History shows Steelers can afford to wait on a center in the 2024 NFL Draft

Pittsburgh needs a center, but history shows they shouldn't rush to take one in the first round.

Oregon offensive lineman Jackson Powers-Johnson (OL58)
Oregon offensive lineman Jackson Powers-Johnson (OL58) / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have had an impactful start to free agency, but the lack of moves at center has many fans understandably concerned. The team cut starter Mason Cole following a horrible second season with the team, and the cupboard is pretty bare on the roster. This has led many to speculate that a center needs to be the first-round pick for the team this year.

While using their first pick for, likely, the top center in the class is fine if the team deems that the best value, many fans are speaking as if this is an absolute. Their argument? The dreaded “he won’t be there” when the team picks in the second round.

I understand that fans will want to secure an upgrade at center after poor play there over the majority of the past three seasons. They also don’t want the team to scramble to fill the need with the likes of a Kendrick Green, but acting like every good center will be off the board before pick 52 is asinine.

I decided to crunch some numbers to see just how dire this situation is. I looked back at the past ten drafts and compiled every center/guard-center hybrid taken in the first three rounds to see where the averages lie. The results were as expected, and I compiled a brief overview in this Twitter thread for you to reference.

What does the center class look like for Steelers?

Let’s set the stage properly here. While there are some differing opinions on this class, the general consensus is that the most pro-ready prospect is Jackson Powers Johnson out of Oregon. Graham Barton is a less conventional prospect given his lack of center snaps in college, but many expect him to move there as a pro. You could argue one way or another for either player as the potential first center off the board, and both are viewed as late-first-round picks potentially.

Behind them is Zach Frazier, who is also garnering some first-round buzz. Sedrick Van Pran is the last conventional starting option with the lowest ceiling and most scheme dependency. Most fans want one of the top three names with Van Pran serving as an emergency option if the draft doesn’t go right.

So, do the Steelers need to take a center with their first pick? If they don’t, will they be forced to settle for a lesser option such as Van Pran? The results of this study are pretty clear on this.

What this study shows for the Steelers

Over the past ten years, there have been 37 center-types drafted within the first three rounds of the draft. Of those 37 centers, nearly 60 percent of them were available at pick 52 (Pittsburgh's current second-round spot). The average overall center taken on either day one or two of the draft was roughly pick 60 overall, and you have an average of 3.7 centers go within the first two days of the draft.

Even more interesting is that over the past ten years, only seven total centers have been drafted in the first round. Only once, in 2018, has more than one center gone in the first round. This takes into account players like Cameron Erving and Cesar Ruiz, who fell more into the hybrid center group.

Besides Billy Price, every center taken in the first round has been an elite athlete. Using RAS scores, a metric compiling athletic and physical testing and comparing it to benchmarks at the position, Tyler Linderbaum had the worst score with am 8.8/10. The only center currently registering a score for this class is Van Pran, as the others haven’t tested enough to qualify.

From this list, we can also take the average spot that the first, second, and third center was taken on average. Usually, the first center is off the board outside of the first round (pick 32.5), the second is off the board right around pick 55, and the third center goes at pick 68. That lines up well for the Steelers picking at 52nd overall.

Lastly, you look over the names that have been taken after pick 52 and you see some notable names stick out. John Micheal Schmitz and Creed Humphrey both went after that pick in their respective drafts. Both were widely viewed as the top center prospects in the class, and both fell considerably in the draft. Humphrey was garnering late first-round hype as well, but he nearly fell out of the second round of the 2021 draft.

What we can apply to the 2024 center class

Going back to the upcoming center class, I can’t imagine three centers going in the first round. You can make the argument for Barton and Powers Johnson, but Frazier being injured and in the next tier of prospect makes him more of a day-two option, and one that I think should easily be available at or after pick 52.

The only way I see two centers going in the first round is if a team views Barton more as a guard or tackle as opposed to where most are projecting him. That would trim the overall top centers in the class by one and cause Powers Johnson to be the de facto top name.

You could also see some of the deeper positions get a run in the latter half of the first round. Tackles, cornerbacks, and receivers could further push this position down draft boards. That furthers the argument that a viable center will be available in the second round for the Steelers.

If I had to guess, I genuinely think that Barton will be the only center type to go in the first round. Powers Johnson will slip as has been the trend for the top pure centers in a class. He may not make it to pick 52, but it could make him a viable trade-up candidate.

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As well, Frazier could be the consolation prize for the team at pick 52. No matter what, don’t buy into the hype that all of the top centers are going in the first round. History shows that the Steelers should have options in round two.