GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers signed 36-year-old free agent Jeff Saturday to be their center this year and maybe next.
But it’s a given they’re also going to draft a center this year as his possible successor.
Some prominent mock drafters had the Packers selecting the University of Wisconsin’s Peter Konz with pick No. 28 in the first round before the team signed Saturday, but even if they didn’t sign the longtime Indianapolis Colts center, drafting Konz with a first-round pick probably was a stretch because of the value of the position, and it’s almost inconceivable now.
Centers are a low priority in the draft for good reason. Maybe more than all other positions, success at center depends more on intangibles and less on physical makeup. There’s a chance the Packers could pick a center in the second or third round, but considering their needs on defense and the history of low- or non-drafted centers becoming starters in the NFL, the odds probably are better it will be in the fourth round or later.
Just look at recent Packers history. Of their primary starting centers for the past 20 years, James Campen and Frank Winters both were undrafted players signed into the NFL by other teams; Mike Flanagan was a third-round pick; Grey Ruegamer was a former third-round pick by Miami signed as a low-priority free agent; and Scott Wells was a seventh-round pick who left the Packers as an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
In the past 10 years, only four centers have been first-round picks.
“The thing about centers, that’s one position where you can compromise athletically as long as he’s smart and has some toughness, you can get through,” a scout said. “You can be careful at center. You don’t always have go for that guy that’s 6-4 and 315 pounds. It’s nice to have him because he’s bigger and stouter, but you can go with someone who’s stretching to be 6-1 and 298 pounds and is smart and tough and can make the line checks. Those guys can play for a long time. Do you waste a high-round pick at that position when you can get a guy later on who will be just as productive?”
If the Packers wait until the fourth round or later to draft a center, Konz and Georgia’s Ben Jones figure to be off the board, and Baylor’s Phillip Blake likely will be gone, too. After that, it is more about identifying intangibles and finding a player who fits a team’s system. The Packers are a zone-blocking team, so in theory they prefer quicker offensive linemen and will sacrifice size for athletic ability.
But the Packers tried to replace the smallish (6-2 and 300-pound) Wells for much of his career because of concerns about his size before they finally gave in because he played so well and consistently.
Also, coach Mike McCarthy’s run game has incorporated more power plays the past couple of years, and he’s talked generally about wanting to tweak his run game. That suggests at least the possibility he’d prefer a bigger center for those winter games in December and January.
The center “is the most covered-up guy in football,” another scout said. “If you have two good guards you can get away with a half-decent center. The problem is, the 3-4 defenses ... you better have a strong center because they’re going to be battling those big nose guards. Still, it goes back to, if you can get a good center that can call the alerts and checks and the protections and have two good guards, no matter what you play against, he can still be protected.”
One or two other as well. Among the centers who might still be available in the fourth round are Michigan’s David Molk and Ohio State’s Michael Brewster, both of whom most likely will be selected from the late-third round through the fourth round.
Molk (6-07⁄8) is even shorter than Wells, and at 298 pounds is about the same weight, though he’s a little more athletic. Brewster (6-4 1/8, 312) has great size but isn’t the athlete zone-blocking teams prefer to quickly get to the linebacker.
Later in the draft, there are prospects such as Western Oregon’s Jason Slowey (6-2½, 303), who played left tackle at the Division II level but projects to center in the NFL; Arizona State’s Garth Gerhart (6-1¾, 305), the brother of Minnesota Vikings running back Toby Gerhart and a slightly undersized player who snaps left-handed; and Delaware’s Gino Gradkowski (6-2¾, 300), a transfer from West Virginia.