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Preston: Even if Ravens have a rookie center in their sights, veteran Nick Mangold would be a good addition

During a visit to training camp last summer, a friend watched center Jeremy Zuttah mess up so much while snapping the ball out of the shotgun that she inquired if the Ravens were conducting some type of fumble drill.

Honestly, it was that type of day. Unfortunately for Zuttah, it was that type of year, which is why the Ravens traded him last month to no man's land, San Francisco, in exchange for a 12-spot jump in the sixth round of the draft.

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Centers are like punters, long snappers and holders. No one really cares about them until they mess up or the team has to find a replacement. The Ravens need one, which is why every one is interested in the team's negotiations with former New York Jets center Nick Mangold. Otherwise, the Ravens might need to use the draft to find a new center.

Mangold, an 11-year veteran, is a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who is on the downside of his career. At his peak, he was a moose inside who didn't need help from guards to push around big nose tackles.

But last year he missed eight games with an ankle injury, and afterward Jets coach Todd Bowles decided it was time to say goodbye to players he thought were past their primes, including Mangold and cornerback Darrelle Revis.

So, is he worth a risk for the Ravens? Absolutely.

But the Ravens don't need to overpay Mangold. In fact, they should sweat him down, because at this point in free agency no teams appear to be clamoring over him. If he were still that good, he would have been signed during the opening salvo of free agency.

The Ravens signing Mangold would be comparable to them grabbing Matt Birk several years ago. Birk left the Minnesota Vikings after a stellar 10 years there, and then played for the Ravens from 2009 to 2012 before retiring. By the time he got to the Ravens, Birk was on the downside, but coach John Harbaugh got enough out of him.

If Birk practiced once a week during the regular season, he would have started on game day. Birk struggled at times with big nose tackles, but he was effective and won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012.

The Ravens have missed the playoffs in three of the past four years, but they have more appeal than the Jets. Mangold does have some leverage, though. The Ravens' two top choices to replace Zuttah —Ryan Jensen and John Urschel — are stopgaps. Urschel is smart but too small, and Jensen has size but lacks athletic ability.

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The Ravens are caught in a tough situation because the two top-rated centers in the draft, LSU's Ethan Pocic and Ohio State's Pat Elflein, are projected as third-round picks, which means they probably couldn't succeed as starters right away.

Both are supposed to be quick, physical, have good hand placement and can make snaps in the shotgun formation. But Pocic is 6 feet 7, which might make it hard to get leverage on short, bulky nose tackles. Elflein reportedly gets lazy with fundamentals.

What are the Ravens looking for in a potential rookie center?

"Obviously, snapping is key, both from under center and then shotgun snaps is vital," said Joe Hortiz, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "Especially as the league is spreading out, we are playing more gun snaps, so that is very important.

"You just look at a guy's intelligence, his ability to assess things, adjust things, communicate along the line of scrimmage. You can find out about some of that in the fall, even if he is not playing center, but I think putting him through workouts and spending time with the individual really helps."

A lot of teams find offensive linemen taken in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. But in those situations, there has to be a developmental program as far as weight training and coaching. Also, there has to be a starter in place for a year or two.

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The Ravens don't have that luxury. Zuttah, a three-year starter with the Ravens, not only struggled physically last year, but mentally. He didn't always seem on the same page with Flacco on the snap count. The Ravens appeared slow reading and employing pass-blocking schemes, which is the center's responsibility.

Maybe that changes if they get Mangold. Until last season, he started and played in every game of his career. He can pull, and has a nasty attitude. He'd fit in well with right guard Marshal Yanda, and could help second-year left guard Alex Lewis.

Maybe Mangold isn't what he used to be, but he is better than what is there now: nothing. And maybe he can hold up until the Ravens get another center ready after the draft.

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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