Following up on the prior post on the guards, we conclude the offensive side of our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2013 regular season with a look at the centers.
While the Titans will have two new starters at guard, we know who those men will be barring injury and other unexpected things happening. The man manning the pivot position, though, is a question that at least has the potential of, well, pivoting in a different direction. The likeliest result, at least in my eyes, is the Titans will in fact have continuity at the center position from 2012 to 2013, but 2014 will bring a new starter at the position in the body of the man drafted this offseason.
The returning starter is of course Fernando Velasco. Forced into the lineup when incumbent starter Eugene Amano tore his triceps last training camp, he played every snap save one, most of it in the middle of the offensive line but also a bit at left guard as part of the injury-created late-season shuffling. As Andrew noted in last preseason's analysis, Velasco always stood out as being better than the annual parade of camp bodies, but it was never clear if he was good enough to be a reliable starter. My evaluation of his play in the offseason positional analysis was equivocal.
Center is the easiest place in the offensive line to hide a player. Aside from Parcells-style 3-4 teams that tend to play with a 0-technique nose tackle who lines head up on the center virtually every play, it's generally not just possible but fairly straightforward to help the center. What's more important is that the center be a highly trustworthy player-he is almost invariably involved in making the line calls and often plays a key role in adapting to dangerous interior pressure, including stunts, twists, and delayed blitzes from non-linemen in addition to having to properly make good snaps every single time for 65 or so plays per game. Centers who cannot do that become guards.
That the Titans trusted Velasco to play center last year and still have him involved in the center battle this year is the best thing he has going for him. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains was asked about the center battle at his Friday media session. In one way, Loggains' praise for him was pretty equivocal-as I'll cover in their respective sections, he praised Turner and Schwenke for traits in their playing style. His Velasco comments were, well, "Fernando we know." The Titans last year learned Velasco's strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. What struck me because it hit on my theme, though, is that knowing Velasco was described as a "big comfort level for us and Jake."
Velasco is not and will never be an exceptional center, but I believe the Titans think he can be an acceptable one. I believe in a must-win 2013 their level of comfort with him and his demonstrated consistency make him the odds-on favorite to win the starting job at center. In the event he does not start at center, he will be the primary interior backups.
While it may be Velasco's job in 2013, something is probably wrong if Brian Schwenke is not the starting center in 2014, and you can't count him out for 2013 either. As I noted in my post-draft review, the two people whose offensive line evaluations I trust, Ben Muth and Lance Zierlein, had Schwenke as their top center in the draft. Greg Cosell indicated he's probably going to start and liked him as a longtime starter, though like all rookies he has some things to work on.
Loggains in Friday's media session praised the same two things the Titans have mentioned virtually every time the Titans have talked Schwenke, namely his size and movement. I was intrigued by what Loggains said in response to a question about whether Schwenke's current hamstring injury could prevent him from competing for a starting spot. Loggains highlighted the third preseason game against Atlanta as the key one, with more gameplanning than the first two games and a dry run for the starters. He indicated there was plenty of time for Schwenke to get healthy, come back, and compete for a spot.
Schwenke will be in the mix to start at center, but because of the hamstring injury I think he'd have to really impress Mike Munchak (and Bruce Matthews) in a short window to win the job. It's possible, but I expect him to be the primary interior line backup this year. He played guard most of his career at Cal, mostly left but also some right, so I'm not specifically worried about his ability to potentially play other positions if need be the way I was with, say, Kevin Matthews.
Rob Turner is the veteran the Titans added from the Rams this offseason. I covered his game in some detail not too long ago. I think he's a good example of my sort of typology distinction at center-far from a great player in a number of respects, but a reliable snapper and pretty good on handling defensive games. He clearly won't sink an offensive line (the tackles did a pretty good job of that for the Rams last year without needing any help from the interior of the offensive line, thank you very much).
Loggains noted that Turner was not the most talented player that's come through the building, but he might be the nastiest. Considering the Titans have praised Schwenke for that, that seems to be a priority, and Loggains indicated Turner is a leader that way. Bruce Matthews in an offseason interview went into the Wayback Machine and pulled out a Kevin Donnalley (last season with the team 1997, though he started in the NFL until 2003) comparison for his hijinks and playing with an edge.
I doubt Turner has much of a chance of starting at center. I don't think he's clearly better than Velasco, and if the Titans want to move Velasco out of there it should be Schwenke's job unless he's just not ready to handle it. As I said, I think Turner can be a good enough center. More likely, though, he was insurance against not drafting a center. Based on his experience playing (left) guard last year, I think he's likely to stick behind Velasco/Schwenke as the second interior backup. As I noted in my breakdown of him, though, I'm not sure he's the best right guard option. In his defense, though, I think he's the best backup right guard option currently on the roster. Picking a 53, I have him as the second reserve interior lineman as much by default as anything else, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Titans look for an upgrade over him as a pure right guard backup.
I covered Chris Spencer in the guards analysis. He might technically be part of the center battle, since he's played there in the past, but my read is he's the fourth option here.
If the guards are good enough, it won't matter that Fernando Velasco is just an acceptable center. If the guards aren't good enough, Fernando Velasco being an acceptable center won't matter much, the same way it didn't matter much last year. Brian Schwenke, your time will come, though I'm sure nobody would mind if you forced your time to come earlier than I think it will.