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Dave Te History Lesson-The Draft's Centers Over the Years

nflscouting : 3/13/2018 7:41 pm

Offensive linemen are not exactly marquee type players, at least not in the eyes of the average fan. Left tackle seems to be the glamour spot on the front wall, with even less attention accorded the most important cog on the line – the center. Gone are the days of the E.J. Holub-type two-way players (Kansas City Chief started at center and linebacker in the 1960s), as the “man in the middle” must be a dominating factor, at least according to the late Paul Brown.

Brown’s philosophy in building an effective front wall was to obtain a quality center, which he did during the 1968 draft, using the Cincinnati Bengals’ first ever selection to snatch Robert Douglas (Bob) Johnson out of Tennessee. The center rewarded his coach’s decision when he went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, one of three Bengals chosen for that event.

Johnson played twelve seasons after he was the second pick overall in the draft, preceded by future Hall of Famer Ron Yary. He was the second highest-drafted center ever selected in an NFL Draft, after Ki Aldrich in 1939. He was the last original Bengal to retire, after the 1978 season. His uniform number #54 was retired by the team, and remains the only number the team has retired. However, he came out of retirement in 1979 when Bengals center Blair Bush suffered a knee injury and the Bengals asked Johnson to return as a long snapper on punts, field goals and extra points.

Gone are the short, squat 250-pound snappers from the 1960s, replaced by bigger, faster and stronger blockers operating out of the pivot. With the NFL defenses becoming more complicated and with constant substitution, teams have come to rely upon their quick-thinking center to call the blocking assignments up front. With current Tennessee defensive guru, Dick LeBeau, making “Fire Zone” blitz concepts all the rage in the league, it is very important that the center be able to handle any opponent trying to blast through the “A’ gap between the center and his guards.

Often, the center has to be on the alert for stunts, twists and games, along with being savvy enough to make the protection calls in an instant. They are usually assigned this task while having massive interior defenders lining up over their head, or having to recognize where the linebackers are and other second level opponents being used in motion before the snap.

NFL teams have also had to adapt, as most have stopped utilizing one-on-one blocking assignments to rely more on their centers to be capable in zone area blocking schemes. Ideally, you want the center to not only have power to work in unison with his guards, but one with the necessary burst to get into the second level on running plays. This is where back-side and play-side talent is required at this position.

In the zone blocking scheme, the center needs to be athletic enough to work down the line, along with having the agility to block in the second level. Against 3-4 defensive alignments, they are also required to have that strong anchor, in order to stall the two-gap charge from the nose guards. In most cases, size does not matter –intelligence, strength and balance are more important. Field smarts are needed to immediately identify the defense’s pressure packages.

Strength is needed, in order to stall the bull rush and help in widening the rush lanes. Quick feet and fluid retreat skills are required, as it is often the center that has to drop back and protect the pocket in passing situations. A long reach, firm anchor and great balance are important for the center, as he is usually asked to work in combination with his guards getting out in front on traps and pulls.

Since the draft’s inception in 1936, NFL teams have selected 1,085 centers, taking 415 of them from 1970 to date and 113 since the turn of the century (2000). Since that first draft, only forty-one players have been selected in the first round as centers, with twelve of them shifting to that position after playing guard or tackle at the collegiate level. Within that group, twenty-two joined the league since the 1970 draft, but only nine of them hailed from the 2000 draft to present.

Fourteen centers entered the league as Top Ten draft choices, including Texas Christian’s Ki Aldrich, the only center to be the first overall choice (1939 by the Chicago Cardinals). He was one of three Horned Frogs to be taken within the top ten picks of that draft, joining quarterback Davey O’Brien and I. B. Hale. The College Football Hall of Fame choice played two seasons for the Cardinals before moving to the Washington Redskins. After two seasons in Washington, he left to serve in the Navy during World War II. He returned to the Redskins in 1945, and retired in 1947. During his professional career, Aldrich averaged 50 minutes of playing time per game.

Cincinnati’s Bob Johnson was the second overall pick in the final American Football League season in 1968. In 1954, Green Bay chose Art Hunter out of Notre Dame with the third choice. Hunter first played for the Packers in 1954. After not playing the 1955 season, Arthur, then went on to play under head coach Paul Brown, with Jim Brown and the rest of the Cleveland Browns for four seasons as Center. He then played center for five years with the slumping Rams, and finally one year with the Steelers.

