Plenty of depth at center position

INDIANAPOLIS -- It has always rated as the most anonymous position on the historically most anonymous unit, but, in a year when the talent level of the offensive line prospects in the draft has been assessed as thin, the center spot appears surprisingly deep.

"Trust me," said North Carolina snapper Jason Brown, "there aren't many people who keep track of the center crop to the extent that I do. I mean, these guys, for me, are the competition, you know? And I'm telling you, there are a lot of great centers here, man."

League scouts seems to agree with that analysis. There are 13 centers, an unusually high number, here at this year's combine, which officially commenced Thursday morning with offensive linemen, running backs, kickers and punters checking in. Suddenly a position that has traditionally been an afterthought, and where teams used to simply plug in a guy, is garnering unparalleled attention.

And with good reason.

Brown, who began his college career at tackle and moved inside to the hub in his second season with the Tar Heels, hasn't allowed a sack since his sophomore campaign. He is bright, competitive, has terrific recognition skills and, at 6-feet-2 3/8 and 310 pounds, possesses excellent size for the position. Watch him on tape, against even the premier defensive tackles in the ACC, and his opponents rarely penetrate into the backfield.

Amazingly, he might not even be the top center prospect.

Scouts spoke Thursday of Brown, who has slimmed down considerably since playing at an ungainly 336 pounds in 2003, in glowing terms. But they lavished praise on Chris Spencer of Mississippi, who appeared legitimately taken aback when apprised of some of their comments. One regional scout from an AFC franchise suggested Spencer could be one of the best centers to come into the league in the last 25 years.

Among the other names to watch: David Baas (Michigan), Ben Wilkerson (LSU), Junius Coston (North Carolina A&T) and Vince Carter (Oklahoma).

In the past 15 drafts, only four centers -- Bern Brostek (Rams in 1990), Steve Everitt (Browns, 1993), Damien Woody (Patriots, 1999) and Jeff Faine (Browns, 2003) -- were selected in the first round. The first snapper off the draft board last year, Jake Grove, was chosen by Oakland in the second round, with the 45th overall selection. Chances are, there could be a couple of centers gone by the middle of the second round this year, even though none currently project as first-round choices.

It used to be that playing center was like being sent out to man the right-field spot for your Little League team. The position was, in the eyes of many, a spot where a team put a marginal athlete and hoped for the best. The game has changed, however, in recent years. And the sudden re-emergence of the 3-4 defense, in which a center has a nose tackle right on top of him, has changed the approach to the hub spot on an offensive line.

"If you're playing tackle, there's usually a yard or two between you and the [defensive] end," Brown said. "Even at guard, you've got a few feet of separation, a little bit of room to operate, OK? But at center, the nose tackle, literally, is inches away. You can feel his breath on you. So you have to be strong, smart, quick ... a combination of a lot of skills and intelligence. If you're not all those things, not just one or two of them but all of them, you better go find another position to play."

Truth be told, scouts are actually looking at players from other positions, usually guard, to move over to center. Baas played guard much of his career at Michigan, and there are some teams that still project him there, but most regard him foremost as a center prospect now. Like several of the other centers here, Baas is a former high school shot-putter and champion weightlifter. But he acknowledged that, with defenses so complex at the NFL level, brains are just as important to a center as brawn.

None of the coaches, scouts or personnel directors surveyed Thursday disagreed.

"You'd better have a smart guy playing [center] or things can fall apart for you pretty quickly," said New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. "With the sophistication that so many defenses are showing now, jumping in and out of fronts, center is a key spot."

A spot that many teams, judging by the keen interest in centers here on Thursday, will seek to either fill or augment in this year's draft.

Around the combine

  • The early consensus among league general managers, coaches and even owners here is that this is not a good year to hold a high choice in the first round. Teams stuck at the top of the round possibly will end up investing a lot of money in "boom or bust" players. And the guess is that there aren't going to be many opportunities for those teams with top-five picks to slide back in the round, because there won't be suitors wanting to move up in the order. "I think it's going to be difficult [to trade back]," said Buffalo Bills team president Tom Donahoe. "Nobody can agree on who the top guys are."

  • Frank Gore, the former Miami (Fla.) tailback whose weight had ballooned into the mid-230s in the offseason, checked in Thursday at a much more svelte 217 pounds, and that pleased a few scouts who admitted they had heard a few horror stories in recent weeks about his extra tonnage. Beset by injuries much of his Hurricanes career, including a pair of anterior cruciate ligament tears, Gore has a lot to prove here. Some scouts feel he can be a solid third-down back and that, while he lacks some short-area quickness, there still is big-play potential with the guy. But he has to convince people he is healthy and, just as significant, that he is dedicated. Give him credit for this: Gore doesn't lack confidence. "I still think I should be the first back taken," Gore said. "I know that won't happen but, in my mind, I'm the top back here. The only thing that held me back was injuries. But I'm here with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder to show people that they'll be getting a really good player if they draft me."

  • Another tailback who doesn't rank among the big three (Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown of Auburn and Texas' Cedric Benson), but who might be a middle-round steal as a situational player is Darren Sproles. The former Kansas State standout certainly is a munchkin-sized back, but he is very thick through the thighs and legs, has long speed, and catches the ball well. "We like him a lot," one NFC backfield coach said. "If he hits the hole and pops through, he's going to run a long, long way. Get him eight 'touches' a game, maybe some as a [kickoff] returner, and he'll make some plays."

  • In a draft with a ton of uncertainties, there seems to be one given, and it's that former Ohio State standout Mike Nugent will be the first kicker off the board. "That's certainly my goal and, frankly, I'll be disappointed if it doesn't happen," Nugent said. "It's the one thing I can control." Nugent converted 26 of 33 field goals in 2004, including five of six from 50 yards or more, and was voted the Buckeyes' most valuable player. He isn't very big, but Nugent does possess great leg strength, both on placements and kickoffs. With about 25 percent of NFL games decided by three points or less, kickers have become a priority, and Nugent could be chosen on the first day of the draft.

  • University of Washington offensive tackle Khalif Barnes, who missed much of the season with a wrist injury, said he is healthy and ready to prove that to scouts. Barnes put on a show in the Senior Bowl workouts, demonstrating great footwork, and might be the premier pass protector in this year's tackle pool.

  • You could probably hold the reunion for players from Michigan Tech who have played in the NFL in a phone booth. Actually that might be more space than required. But a player to watch from the little-known school is offensive lineman Joe Berger. A tackle at the college level, Berger almost certainly will move to guard in the NFL. He is a good-looking prospect and scouts really like his tenacity.

    The last word
    "What's that old song, 'Born to Run'? Well, that's me. I'm just a natural runner and I always have been." -- Miami [Fla.] tailback Frank Gore

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.