Overreactions from Steelers Nation: Go get a center!

Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation” a weekly column where I poke fun at fans, reporters, and so-called experts while trying to figure out if some of these hot takes are real – or just for attention.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers offseason continues to plug away, fans have a new target to focus their attention on following the release of C Mason Cole last week: finding his replacement.

Honestly, the Steelers aren’t looking for Cole’s replacement, because in earnest they are still seeking a suitor to fill the shoes of the retired Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey, who played eleven seasons in Pittsburgh, should eventually be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His legacy is that of a larger one in the Steel City, where the center position anchors a stout run game and sets up big plays. Pouncey’s predecessors, the late great Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson were both Hall of Famers as well – with Webster widely considered the greatest ever to play the center position.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s that long line of great centers that has fans highlighting potential targets in the upcoming NFL Draft, making it almost certain that center is the Steelers’ highest priority. Yet, the position has an odd layout regarding the draft.

While Pouncey was a first-round selection (18th overall in 2010) Webster was a fifth-round pick in 1974 (125th overall) and Dawson a second-rounder in 1988 (44th overall). Times have changed since the two Hall of Famers were drafted, but one thing has remained a constant: not many centers get drafted in the top 100 picks.

I had done a similar exercise several years ago when Pouncey retired to prove that teams don’t always have to reach with their top pick to get a solid center. While that is true, the current path of plugging in a mid-round draft pick (Kendrick Green) or a journeyman free agent (Mason Cole) hasn’t worked out well for the Steelers.

That has made the fanbase adamant about making center the team’s top priority, but with picks 20, 51, and 84 in the upcoming draft, when and where should Pittsburgh look if they have the same idea?

Returning to Pouncey’s draft class in 2010, under 40 centers have been chosen in the top 100 draft picks. While one player at the position may be selected in the first round, it’s usually no more than one. Several times the first round has come and gone without any center being selected.

Embed from Getty Images

As for averages, usually two or three centers go in the top 100, with an outlier season in 2018 where five centers were drafted. However, the numbers can be misleading a current Steelers G James Daniels, listed as a center, has played guard in the NFL, as did former teammate Mason Cole, who was taken 58 picks later but would play both positions professionally.

In other words, don’t take the numbers here too literally, they’re an idea! But that idea remains that center isn’t always a hot position for teams to target in the draft, and a quality player could fall into later rounds.

This means that the Steelers could shift focus to using pick 20 on a position other than center, and wait for the draft to come back around to them with picks 51 or 84 to acquire one, should this be their strategy.

There are also plenty of during rounds beyond the first three. Several NFL teams have starting centers who were drafted out of the top 100 picks. For example, Chargers C Corey Linsley was a fifth-round pick in 2014 (161) and Bengals C Ted Karras was a sixth-round pick (221) in 2016. Drew Dalman of the Falcons went 114th overall in the fourth round of the 2021 draft and so on.

Then there’s Titans C Aaron Brewer, Patriots C David Andrews, Raiders C Andre James, Seahawks C Evan Brown, and 49ers C Jake Brendel, who are among several undrafted starters during the 2023 season.

Even highly regarded centers such as Jason Kelce (6th round, 2011) and Tyler Biadasz (4th round, 2020) prove that a first or second-round choice doesn’t have to be spent to find a quality, long-term solution at the position.

Embed from Getty Images

That couldn’t be more poignant to Steelers fans than “one who got away” such as Creed Humphrey, who was chosen by the Kansas City Chiefs with pick 63 of the 2021 draft. The Steelers opted for RB Najee Harris with pick 24 and TE Pat Freiermuth with pick 55 that offseason, before addressing the position by taking Kendrick Green with pick 87. Humphrey was a likely solution for the Steelers, yet, the point is still proven that if the team doesn’t have other needs – which they will – then center doesn’t have to be the end game with pick 20 in 2024.

I would expect the Steelers to target another free agent in the coming weeks with a “sign and draft” approach as they have with other positions in the past. Someone such as recently released Rams C/G Brian Allen would fit the bill as a spot starter to ease a rookie into the starting lineup and provide quality depth for the offensive line.

There’s also speculation that the Steelers could explore moving G James Daniels to center, but that’s nothing more than hearsay when you consider they would’ve done so already, given the poor play of Green and Cole in previous seasons.

Embed from Getty Images

In all, the panic over finding another center is a bit overblown. The Steelers have tried twice and struck out twice with their recent options, but this was the same pace they were on after Dawson’s retirement too. Jeff Hartings was a serviceable fill-in for Dawson, but a year of suffering through Sean Mahan’s poor play separates Hartings and Justin Hartwig, before Pouncey’s arrival.

It may take another season or two to find a secure option to anchor the middle of the line for years to come. But when it happens, that player will find themselves amidst a newly rebuilt and formidable front flanked by Isaac Seumalo and James Daniels, along with last year’s top pick Broderick Jones. The thought of adding a top prospect to this mix is salivating, but don’t be disappointed if it’s not the team’s first round draft priority.

Suggested articles from our sponsors