Only six players selected in the draft as centers have ever made it to Canton, Ohio. Two of those Hall of Famers, Alex Wojciechowicz (sixth pick by Detroit in 1938) and Bulldog Turner (seventh choice by Chicago in 1940) were not only first round selections, but also Top Ten choices. Wojciechowicz was a two-way player who played at center on offense and at linebacker on defense. He has been inducted into both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, was a founder and the first president of the NFL Alumni Association, and was the third player to receive the Order of the Leather Helmet.

Wojciechowicz played college football for the Fordham Rams from 1935 to 1937 and was a member of the line that became known as the Seven Blocks of Granite. He was selected as the consensus first-team All-American center in both 1936 and 1937. He played for the Lions from 1938 to 1946. He was selected as a first-team All-NFL player in 1939 and 1944. In 1946, he was released by the Lions and then sold to the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he played from 1946 to 1950. He won two NFL championships with the Eagles, in 1948 and 1949.

Out of Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, Clyde Douglas “Bulldog” Turner was the Bears' first round selection in the 1940 NFL draft. But, at first at least, Turner didn't want to be on the Bears. It turned out that the Detroit Lions' owner paid him $200 to "get his teeth fixed" and turn down other teams proposals. The Lions were fined $5,000 for tampering, and the Bears got a great two-way player.

That duo was followed by seventh round find, Jim Ringo of Syracuse, taken with the 79th overall pick in the 1953 draft by Green Bay. Ringo was considered vastly undersized at 211 pounds. He was not, however, unfit for the role, using his outstanding quickness and excellent technique to build a 15-year NFL career, including eleven seasons with the Packers, as one of the game's best centers.

Ringo played for four different head coaches in his Packers tenure, but Vince Lombardi's arrival in January 1959 changed everything. For Ringo's next five seasons the Packers went 50–15–1 (.769) and 2–1 in championship games. He certainly knew individual success before the Lombardi era, attending his first of seven straight Pro Bowls in 1957, but he flourished under the coaching legend, earning consensus All-Pro honors from 1959–63.

The great Pittsburgh Steelers era in the 1970s coincided with Pittsburgh taking Wisconsin center Mike Webster with the 125th overall pick (round five) in 1974. Nicknamed "Iron Mike", Webster anchored the Steelers' offensive line during much of their run of four Super Bowl victories from 1974 to 1979 and is considered by some as the best center in NFL history.

Webster was the first former NFL player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Since his death, he has become a symbol for head injuries in the NFL and the ongoing debate over player safety. His doctors were of the opinion that multiple concussions during his career damaged his frontal lobe, which caused cognitive dysfunction.

After Webster, Pittsburgh found another Hall of Fame center, selecting Kentucky’s Dermontti Dawson in the second round (44th overall) of the 1988 draft. He actually played guard during his rookie season alongside Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. When Webster left the team following that season, Dawson succeeded him as the starting center. He soon became one of the most respected players among the Steelers, and one of the best in the league at his position. He earned the name "Dirt" for the way he would try to grind defenders into the ground.

Dawson was named to seven straight Pro Bowls from 1992 to 1998 and was a six-time AP First Team All-Pro. In 1993, he was named co-AFC Offensive Lineman of the Year by the NFLPA and in 1996 he was named the NFL Alumni's Offensive Lineman of the Year. He played in 170 consecutive games, the second most in Steelers history, until severe hamstring injuries forced him to sit out nine games in 1999 and seven more games in 2000. Dawson was released by the Steelers following the 2000 season partly due to these injuries and partly due to salary cap reasons. He opted to retire rather than trying to play for another team.

Dwight Stephenson was the 48th overall selection in the 1980 draft by the Miami Dolphins, playing for that organization from 1980 to 1987. He played college football under coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998. The Murfreesboro, North Carolina native was called by the legendary Bryant as the best center he ever coached, and described him as "a man among children".

Stephenson was the team's starting center from 1977 to 1979, and was a member of Alabama's back-to-back national championship teams of 1978 and 1979. He was a two-time second-team All-American. "His speed, his foot quickness, was off the chart," said Mike Brock, a former Alabama lineman. "You couldn't compare it to other people who played at that time. There was no way for defenses to deal with him."

