Cleveland Browns training camp preview: Center
By Joel W. Cade
The Cleveland Browns are counting on Cameron Erving to solidify the center position after losing Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in free agency.
This is the third installment of a five-part training camp preview of the Cleveland Browns offensive line. Today, we will look at the center position and another candidate for he backup center/swing position.
The Offense: Head coach Hue Jackson has brought a new energy and excitement to the Cleveland Browns. Part of the excitement is the change in offense from the ground and pound to an air attack designed to get the ball quickly into the hands of playmakers. To compliment the air attack is a power run offense that puts more bodies at the point of attack than the defense can defend. Part of making this scheme work is having a dependable center who can set the protections for the passing game and call the correct blocking scheme on runs.
Related: Browns camp preview: Left guard
Center: By far, center is the most complex and, outside of left tackle, the most valuable offensive line position. The left tackle is valuable to protect the quarterback’s blindside, but just as important is the ability to set the pass protections and make changes to blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage. Teams can win without a Pro Bowl left tackle, but without a good center teams will struggle. The center must be able to hold a nose tackle or defensive tackle at the line of scrimmage in pass protection, while also being able to block back on power run schemes. The position is demanding both physically and mentally.
The Browns lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack this past off-season. Mack was a consummate professional who handle the work load mentally and physically. While he struggled the first part of the 2015 season, he eventually returned to form. Anticipating the departure of Mack, the Browns drafted Cameron Erving out of Florida State in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Erving struggled to adjust to the NFL game while being used as a swing lineman as a rookie, and Mack’s departure and Erving’s inexperience leaves the Browns with a question at center.
Cameron Erving: During Erving’s rookie season he played the interior swing position for the Browns. He played left tackle (which he did play in college), left guard, right guard and right tackle. In short, he played every position except the one he was drafted to play. New offensive line coach Hal Hunter has focused on using Erving at center and helping him to settle in. Erving has responded well so far in Organized Team Activities and with training camp starting soon, it will be a make or break camp for Erving in terms of his ability to win a starting center position.
Erving played in a pro-style offense at Florida State with one of the best offensive line coaches in college football in Rick Trickett. So the background and technique are there for him to play center. Unfortunately, Erving was shifted around so much as a rookie that he was never able to learn one position at the NFL level. Also, losing offensive line coach Andy Moeller as the season started put Erving in a bad situation as a rookie.
Related: Browns camp preview: Left tackle
During the upcoming season, Erving is in line to start at center. He has the athleticism and strength of a first-round pick, and his technique will improve as he returns to his natural position and benefits from the knowledge and experience of the new coaching staff. The mental game is where Erving will struggle as he learns how to call protections and change blocking schemes at the NFL level. Expect Erving to play and struggle like a rookie early in the season, but he should improve and by the end of the season be comfortable with his role on the offense.
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After Erving, center is a mess. Normally the interior swing offensive lineman also serves as the backup center. With only one natural center on the roster, the interior swing position could go to a rookie. Of all the scenarios that could play out, having an inexperienced second-year player at center backed up by a rookie is not a good situation.
The solution so far has been to work John Greco at center during OTAs. The last time Greco played center was a disaster after Mack was hurt in 2014. Thinking that Greco would be a long-term solution at center would be a mistake. He may be acceptable as a fill-in player for a game or two, but making him the primary reserve is not a good plan.
The other person taking snaps at center during off-season workouts was Mike Matthews.
Mike Matthews: Mike Matthews is an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M. His playing profile is impressive as he one of three centers from the past draft class to not allow a sack all last season. Matthews has good bloodlines in the NFL, as his father, Bruce, was a Hall of Fame lineman with the Houston Oilers and his uncle, Clay, was a standout linebacker for the Browns.
However, people go undrafted for a reason. It is hard to say someone who is 6-foot-2 and 294 pounds is small, but that is small for a center in the NFL. (By comparison, Erving is 6-foot-5 and 313 pounds.) Matthews will need to put on some weight and get stronger if he wants to handle NFL defensive tackles and nose tackles. Even then, length will be an issue he will need to overcome in order to be effective.
So far in the off-season Matthews has been an afterthought. Hal Hunter stated he has been working at center given the state of the position. As Matthews has yet to work at guard, do not expect him to make the team as a swing interior lineman, but he should make the practice squad as insurance for Erving. Matthews is a project who may develop into an interior swing offensive lineman.
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Center is a major concern for the Browns and everything depends on Erving making the leap from backup to effective starter in his second season. Given Erving’s inexperience, expect the Browns to continue having Greco as the experienced backup center.
Let’s hope Erving stays healthy and figures out the complexities of center or it will be long season for the Browns.