As the New York Giants training camp gets set to start, we can’t help but look ahead who should make the team’s final roster.
Right now it’s clear that despite making 10 draft selections and a number of free agent additions, there are still positions of weakness along the Giants’ roster — and some of them are at some pretty important spots at that. Perhaps the most glaring is the center position. As it stands now, there are four players on the roster “in the mix,” as Joe Judge said, to become the Giants starting center: Spencer Pulley, Nick Gates, Shane Lemieux, and perhaps even undrafted free agent Kyle Murphy
None of us know the future, but it’s fair to assume Pulley is the odds-on favorite. While the Giants might like Gates and Lemieux, both would be transitioning to center from the guard position. That transition is much easier said than done, considering the athletic and mental demands of playing center at the NFL level. Likewise, Gates, Lemieux and Murphy are trying to make the transition in the most disrupted offseason in memory and without the benefit of a preseason. The fact that Lemieux and Murphy are rookies makes that transition even harder.
All of that together makes it seem likely that Pulley, an experienced veteran who has started in the NFL as a center, will likely get the nod.
The problem there is that Pulley hasn’t been very good. Offensive line specialist Brandon Thorn released his annual preseason positional rankings, and rated Pulley at the bottom of his lowest tier of starting centers (not counting rookies).
Centers ranked in tiers heading into 2020:— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) July 22, 2020
But what if the Giants’ starting center isn’t currently on the roster?
One of the side effects of the loss of preseason is that the NFL won’t have game tape on fringe players. That could make general managers more willing to cut players who lose out on the numbers game but they would be afraid would be claimed off of waivers in a normal year. Without current tape to go by, GMs might be hesitant to make waiver claims during final cuts. After all, if a waiver claim is successful, teams have to add that player to their final roster, and GMs might not be willing to risk a valuable roster spot on a player with whom they aren’t familiar.
But that could also present opportunities to improve weak positions for a GM willing to roll the dice.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some centers who could find themselves on their respective teams’ roster bubble and would likely be improvements over Spencer Pulley, or offer good developmental opportunities. Rather than look at free agents still on the market, like Justin Britt or Daniel Kilgore, these are players who are currently on teams, but could find themselves on the waiver wire when final cuts are made before the regular season.
Joe Looney (Dallas Cowboys)
Looney might not be a long-term solution to the center position, but he might be the player to watch here. With Connor McGovern apparently ready to take over for the recently retired Travis Frederick and the Cowboys drafting Tyler Biadasz out of Wisconsin, Looney seems to be on the outside looking in.
What makes Looney intriguing is that both Jason Garrett and Marc Colombo are familiar with Looney after coaching him for the last several years. He is also familiar with them, starting all 16 games for the Cowboys in 2018 while Frederick missed the season as he dealt with Guillain-Barre syndrome.
It is no sure thing that Looney will be cut. He is a valuable depth piece at both guard and center for Dallas, but there might not be room on their final roster with a number of young players at both positions.
If Dallas’ hand is forced, Looney presents a natural fit and a clear upgrade for the Giants.
Nick Easton (New Orleans Saints)
The Saints signed Easton to a four-year, $24 million contract to be back in March of 2019 to be their starting center. How is it, then that he could be on this list? Last year the Saints drafted Texas A&M center Erik McCoy, who stepped in and played very well as a rookie, likely cementing his hold on the job for the foreseeable future. Then this past year the Saints drafted Michigan center-guard Cesar Ruiz in the first round, and he looks set to seize a starting job as the left guard, with the versatility to step in at center if the need arises.
The Harvard alum has bounced around the NFL since signing with the Baltimore Ravens as a UDFA. He was impressive in his first preseason before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers, who traded him to the Minnesota Vikings, before he landed his contract with the Saints. Easton played well for the Saints in 2019, playing in 10 games and starting six at left guard. There he committed just two penalties and allowed a single sack.
Also figuring into the equation is the apparent push for the Saints to acquire EDGE Jadeveon Clowney. The Saints are up against the salary cap, but Easton’s contract is cuttable at this point. Per OverTheCap, Easton would only cost them $2 million in dead money over the next three seasons, compared to nearly $20 million in cap savings. While Easton may be a versatile and potentially valuable backup, that kind of cap number is a lot to pay for a non-starter.
While Easton might be more of a risk than Looney, he has flashed enough impressive play that he could be a gem in need of a chance to shine.
Patrick Mekari (Baltimore Ravens)
Like Looney, Mekari is a player with starting experience and a valuable backup who could find himself squeezed off the roster by the numbers game.
Mekari replaced starting center Matt Skura when he dislocated his knee in last year’s week 12 win over the Los Angeles Rams, and played well over the remainder of the season and into the playoffs. That should secure him a spot on the final roster, as there is no guarantee that Skura will be healthy to start the season. However, there is also a numbers game at work, as the Ravens have 13 interior offensive linemen and only three dedicated offensive tackles on their roster. If another of their young linemen — such as rookies Ben Bredeson out of Michigan, or Sean Pollard out of Clemson — show the ability to step in at center, they might be forced to let Mekari go.
If so, Mekari presents a young (22) player with starting experience and the upside to improve.
Javon Patterson (Indianapolis Colts)
Patterson is a player right on the roster bubble for the Colts. In some projections he’s on the outside looking in, and in others he makes the final roster. It might come down to how the coaching staff feels about rookie Danny Pinter and whether he can cross-train at guard and center.
Patterson played both guard and center at Ole Miss, and has shown enough athleticism and football IQ to play center. Patterson isn’t a mauling lineman, instead using a good understanding of angles and high football IQ to put himself in the best position to win. He missed the 2019 season after suffering a torn ACL in June of 2019 but he has 42 starts under his belt at Ole Miss, where he started 35 consecutive games at left guard, center and right guard.
He is a bit undersized, but has enough bulk to play center between Will Hernandez and Kevin Zeitler. More importantly, Patterson has quick feet and good movement skills in space, which are crucial for a center. Patterson might not be able to beat out Spencer Pulley right now, but the 2019 seventh-round pick could be an option as a true center for the future.
Patrick Morris (Denver Broncos)
The Broncos suddenly have a fierce competition on the interior of their offensive line. The additions of free agent Graham Glasgow and third-round selection Lloyd Cushenberry III likely solidify the interior of their offensive line leaving former UDFA’s Morris and Nico Falah to battle it out for a back-up spot. Falah has experience at both guard and center, which could give him the edge in the competition.
Morris is much more of a developmental player than the players who appear earlier on the list. He was a 3-time academic All-American at TCU before signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent. Morris is a bit undersized, but is impressively powerful, maing the 2016 “All-Freak” team with massive squat (720 pounds) and bench press (500 pounds, 37 reps at 225) numbers to go with good agility (5.09 40-yard dash, 7.34 three-cone drill) and explosiveness (9-foot-9 broad jump, 35-inch vertical leap) scores.
Morris has a solid chance to make the Broncos’ final roster, but they could also hope to sneak him to the practice squad. If so, the Giants could pounce to add a high-upside player for the future.