After Stephenson was drafted by Don Shula and the Dolphins, he was used on special teams only until late in the 1981 season, when starting center Mark Dennard was injured. A few seasons later, Stephenson was "universally recognized as the premier center in the NFL". With the exceptionally explosive Stephenson as offensive captain, the Dolphins offensive line gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL for a record six straight seasons, from 1982 to 1987, which doubled the length of the previous record.

Stephenson retired from pro football in 1987, after sustaining a left knee injury in a play involving New York Jets Marty Lyons and Joe Klecko. After he left, the Dolphins' line continued to protect the pocket superbly, extending the record to nine straight seasons. During his career, he was voted as an All-Pro five consecutive times from 1983 to 1987. He was selected to play on five Pro Bowl squads over the same span. He was named AFC Offensive Lineman of the Year by the NFLPA five consecutive times (1983-87) and voted the Seagram's Seven Crowns of Sports Offensive Lineman of the Year three consecutive times (1983-85).

In 1985, Stephenson was the recipient of the NFL Man of the Year Award for "outstanding community service and playing excellence." Despite the brevity of his career, in 1999, he was ranked number 84 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. Also in 1999, he was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2011, he was inducted into the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame, for his contributions to sports in southeastern Virginia.

In 1998 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I know I’m not going to make every block, but I don’t like to ever get beat. That’s what keeps me motivated. There’s always the next play to get ready for.” He is the namesake of Pro Football Focus' annual Dwight Stephenson Award, honoring the player the website considers best in the NFL regardless of position.


All told, of the sixty offensive linemen enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame (sixteen from the pre-modern and forty-four in the modern era), seven more than those mentioned above also had experience at center. George Trafton manned the pivot from 1920-21, taking the 1922 season off before returning to the game in 1923 and then returing in 1932.

George Trafton was a center and later a and coach, boxer, boxing manager, and gymnasium proprietor. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964 and was also selected in 1969 as the center on the NFL 1920s All-Decade Team. A native of Chicago, Trafton played college football for Knute Rockne's undefeated 1919 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. He played in the NFL at center for the Decatur Staleys (1920), Chicago Staleys (1921), and Chicago Bears (1923–1932). He is credited as being the first center to snap the ball with one hand and was selected six times as a first-team All Pro.

Trafton also competed as a boxer for a time. He worked as an assistant football coach for Northwestern in 1922, the Green Bay Packers in 1944, and the Cleveland / Los Angeles Rams from 1945 to 1949. He was the head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1951 to 1953, leading the Blue Bombers to the 41st Grey Cup in 1953.

Frank "Gunner" Gatski played center for the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and in the NFL in the 1940s and 1950s. He was one of the most heralded centers of his era, known for his strength and consistency, as he helped protect quarterback Otto Graham and open up running lanes for fullback Marion Motley. During his days with the team, the Browns won seven league championships between 1946 and 1955. Gatski won an eighth championship after he was traded to the Detroit Lions in 1957, his final season.

Gatski attended Marshall University, where he continued to play football until he joined the U.S. Army in 1942 and went to fight in World War II. Upon his return in 1945, he finished his collegiate studies at Auburn University. After graduating, he tried out and made the roster for the Browns, a team under formation in the new AAFC. He played as a linebacker and backup center for most of his first two years before earning a spot as the starting center. He retained that position as Cleveland continued to dominate after the AAFC dissolved and the Browns were absorbed by the NFL in 1950. He retired in 1958, never having missed a game or practice in his career.

After leaving football, Gatski worked briefly as a scout for the Boston Patriots. He then joined a reform school in West Virginia as athletic director and head football coach, staying there until the school closed in 1982. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. Marshall retired Gatski's number 72 in 2005. He died that year in a nursing home in West Virginia. In 2006, the East End Bridge in Huntington, West Virginia was renamed the Frank Gatski Memorial Bridge in his honor.

In the 1950s, no player struck fear in offensive linemen than linebacker Chuck Bednarik, who was nicknamed "Concrete Charlie." Known as one of the most devastating tacklers in the history of football and the last full-time two-way player in the NFL, he played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949 through 1962 and, upon retirement, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility.

