The center position in football is one of the most underappreciated positions in the game today. Not only is the center responsible for giving the quarterback a clean snap on every play, adjusting to his quarterback’s tendencies, cadence, and depth in the pocket, but he’s also responsible for diagnosing blitzes, stunts, and potential threats from the defensive line, while setting up the protection to account for his reads. With all of these responsibilities, why isn’t the center position valued as much as other positions on the offensive line? This positional value debate has reared its head in this draft season with Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey and his NFL Draft stock.
Making a case for the center position
The center is usually the smartest player on the football team. All-Pro center Alex Mack summed it up well:
“It’s up to you, then, to get everyone on the offensive line organized. It’s important that you communicate, so your left tackle, left guard, right tackle, and right guard all know what’s going on. You make a call and make sure you get both sides of the line organized. It can be easy; in the base front [alignment] for a particular team, you’ve seen it a million times and it’s easy to set up your guys. It’s when things spiral a little bit that you need to be able to communicate….. Because I’m the one organizing my guys, a lot of what I do is making sure I have the line and the quarterback on the same page in terms of protection. It’s really important for the whole O-line to know what your quarterback is doing so they can protect him on those pass plays.”
The difference between a good offensive line and a great or even elite offensive line can often be the play from the team’s center. At the NFL level, look at the top offensive lines in the last few seasons: the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Las Vegas Raiders. Each of these teams have all featured elite play from the center position.
Despite their role, centers aren’t valued highly by the NFL
Despite all of the responsibilities and the importance of the center, they are rarely drafted in the first round. Interior offensive linemen in general have been almost disregarded in the draft process with offensive tackles receiving the most interest. From the 2000 NFL Draft to the 2020 NFL Draft, only 14 centers have been selected in the first round. Compared to the offensive tackle position, there’s a massive drop:
- Offensive Tackles: 72
- Offensive Guards: 19
- Offensive Centers: 14
Note: This is the position the player was drafted as. Some tackles and centers played guard at the NFL level.
In the modern era of the NFL Draft (since 1970), there have only been three centers taken in the top 15: Pete Brock (1976), Steve Everitt (1993), and Mike Pouncey (2011). Three in 50 years.
What kind of money do centers make after their rookie contract?
Despite the importance of the role, teams don’t seem to invest heavily in the center position. It’s often viewed as an afterthought in favor of the athletic offensive tackle (who may or may not be able to pass protect). Even further, teams don’t want to invest in the position all that heavily in contract negotiations either.
The highest valued contract for a center is the Las Vegas’ Rodney Hudson with an AAV of $11.25M, followed by the Buffalo’s Mitch Morse with an AAV of $11.125M, along with Houston’s Nick Martin and Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey with an AAV of $11M each.
These would be 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 25th respectively amongst offensive tackles, in between Andrew Whitworth and Duane Brown. There’s a massive gap between the value of tackles and the value of a center, despite the importance of the center position.
What does this have to do with Creed Humphrey?
Humphrey is one of the best center prospects in recent NFL Draft memory. Yet, there’s already been debates about his true draft value because he plays the center position. PFN Chief Draft Analyst, Tony Pauline said scouts gave Humphrey a second-round grade — an evaluation that would grade him out far lower than the first-rounder that he should be. Whether they gave him that grade based on his tape or position is up for debate.
On his tape alone, Humphrey is a no-brainer easy evaluation. On the Pro Football Network Mock Draft Simulator, we have Humphrey ranked as the 10th overall prospect. Despite his talent, Humphrey elected to remain at Oklahoma for another season instead of declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft.
There’s not a lot that Humphrey doesn’t do well. The center position is a unique one because unlike offensive tackles who get drafted off of athleticism alone or quarterbacks who can get drafted off their arm strength, centers are evaluated more as a sum of their parts. Humphrey excels at executing his responsibilities. He’s stout in pass protection-having not allowed a single sack despite playing close to 800 snaps over two years. In today’s game, where NFL defenses are changing every year, teams need a protector like that — especially with a young quarterback under center.
His IQ shows up repeatedly, making calls up and down the offensive line. Despite Oklahoma losing four of its starters from 2018, Humphrey kept the offensive line among the country’s best and helped settle in the new starters to help the Sooners reach the College Football Playoff. Offensive line coach called Humphrey’s leadership “unbelievable” this offseason.
Which centers have been drafted in round one throughout recent drafts? Will Humphrey be next?
There was only one center drafted in the first round last year, Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz, and one the previous year, NC State’s Garrett Bradbury. The position has been declining in importance, and that will more than likely play into Creed Humphrey’s NFL draft position.
Related | Hodgkinson’s 4-round 2021 NFL Mock Draft
It shouldn’t. A great center completely changes the offensive line up front. Their IQ can save a quarterback on numerous plays and solidifies the protection. They play key roles in zone-blocking and are critical for opening up run plays. Humphrey checks off every box you could want in an elite offensive center, and his traits will translate to the pros. If a team like the Cardinals, Chargers, Washington Football Team, or the Giants is sitting in the top half of the first round on draft night, they shouldn’t hesitate to send in the card with Humphrey’s name on it.