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Ravens draft preview: Will general manager Eric DeCosta finally look to center in first round?

The Ravens have never selected a pure center higher than 92nd overall in the NFL draft.

They’ve used first-round picks on guards and tackles, inside linebackers and edge rushers, running backs and quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends. But never on the specialist at the heart of the offensive line who calls out signals and snaps the ball.

Could that change in 2019?

The Ravens don’t need a center, strictly speaking. Matt Skura is an affordable, durable player who proved he could handle the position in his first chance as a full-time starter last season. But Skura did not assert himself as a punishing blocker in the Ravens’ new run-dominated offense, grading as just the 25th-best run blocker among centers who played at least 300 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

More importantly, perhaps, the 2019 draft class is unusually deep in high-end centers, with Garrett Bradbury of North Carolina State and Erik McCoy of Texas A&M both projected as possible first-round picks and Elgton Jenkins of Mississippi State and Michael Jordan of Ohio State pegged as second-day prospects.

NFL Network draft analyst Lance Zierlein rated interior offensive line the third strongest position in this year’s class and cited centers with “instant-impact potential” as a major reason.

Many draft pundits say that if the Ravens stick to their right-player, right-spot philosophy under new general manager Eric DeCosta, their best option at No. 22 overall might in fact be a center.

DeCosta did nothing to dispel that notion when asked about the center class at the Ravens’ predraft luncheon earlier this month.

“I think it’s a really important position. … But there aren’t a lot of guys every single year that you just covet,” he said. “Now, this year, it’s a little different. I can think of three or four centers in the draft that have a chance to be first-round, second-round picks.”

As DeCosta suggested, it’s fairly common for the first round to pass without a single center being selected. Just eight went that high in the 10 drafts between 2009 and 2018.

It’s also noteworthy that many of the greatest centers in NFL history, from Jim Otto to Mike Webster to Dwight Stephenson to Kevin Mawae, were selected in later rounds.

But teams that have targeted centers in the second half of the first round have often been rewarded with excellent value, such as six-time Pro Bowl selection Alex Mack (21st overall in 2009), seven-time Pro Bowl selection Maurkice Pouncey (18th overall in 2010), four-time Pro Bowl selection Travis Frederick (31st overall in 2013) and immediate starter Ryan Kelly (18th overall in 2016).

It’s not hard to understand why top center prospects are often picked below their peers at tackle and guard. There aren’t as many of them to begin with, and they’re unlikely to be pitted one-on-one against the most feared opposing defenders. With the modern emphasis on passing, mammoth, light-footed tackles are seen as the key to countering defensive pressure. Mobile, versatile guards in the mold of Marshal Yanda have also pushed their way to the upper reaches of the first round in recent years (think Quenton Nelson of Notre Dame, who went sixth overall last season and was immediately named All-Pro for the Indianapolis Colts).

Even the most athletic, refined centers have to wait longer on draft day, despite data demonstrating that inside pressure is more disruptive than outside pressure for elite quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

None of the 2019 centers are projected to flip this dynamic on its head, but scouts are unusually excited about them, especially the polished, powerful Bradbury, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s best college center last season.

“I think Bradbury is really, really good,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout. “I think he’s going to be a Pro Bowler and start for the next 10 years. I really like McCoy; I think he’s a good player. But Bradbury is the one I see as a unique talent.”

The 6-foot-4, 303-pound McCoy ran the fastest 40-yard dash (4.89 seconds) of any offensive lineman at the NFL scouting combine, and his combination of power and balance made him a rock for three years at Texas A&M. He can also play guard, which is part of the reason ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projected McCoy as the Ravens’ first-round selection in one of his mock drafts.

Jeremiah said the top centers will go quickly in this draft because they’re good players but also because there’s “zero depth” behind them at the position.

The Ravens seem likely to pick at least one interior offensive lineman in this year’s draft, given new offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s talk of building an overpowering front to clear the way for quarterback Lamar Jackson and company. But they could just as easily pick a potential starter at left guard, the spot along the line where they were least settled in 2018.

We know they’re willing to pick a guard in the first round as they did with Ben Grubbs in 2007, but they’d break new ground if they snag either Bradbury or McCoy as a potential upgrade over Skura. The only center the Ravens ever picked in the first three rounds was Casey Rabach in 2001. He became a solid starter in Baltimore before spending the bulk of his career with the Washington Redskins. The two most enduring centers in team history were Mike Flynn, an undrafted free agent, and Matt Birk, a veteran free-agent signing.

Are Bradbury and McCoy good enough to prompt a sea change, especially when the team needs to fill other substantial holes at wide receiver, edge rusher and middle linebacker?

Like DeCosta, Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz had nothing but good things to say about this year’s center class.

“The one thing when looking at the top guys in the draft — without naming any names — they’re all competitive,” Hortiz said. “Every one of those guys that you look at on film, they get after it. They’re smart, intelligent, physical football players that are very, very competitive.”

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