Following his graduation from high school, Bednarik entered the United States Army Air Forces and served as a B-24 waist-gunner with the Eighth Air Force. He flew on thirty combat missions over Germany, for which he was awarded the Air Medal and four Oak Leaf Clusters, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and four Battle Stars.

Bednarik subsequently attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he was a 60-minute man, excelling as both center and linebacker, as well as occasional punter. He was a three-time All-American, and was elected a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, as were two of his teammates on the 1947 squad—tackle George Savitsky and tailback Tony Minisi—and his coach, George Munger.

At Penn, he also was third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1948 and won the Maxwell Award that year. In 1969, he was voted by a panel of sportswriters, coaches and hall of fame players as "The Greatest Center of All-Time." He was the first player drafted in the 1949 NFL Draft, by the Philadelphia Eagles, starring on both offense (as a center) and defense (as a linebacker).

In the final play of the 1960 NFL Championship Game, Bednarik, the last Eagle between Green Bay's Jim Taylor and the end zone, tackled Taylor at the Eagles' eight yard line, and remained atop Taylor as the final seconds ticked off the clock, ensuring the Packers could not run another play and preserving a 17–13 Eagles victory.

In 1960, Bednarik knocked Frank Gifford of the New York Giants out of football for over 18 months, with one of the most famous tackles in NFL history. He also had a famous quarrel with Chuck Noll, who once, as a player for the Cleveland Browns, smashed him in the face during a fourth-down punting play.

Bednarik proved extremely durable, missing just three games in his fourteen seasons. He was named All-Pro eight times, and was the last of the NFL's "Sixty-Minute Men," players who played both offense and defense on a regular basis. His nickname, "Concrete Charlie," originated from his off-season career as a concrete salesman for the Warner Company, not (contrary to popular belief) from his reputation as a ferocious tackler. Nonetheless, sportswriter Hugh Brown of The Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia, credited with bestowing the nickname, remarked that Bednarik "is as hard as the concrete he sells."

Lots of doctors made a small fortune treating Oakland Raiders great, Jim Otto, whose body was punished greatly during his NFL career, resulting in nearly 74 operations, including 28 on his knee (nine of them during his playing career) and multiple joint replacements. His joints became riddled with arthritis, and he developed debilitating back and neck problems. In his book, "The Pain of Glory" Otto described near death experiences from medical procedures, including fighting off three life-threatening infections due to complications from his artificial joints.

During one six-month stretch, he was without a right knee joint because he had to wait for an infection to heal before another artificial knee could be implanted. Otto eventually had to have his right leg amputated on August 1st, 2007. Despite his maladies, Otto says he has no regrets and wouldn't change a thing even if given the opportunity to do it over again.

Otto played collegiate football at the University of Miami, where in addition to playing offensive center at UM, he also played linebacker on defense. No National Football League team showed interest in the undersized center. Otto was drafted by the proposed Minneapolis franchise of the new American Football League. When the Minneapolis contingent reneged to accept an NFL franchise, Otto's rights defaulted to the AFL's Oakland Raiders. He then signed with the Raiders and played for the entire ten years of the league's existence and five years beyond.

Otto was issued jersey number 50 for the AFL's inaugural season, 1960, but switched to his familiar 00 the next season. Otto worked diligently to build his body up to his playing weight of 256 pounds. For the next fifteen years, he became a fixture at center for the Raiders, never missing a single game due to injury, and played in 308 consecutive games.

In 1975, Otto was replaced by Dave Dalby. He was the last member of the Oakland Raiders inaugural team from 1960 to retire. He was one of only twenty players to play for the entire 10-year existence of the American Football League, and one of only three players to play in all of his team's AFL games. He was also selected as the Sporting News All-League center from 1960 through 1969. He was an All-Star in the first 13 of his 15 seasons – every year in the AFL from 1960 through 1969 and three of his five seasons in the NFL.

Otto was named the starting center on the AFL All-Time Team. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980, the first year he was eligible. In 1999, he was ranked number 78 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.

Jim Langer played for the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. He is considered by some to be among the greatest NFL centers of all time. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1987 and is one of only four Dolphins players to be elected to the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility (Dan Marino, Paul Warfield, Jason Taylor).

