Dec 16, 2012; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack (55) during a game against the Washington Redskins at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Washington won 38-21. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
It is no secret that Alex Mack is the best center in the AFC North. The desire for certain areas of the national media to sell Maurkice Pouncey as a superstar simply by being the center of the Pittsburgh Steelers seems to have finally receded enough and sanity has returned to the realm. As solid Mack has been, he would probably be the first to say that he could have been better last year and expects to be great this year. Mack was called for nine penalties this past year, which is something he will want to work to reduce if not eliminate this coming year. For comparison’s sake, Mack had one penalty called against him as a rookie. More consistency at the guard spots flanking him would certainly help but he needs to play better. The other question facing the center position is who steps up should Mack get hurt this year.
The Browns have the pieces in place to be an extremely good and efficient offensive line this year, but in order for that to happen, Mack is going to have to play up to his ability and his own standards. He has played every game since he was drafted by the Browns as basically the lone quality draft pick made in the Eric Mangini reign as general manager. Mack is entering the final year of his contract but it appears as though the Browns would like to extend him before this season starts and Mack should be entering the prime of his career. The combination of Mack and Joe Thomas has been a fantastic combination since they have been put together and the Browns would be smart to keep it that way. Thomas is already in the midst of a long term deal and Mack will be the next man up on the offensive line to be extended. What makes the Browns offensive line look so promising in addition to the fact it is talented is how young it is as Thomas is the oldest one of the group.
A healthy Trent Richardson will put more pressure on Mack and the interior of the offensive line to perform, but while Mack needs to get to playing the brand of football he knows he is capable, getting the guard situation sorted out will help. Continuity is always an underrated part of line play so getting John Greco sorted out as to which side he will play on as well as whether it will be Jason Pinkston at left guard or Shawn Lauvao at right guard will only help Mack. He has experience with all of them, so just getting figured out as to who the starting five will be should allow them to get more comfortable for the preseason and the regular season. Regardless of when Mack gets his contract extension, he is expected to be among the best centers in the league, which is something he already knows and is striving to be.
Should the Browns get unlucky and be hit with an injury, the next man up at center might be Braxston Cave, the undrafted rookie from Notre Dame. Cave enters camp coming out of South Bend with a ton of college experience and is hoping to land a roster spot to be able to learn behind Mack. While it is not ideal to have a pure center as the backup, if Cave is good enough or the competition is not, he could be the best option. The team would like for him to at least be able to play the three interior line spots.
If the Browns were honest, they would probably rather have a player like Jarrod Shaw make the final roster. The reason is simple; he can snap if needed but he has experience at all five spots on the line. Shaw also brings more NFL experience with him as well as more experience with the Browns. In an effort to save roster space, especially when it comes to the active roster on game day, the team is only likely to bring seven, maybe eight offensive linemen. The last thing the team wants to do is bringing a pure center who can do nothing else any more than a team wants to bring a backup right tackle. Versatility is key for depth players and Shaw brings more of it currently.
It would not be terribly surprising for Shaw or someone who can snap the ball as depth that can play multiple spots while trying to stash a player like Cave on the practice squad. In that scenario, they can bring Shaw in should an injury happen for the remainder of the game. After the game, they could sign Cave off of the practice squad to be a short term stopgap until Mack is back and healthy again, however long that might be.
There is no question involving the starting center position but Mack is going to look to have a better 2013 than he did 2012. Being the best center in the division is great but Mack has higher aspirations, so 2013 is an opportunity for him to prove he is one of the best in the league in addition to the Browns proving their offensive line is no longer potentially great but is actually great. The only intrigue with the center position that is worth keeping an eye on is who they keep to snap the ball just in case Mack gets hurt. Knock on wood, Mack has not missed a start in four years, but depth is always a key and the Browns need it here as much as anywhere else.