There are many fine things said about college offensive linemen prior to each draft, and offensive tackles are one of the few positions that can be expected to see prospects taken even before all of the top quarterbacks are gone. However, in terms of draft value and financial investment, the center is one of the great unloved positions in professional football. Not as high profile or as doted upon by draftniks as running backs, centers can play a major role in the success of a football team. Yet for economic reasons as well as a steady belief in how readily quality centers can be found later in the draft, it is typical for teams to wait before drafting one. Here are the exceptions to the rule–the times and places when teams spent a first-round pick on the guy who would touch the ball on every play.
Travis Frederick (2013) Drafted at #31
The Hype: Centers aren’t hyped, but even if they were, Frederick would not have been the guy. Mike Mayock’s reaction to the Cowboys picking him was “I had a third-round grade on this guy,” and Matt Miller declared “I hate this pick.” He was instantly considered a reach. WalterFootball thought he might have been a good fit at guard and had aa second-round grade on him.
Early Accomplishments: In his first five years, Frederick earned four Pro Bowls and 1 1st-Team All Pro Selection while playing all 80 of his available games. During that time, the Cowboys had one of the highest yards per rush attempt in the NFL (and 3 of these 5 years were before Elliott was drafted) and were in the top ten fewest sacks allowed per game consistently as well.
Analysis: Frederick might very well have been a transformative player worthy of an unusual investment against conventional draft wisdom. Given how strong the investment was in offensive line by the Cowboys, isolating which piece made a critical difference is difficult, but he was definitely a contributor. Roughly a quarter of the selections drafted in the last ten spots of the first round make it to a Pro Bowl in their first five years, and Frederick absolutely pancaked that marker.
Cameron Erving (2015) Drafted at #19
The Hype: WalterFootball raved about him, saying “For the NFL, Erving could be a 10-year starter at center and has Pro Bowl potential. He could be the best center prospect since Mike Pouncey came out in the 2011 NFL Draft.” NFL.com barely posted a few lines of analysis that they copy/pasted into two different areas of their write-up. In fact, there were not a ton of general draftnik write-ups available for him besides team-specific reports scouting needs for their teams, and many of them noted his versatility and ability to play tackle.
Early Accomplishments: Playing three positions in five years on two teams is, after a fashion, a type of accomplishment. Erving had 42 starts in his first five years, but he was shuffled around and he never really settled in at center. He actually ended up as a left tackle for a majority of his career, more or less taking advantage of the versatility noted by many.
Analysis: After converting from defense, he played tackle in college and the NFL tried to make him a center, only to find out he was better as a tackle. In this case, it’s arguable that the Browns drafted an offensive line generalist and came away with a solid piece. It was even tough to decide whether or not to list him here given that the majority of his snaps in college and in the pros were spent outside of the position.
Ryan Kelly (2016) Drafted at #18
The Hype: I want to reiterate that centers don’t get hype, and the NFL.com profiles for even the best prospects can feel rather lazy compared to the attention lavished on even middling running backs. However, WalterFootball comes through for us here: “Sources say that Kelly is the best center in the 2016 NFL Draft. He smart [sic], tough and reliable, with good size and athletic ability for the position. They feel center is an intangible driven position and that he is very strong in those areas. They also say Kelly isn’t the caliber of center prospect as Maurkice and Mike Pouncey. Kelly also isn’t the athlete Cam Erving was last year. All three of those players went in the top 20 of their draft classes. Thus, Kelly isn’t projected to be a top-20 pick. However, sources from multiple teams say they think Kelly will be one of the 10 best centers in the NFL during his career.” As it turns out, Kelly was in fact a top-20 pick.
Early Accomplishments: Kelly managed 66 starts and two Pro Bowls in his first five years with Indy, he saw six different quarterbacks start at least one game in that time. During his two Pro Bowl years the Colts struggled under Brissett but made the playoffs with Rivers.
Analysis: It’s probably not too surprising that Kelly’s best years came after the Colts also drafted Quenton Nelson. Kelly is proving a stalwart player, and he has earned multiple Pro Bowls. Although the Average Value metric from Pro Football Reference is fairly flawed, it does rank him as the twelfth most valuable player from his class. He, like Frederick, seems to have been a consistent asset to his team.
Frank Ragnow (2018) Drafted at #20
The Hype: Considered a day-two pick by Lance Zierlein, Ragnow was the guy you might expect to see drafted in the first round. “Ragnow won’t wow you with foot quickness or athleticism, but he takes smart angles to his blocks and shouldn’t be limited by scheme. His size, power, and anchor is a big plus as is his ability to swing over to guard if needed. Ragnow could struggle to stay connected to blocks against athletic interior linemen with quick hands, but his baseline play is equal to a solid NFL starter.” Matt Miller compared him to Chris Chester and suggesting he could be a Round 2 selection. However, WalterFootball was optimistic, saying “Ragnow remains [sic] me of Mangold, and that is a real compliment to Ragnow. Over his career, Mangold was one of the best centers in the NFL. Mangold (6-4, 307) and Ragnow are identical in size with similar quickness and athleticism that give them special skill sets. In the 2006 NFL Draft, Mangold was the 29th overall-pick, and Ragnow could go in the same region in the 2018 NFL Draft. Ragnow could have a long solid NFL career like Mangold had with the Jets.”
Early Accomplishments: Starting all 65 of the games he played across his first five years, Ragnow was selected to the Pro Bowl twice for Detroit (and made a 2nd-Team All Pro in there as well). Ragnow was considered by Sports Illustrated to be the top center in the game in 2021 and a Top 5 interior lineman in general.
