What to make of the center position for the Tennessee Titans. As Andrew covered in our preseason look at the position, the Titans tried last offseason to bring in an upgrade, but after failing to sign Chris Myers, Jeff Saturday, and Scott Wells were left with the same grouping they had in 2011. Then, the presumptive starter tore his triceps and was lost for the season. The Titans ended up using three starting centers in 2012, none of whom is currently under contract for 2013.
The situation isn't quite as murky as that precis makes it sound, but as they do at guard, the Titans have a decision or two to make at the center position in 2013. Will they opt for one or another of the various flavors of continuity, or will it be a season of change all along the interior of the offensive line?
Eugene Amano is of course the presumptive starter who tore his triceps the Titans tried so hard to replace last offseason. A triceps injury should not be the kind that harms his performance going forward. Still, there's a reason the Titans looked to attempt to replace him last offseason. I feel like I've been one of the most consistent defenders of his play, and even I thought at the time the over $5 million average per year contract he signed back in 2010 was excessive given his level of play. Due over $3.9 million in salary in the fourth season of that deal, he could easily find himself on the way out.
Earning the promotion to starter in Amano's absence was Fernando Velasco, who was on the practice squad, then became the primary interior backup, then got the starting nod. He ended up playing more than any other offensive lineman, missing only one snap. He played a dozen games, more or less, at center, and spent the rest of the time at left guard. At to his level of play...
Center is probably the easiest place on the offensive line to hide a player or otherwise cover for a non-great starter. Put another way, at most positions you have a number of incremental qualitative steps-a player can be really great, great, very good, good, above average, average, etc. At center, there are the failed centers, and then there are the centers, who are either great, really bad, or just a center. The failed centers come because centers have some very specific tasks-they have to be able to snap the ball, and the coaches have to trust them to make the line calls (on most teams) and do things correctly. Failed centers become guards, if they have some talent (see Leroy Harris), or wash out of the league. Beyond those, you have the great centers. Myers and Wells (when healthy) fell into that category.
Amano (in 2010 and 2011) and Velasco (in 2012) both fell in the range of neither great nor really centers. As Bob McGinn described Velasco, he's a short-area mauler without much quickness. Playing in a phone booth, like centers normally do, you can hide deficiencies like that. With too much bad guard play, like the Titans got in 2012, Velasco is exposed a little more. He's not the sort of player who will ruin an offensive line singlehandedly, but he's not a strength either. A restricted free agent this offseason, I expect the Titans to give him a second-round tender; as an undrafted free agent, the Titans would not receive any compensation for him if they chose not to match an offer from another team. I think he's likeliest to be the starting center in 2013.
Kevin Matthews inherited Velasco's role as the primary interior backup and ended up seeing extensive action in three games before an injury sent him to the sidelines (213 total snaps). His dad is the offensive line coach. His brother is a very talented offensive tackle at Texas A&M who chose to return to the draft. I've never seen Kevin as an NFL-caliber athlete. With his pedigree, the Titans seem to trust him to do what a center does, but he's either at or very close to the point at which centers you can live with become very bad centers. An exclusive rights free agent this offseason, he'll be back with the Titans in training camp. Even though I don't like him at center and like him even less at guard, the Titans seem to have a certain level of trust in him. He's stuck around long enough and is in what looks like a favorable enough situation that I'm not going to bet against his chances of being around for another season.
Kyle DeVan was the third man to see time at center for the Titans in 2012, playing chunks of the last three games (124 total snaps). Frankly, I'm not sure he'd ever played center before 2012. He had been a guard, playing there for the Colts and Eagles after doing the same in college. He's a bit of a marginal athlete for a center, especially. The official Titans site claims he's a restricted free agent, while I think he's an unrestricted free agent. If he really is an RFA, he'll probably make it back to training camp with the Titans. Either way, though, I think he was an injury-related stopgap and can't see him on the Week 1 2013 roster.
Will the Titans be willing to pay Eugene Amano that much money to be a non-great center? That's really the $64,000 (or $3.93 million) question. I think it's possible they won't, but the Titans have been much slower to actually cut players who aren't really living up to big dollar contracts than I am. If they are, then I expect him to be the starting center and Fernando Velasco to go back to being the main interior backup, though he could figure into a battle at left guard as well. If that's the case, I don't expect the Titans to make any serious additions at the position.
If the Titans do decide that Amano's salary is too rich for their blood, then things could get interesting. Velasco is the favorite for the spot, but an Amano release also opens them up to signing a veteran center or using a draft pick on one. Then again, they could just go cheap and let Matthews take over the job after Velasco is on it for a year. That would be a really Titans thing to do, wouldn't it?