Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement makes center a priority for Steelers in NFL Draft | #retirement | #elderly | #seniors
Based on numerous factors — age, declining skills and statistics, and a late-season fade among them — changes were expected along the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line in the offseason.
Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement put his position front and, well, center.
When Pouncey hung up his cleats in February after 11 seasons, it removed the most decorated player from the Steelers’ line. In each of his nine healthy seasons, Pouncey earned a Pro Bowl nod at center, and he was a two-time first-team All-Pro.
Pouncey’s absence, and the Steelers’ inability to fill the vacancy in free agency, puts an onus on the organization to select a center early in the NFL Draft. B.J. Finney was brought back on a one-year contract, and fellow former undrafted free agent J.C. Hassenauer remains on the roster, but that won’t lessen the Steelers’ desire to upgrade the position with a college prospect.
Interior offensive line traditionally doesn’t contain the same bevy of prospects as tackle, and this year is no exception.
“It’s not a great group in terms of high-end guys,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.
The chance of a center going in the first round was hindered when Alabama’s Landon Dickerson tore his ACL in the SEC championship game. The Steelers might not be willing to gamble on Dickerson in the first round, hoping he might still be around when the No. 55 pick arises on Day 2.
“He’s almost just a perfect Steeler,” Jeremiah said. “He is physical and nasty. He’s just fun to watch. He’s a taller guy (6-foot-6, 333 pounds). We’ve seen the Steelers coming off a pretty good run here with a tall center, so he’d be a great fit provided he could be OK with the medical stuff.”
Dickerson also was dogged by injuries before he transferred to Alabama from Florida State, so an early-round selection carries some risk for teams. Dickerson doesn’t appear to be concerned.
“I’m right on schedule, and I’m right where I want to be,” Dickerson said at Alabama’s pro day last month. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey, who is 6-4, 301 pounds, put up 29 reps on the bench press at his school’s pro day, showing the strength necessary to play in the pivot. He’s also a second-round possibility for the Steelers.
“You want a center who can come in and be in control of the offensive line,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. “I think he can do that. He’s strong in the upper body, and he can handle the nose tackle. He’s really good in the run game.”
The latter trait could give Humphrey the nod given that the Steelers are adamant about improving their 32nd-ranked rush offense. Humphrey also brings versatility.
“I’m not just a center,” he said at Oklahoma’s pro day. “I want to be on the field wherever I can be. I can play all three interior positions, for sure. I’m comfortable with all of those.”
Quinn Meinerz from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater was a star at the Senior Bowl. He can play guard and center as well and is another second-day possibility.
With left guard Matt Feiler signing with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency, the Steelers will give 2020 fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson the first chance to win that position. Dotson made four starts last year and appeared in 13 games. David DeCastro, entering his 10th season is entrenched at right guard, but he is entering the final year of his contract.
The top guard prospect, USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, played left tackle last year, and it is split on which position he will play in the NFL. Regardless, he could go in the top half of the first round.
“I think he’s got a chance to be a perennial All-Pro as a guard,” Jeremiah said. “He plays with instincts and awareness, he’s strong to anchor down, and he always is under control. He really did a good job. … If you’re asking who are safe picks that are just going to be Day 1 starters and fill a role for the next decade, I think this kid has got that type of ability and makeup.”
TOP 5 INTERIOR LINEMEN
1. Alijah Vera-Tucker, G/OT, USC, R-JR, 6-4, 308
Vera-Tucker spent the 2019 season as a guard and made 13 starts for the Trojans. When the Pac-12 got a late start on the 2020 season because of the pandemic, he ended his opt-out and started six games at left tackle.
2. Landon Dickerson, C, Alabama, R-SR, 6-6, 333
His history of injuries, the latest being a season-ending ACL tear, is well-documented. Dickerson’s latest setback came in the SEC championship game, but he vows to be ready for training camp.
3. Creed Humphrey, C, Oklahoma, R-JR, 6-4, 302
Humphrey anchored the middle of the Sooners offensive line for the past two seasons. He was a Rimington Trophy finalist in 2019, and he was named Big 12 offensive lineman of the year last season.
4. Quinn Meinerz, C/G, Wisconsin-Whitewater, R-JR, 6-3, 320
Meinerz is trying to make the jump from Division III to the NFL, and he’s trying to do it without the benefit of a 2020 season. Meinerz impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl. In 2019, he started 15 games at left guard.
5. Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State, R-JR, 6-4, 315
Davis was a mainstay at right guard for the Buckeyes the past two seasons. He was a first-team All-American in 2019, and he repeated the honor last year in a season limited to eight games.
Best fit for Steelers, first day
Landon Dickerson, Alabama
It would be a reach for any team to take Dickerson in the first round, given his injury history. But he is the highest rated center, and the Steelers didn’t address the position in free agency.
Best fit for Steelers, second day
Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma
Humphrey is a safer choice than Dickerson, and he would be a nice second-round fit if the Steelers take a tackle or running back in the first round.
Best fit for Steelers, third day
Michal Menet, Penn State
The 6-foot-4, 301-pound center was a three-year starter and two-year captain for the Nittany Lions. A redshirt senior, Menet is durable, having started 34 games the past three years and appearing in 46 in his college career.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .