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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