POSITION ANAYLISIS – It’s rare when a center gets drafted early and this year is no exception. Occasionally, a player is so dominant that he can be a first- or second-round selection, but this year’s draft class may not see a player taken off the board until the final day of the draft. The top prospect is Rodney Hudson, who played four years at guard at Florida State but projects to center at the next level. This is a group that may develop a couple of starters, but the difficult part of the draft process for centers is that, once a player gets entrenched, he can stay there for years – making the market for centers slim indeed. If more than five centers get drafted, it will be a bit of a shock.
VIKINGS CENTERS – John Sullivan, Jon Cooper.
VIKINGS NEED – This depends on who you ask. Sullivan, who became just the third regular center for the Vikings in the last 17 seasons – following Jeff Christy, a six-year starter, and Matt Birk, a 10-year starter. Sullivan had an injury-plagued second season as a starter, but regressed badly when he was playing. He was dominated at times. How much that can be attributed to the calf injury that kept him sidelined during training camp and the preseason is up to debate. But, while he likely will be given the chance to keep his job, if a center the Vikings like is available very late, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them go after one and create some competition for the starting and backup jobs.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Rodney Hudson, Florida State, 6-2¼, 291 – Four-year starter who made starts in 48 of 51 career games at left guard…A true rarity – in 2010, he was named FSU’s Offensive Player of the Year from the guard spot…Excellent footwork, pulls and traps very well…Sets up quickly in pass protection…Hard worker and team leader…Plays through injuries…Doesn’t stop to the whistle and his battles are intense…Is a bit undersized and will need to add some bulk weight, which may be difficult given his body type…Will have to learn a new position at the next level and make line calls…Has excellent weight-room strength, but it doesn’t always translate to the field…Doesn’t drive defenders off the line…Doesn’t always use knee bend effectively…Ran a 5.27 40 at the Combine with 27 reps of 225 pounds, a 25½-inch vertical jump and a 7-11 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Hudson may be a little smaller than the prototype center in the NFL and may struggle with big nose tackles, but he has the most talent of any center in this year’s draft and is the only one that has a chance of going on the first two days of the draft.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State, 6-2, 290 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who made starts in the final 38 games of his college career…His father Leo was a captain at Penn State and played three years with the Colts and his uncle Steve played 12 years with the Raiders…Plays with a mean streak and finishes plays…Uses hands well to push and steer DTs…Picks up blitzes in pass protection well…Rarely on the ground because he consistently plays with good balance…Sustains blocks very well…NFL pedigree…Undersized…Doesn’t dominate opponents, needs finesse and technique to get the job done…Doesn’t have a consistent hand punch that stops DTs in their tracks…Doesn’t have great agility and struggles when asked to pull out as a lead blocker…Ran a 5.29 40 at the Combine with 30 reps, a 28½-inch vertical jump and a 8-4 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He was moved to right guard as a senior and looked out of position. He has the ability, skill set and upside to become an NFL starter, but his lack of size and girth will likely drop him into the fourth round, where he will be a Day 3 priority for a team in need of a center.
Kristofer O’Dowd, USC, 6-5, 300 – Fourth-year senior…Started 36 of 41 career games, missing half the season in both 2007 and 2009 with knee injuries…A high school All-American and first true freshman to ever start a season opener for the Trojans…Has had two surgeries on his right knee after dislocating the knee cap twice, as well as having shoulder surgery to repair his left labrum…Very good upper-body strength…Plays to the whistle and is aggressive…Has good jolt in his hand punch…Is solid in run blocking, able to seal and maneuver defenders…Has good burst off the ball…A team leader…Durability a huge question, having missed significant time with knee and shoulder injuries…Doesn’t have ideal upper- or lower-body strength…Gets pushed backward too often…Limited versatility – he never played guard at any level…Ran a 5.12 40 at the Combine with 31 reps, a 32½-inch vertical jump and a 8-9 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A starter as a true freshman at USC is saying something, but his injury history is a giant red flag that will keep him on the board into Day 3 – perhaps well into picks coming off the board.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Ryan Bartholomew, Syracuse, 6-1¼, 302 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter (two at left guard and last year at center)…Has missed time twice due to concussions…Long arms to keep defenders away from his body…Good shotgun snapper…Respected team leader and team captain…Good lateral movement in pass protection and blitz pickup…Comes out of his stance quickly and initiates contact…Has a history of concussions, which could take him completely off some team boards…Tends to stop moving on contact and will struggle to sustain…Very short – he was the shortest lineman at the Combine…Ran a 4.93 40 at the Combine (second among centers) with a position-best 34 reps of 225 pounds, a 26½-inch vertical jump and a 7-8 jump.
