aaron Rodgers insightfully puts it, quarterbacks have less on their plate because of the heavily structured offensive systems nowadays, and "are less able to understand protections because they’re just not trained." Thus, the center is often the one to navigate the rocky waters of funky defensive calls.
The ability to diagnose stunts, twists and blitzes is one important trait that separates the good centers from the elite ones. Take this play from Staley's defense in 2020 as an example. Patriots center, David Andrews (60), is regarded as an above-average talent at his position but gets fooled by the late blitzing LB Kenny Young (41). Since DT Morgan Fox (91) rushes to Andrews' right, Andrews follows in that direction but instead of passing him off to the RG and getting back to the blitzer, Damien Harris (37) is forced to pick up Young. This creates a mismatch for the defense - who's only rushing five defenders versus six Patriot blockers - thus forcing Cam to step to his left and into a sack.
Staley is a wizard at attacking blocking concepts and manipulating them to create a defensive advantage. Offenses must adapt and ask for perfection out of their centers, to avoid continuing to be shut down by Staley and his copycats that will soon follow (and already are).
Need further proof of the exotic defenses that are dominating the league? Look no further than Todd Bowles' Super Bowl-winning defense that held Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to just nine points. They too played in 2-high shells to take away the deep game but also forced offensive linemen to jump through endless mental hoops to figure out the defenses' various rush packages.
Bowles' defense is a multiple one, playing 4-3 or 3-4 depending on the matchup. Consistent with Staley though, Bowles constantly lined his defense up in exotic "odd" fronts on 3rd down, to force the center to be wary of the nose tackle in front of them and miss out on rushing linebackers.
Here, Chiefs center Austin Reiter (62) is so worried about Ndamukong Suh (93) that he follows him to his right, opening up a lane for LB Lavonte David (54) to slant in behind Reiter, forcing a holding penalty and eventual interception.
Bowles loved to crowd the line of scrimmage with numerous defensive linemen and linebackers to constantly give centers a different picture and force them to be on top of their game - most could not and were a detriment to the offense.
The NFL is a copycat league and we've seen the top defense in 2021, owned by the Carolina Panthers, institute some core principles of Bowles and Staley's systems. Former Baylor defensive coordinator, Phil Snow, has a once depleted Panthers defense playing faster than modern offenses and holding teams to 10 points per game through three weeks and a large reason is because of their 27 quarterback hits and 14 sacks.
The terror they've been raining on opposing offenses is largely due to, you guessed it, using exotic fronts to crowd the line of scrimmage and put stress on the interior of offensive lines. On this play versus the Saints, the Panthers put four defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage and have one linebacker and one safety mug the A gaps. They end up blitzing just four of those players who were on the line and one from the 2nd level, confusing center Cesar Ruiz (51) into a Shaqtin a Fool type of moment.
The Panthers have feasted on a porous Jets line a banged up Saints line and a Texans line that lacks continuity - three units who lacked communication skills and awareness at the center position and had ugly offensive outputs as a result.
Schematically, there is a lot more on the center's plate as they deal with quicker blitzing linebackers or even defensive backs, but we're also seeing an evolution in the defensive tackle position. Two-down linemen who are pure run-stuffers and nothing else are becoming more and more extinct with the pass-happy NFL.
NFL Network draft analyst, Daniel Jeremiah, says of this new wave, “I think there’s so much of a premium on the quick passing game in the league right now that even some of these traditional two-gap, hold-the-point teams have got to find somebody that can get penetration inside, because offenses are finding ways to somewhat neutralize what you’re doing off the edge."
Aaron Donald is the spearhead for this movement and we've seen plenty of even bigger defensive tackles who are immovable in the run game but also pass rush with power or finesse flourish. Quinnen Williams, Vita Vea, Dexter Lawrence, Jonathan Allen, Jeffrey Simmons, Derrick Brown - this is the new wave of dominant defensive tackles that bring uber-valuable interior pressure and take advantage of weaker centers.
This interior pressure has already proven to be extremely valuable back in 2018, where a study conducted by PFF showed that when defenses can generate pressure from the edge and interior, they hold offenses to 0.632 fewer expected points per play.
That number will likely rise even more with the new wave of shorter quarterbacks who will soon enter the NFL - the 2022 quarterback class is filled with historically shorter athletes. The average height of Sports Illustrated's top 5 quarterbacks in 2022 is two whole inches shorter (6'1) than the average height of the top 5 quarterbacks in the 2021 (6'3) and 2020 (6'3) draft classes.
This historically shrinking measurement is important because it is more challenging for a shorter quarterback to deal with interior pressure than a taller quarterback as it is harder to see throwing lanes above a muddied pocket or rushing lanes to escape defenders.