Analysis: This is another first-round center with a solid list of accomplishments. Given Detroit’s struggles, though, it’s hard to say whether or not they would have been better served investing in another position at this time.
Billy Price (2018) Drafted at #21
Early Hype: Typically, Price was thought to be a second-round pick who would “eventually be a good starter” by NFL.com, with Zierlein saying “Plays like a Wildling at times with tremendous explosiveness, strength and, almost excessive initial charge. Price’s power and leverage give him a huge advantage over most centers in this draft. He should be able to come into the league and deal with NFL power right away. However, his impatience as a blocker and tendency to charge in head-first will be used against him by savvy NFL opponents if he doesn’t get it cleaned up.” Matt Miller was a little more positive, “Billy Price ranks as our top center in the 2018 class but will likely come off the board after other interior linemen because of the pec injury he suffered at the combine. His power, technique and athleticism make him an early starter, which is why he gets a Round 1 grade.” After discussing his pros and cons, WalterFootball played Nostradamus and said “The Bengals could use a center upgrade. Price could get consideration for Cincinnati in the first round.”
Early Accomplishments: A foot injury sidelined him in his rookie campaign, but by 2020 he only started a single game, and by 2021 he was traded. He was on his fourth team by the time he took a game snap in 2022.
Analysis: Maybe the pec injury never recovered and maybe the foot injury slowed him down, but whatever the reason, his 45 career starts did not leave teams impressed, and he’s currently unsigned.
Garrett Bradbury (2019) Drafted at #18
The Hype: A little. Matt Miller was positive, giving him a second-round grade and saying “Bradbury is a safe bet to be a long-term starter in the NFL and should walk into his rookie camp with a starting job in hand. He’s an ideal fit in any zone-blocking scheme, and his experience at guard and center make him versatile enough to lock down any of the three interior jobs. He has Pro Bowl potential.” WalterFootball was up and down on him, saying “In the NFL, Bradbury could develop into a starting center early in his career. He could go as high as late in the first round, but is more likely to be a second-round pick…There could be a lot of teams in the market for Bradbury on the second day of the 2019 NFL Draft. Arizona needs to improve its offensive line, and Bradbury could interest the organization as a potential plug-and-play blocker.” The strongest praise came from Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports, who used Jason Kelce as his player comp and said “Get Bradbury in an NFL strength and conditioning program for a year or two and a zone-blocking scheme ... and watch him flourish. He has the loosest hips and quickest feet I’ve ever scouted at the center spot. He’s just a little top heavy right now and doesn’t have the strength or weight to anchor. Like Kelce, Bradbury is ultra-aware of stunts and has the elite lateral mobility to pick up multiple assignments on a given play.
Early Accomplishments: Starting 57 of the 66 games available, Bradbury is an interesting first-rounder in that his club declined to pick up his fifth-year option but then later signed him to a 3-year contract. For those who care about Pro Football Focus’s rankings, he has been ranked as high as 9th among starting centers after spending most of his career in the low 20s (or at the bottom of the league).
Analysis: Bradbury is not a disappointing player, exactly, in that he has been able to play games. However, there is a strong case to be made that a player who is drafted in the top 20 should probably at least be able to start, so that might be too low of a bar.
Cesar Ruiz (2020) Drafted at #24
The Hype: Compared to James Daniels by Lance Zierlein, Ruiz was described as “Athletic and tenacious with the combination of skills and technique to fit into a variety of blocking schemes on the next level. Ruiz wins early with initial quickness and fast hands into first contact. He works to convert early advantages into wins. He’s consistent in securing down-blocks and has the athletic traits to become a second-level factor. He’ll give some ground to power rushers and needs help against wide-bodies, but the tape checks out. Ruiz has early starting potential and should develop into a good pro with guard/center flexibility.” WalterFootball thought of him as a second-day draft pick, but was cautious. “Teams like Ruiz’s versatility to play guard or center in the NFL. While he could play guard, center is his best position. There are some projections of him getting late first-round consideration, and while he may not go that high, Ruiz is safe to be a second-round or early third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.”
Early Accomplishments: Versatility has indeed been key to his career, with Ruiz playing in 46 games and making starts. He has played both center and right guard as necessary over the last three years.
Analysis: Ruiz has been available, and that matters in the NFL. He has also been able to hold down two different spots. However, he has been evaluated as a “minus” guard or as a slightly below-average guard by at least a few outlets, and so the best that can be said about him is that he does not seem to be a liability to the Saints while holding down a starting position.
At center, we actually see a perfect illustration of the argument that is frequently used for running backs. Yes, there are busts. However, there is a vastly more consistent return on investment from centers taken early than on running backs. Good running backs can be found at almost every level of the draft, but good centers seem to require a much more significant investment.
From 2011-2018, only four centers were drafted and then went on to the Pro Bowl in their first five years. Only one of them was taken outside the first round (Jason Kelce), and the other three were all 1st-round picks. To some extent, it should be expected that teams find more of their Pro Bowlers early on. However, during the same time period 23 running backs were drafted who then went on to earn at least one Pro Bowl honor in their first five years, and 17 of them were drafted outside the first round. Even if we stretch to include Elgton Jenkins (who has only played four years) because of his two Pro Bowl honors so far, then 80% of centers to make the Pro Bowl on their first contact were taken with a pick in the top two rounds. By contrast, only 48% of running backs who earned a Pro Bowl in their first five years were taken with a pick in the first two rounds, with nearly as many of those (5) found in the second round as the first (6).