Minus some positional instability during the 2013 season, which I covered during the offseason positional analysis, the gist of the center positional analysis is basically the same as the gist of the guards positional analysis from yesterday. Namely, there’s a clear-cut starter, said clear starter’s play in 2013 produced mixed results with some straightforward areas of improvement for 2014, and depending how much said starter improves from 2013, the position has a chance to be anywhere from maybe pretty good to pretty average in 2014.
That starter is last year’s fourth-round pick Brian Schwenke. He took over in Week 7 against the 49ers; I covered his play that game in some detail, which was an expected mix of good and bad. He played very well the next week against the Rams, especially in the run game. He then picked up a high-ankle sprain against the Jaguars the next week that knocked him out of the game early and cost him the next game as well. He returned the week after and played through the ankle injury the rest of the season, but it seemed obvious he was playing through the ankle injury and not completely healthy.
That sort of ankle sprain can be a nasty lingering injury. Between that and the hamstring injury in training camp that cost him any shot he had at starting when the season began, it would be nice to see him stay healthy. He didn’t have any injury issues in college, starting his final three seasons without major incident, so there’s no history there. Unfortunately, the injury makes it hard to judge his rookie year. As with Jake Locker, there’s a small but existent sample of good play amidst a fair bit of less good stuff. As with Colin McCarthy last year, though, we’ve seen a lingering ankle sprain can sometimes be used to hand-wave away what ends up looking a lot like a lack of development in a young player’s game. As I noted with Chance Warmack yesterday, this could be a big offseason for Schwenke in terms of advancement in technique and maybe some work on his body shape; I haven’t seen the same discussion of that with Schwenke I have of Warmack, but there’s a difference between a fourth-round pick from Cal and a first-round pick from Alabama when it comes to how closely they get covered. To the extent that was a priority for the Titans this offseason, the ankle surgery that kept him off his feet for a chunk of the offseason could have been a setback. Consider Schwenke’s level of play a third-level “X factor” when it comes to projecting the 2014 Titans offense.
It seems quite likely that Chris Spencer will again be the primary interior offensive line backup. He filled in capably for Schwenke in the time he missed last year and can also play guard. As Ruston Webster noted towards the beginning of training camp, you monitor where a 32-year-old player like Spencer is to make sure his body is ready for another NFL season. Once that concern is assuaged, and I haven’t seen anything that tells me the Titans consider it an issue, you give Spencer enough reps to make sure he’s ready for his backup role and feel free to do things like give Taylor Lewan reps at first-team left guard in Andy Levitre’s absence.
I covered Tyler Horn, listed as a C/G, and Eric Olsen, listed as a G/C, in yesterday’s guards post. The other center on the roster is rookie undrafted free agent Gabe Ikard. Ikard is listed at third-string on the newly-released unofficial depth chart, behind Schwenke and Spencer. If you read the UDFAs post, you know everything I know about Ikard, which is very little. His upside is likely the practice squad to develop NFL-level strength. With Spencer aging every year (unlike like you and me and everybody else!), there could be a spot there for a reserve developmental offensive lineman.
Brian Schwenke has the chance to be a very solid NFL center. He just needs to play like one and show the level of growth you hope for in the jump from his first to second season at a technique-heavy position like offensive line. With Chris Spencer around as an “in case of need break glass” veteran, there are not worries at backup.