Langer played middle linebacker at South Dakota State University, where in 1969 he was Honorable Mention All-American. After graduating, he was signed by the Cleveland Browns as a free agent in 1970, but was cut during training camp. He signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins and saw limited action for his first two seasons. He became the starter at center in the 1972 season and played in 141 consecutive games over eight seasons until a knee injury ended his playing days with Miami nine games into the 1979 season.

Langer was traded to the Minnesota Vikings prior to the 1980 season, playing two seasons with the Vikings before retiring after the 1981 campaign. The Jim Langer Award is presented to the nation's top NCAA Division II lineman each year in his honor.

One other lineman in the Hall of Fame is also the most versatile - Bruce Matthews, who played nineteen seasons, from 1983 to 2001, for the Houston Oilers franchise, later renamed the Tennessee Titans during his tenure. Highly versatile, throughout his NFL career he played every position on the offensive line, starting in 99 games as a left guard, 87 as a center, 67 as a right guard, 22 as a right tackle, and 17 as a left tackle. Having never missed a game due to injury, his 292 NFL games started is the second most of all time.

Matthews played college football for the University of Southern California, where he was recognized as a consensus All-American for the USC Trojans football team as a senior. He was selected in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Oilers. He was a 14-time Pro Bowl selection, tied for the most in NFL history, and a nine-time first-team All-Pro. Matthews was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, and his number 74 jersey is retired by the Titans.

After retiring as a player, Matthews served as an assistant coach for the Houston Texans and Titans. A member of the Matthews family of football players, he is the brother of linebacker Clay Matthews Jr.; father of center Kevin Matthews and tackle Jake Matthews; and uncle of linebacker Clay Matthews III and safety Casey Matthews.


The oldest center to ever be drafted in the first round was 25-year-old Joe Watson, the fifth overall pick in the 1950 draft by Detroit. However, the former Rice star played in only eight games that season and never suited up in the professional ranks again. Ever since Mike Basrak (fifth overall pick by Pittsburgh) became the first college center to be selected in the first round of an NFL or AFL Draft, there have been only five years when more than one center was drafted during Day One activities.

The first time it happened was in 1954, when Green Bay took Notre Dame’s Art Hunter (third) and the Los Angeles Rams used the tenth choice on Mississippi’s Ed Beatty. In 1967, Green Bay took Bob Hyland out of Boston College with the ninth pick, followed by the Jets taking Paul Seiler from Notre Dame with the 12th pick in the AFL draft. The next year, Bob Johnson went to Cincinnati with the second selection and Auburn’s Forrest Blue joined the 49ers with the 15th pick in the 1968 NFL draft.

In 1983, two of college’s best centers ever were selected. Cincinnati would replace Bob Johnson in the middle with Dave Rimington out of Nebraska with choice number 25, followed immediately by USC’s Don Mosebar, who went to the Oakland Raiders. It would not be until 2009 that two centers again joined the first round in the same year. Alex Mack left California to join the Cleveland Browns as the 21st pick. With the 28th selection, Buffalo tabbed Louisville’s Eric Wood.

Seven universities have produced multiple first round centers for the NFL. Boston College featured Bob Hyland and Damien Woody (17th to New England in 1999). Michigan sent the duo of Merv Pregulman (seventh in 1944 to Green Bay) and Steve Everitt (14th to Cleveland in 1993) and Ole Miss boasted Ed Beatty and Chris Spencer (26th in 2005 to Seattle). Tennessee added Bob Johnson in 1968, followed by Robert Shaw, who became a member of the Dallas Cowboys with the 27th pick in 1979.

The Pacific-10/12 Conference saw Washington deliver Blair Bush (16th in 1978) to Cincinnati and Bern Brostek (23rd in 1990) become a Los Angeles Ram. The Southern California Trojans, in addition to seeing Don Mosebar join Oakland in 1983, also had Sid Smith 26th in 1970) head to Kansas City and Bobby Robertson become the seventh choice in the 1942 draft by the old Brooklyn Dodgers.

The school boasting the most first round centers is Notre Dame. They first saw Frank Szymanski be the sixth selection in the 1945 phase by Detroit, followed by Art Hunter as the third pick in 1954 by Green Bay. Paul Seiler joined the New York Jets as the 12th selection in the 1967 AFL draft and Jeff Faine closed out that run after Cleveland used the 21st pick in 2003 for the 124-game starter.

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