In addition, the ever-popular dual-threat/mobile quarterbacks have shown time and time again that they can evade exterior pressure and run defenses around in circles. Russell Wilson (5'11) and Kyler Murray (5'10) are great examples of this; however, the best way to slow them down is to contain the edges and collapse the pocket from the interior.
Mike Mayock shares this sentiment, “If you have a couple of good edge-rushers, [the quarterback] can step up inside the pocket if it’s sound upfront. But if you’re getting push [up the middle], especially against some of those guys that don’t move well, that’s difficult."
Thus, we go back to the importance of the center position, not only to process the exotic defenses and schematic designs but also to be able to mirror and anchor versus this new wave of defensive tackles who can pass rush fiercely. They need to be smart and quick enough to move laterally and prevent defensive schematics, but also strong enough to sit in the chair and anchor a bull rush.
Luckily for teams looking to draft Spencer Rattler (6'1), Sam Howell (6'1), Matt Corral (6'1), or Malik Willis (6'1), they will also have a plethora of talented centers to choose from. Let's take a look at the early top three center prospects who can help teams counter the current defensive evolution.
1. Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa, 6'3, 290
The best center in the draft and a top-20 overall talent, Linderbaum is an offensive line coaches' dream. He's the definition of an elite athlete, being a four-year letter winner in baseball, a three-year letter winner in wrestling, track and of course, football.
Linderbaum played on both sides of the trenches in high school and began his career for Iowa as a defensive tackle until he moved to center in 2019. His wrestling and DT background translates to a mean-streak mentality at center and also provides Linderbaum with the core strength and hip flexibility to control defenders in the run and pass game.
He excels in a zone-heavy offense due to his lateral mobility, making reach blocks and combo blocks to pave clear lanes for his running back.
In addition, Linderbaum possesses the awareness to diagnose blitzes and twists, plus the lower body strength to anchor versus the new age defensive tackles.
Linderbaum is an all-around talent who can man the middle of an offensive line from day one. His value is worth a first round pick and impact can be similar to Travis Frederick or Jason Kelce, two All-Pros.
He's made quite the impression at Iowa so far, with Head Coach Kirk Ferentz praising Linderbaum's off-field qualities, “I don't know if it gets any better than Tyler. He's just a tremendous young person, first and foremost. Tremendous student, just has a lot of pride in everything he does, and it shows in the way he practices. But then beyond that, the impact he has on his teammates, especially his line mates. We feel so fortunate that he's our center right now.”
2. Ricky Stromberg, Arkansas, 6'4, 310
Stromberg is some draftniks' Center #1 and he certainly has a good argument - another strong athlete who is equally effective making zone and gap/power blocks, plus is as dependable as they come in pass protection. Interestingly, Stromberg has experience at all three interior offensive line positions - playing two games at left guard, nine at right guard, eight at center and has allowed just one sack in 772 snaps over two seasons.
He's extremely impactful when asked to execute a double team, using his impressive upper body strength to generate push.
In addition, Stromberg is seasoned in pass protection and has seen all of the games defensive coordinators will throw offenses' way.
Furthermore, Stromberg plays with the tenacious attitude that teams need in the trenches and has numerous pancakes to his name. His physicality is evident to his past coaches, Stromberg's high school coach, Kirk Fridrich, says, “Ricky is very athletic and has great footwork and I just (like) how physical he is. He loves contact. He loves getting involved in the trenches and he's been our best lineman for three years now."
Dohnovon West, Arizona State, 6'2, 300
Rounding out the top three is an underrated name in West. He made an impressive jump from Bishop Alemany High School to Arizona State, where he immediately started as a freshman in 2019 and hasn't lost the job since. Like Stromberg, West has experience at all three spots on the interior and is a positive contributor in all run schemes.
West is a great athlete who excels as a puller to kick out the edge defender or when climbing to the 2nd level of a combo block.
In addition, while West isn't the biggest or nastiest lineman out there, he understands how to use his technique to generate play strength which helps him anchor in pass protection. Plus, his experience is seen on the field with how he expertly communicates protection calls with the rest of the offense to handle defensive twists.
If West's 2021 tape looks like his 2020 and 2019 seasons, expect his name to quickly rise throughout the 2022 draft process. He's a prospect without many holes in his game and shouldn’t make it out of round two.
As the NFL evolution pendulum swings back and forth between offense and defense, centers are becoming more important than ever. In the 2022 draft, many teams should look to provide their signal-caller with a talented center to help set the calls and ease a quarterback's job.
Those that don't follow the trend may get caught in the vortex of interior pressure, slowing down the development arc of a young QB. Take the Jets and Bears as prime examples of just how important offensive line play is, especially for rookie QBs.
I hope the Texans - whether they draft a QB or not - take advantage of a strong center class and find a long-term answer to help man the middle and improve the line.