When free agency opens on March 11, the Colts will have almost $38 million in cap space, per OverTheCap.com. That amount could climb to about $42 million if they release Samson Satele, who, as we all know, isn't very good. Since the coaching staff was strangely reluctant to use 2013 fourth round pick Khaled Holmes last year, general manager Ryan Grigson is widely expected to scour the free agent market for a center.
In this, the first in a three-part series examining centers Grigson might pursue, I'm taking a look at the best one on the market, Cleveland's Alex Mack.
First things first: unlike Satele, Mack is quite good. Pro Football Focus ranked him fourth in the league in 2013 (subscription required), placing him fifth in both pass and run blocking. Satele was 31st overall, 18th in pass blocking and 35th, or dead last, in run blocking. I don’t trust PFF unconditionally (they like Gosder Cherilus way more than I do), but their numbers are a good starting point for measuring quality.
Per Spotrac, most top centers will carry cap hits around $6-7 million next year, with Carolina's Ryan Kalil and the Giants' David Baas topping the charts at $10.4 million and $8.2 million, respectively. Mack will likely be looking for a four- or five-year deal for about $7-8 million per year.
The Colts already have Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas making hefty sums for the next several seasons, and Anthony Castonzo will be due for a new contract next year. Forking over another big deal for a guy who will turn 29 in November will be a tough pill to swallow, particularly because Andrew Luck's sweetheart rookie deal only runs for two more years, after which the team's salary structure will change dramatically.
In other words, Mack had better be pretty damn good.
To find out whether he really is that good, I took to my trusty block charting system. I charted three of Mack’s games, all against teams the Colts also played: week 4 vs. Cincinnati, week 8 vs. Kansas City and week 13 vs. Jacksonville. I picked those three because PFF had the Cincinnati game as one of his best of the year, the Kansas City game as one of his worst and the Jacksonville game somewhere in the middle. It’s a small sample, but I was able to get a decent feel for his game.
The results are below. First, a few words about my terminology and system:
RBC, RBA and RB% mean run blocks completed, run blocks attempted and run block percentage.
PuBC, PuBA and PuB% refer to pull blocks, or blocks on which the linemen step back and move across the field into a different gap. These usually happen on running plays, though they are also used on screen passes and play fakes.
2BC, 2BA and 2B% refer to second-level blocks, on which the linemen move past the defensive line to engage linebackers or, occasionally, defensive backs. These almost always happen during running plays.
PBC, PBA and PB% refer to pass blocks.
Pr, H and Sa are pressures, hits and sacks, respectively, and PB/Pr, PB/H and PB/Sa mean pass blocks per pressure, hit and sack.
TBC, TBA and TB% refer to total blocks.
DISCLAIMER: Grading offensive line play is inevitably subjective, since it’s impossible to know assignments and how the linemen are coached. These scores are based on whether the lineman appeared to succeed in his assignments, based on his apparent targets and how the plays developed. I assign all blocks a grade of ‘+’ (good block), ‘-’ (bad block) or ‘/’ (not involved, usually meaning the lineman couldn’t find anyone to block); ‘/’ plays are not scored.
Here are Mack’s numbers from the three games I charted:
And here’s Satele’s season table from my season review piece:
Though my sample happened to include two of Mack’s three worst run blocking performances of the season, per PFF, he still graded out a whopping 13% higher than Satele. The Jacksonville game, which PFF graded as Mack’s worst run blocking performance, would have been above average for Satele. Mack is also a much better pass blocker.
In fact, in all three games I charted, Mack performed better in both run and pass blocking than Satele did against the same opponents. He’s simply a much, much better center. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, but it was startling to see how different a line can look with a real talent in the middle. Mack consistently leverages his man out of the way in the running game, and he’s quick and alert in pass protection. He combines Hugh Thornton’s aggression with Castonzo’s awareness of what’s going on around him. He helps teammates in trouble, adjusts well to stunts and always finishes his blocks. He even goes looking for blocks downfield after he’s done his job, something you’ll never see from Satele. The one weakness I saw was that he doesn’t offer a lot when asked to pull or block at the second level. He has good mobility, but he doesn’t track defenders well in space. Still, that’s a fairly minor drawback for a center.
Here are a few notable plays from my review of Mack.
First, a good old fashioned pancake block of Bengals tackle Brandon Thompson:
Here’s a reminder of how delightfully unlike Satele Mack is. He’s on the left of the screen, finishing a quality block of the Chiefs’ Allen Bailey. Jason Campbell is about to scramble.
A few seconds later, you can just see Mack on the bottom left of the screen, his arm still on Bailey.
At this point, assuming he had made the initial block, Satele would pat himself on the back for a job well done and swagger down the field feeling good about himself.
But not Mack. He carefully avoids blocking Bailey in the back, then busts his ass upfield to get between him and Campbell:
Campbell gets tackled around the same time anyway, but Mack is categorically unwilling to let Bailey chase his quarterback down:
Here’s the overhead view, to give you an idea of how far Mack chases Bailey. The moment Bailey starts getting up to chase Campbell:
And the moment Mack re-blocks him:
Mack has moved five yards down the field and gone from behind the defender to in front of him. It’s not a vital block, but I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see a center make this sort of hustle play after watching Satele lope through 15 games.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows with Mack. Kansas City’s Dontari Poe beat him cleanly a couple times for pressures:
Nobody’s perfect, after all. On the bright side, both misses were results of Poe making a good move and beating him, rather than eye-popping inattentiveness, like a certain other center.
And finally, here is his finest moment in the three games I watched. The Jaguars send six rushers, including three through the two A gaps that Mack is helping protect. The right guard takes one of them, and Mack is left with Paul Posluszny and Tyson Alualu. He calmly puts one hand on each of them and steers them both to his left, using Alualu’s thick frame and the presence of Sen’Derrick Marks on his right to keep Posluszny behind Alualu. It’s a subtle but brilliant move that gives Brandon Weeden just enough time to uncork a trademark Brandon Weeden incompletion.
If signed, Mack would immediately become the Colts’ best run blocker. He’d also do wonders for their interior pass protection. I want to get a good look at a couple targets before I go all-in on Mack. Still, at the moment, I think he’d be worth the hefty contract he’d command.