Eagles Must Find Right Fit At Center
By Lance Epstein
One of the most overlooked positions in all of football is the center position. A center anchors the offensive line, calls out blitz protection, snaps the ball to the quarterback and has to block the nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. The Eagles learned this the hard way last year about the significance of having an elite center.
In 2009, the Eagles and fans took for granted the talent and assets that center Jamaal Jackson brought to the table. Before Jackson's week 16 ACL tear, the Eagles offense was one of the best in the franchise history as they accumulated 429 points. Furthermore, the team looked poised to make a deep run into the playoffs and even clinch a first-round bye.
Regrettably, his replacement Nick Cole was overmatched by Pro-Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys in the team's final two games of the season. Additionally, Jackson's costly knee injury opened up another can of worms, which is what does the future hold at the position.
While Jackson is busting his hump to make it back in time for the Eagles week one matchup against the Green Bay Packers, it is unlikely he will be ready in time for the September 12 kickoff. In fact, he is probably going to begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP). Ultimately, this means he will not be eligible to play until week six of the NFL season.
Of course, the Eagles could have upgraded the potentially volatile position via the draft, but instead they opted to go with what they currently have on the roster.
As expected, Cole will enter the season as the starter at center. Even though he proved last season he was better at guard, the Eagles believe with a full offseason of training and seasoning he can handle the load.
"Nick [Cole] is the starting center as long as Jamaal [Jackson] is not in there," head coach Andy Reid said.
However like offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg stated in his post-draft minicamp press conference, the team still has stiff competition at the center position. So Cole will be in a dogfight to keep that starting spot.
"Well we have three men working there. Really four. So there is great competition there," Mornhinweg said. "That is a important position on any football team and we got to solidify that. I am including Nick [Cole] in there, taking a snap or two. Great competition and that will be an ongoing situation with that competition. I do believe we have three maybe even four players that have a opportunity there."
One of the players that will be pushing Cole for some major playing time and even took snaps with the first-team offense during the three-day minicamp was third-year veteran Mike McGlynn.
When the Eagles decided to draft McGlynn out of Pittsburgh in the fourth-round of the 2008 NFL Draft, they envisioned using his versatility in the same way that they utilize Cole’s flexibility at right guard and center. However, McGlynn has a much bigger frame than Cole at 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds and possibly even more upside.
Still, McGlynn has never even stepped onto the playing field during a regular season game. Furthermore, he has only been activated for one game his entire career.
Although, McGlynn feels his athleticism and skills make him a natural fit for the position. He also looks forward to the opportunity that has been presented to him in trying to step-in for Jackson, a player who has started an astonishing 63 of 64 games for the Eagles.
"It's a great opportunity for me and I'm excited about it," McGlynn said. "It's a great opportunity and these opportunities are very few in the NFL. To get an opportunity to win a position when a guy goes down like Jamaal, opportunity rises and you've got to make the best of it.
"I feel like center has always been a position that came natural to me. I think in the future in my career I'll be more of a center. The only position I don't feel comfortable at is left tackle."
Yet, the fans are still worried especially trusting a guy that has never really been asked to play the position all throughout college or has never faced a first string defense.
Certainly, there is an alternative that has constantly been mentioned over the course of the offseason. A second-year player named A.Q. Shipley as been gaining a lot of momentum.
Shipley played four-years at Penn State, is a natural center and even earned All-American honors. Unfortunately, there is a supposed downside to him and one, which saw him, fall to the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
The main reason he was not selected until the seventh round by the Pittsburgh Steelers was due to his short 6-foot-1 frame along with his short arms; both of which are not ideal for a NFL caliber center.
In spite of that Mornhinweg feels he has the strength and size become a very good player in the league once he learns the system.
"He is not as tall as some, but he has size," Mornhinweg said. "You see his biceps, he has been doing some curls. His arms are big. I am excited and I will be really excited to see him in fall camp. I think he has a opportunity to make this football team and help us. We'll see into that, into training camp, he is in a learning process."
Another potential problem to this idea is that he spent the entire 2009 season on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad before signing with the Eagles in mid-January.
On the other hand, Shipley explained that he is very comfortable in the Eagles offense. Especially considering the club runs almost the same type of zone-blocking scheme he did in college.
"I enjoy the zone [blocking] scheme for the running part of it," Shipley said. "And the pass scheme is very similar to what I ran at Penn State. So I'm very comfortable with the situation."
Even more of a reason that he could crack his way into the starting lineup is due to him being a fierce and nasty competitor. NFL Network's Mike Mayock (a draft and talent evaluator) truly believes he is an Eagles-type of player and will be tough to keep out once he gets in there.
"I think he can be a starting center in the NFL," Mayock said. "The Eagles like the big guys. He's more of an intelligent, scrappy, short-armed, smaller, undersized guy. But with an offensive line like the Eagles that has so much movement and people playing different positions, I think they need a guy in the middle who takes charge. And I think Shipley is that kind of guy.
"He's a battler. He's tough as nails. If the Eagles give him a chance, I think they'll have trouble getting him out of the lineup."
While Shipley has not taken the field for a single snap like McGlynn, which is a cause for concern, he had the opportunity consistently go up against one of the better 3-4 defenses in the league last year during practice. More importantly, he demonstrated during those practices that he could go one-on-one with premiere nose tackle Casey Hampton and hold his own. A thing he would be asked to do against Ratliff and Albert Haynesworth this upcoming season.
"I felt really comfortable last year practicing against it. Especially going up against Casey every day, and those linebackers there," Shipley said. "You're going to get used to it. You're going to get familiar with it. At the end of the year, I felt pretty comfortable blocking that 3-4 and going up against guys of that caliber."
Besides the three main competitors for the position, there is another possible diamond in the rough. The virtually unheard of player in the mix for the center position is Dallas Reynolds.
Reynolds (6-4, 314) is entering his third season in the NFL out of BYU. As a cougar, he played in 50 games, where he saw action at all five positions along the offensive line positions. By being able to play every position has his stock is on the rise with the team.
While he can play anywhere along the line, his best and most natural position is at center. As a senior in 2008, he earned first-team All-Mountain West honors as the team's starting center. Just because fans have not heard of him, does not mean they should take him lightly.
Regardless of who wins the battle, the Eagles open up the season in just four short months and three of their first five opponents play a 3-4 defensive scheme. That means whoever is lining up at center better be prepared to make an impact right away. The Eagles cannot afford to have a giant question mark to linger into the regular season especially with a young quarterback in Kevin Kolb taking over the offense. In addition a wrong move could lead to a costly injury to or create more turnovers by their young quarterback.
Despite the fact the team should try to resolve the center position soon-rather-than-later, Reid and Mornhinweg will let the foursome settle it in the heat of August at training camp.