The NFL’s best centers
Centers are perpetually underrated and underappreciated. They are never the glamour guys—they're in the pit on every snap, working their way through double-teams and blocking nose tackles who may outweigh them by 30 pounds. They’re frequently tasked with the line and protection calls that allow offenses to adjust to defensive strategies. You don't tend to notice how important it is to have a good center until you don't have one anymore. The Seahawks provided an instructive example last season when they traded Max Unger away for Jimmy Graham in the 2015 offseason, and thought they could replace him with a kid named Drew Nowak, even though Nowak had never played the position before. Nowak was an utter disaster, and had to be replaced to save Seattle's season. Not that it was his fault—he was at the mercy of a coach in Tom Cable who forgot what every line coach should have tattooed somewhere on his body: Without a great center, your offensive line, and subsequently your entire offense, won't go very far.
Here are the best centers heading into the 2016 season—the men who, noticed or not, keep their offenses together.
Just missed the cut
Alex Mack, Falcons: Mack was once the gold standard at the position along with Nick Mangold of the Jets, but he's been dealing with injuries of late. He's still a good player though, and he should benefit from Atlanta's zone-blocking scheme under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
The next big thing
Ryan Kelly, Colts: The Alabama alum is thought to be one of the most complete and well-developed centers to come out of college over the last few years. The Colts selected him with the 18th overall pick in the 2016 draft to keep Andrew Luck upright and provide much-needed excellence in an offensive line that has underperformed for far too long.
The NFL’s best centers, No. 5: Travis Swanson, Lions
The Lions have put Swanson to the test in his two NFL seasons—they throw the ball as much as any NFL team, and as such, Swanson is responsible for protections, and helping to fend off interior pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford. Last season, in 649 passing snaps, Swanson allowed no sacks and had just four blown blocks. He's an ideal modern-day center built for the increase in the aerial game, and he also has the strength to drive defenders out of the way in the run game.
The NFL’s best centers, No. 4: Weston Richburg, Giants
Big Blue has been hit-and-miss with its first-round line picks over the last few years, but general manager Jerry Reese hit a home run in 2014, when he selected Richburg out of Colorado State in the second round. Richburg is a very powerful player in the run game, but what makes him stand out is that he's so good on the move—whether he's hitting the second level or pulling out to block on screens and sweeps. He allowed no sacks in 1,016 snaps last year, and though his penalty total of four was a bit high, it's clear that he's the most well-rounded young center in the game behind his NFC East rival Travis Frederick, and the arrow is definitely pointing up here.
The NFL’s best centers, No. 3: Ryan Kalil, Panthers
Kalil has been with the Panthers since 2007, which means he's been through both the dog days of the Jimmy Clausen era and the current days with Cam Newton and the most diverse power-based system in the league. Kalil isn't your traditional power-blocker at 6' 3" and 399 pounds, but he understands how to use leverage extremely well, and he blocks at the second level as well as anyone in the league. Moreover, he's in charge of the line calls for a very diverse run game, and a passing game that's getting better every year. Kalil should always be on the list of players whose football acumen has allowed them to transcend their perceived physical limitations.
The NFL’s best centers, No. 2: Mike Pouncey, Dolphins
With the addition of Laremy Tunsil, Miami now has four first-round picks on its line, and Pouncey is probably the best of the bunch. Despite foot and hip injuries, the fifth-year man from Florida continued his overall excellence when he was able to play, and he'll be a key part of a redefined offense under new head coach Adam Gase. In 788 snaps last season, he allowed just half a sack and had just two penalties. There are few at his position in the NFL who combine drive-blocking and movement into such a formidable package.
The NFL’s best centers, No. 1: Travis Frederick, Cowboys
Remember when Dallas took Frederick with the 31st overall pick in the 2013 draft and everybody thought it was ridiculous? Nobody's laughing now. Frederick has become the most reliable and technically sound center in the NFL, and the epicenter of the league's finest offensive line. In 1,027 snaps last season, per Football Outsiders' charting database, he amassed just six blown blocks, allowed one sack, and just two hurries. Frederick has always been a mauler in the zone run game, but it's his development as a pass protector that puts him at the top of this list.