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A First Round Center? Why Maurkice Pouncey is a Great Pick

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If you can't tell from the title, let me lay my cards on the table: I love Maurkice Pouncey with the 18th overall pick. Reading comments from Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert and HC Mike Tomlin, I think I might love him almost as much as they do. I loved it when the pick was announced and now, a day later, I love it even more. I went into Thursday night wanting Pouncey, but thinking that a guy like Josh McDaniel’s would be crazy enough to take him 11th overall or, at least, to trade down a few spots and take him. And I don’t mean crazy like "it’s insane to take an interior lineman" in the Top-15 crazy. No, I mean crazy like a fox. Fortunately McDaniel’s decided that his draft picks were better spent on a receiver who couldn’t catch and a quarterback who has severe mechanical issues. Also, let me congratulate the Ravens and their fans for absolutely taking McDaniels to the woodshed; Ozzie is going to get a lot of good players with the king’s ransom he made McDaniels pay to draft Tebow.

So, in the few paragraphs below I want to try and do the impossible (or, at least, the improbable): Convince you that a center is extremely good value with the 18th overall pick. In fact, I think the Steelers would have picked Pouncey if Earl Thomas had been there…and I think they would have been right to do such. In an extremely entertaining and fast paced 1st round, the Steelers did the unexpected. That is to say, they did the unexpected in that they did exactly what a whole lot of mock drafts had predicted. Kevin Colbert found a new way to be totally unpredictable – he was totally predictable.

First, let me say that we should have seen this coming. The writing has been on the wall for a year now.

In the days and weeks leading up to the 2009 draft the Steelers were very interested in picking up either Alex Mack or Eric Wood with the 32nd overall pick. Mack was wildly regarded as the best center to come out since (at least) since Nick Mangold went to the Jets with the 29th overall pick in 2006. Eric Wood was thought to be a notch below Mack – Mack has superior intelligence and mobility; Wood was regarded as more of a mauler – but was nevertheless very much in play for the Steelers if Mack was off the board. The Steelers had come off a season in which they simply could not run the ball as consistently as they would like; they also had protection issues all over the interior offensive line. Finally, they had also zeroed in on two straight seasons of sub-par center play as largely responsible for the shoddiness of the ground attack and a great contributor to high sack totals. Mack seemed, to many of us at least, a no brainer.

However, it was not to be. Mack went 21st overall to Cleveland. Eric Wood went 28th overall to Buffalo. And with their top-2 interior linemen off the board the Steelers decided to go with DE/DT Ziggy Hood. However, Colbert attempted – quite vigorously – to trade up to the top of the 2nd in order to draft Oregon center Max Unger. Unger was considered a less physical player than either Mack or Woods, but was nevertheless a premium interior offensive lineman. However, again, Colbert and Tomlin’s plans were thwarted when they failed to find a trading partner willing to deal a pick for a reasonable price. Instead, they traded back into the 3rd. And who was their very first pick of the 3rd round (and the Steelers second pick overall)? Wisconsin guard Kraig Urbik. The 2009 draft weekend had to be a frustrating time to be Kevin Colbert.

It’s telling that center was the focus of the interior linemen overhaul; when commenting on Urbik’s selection after the 2009 NFL Draft Bruce Arians mentioned that they’d even try him out at center. Reportedly, Urbik was playing center for the 2nd team OL the past couple of days while Hartwig has been out and The Big Legursky was moved up to 1st team. This team has been desperate to find the answer at center ever since the retirement of the great Jeff Hartings. And, with Pouncey, I think they've found their guy.

Now, the Steelers have their stud interior offensive lineman. It’s likely that Pouncey will immediately supplant Trai Essex at RG and move into the center spot after a year or two of seasoning in the offense. However, now…why is Pouncey a good value at 18th overall? Let me give you four reasons:

1) The Return of Power Football: Steeler Nation has been awfully critical of Arian’s for transforming what has traditionally been a power running/ball control style of offense into a high flying aerial assault. Arian’s has been accused of being pass happy to a fault. It seems to me, however, that the transition to a pass first offense was largely dictated by the deterioration of the Steelers offensive line. Keep in mind that the 2005 Super Bowl line was filled with elite talent – and that talent started from the inside and moved outward: The center and both guards were 1st round picks. The LT was a 2nd rounder (and a steal in the 2nd). The RT was a 3rd rounder. It would have been astounding if the Steelers couldn’t run the ball effectively – especially late in games – behind a unit that featured three Pro Bowl players.

Sadly, the great 2005 line is no more. Marvel Smith was forced to retire due to a persistent back injury. Jeff Hartings – a truly great center – retired when Bill Cowher stepped down. Alan Faneca left for the Jets (and, reportedly, might be released sometime this offseason). Kendell Simmons was always a bit of a disappointment – perhaps the closest thing to a 1st round bust Colbert has had – and after a series of injuries he was released. Finally, that 3rd round RT is now the Steelers left tackle. In 2005, Max Starks owned the lowest draft grade. In 2009 he owned the highest.

In other words, point fingers at Arians all you want, but if you don’t have the talent up front to push the pile and open up holes then you’re simply going to be wasting a down, more often than not, when you run it. The 2009 Steelers’ offensive line was made up of mid-round talent (Starks, Essex, Colon) and over achieving late rounders (Hartwig, Kemo).Pouncey gives this line a much needed infusion of premium talent. And no one may benefit from this more than Rashard Mendenhall.