PROJECTION: Put three inches of height on him and he would be at or near the top of this list. But, his lack of size and concussion history will narrow the interested field considerably, making him a risk to go undrafted despite having more talent than some of his competition.
Brandon Fusco, Slippery Rock, 6-4¼, 302 – Fifth-year senior who came to Slippery Rock as a 240-pound linebacker…Started all 44 games of his college career…Two-time team captain…As a senior won both the Division II Rimington Award (top center) and the Gene Upshaw Lineman of the Year award…Very athletic with good footwork…Good at blitz identification and pick-up…Is good at sealing and walling off defenders in the run game…Durable and a hard-working on-field leader…Doesn’t use his hand punch effectively and allows defenders into his body…Doesn’t always maintain or finish his blocks…Doesn’t play with a mean streak…Plays a little too upright…Ran a 5.18 40 at the Combine with 26 reps of 225 pounds, a 28½-inch vertical jump and a 9-0 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Making the jump from college to the pros is difficult enough when you come from a major Division I school. The jump from Slippery Rock, given the lack of top competition, is even more difficult. Fusco has many of the prerequisites to be an NFL center, but because of his learning curve, it may take a year or two to get him up to speed, which translates into a late-round project pick.
Alex Linnenkohl, Oregon State, 6-2¼, 302 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who made starts in his final 38 games…Wide body and good functional strength…Has good burst off the snap and aggressively attacks defenders…Durability isn’t a question…Had good hand use and can jolt defenders in pass protection and steer and seal in the run game…Has short arms and defenders can get into his body…Doughy and doesn’t look like an NFL player…Doesn’t get a consistent push in the run game…Will struggle to sustain blocks for very long…Ran a 5.36 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 26½-inch vertical jump and a position-worst 7-5 broad jump.
PROJECTION: An overachiever in college who didn’t help himself at all at the Combine, he will be viewed as a project because his short arms are a big red flag. But he has the intelligence and playing skills to make a roster and eventually fight for a starting job.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Jake Kirkpatrick, TCU, 6-2¼, 301 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who made 26 career starts…Didn’t start playing football until he was a high school senior…Won the Rimington Trophy in 2010, given annually to college football’s top center…A hard worker who plays to the whistle on every play…Has held up well against top competition…Is good at using his body to seal off defenders…Doesn’t play with consistent leverage…Looks awkward in space trying to take on linebackers downfield…Doesn’t have a good jolting hand punch…After a solid week at the Senior Bowl, he could slide into the final round of the draft or be priority free agent signing after the draft.
Jason Kelce, Cincinnati, 6-4, 283 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter (two at left guard and last year at center)…A walk-on to the Bearcats program in 2006…Has a good hand punch and plays with a lot of aggression…Has good flexibility and footwork to pull and trap…Good lateral agility to mirror defenders…Sustains on his blocks and finishes…Very undersized for an NFL center and there are big questions as to whether he can add the weight needed to hold up against 330-pound nose tackles…Doesn’t have good pop at the snap in run protection and using technique more than strength to open holes…Inexperienced at center, likely his only viable NFL position…. May have earned a draft spot in Indianapolis – while he didn’t lift, he had a position-best 40 time (4.89), shuttle run (4.14), 3-cone drill (7.22), vertical jump and broad jump (9-2). The odds are against him, but his athleticism may get a Combine-influenced team like the Raiders or Cowboys to jump late.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.