One of the qualities the Pittsburgh Steelers most talked about regarding their free agency last season was the fact that they acquired two interior offensive linemen who were position-flexible in James Daniels and Mason Cole. Daniels settled in at right guard and Cole played center last season, which he has stated multiple times that he prefers. But will he keep that job for long?
If there’s anything to be read in the Steelers’ inclinations during the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, then it would certainly seem as though the center position is very much on their radar, and possibly early. They seemed to have had more formal interviews with players whose most natural position is center than they did for those who are most naturally tackles or guards.
Most expect that they will address the offensive line early in the draft. Could it be a center? Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wouldn’t be surprised. In responding to a question about the team’s interest in tackles, he said, “I will tell you to keep your eye on Minnesota’s John Michael Schmitz”.
We have been discussing Schmitz for a while now, with Scott Pavelle listing him as the best true center in this year’s class. Jonathan Heitritter profiled him for us back in January as well, and later spoke to him during Senior Bowl week.
One thing that’s always important to keep in mind in relation to the Steelers and the offensive line is that they have always placed a premium on the importance of the center position. You can even go back further than the legendary Mike Webster in acknowledging, for example, Ray Mansfield.
Webster was succeeded by Dermontti Dawson, and while there were some starts and stops in between, the Steelers eventually found Maurkice Pouncey in 2010, who may eventually join Webster and Dawson in the Hall of Fame.
Their first swing at finding his successor didn’t go particularly well. Passing up Creed Humphrey in the second round in 2021, they used their third-round draft pick on Kendrick Green, who failed as a center during his rookie season and then at guard last year.
While Cole played serviceably well at center for the team in 2022, he did not come with a prohibitively expensive contract. If the Steelers were to draft a center who could be plugged in to start immediately, the veteran could either move to left guard or serve as a premium interior reserve.
Schmitz could be that guy. He takes great pride in all aspects of his game, including his physicality. “My toughness and the way I finish. It’s like no one else”, he said during the NFL Scouting Combine last week. “The way I play is I don’t take a play off. I’m gonna finish each and every play”.
I sense that most fans would prefer a tackle be their first selection along the offensive line, especially if it ends up being their only, but in this instance I tend to agree with Dulac. One would be wise to bear Schmitz in mind when the Steelers are on the clock. Especially if there is a run on tackles, which there often is.