2) Interior Line Pass Protection: Draftniks and media pundits often talk about pass protection as if the LT is the only position you need a premium player at in order to keep your QB clean. However, as defenses become smarter and more aggressive – due, in part, to rule changes that allow for more holding and less physical downfield coverage – they will pinpoint the weak point in your offensive line and attack it relentlessly. Don’t believe me? Check out the game tape from the Steelers/Ravens games in the 2008 season: Ryan repeatedly attacks the middle of the offensive line, especially Hartwig and Stapleton. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got an All-Pro LT if the rest of your line is sub-par. Pouncey has the intelligence, mobility, aggressiveness, and power to both see, get to, and stone blitzers. Whoever is behind center this year will have more pocket to step up into with Pouncey manning the guard position.

The Steelers obviously thought the interior of their line was the biggest problem the last few years. Max Starks is a serviceable LT who matches up well against bull rushers due to his size and strength, but will struggle against faster, more elusive speed guys (see Mathews, Clay). Colon is, dare I say it, one of the better RT’s in the league who can absolutely dominate in the run game and, after cutting down on his pre-snap and holding penalties, hasn’t looked half bad in pass pro. Justin Hartwig is, on a good day, an okay center who lacks the strength or mobility to be much of a force in the run game. Trai Essex is a finesse LT who is miscast as an interior lineman. Pouncey will instantly upgrade either position. This leads us to the third reason why the Pouncey selection was great…

3)One Premium Player Can Upgrade a Whole Unit: No member of Steeler Nation should doubt this. After all, we saw the two faces of the Steelers’ secondary this year: The secondary without Troy as radically different from the secondary with him. It’s unlikely that Pouncey will be as good an interior OL as Troy is a safety – I don’t even know what that would look like honestly – but his presence will elevate the play of the interior line and, by the same token, superior interior line play will spill to both tackles. Willie Colon will especially benefit from Pouncey playing beside him at first and then later as center. Colon has taken a lot of heat over the past three years, but some of his struggles - pre-and post-snap penalties aside – were due to the fact he’s never had a consistent player beside him. In the last two seasons Colon hasn’t missed a game at RT, but has played beside a carousal of players at RG: Simmons, Stapleton, Essex, and Foster were all there at one time or another in the past two years. With more consistent play beside him, I think Colon has a chance to really shine over the next year. If the Steelers happen to reward him with a contract extension before the start of the regular season, I think they’ll have a similar confidence.

4)You Want an Elite Player in the 1st Round Regardless of Position: There’s a common prejudice against interior offensive lineman on draft day; they’re not often considered to be "worthy" of being 1st round selections. Why? Because of something a lot of draftniks call "positional value". The story goes that you don’t draft an interior lineman high because they simply don’t have enough effect on a game to warrant it. Instead, you’re supposed to draft either are QB, someone to protect the QB’s blindside, someone to catch for the QB, or someone to cover WR’s and pick off the QB. However, as I’ve already argued, protection can’t be reduced to protection from edge rushers.

Moreover, the positional value of a center has gone up significantly in the last 15 years or so. Once, the center was the least athletic lineman; he was the guy you plugged in the middle because he didn’t have the ability to pull, trap, or get to the second level consistently. He was also the guy with the worst feet, so you would further protect him by making sure he had guy’s on either side to help him out in pass pro. With the popularity of the 3-4 defenses and the popularity of more aggressive, blitz heavy defenses (which typically rely on disguise in order to protect themselves) the center position has taken a jump. A good center needs to have the sand to hold the point against a nose tackle and have the sheer athleticism to pull to either side to support the run/pass. And this is not to mention that under most systems the center makes protection adjustments based on what he thinks the defense is getting ready to do. In other words, the center is a much more valuable position than it used to be and Pouncey is elite as center prospects go. In other words, the way in which many fans regard the center position is outdated; it simply doesn’t match up to the true positional value of a great center in today’s NFL.

Pouncey played big time football in a big time football conference (the SEC) in which he was incredibly durable – playing n 41 games in 3 years (starting 39) in two different positions (C and RG). He’s a great combination of size, speed, intelligence, and sheer nastiness; he’s the sort of kid that you can build your line around for years to come. And, keep in mind, Pouncey is ONLY 20 years old. Given his lack of injury history and love for the game, he stands to be a Steelers for at least the next 10 years, if not a bit longer. And finally, Pouncey is a very safe pick with a high ceiling and a very high floor – there’s not much bust potential with him. 

And that, in a sense, is exactly what you want out of a 1st round prospect: He’s an elite player at a position the Steelers desperately wanted to get better at. My guess is that Pouncey was a Top-10 player on the Steelers board.In fact, I think it’s very possible that the Steelers went into the draft knowing that they would do what it took to get Pouncey.  Kevin Colbert was quoted as saying that the Steelers received many calls by teams attempting to trade down, but that they have a list of players that – if available – they will automatically refuse all trades and take. Pouncey belonged on this list. The Steelers think this guy is going to be a really good player in the NFL for a really long time. And I agree.