With the idea that Center tops the Broncos list of needs as a team, naturally attention has turned to the draft as a means of rectifying that situation.
However, of note are the actual 2-deeps, that is, the 1st and 2nd string midseason rosters of NFL teams around the league. These 2-deeps reflect actual roster construction in the heat of battle, well displaced from the relatively idyllic conditions of post training camp structures, when players, and time, are more plentiful.
When looking at these starters and their backups, we can note how they matriculated to teams' rolls, and how long it took them to get there. And from this we can draw some conclusions about where exactly we can expect the highest level of contribution to come from for the Broncos in the next offseason, as well as assess the pros and cons of deviating from that mean.
Let's get to it...
First, let's talk for a moment about what we expect to discover.
In looking at 2-deeps from 2005-2009, we will be seeing somewhere in the neighborhood of 320 starting or starting quality centers. Some teams only list one starting quality center, and in those instances we will take them at their word. Other teams, like Denver, list a center starting in 2009, but list a starting G or other non-Center position as the immediate backup, such as Ben Hamilton backing up Casey Wiegmann. Again, we will take them at their word and consider the starting G to be a backup C for the purposes of this analysis. Often, teams will list 3 or even four or more players on the Center depth charter. The top two are considered for the purposes of the 2-deep however, and the rest are ignored. In this manner, constraining the markup for centers should lead us not to a list of players capable of playing center for each roster, but to a list of players expected to be able to start at center for each roster.
By noting how they entered the league we can expect to learn what impact can be likely found in one of two areas and one subset area. The first area is through the draft, the second area is through college free agency, and the subset area is through already developed players who were acquired or retained as free agents.
These players can be expected to be the best choices for these rosters in the majority of cases. This method also does not try to describe a list of the best centers in the NFL, since the 2-deep approach takes into account the fact that some teams are better at looking for talent in the right spots at the right time, and so might have a 2-deep that far outstrips a single starter on some other less personnel-fortunate team.
Through 5 years, 2005-2009, the NFL 2 deeps comprised the following makeup:
On average, in any given year, you will find that the center production is delivered most by experienced veterans on at least their second major contract. This is followed by players who entered the league as college free agents, among whom their is a mix of both first contract CFAs and a small percentage (3%) of CFAs who have signed as free agents after becoming productive starters. Lastly are players who were drafted and became expected to start on their initial contracts.
What this indicates is that at any given point you have about a 30% chance of getting a productive roster participant at Center through the draft, while hitting the free agent market will net you the best odds of getting someone who produces at almost 40%. Most importantly, however, is that the best way to address depth at the position is to sift through the college free agents. We'll discuss why that may be, below.
A few other notes: The total number of players at the C position who were drafted compared to undrafted, regardless of how they came to be starters, outpaces the rough overall margin for drafted vs. undrafted in the NFL in general, at around 70% compared to 77%. (About 23.2% of the NFL is composed of CFAs).
Of the centers that are actually drafted and become starters, 72% are selected from the fourth round on and 40% are selected in rounds 6 and 7. These back-end players actually support any theory which would posit the amount of time investment required to harvest production from centers as being high. When coupled with the tremendous amount of CFAs at the position, this drives the production levels of the long term development projects up to 53% of totals, not only doubling production vs. experienced free agents, but quintupling production vs. the 1st through 3rd round starters.
Strategies and In-House Answers
The Broncos gave a clue to how they think about this position when they looked at Blake Schlueter from TCU in the final rounds last year. Sixth and seventh round selections are often viewed as the worst of the best, but they are just as easily quantified as the best of the rest. The real difference in labeling comes down to how much time you are required to invest in a position.
If the Broncos find a player of Maurkice Pouncey's perceived ability sitting at 45 when they pick in the second round, they will find that it is a sweet spot for those rare teams that manage to get production early from their draft picks. That is a heck of an if, however, given that Pouncey is the highest rated center in 2010's draft class, and thus will be coveted by all teams with a possible roster spot for a center. His availability probably rates somewhere southward of his probablility of contributing early, which is right around 30%. 30% isn't a plan. At best it is a wish, and it is likely that the Broncos will have it classified more in the light of a highly unlikely opportunity.
So that opens the door for one of about nine other center prospects in the 2010 draft who carry draftable grades, and varying degrees of fit. These players are covered in SAT's analysis here. We can debate a bit in moving them up and down our boards, but history suggests that the players at the bottom of the board become a better value in the long run. History also tells us that those players have non-expectant impacts -- they will produce eventually, but initially they are a bit of dead weight that must be hidden on practice squads and in the lucky cracks of third string roster degradation. So well are they hidden that even their own fans count them amongst the dead. The Broncos own Seth Olsen fits this description. From McDaniels:
But Seth is a player that will learn how to snap the ball and play center once he's here. So, to have three-position versatility inside is very big.
We can assume that Olsen did indeed learn about snapping the ball, and at 6-6 305+ he is much closer to what we are looking for at C. Yet he was unseen for the 2009 season, and an afterthought in our own current musings on the topic. I guarantee you, however, that he is much more a part of the internal discussions than any free agent or draft prospect to this point. His presence alone is an opportunity for Denver to exercise the greatest virtue a team can possess during the draft: patience. Denver can take advantage of the fact that they don't have to jump any prospects at C, and that they can let the entire draft come to them. And if no highly ranked centers slip down to them, they can feel comfortable all the way to the sixth and seven rounds without pressing. And even then they can let the moment pass and turn their eyes to the CFA's, since the numbers support their chance at success, even favoring it over taking a late flier in the draft.
There is no doubt that the center position has been approached with caution when it comes to investing heavily in the young and inexperienced. The hallmark of CFA contracts is the absolute steal they represent, and many centers spend their first 3 or 4 years scraping a minimum wage ceiling. But when they are ready, they are one of the longest lasting positions in the NFL, and many teams, including the Broncos, man the position with free agents entering their 30s, some on their second or third UFA contract.
Going into 2010, the free-agent center group is almost critically hamstrung by the looming uncapped scenario. Only about 10 of the 23 expected first- second- and third-tier free agents at C are expected to make it to market in an uncapped year, and of those only 5 even managed to rate on the first or second tier. It is not a buyer's market, so some creativity is particularly necessary, including looking outside the 2-deeps for centers, and looking at other guards and even tackles, with the experience and versatility to shift into the middle of the line.
Which brings us full circle back to the Broncos roster, where Ben Hamilton rates as an experienced 2nd-tier center on the 2-deeps, and who will be entering free agency. His benching at LG has prompted many to dismiss and ignore his value as a free agent, but once he is on the market, expect him to test the waters for interest, and for the Broncos to be willing to show their own interest in bringing the 290lb G back as veteran depth and competition at center.
With Hamilton's return at a restructured rate, and with Olsen having an entire season and offseason to immerse himself in the responsibilities of playing center, the Broncos would have a two deep rotation to challenge the 285lb Casey Wiegmann, the worn down, but chronically tenacious, veteran. Don't be surprised if Wiegmann wouldn't be able to put up a classic fight to retain his position as the starter either, after rejuvenating during the offseason. And he could win it only to wear down, but a veteran would then be prepped and ready to step in behind him, unlike last year where the benched Hamilton would have been a rash solution to to the struggles on the interior. All the while Olsen would be prepping for his second season behind the two vets, trying to break in wherever they might show a weakness. He might even get a little lucky.
What is funny is that if the above were to come to pass, on the outside things wouldn't look any different than they do right now. Imagine that, one of our greatest needs, perceived to have been ignored by the McDaniels regime...
I don't think some Broncos' fans are going to be able to handle that.