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2016 NFL Draft: Top 10 center prospects

The anchors of the offensive line are up next in our look at draft prospects in the 2016 class.  While a top ten, there’s a chance not ev

The anchors of the offensive line are up next in our look at draft prospects in the 2016 class.  While a top ten, there’s a chance not everyone on this list gets selected in April.  That said, it’s certainly not a weak group, with some good talent to be had, in particularly on day three that could become starters, possibly early on in their careers.  It would be a surprise however to see any one from this group to make it in to the first round this year.   Sr = Senior, Jr = Junior, So = Sophomore.  An “r” prefix indicates a redshirt year (sat out for a year without playing, usually their first year of college).  

1. Nick Martin, Notre Dame, Sr.  6ft 4, 296 lbs.

2nd Round For much of his time with the Irish, Nick has been constantly referred to as Zack’s brother, the Cowboy’s star offensive guard who also played for the Golden Domers.  He deserves all the credit for his own excellent performances and potential as a future NFL starter himself however.  Martin has been a key piece of the Notre Dame offensive line for the majority of three seasons, totalling 37 starts.  Most of those came at center, but following a reshuffle early on in the 2014 season due to struggles by the unit as a whole led to 10 starts at left guard, giving Martin experience and potential added versatility to fill in at multiple spots on the interior.  He returned to the anchoring the middle of the line in his senior season, his second as a team captain for the Fighting Irish.  The post season has started well for Martin, as one of the few offensive linemen who succeeded in holding up against an otherwise mostly dominant defensive line group at the Senior Bowl, that saw him perform strongly both in practices and during the game that concluded the week in Mobile.  While not the most athletically gifted O-lineman, and lacking ideal arm length despite good height, Martin makes up for it with his outstanding toughness and aggression, bringing an effective nasty demeanour to his blocking.  The other standout trait to his game is his high football IQ that sees him demonstrate excellent situational and field awareness, adjusting well to second blocks and late blitzers and finding linebackers on the second level in the run game.  His character and toughness overall are strong intangibles that he brings to the table.  Though describing him as polished would be a stretch, Martin is technically sound and stout at the point of attack in pass protection.  This is a center prospect who looks the part of a long term starter who should be trusted to step in and play immediately.

2. Ryan Kelly, Alabama, rSr. 6ft 4, 297 lbs.

3rd Round There’s certainly plenty of boxes that Kelly can tick off for NFL teams.  Three years starting experience and success at a top program, against quality opposition.  Excellent discipline, only committing one penalty over the entire 2015 season, and in 2014 went the whole year without giving up a sack.  He finished off his career with the Tide with both a National Title win as part of the team, and individual recognition with being awarded the Rimington Trophy given out to the top center in college for 2015.  Some of the late first / early second round suggested grades might arguably be a little generous though.  Kelly is a solid next-level prospect but one likely with a relatively low ceiling.  He has decent enough size for the next level, but is very limited as an athlete, something that shows up when pulling from center as a lead run blocker at times.  In addition, his power and punch, and overall functional strength are average.  He’s performed to a high standard at the college level, as some of the stats mentioned above attest to, but has some questions in both his run blocking and pass protection that raise some concerns to keep that going in the pros.  A big plus to his run game, as with Nick Martin, is certainly his intelligence as a blocker, showing excellent hand use and exceling at turning and redirecting his opponent to open running lanes up the middle.  That said, he also has a bad habit of letting his enthusiasm and aggression get the better of him, which leads to lunging too much, losing balance, and ending up on the turf too often.  In pass pro, Kelly tend to be rather inconsistent with his leverage and pad level at the point of attack, as well as a tendency to stand up too high in his stance post-snap of the ball.  His injury history could raise an issue as well potentially.  Kelly tore his ACL his senior year of high school that led to him redshirting his first season with Alabama, and since has missed time on numerous occasions with multiple other knee sprain issues as well as a concussion this season.  Kelly has the potential to start at center for the team who drafts him but doesn’t offer a great deal of upside that should warrant some of the lofty projections he’s been handed.  A mid round selection would be more appropriate.

3. Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State, Sr. 6ft 4, 310 lbs.

4th Round After receiving a lot of offers as a highly regarded prospect out of high school, Seumalo didn’t take long to establish himself and justify the expectations, immediately earning the starting role at center his freshman season.  Unfortunately, after playing to a very good level each of his first two seasons, his progress was stalled by a bad foot injury that required two surgeries and a slow recovery time that cost him his 2014 season.  While that will raise an injury red flag that will need to be checked out medically, he did return to play once again to a high standard this past season.  He could have used his medical redshirt from the lost season to return in 2016, but with his degree completed instead chose to leave for the NFL now instead.  Seumalo is built for the interior line, with the desired strength and size to fit in at the next level.  A smart player, he’s proven a quick learner, both in how quickly he was able to immediately start that first year, but also with how he has been able to step in as required at multiple spots over this three seasons of playing.  As a sophomore, 2 of his starts came at right tackle, and on his return to action this year his starts came at right guard and left tackle, giving him experience at four of the five positions across the O-line.  He can bring some of that potential versatility to the team who drafts him, and indeed could be considered as either a center or a guard as his primary position.  I like him in the middle however.  One of the traits that caught my eye early in his career was how quickly he got from snapping the ball to engaging contact with his opposing defender and establishing a strong anchor where he matches up well in strength versus strength.  His strong hands and lower body are backed up by his strong technique and body positioning.  Pre-injury he did tend to get beaten a bit too often around his edge early when facing interior pass rush attempts for sacks up the middle, but encouragingly looked to have cleaned that up on his return to action in 2015.  Provided the medicals check out, there’s not really anything lacking in Seumalo’s game, and can bring much-valued depth to multiple spots.

