Centers becoming more important

Len Pasquarelli of ESPN explains why the Browns are part of a new trend in the NFL.

The new found popularity of the 3-4 defensive front, with a dozen teams projected to employ it this season, definitely forced some offensive choices in the NFL draft.

Uh, you mean defensive selections, right?

Nope, several offensive picks as well. Particularly at center.

It wasn’t a coincidence that two centers, Alex Mack of California (to Cleveland) and Eric Wood of Louisville (to Buffalo), were chosen in the first round Saturday. It marked the first time since 1968, when Cincinnati grabbed Bob Johnson of Tennessee and San Francisco chose Forrest Blue of Auburn, that two centers went off the draft board in an opening round. In fact, in the previous five drafts, there were only two centers taken in the first round, and there have been three since 2000.

Dating back to 2000, the only centers tabbed in the first round were Jeff Faine (Cleveland, 2003), Chris Spencer (Seattle, 2005) and Nick Mangold (New York Jets, 2006).

Blame the re-emergence of the 3-4 front, which will have at least three new converts in 2009, for the renewed high-round attractiveness of the center position. The 3-4 defense isn’t as popular as it was in the ’70s, but its resurrection has changed the thinking of how teams evaluate their defensive prospects, and offensive line positions as well.

Offenses now require a stout snapper and blocker who can hold up against the 3-4 front, and handle, oftentimes one-on-one, the opposition’s nose tackle. Because of the 3-4 defense, there aren’t many centers in the league who weigh less than 300 pounds. Fact is, the 300-pound center has become the norm, rather than the exception.

There is no doubt that Cleveland chose Mack and Buffalo took Wood because both are exceptional players. But an element in the rationale is that the teams play in divisions in which the 3-4 defense is the rage. In Cleveland’s division, the AFC North, the best two teams — Pittsburgh and Baltimore — employ the 3-4 defense. In Buffalo’s division, the AFC East, all three of the Bills’ rivals — New England, the Jets and Miami — are 3-4 teams.

The first order of business for any team is to be able to compete in its division, and for the Browns and Jets, that requires being successful against the 3-4 fronts.

Ever since two-time Pro Bowl performer LeCharles Bentley suffered a devastating knee injury during training camp in 2006, after signing with Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent, the Browns have experienced problems filling the center position. Cleveland tried eight different centers that season, before dealing for Philadelphia’s Hank Fraley, and he has started the past 48 games. But Fraley is 31 years old, and not as big or physical as the Browns would prefer, so Mack might have a chance to start as a rookie.

Few are arguing with this pick, though some fans and commentators were hoping for a sexier pick in round 2. If Mack comes as advertised, the Browns might have one of the best lines in football for the foreseeable future.

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Draft grades coming in; Robiskie is most controversial pick for the Browns


As I mentioned in a previous post, the reviews of Ohio State wide receiver Brian Robiskie were mixed. That said, most thought he would be a pretty safe pick.

When the Browns picked him with their first pick in the second round, my initial reaction was that they reached with this pick. Robiskie probably would have been there with the other two picks they had in that round.

That said, most analysts agreed that Robiskie was the most “polished” receiver in the draft, and the Browns needed someone who could step in and start right away given the uncertainty at that position. Even though they haven’t traded Braylon Edwards yet, they still might make a move at some point.

In their post-draft analysis, both Mel Kiper and Steve McShay mention the Robiskie pick. Here’s Kiper’s grade.

Cleveland Browns: GRADE: B-
Alex Mack was a good pick at No. 21 and Mohamed Massaquoi was a very good pickup in the second round. I think fellow second-rounder David Veikune was a bit of a reach in that round, but not enough of one to seriously dent the Browns’ grade. They didn’t get a great receiver in Brian Robiskie in the second round, but he’s polished enough as a rookie that he could be a solid possession guy for this franchise.

McShay doesn’t like the Robiskie pick.

Cleveland Browns
2009 draft class
Best pick: WR Mohamed Massaquoi, Georgia (Second round, No. 50 overall)
Worst pick: WR Brian Robiskie, Ohio State (Second round, No. 36 overall)
Bottom line: While teams don’t usually like to take centers so early in the first round, it’s unlikely Alex Mack would have been off the board in the next few picks had the Browns not traded up to No. 21 overall to get him. You can’t fault them for bringing Mack into the fold, but they had other priority needs including wide receiver and a pass-rush upgrade that could have been addressed there. Cleveland got its receivers in the next round, though I think Robiskie was a reach because he likely won’t turn into anything more than a possession-type No. 3 receiver. I expect Massaquoi to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. I also liked the way the Browns hankered down on Day 2 and found versatile, instinctive playmakers like DE David Veikune, LB Kaluka Maiava and DBs Don Carey and Coye Francies.

I think Robiskie can become a very productive #2 receiver who catches everything thrown his way, so I think McShay is being too tough in him. We’ve seen Robiskie make incredible catches in the red zone, so he can be a useful weapon. He reminds me of Reggie Langhorn, and if he lives up to that status the Browns made a nice pick.

Browns surprise everyone and take C Alex Mack

They traded down several times, but they ended up with a very good player in Center Alex Mack who also fills a need.

For everyone who claims they want the Browns to take offensive linemen, this is a solid pick. They must feel the can get a linebacker and a running back later on.

Malcolm Jenkins picked by the Saints at #14


Malcolm Jenkins is the first Ohio State Buckeye to go in the 2009 NFL draft. The Saints took him at #14.

Sanchez falls, Browns trade #5 pick to Jets, will Brady Quinn stay?


Aaron Curry didn’t fall to the Browns, but mark Sanchez did. That gave the Browns a gift, as they were able to trade down with the Jets, who then drafted Sanchez. The Browns get the 17th pick, a second rounder and three Jets players.

Meanwhile, it looks like Brady Quinn will stay in Cleveland.

With the 17th pick, they will have the chance to pick up a stud linebacker like Maualuga or even Beanie Wells.

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