Thursday, February 23, 2012

2012 Free Agency Top Fives: Center

Over the next month leading up to the free-agent signing period on March 13, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.

In this entry, I'll examine the top centers expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1. Chris Myers, Houston Texans

A sixth-round pick by the Broncos in 2005, Myers was plucked away by the Texans as a restricted free agent in 2008. Since then, he's started all 64 regular season games and been the anchor of the best run-blocking offensive line in recent history, paving way for undrafted running back Arian Foster to rank among the NFL's elite. Myers has gotten consistently better from year to year and is playing better than ever as arguably the best center in the game, which Nick Mangold being the only competition. The Texans will attempt to retain him, but any team would have to have him.

2. Scott Wells, Green Bay Packers

Originally a seventh-round guard in 2004, Wells found a home at center in 2006 and has started 98 games over the past six seasons. He's developed a strong chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, holding up well in pass protection while also being an efficient run blocker for a backfield that has constantly lacked much talent. The 31-year-old doesn't stand out on physical tools, but he could start for a lot of teams.

3. Todd McClure, Atlanta Falcons

Selected by the Falcons in the seventh round all the way back in 1999, McClure has been a mainstay on Atlanta's offensive line for more than a decade. He has 179 starts and 182 regular season games under his belt and is still playing at a high level at 35. He should have three or four more good seasons left as a starter, whether it's in Atlanta or elsewhere.

4. Jeff Saturday, Indianapolis Colts

Easily one of the best undrafted offensive linemen to ever play the game, Saturday entered the league with the Ravens in 1998 before joining the Colts and working his way into the starting lineup a year later. A five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro, Saturday has opened 188 of 197 career games played as Peyton Manning's partner in crime for the entire last decade. He'll be 36 next season and might not want to play in a lot of places, but he can still produce at a high level and will find starting opportunities if he wants them.

5. Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens

A sixth-rounder out of Harvard in 1998, Birk was a six-time Pro Bowler in an 11-year stint with the Vikings before coming over to the Ravens as a free agent in 2009. Although he's nearing 36 years of age, Birk is still a top-10 center in the league and one of the best technicians around. He's started 171 career regular season games and will have more ahead of him if he doesn't opt for retirement.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Dan Connolly, New England Patriots — Perhaps best known for his 71-yard kickoff return in 2010, Connolly has started 28 games over the past three seasons but hasn't graded out particularly well. He's best suited for a versatile backup as a center and guard.
  • Andre Gurode, Baltimore Ravens — A five-time Pro Bowler with the Cowboys, Gurode started only five games in 2011 while playing guard and center. He's best suited for the snapper position and is a capable starter, but the soon-to-be 34-year-old isn't entering the market on a high note.
  • Nick Hardwick, San Diego Chargers — A third-rounder in 2004, Hardwick has started all 32 games over the past two seasons and was a Pro Bowler in 2006. Still just 30 years old, Hardwick has the talent to be a top-10 starting center.
  • Dan Koppen, New England Patriots — The Patriots' long-time starting center, Koppen spent most of the 2011 season on IR with a broken ankle suffered in the season opener. A two-time Super Bowl champion and 2007 Pro Bowler, the 32-year-old can still start in this league and be productive if he's healthy.
  • Will Montgomery, Washington Redskins — After five seasons working primarily as a backup with the Panthers, Jets and Redskins, Montgomery started all 16 games during the 2011 season, with 13 coming at center and the other three at left guard. He graded out fairly well this past season, but is probably better suited for a backup role at all three interior positions.
  • Manny Ramirez, Denver Broncos — A mauling fourth-rounder out of Texas Tech in 2007, Ramirez busted with the Lions and played in just two games with the Broncos in 2011. At 29, it doesn't seem like he's going to be a legitimate starting option.
  • Brett Romberg, Atlanta Falcons — A nine-year veteran since being undrafted out of Miami in 2003, Romberg has had stints with the Jaguars (2003-06), Rams (2006-08) and Falcons (2009, 2011), but has only started 18 career games (all with the Rams). He's undersized and will be 33 next season, so he's extremely unlikely to break out now.
  • Samson Satele, Oakland Raiders — The Dolphins' second-round pick in 2007, Satele has had an up-and-down career and has struggled with the bigger nose tackles in the NFL. That being said, he's coming off a pretty solid year and already had 74 NFL starts under his belt at age 27. He should be able to maintain a starting job in the NFL for quite some time.
  • Casey Wiegmann, Kansas City Chiefs — There have been times where it looked like Wiegmann's career was pretty much done, but the undersized 38-year-old keeps hanging around and is still a pretty good blocker. Wiegmann has missed just one start in the last decade and could probably keep going as long as he wants to play.
  • Tony Wragge, San Francisco 49ers — A long-time veteran with only 15 starts entering the 2011 season, Wragge opened eight of 15 contests in his first season with the Rams in 2011 and graded out very poorly. The 32-year-old just isn't a starting talent.

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