4. Evan Boehm, Missouri, Sr. 6ft 2, 309 lbs.

5th Round Lots of experience has been a common theme for all these top graded centers in this class, but Boehm takes that to another level, having started 52 consecutive games in the SEC for the Tigers over his four seasons after stepping into the line-up immediately as a freshman back in 2012.  That was initially at left guard his first year before shifting to center, and while that additional experience at a different spot is useful, there’s no question he is a center only for the pros.  He is one of those prospects that NFL teams know more or less exactly what they are going to get.  Mizzou have been steady producers of talented, dependable offensive lineman in recent years, and Boehm continues that trend.  His frame is broad, stout, strong and sturdy, ready for the pros.  His game is one of physicality, tenacity and unrelenting effort on every snap.  There’s no doubt that he is somewhat limited by his lack of athleticism and speed, lateral movement and heavy feet, but he does get the maximum out of his abilities to compensate, even if his upside is fairly limited.  He does the basics very well in both pass protection and when blocking in the run game.  His effectiveness in protecting the pocket resulted in the impressive stat of not allowing either a single sack or a single QB hit during his junior season in 2014.  Although he does do a solid job using his power to create holes for his running back, the lack of athletic ability results in poor play in space on the second level to seek out additional blocks.  Boehm may not have everything ideally looked for, hence the 5th round grade here, but he’s certainly NFL ready, with more power and physicality than most rookies at the position are ready to offer.

5. Austin Blythe, Iowa, rSr. 6ft 2, 291 lbs.

5th Round Another highly experienced center!  Blythe has also started all four years, originally switching between both guard spots and center before taking up permanent residence in the middle for his senior year in 2015.  After praising Mizzou for their recent production of NFL ready O-lineman before, Iowa are arguably even better renowned and respected for doing so under Kirk Ferentz for so many years.  He brings them in, redshirts them, develops them in the weight room, then unleashes what seems to be a never ending factory line of consistently technically proficient lineman; Blythe is the next off the conveyor belt.  First thing first, Blythe certainly isn’t the biggest, with borderline size, not just with his weight on the scales, but also comes with very short arms at just 30.25”, which puts him at a big disadvantage in establishing contact and avoiding being redirected by opposing lineman with superior length.  Essentially, this lack of preferred measurables is however the only real reason to have as late a grade for Blythe as the fifth round; he would otherwise be worthy of going earlier.  His energy and drive really stand out straight away and make him very enjoyable to watch on film.  Something which has been mentioned as a negative for one or two above in this list, Blythe is excellent moving forward and targeting a linebacker on the next level beyond the line of scrimmage as a run blocker.  His leverage and positioning are superb, as are his hands.  The size may not be ideal but he has power and strength that can catch opposing linemen off guard.  Blythe is a former wrestler, a background which has very often been a part of a number of talented and successful starters at the next level.  It’s worth mentioning also that he will be 24 years old before the start of his first NFL training camp, which is certainly older than most.

6. Max Tuerk, Southern California, Sr. 6ft 5, 285 lbs.

5th Round Tuerk is an extremely difficult one to judge.  The positives are his excellent length, his versatility that could see him play center, guard or even outside at tackle, and being quite honestly a superb athlete.  Tuerk has rare short area quickness and acceleration that jumps out instantaneously on film.  However, he is coming off a torn ACL that cost him most of his senior season.  He is worryingly lacking in weight, muscle and strength too.  He is clearly over-powered far too often even at the college level, and that won’t get any easier when facing bigger and stronger defensive tackles.  He will have to work hard in an NFL strength and conditioning program in order to hold up.  285 pounds would be considered lightweight on someone much shorter; on Tuerk’s frame it is far too lean.  His best position is up in the air too, if he even has one.  Is he a backup at all 5 spots, or can he find a fit at one in particular?  Right now with his frame, he’s a center, but with the speed and fluidity with which he moves, it wouldn’t be a surprise to eventually see him end up on the edge of the line.  Ultimately, a team with a knack for developing offensive lineman might find a good ceiling with the former Trojan.  The options are many.  His 38 starts have been divided between 18 starts at center, 14 at left guard, 5 at left tackle and 1 at right tackle.  Given his recovery from injury and questionable best position, Tuerk will be an interesting name to watch on draft day to see in what round he ends up being chosen and into what situation.

