Travis Frederick was the most surprising pick in this year's first round. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three rookies who might star in 2013.
Perhaps the factor working against Cowboys rookie center Travis Frederick the most isn't just that he was a first-round pick in this year's draft, but that first-round pick -- the one that stunned NFL minds, after the Cowboys traded down from No. 18 to 31, despite the availability of players like Kyle Long, Justin Pugh, Desmond Trufant, Sharrif Floyd, Sylvester Williams and DeAndre Hopkins at the earlier pick.
The previous four centers taken in Round 1 were Maurkice Pouncey (2010), Alex Mack (2009), Eric Wood ('09) and Nick Mangold (2006). Mangold and Pouncey both have multiple Pro Bowl trips, while Mack earned that nod in 2010; Wood, too, was on the brink last year, his career thus far held back by numerous injuries.
That's the level of play Cowboys fans will be expecting from Frederick, who dropped right onto the starting line at the team's recent OTAs. Is that realistic? Well ... maybe.
Where Frederick perhaps most excels is not easy to analyze on film. But the center is often responsible for helping his linemates to recognize blitzes and adjust blocking schemes, and Cowboys offensive coordinator Bill Callahan recently told the Star-Telegram that "One of the traits that we identified early was his ability to communicate."
It doesn't sound like much, but that's a crucial positive for Frederick.
As to what is evident on Frederick's tape, the upside starts with his penchant for getting to the second level and above-average recognition skills. For an abbreviated look at what Frederick can do, we need go no further than Wisconsin's opening play in last season's Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin lined up for that play at its own 3-yard line, following a botched kickoff return. Frederick had defensive tackle David Parry in front of him, on a run play designed for Montee Ball. Rather than get held up after the snap, though, Frederick handed off Parry to guard Ryan Groy and released to the second level to wipe out a linebacker.
Frederick is boxed below, two yards downfield, pancaking his man. It's his block that helps Ball cut back for a 24-yard gain.
Another example of Frederick's ability to read the defense and react can be found in the Badgers' loss to Michigan State. Badgers' QB John Stave dropped to pass out of the alignment shown below, as both middle linebacker Max Bullough and outside linebacker Denicos Allen blitzed. Bullough tried to shoot a gap straight up the gut, while Allen stunted around him in an attempt to confuse the Badgers' blocking.
Frederick denied Bullough at the line, which led to Bullough then dropping in an attempt to defend Stave's pass. Frederick then slid to his right and stalemated Allen, too, allowing Stave time to set in the pocket.
There are warts as well, which is why Frederick was pegged as a second- or third-rounder heading into draft weekend. The former Badger struggled at times against powerful pass rushers and he is not particularly nimble, despite his ability to clear the line and block downfield.
But he's almost exactly what you would picture from a Wisconsin center: a hard-working, technically-sound grinder, standing 6-foot-4 and about 315 pounds.
His so-called football intelligence should plateau the learning curve a bit -- and there will be a learning curve, not only because Frederick is trying to start at a key position as a rookie, but because he's going from Wisconsin's old-school ground attack to a more wide-open scheme with zone-blocking elements in Dallas. Frederick's lack of elite athleticism could hold him back within the zone-blocking constraints, but that possibility does not seem to bother the Cowboys.
The good news for Frederick (if you can call it that)? The Dallas offensive line was a mess last season, part of why the Cowboys reached for Frederick in Round 1 in the first place. Even a steady effort from their new center, coupled with minor improvements elsewhere, would greatly enhance Dallas' ability to move the football.
Frederick has the potential to fulfill that aim. He might struggle at times, and might even stumble badly in the early going, but Dallas seems to have found an offensive lineman capable of starting for the next several seasons.
Now, will that be that enough to justify Frederick as a first-round pick?