7. Jack Allen, Michigan State, rSr. 6ft 2, 297 lbs.

5th-6th Round Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Allen enters the NFL following an accomplished college career as a four-year starter with the Spartans.  Already an over-achiever to this point, he’ll need to do the same again, but don’t bet against him doing just that.  Allen is short in height, short in arm length, a below average athlete and any other physical measurable you wish to include that doesn’t fit with prototypical numbers.  Putting the positive spin on some of those allows for some plusses, in that Allen takes advantage of his low centre of gravity and stocky build to hold up well in his short-set anchor.  He sinks into his stance, bends his knees and leverages himself effectively.  Few look as well-balanced and consistent as he does across the course of a game, something he’s proven time and again over his 47 starts.  Allen is yet another who is aggressive and nasty in his blocking style, but there’s not many who can do so as he does while keeping so much body control while doing so.  A common trait of Allen’s game is the way he finishes blocks, drive-blocking his man backwards to the whistle (and sometimes beyond).  On top of using his aggression to his advantage, his four years of being acknowledged academically translates to his intelligence on the field.  All that said, there’s no question that he’s had his troubles with more gifted athletes that he’s faced, and that surely will become more noticeable at the higher level of opposition he’ll face in the pros and ultimately limit his effectiveness, and keeps him as a later round selection.

8. Sioasi Aiono, Utah, Sr. 6ft 2, 317 lbs.

6th Round One of the lesser known names among this group for 2016, but his play has arguably warranted more notice, especially given the strong season the Utes had.  Aiono may go about his job in a fairly quiet and under-stated manner, he does it well, and has an all-round skill set that is not anything special or flashy, but can be very effective.  What really stands out more than anything is an excellent short-set anchor.  Aiono holds up so well against the bull rush, rarely if ever getting forced backwards to close the pocket.  He plants his feet superbly on the initial push then maintains his position through the play on an impressively consistent basis.  His pass protection skills are certainly the strongest aspect of his game.  In the run game, he is solid, and has been a factor in the good numbers posted by Devontae Booker over the past couple seasons that has been the staple of the Utes offensive production over that time.  It’s hard to envision much in the way of versatility that Aiono might offer.  He is stout enough to perhaps offer some cover at guard, and held up pretty well during his eight starts at right tackle in 2013.  Truthfully though, he’s a center only for the NFL, but could develop into a starter there down the line.  He’s a guy who impressed me on film over the season, and got a chance to show what he could do at the East-West Shrine game back in January, but won’t be at the combine in February and might not end up drafted ultimately.

9. Matt Skura, Duke, rSr. 6ft 3, 305 lbs.

7th-PFA (Priority Free Agent) A three-year starter for the Blue Devils, with all 40 of those starts at center, Skura developed into a very competent player and leader of the offensive line for a team who have enjoyed one of the best periods as a football program in the school’s history.  While still a basketball college, Duke are very much relevant these days on the gridiron too, and in particularly have fielded a number of talented O-lineman, with the highest profile being first round pick of the Lions Laken Tomlinson in the 2015 draft.  Skura is far from that level of talent for the NFL, but has shown enough that he has a chance of being a selection on day three of the draft in April later this year.  Duke are known as an academic institution and Skura lives up to that, with one of his plusses being the way he has become the “quarterback” of the line, with his knowledge and anticipation pre-snap to set up blocking assignments for his teammates.  His reactions and adjustments are the qualities that give him a good opportunity to earn a role.  That, along with his solid size are his main assets for the next level.  Holding him back however is both his technique and strength.  Skura is pushed back too easily too often, and can be controlled and knocked off balance with unconvincing regularity.  While he has some NFL size, he is far from toned, with fairly poor muscle definition.  His body position and use of hands can let him down on some snaps.  His chances of making a roster will come down to how much his smart play can balance out the deficiencies elsewhere, but he deserves the opportunity.

10. Mike Matthews, Texas A&M, Sr. 6ft 2, 294 lbs.

7th-PFA It’s true that the name factors a little bit into the grading.  And to be fair, it ought to at least a little.  Mike is the next in a long line from the Matthews family that is one of the strongest and most successful bloodlines over multiple generations in the NFL.  Currently, his older brothers Clay of the Packers and Jake of the Falcons are living up to the name.  Mike doesn’t bring quite the same abilities and physical skills as those two however.  What he does bring though is the usual tenacity, energy and work ethic that has seen him perform well over his time with the Aggies, and might make him worth a shot late in the draft.  He does what he can to reduce the size issues by playing with a high motor, and polished technique in both the run and pass games.  Mistakes are few and far between.  Truthfully though, it’s difficult to envision Matthews as a starter at the next level.  More likely he finds a backup and special teams role, with the ability to fill in when required on a short-term basis.  He certainly didn’t look out of place in a tough and physical South-Eastern Conference over his three years starting.  The jury is out though as to his prospects in the pros.  

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Rebecca Rennie

Hello all, I'm Rebecca, also going by Bex, and I am the RealSport College Football Editor, as well as writer and NFL Draft analyst.  I also edit other sports including the CFL, cycling and golf, while occasionally contributing to the NFL section as well.  I'm a fan of most sports and enjoy discussing with fellow fans, so do please comment on articles and interact.  A big fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and of the Central Florida Knights in college.

2016 NFL Draft: Top 10 center prospects

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