On Friday Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey announced his retirement, allowing his longtime linemate Ramon Foster—now a sports talk radio host—to break the news via his Twitter account. The news was not unexpected, as the 11-year veteran had been ‘close’ to finalizing the decision as many as three weeks ago. Moreover, it seems obvious that Pouncey had an inkling that the January playoff loss against the Cleveland Browns was going to be his last game, as he has seen getting emotional on the bench with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after everyone else had left the field.
All that said, the Steelers have no doubt been preparing for life after Pouncey since the end of the season. That includes taking an extra-close look at the talent available in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that a center they like will be available when their pick(s) come around in the first few rounds.
In that case, they can promote backup H.C. Hassenauer—a former undrafted free agent out of Alabama—into the starting lineup, or sign a free agent to fill that hole and keep Hassenauer, an exclusive rights free agent, in a reserve role.
In fact, that’s the approach the Steelers have taken in the past. When future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson retired after the 2000 season, they signed Jeff Hartings away from the Detroit Lions to take his place. Then when Hartings retired, they signed Sean Mahan—and then Justin Hartwig—in free agency, covering a three-year gap until they had a chance to draft Pouncey in 2010.
Of course, if they go the free agent route, they figure to have limited budget for the expenditure. So the top free agent center available, Corey Linsley of the Green Bay Packers, figures to be well out of reach.
But there are a number of reasonably attractive options that the Steelers might be able to afford.
David Andrews, New England Patriots
The 28-year-old Andrews was both durable and highly effective during the first four years of his career. Then he missed the entire 2019 season due to blood clots in his lungs, only to come back in 2020 to play 12 games, missing four with a thumb/hand injury.
A better run blocker than pass blocker, Andrews (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) finished this past season as the 14th best center in the league, this according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. PFF projects that a team could sign him away from the Patriots for $6 million per year.
Austin Reiter, Kansas City Chiefs
Next up is Austin Reiter, a former Washington draft choice out of South Florida who spent the first three years of his career with the Cleveland Browns before moving on to become the starting center for the Chiefs in 2019.
Reiter (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) is a better pass blocker than run blocker, and didn’t allow a sack or commit a penalty in 867 offensive snaps this past year. PFF rates him as the most underrated free agent center and projects that he could be signed for $4.5 million per year, making him a more realistic option than Andrews.
Ted Karras, Miami Dolphins
Last but not least, there’s Ted Karras (6-foot-4, 305 pounds), a former sixth-round pick of the New England Patriots (2016), who started 16 games for the Miami Dolphins in 2020. The 27-year-old had a solid season last year, finishing as PFF’s 17th-ranked center—a good balance of run and pass blocking ability.
Notably, Karras—not to mention Andrews and Reiter—played at a much higher level than Maurkice Pouncey in 2020, at least in the eyes of PFF, who had Pouncey rated as the 30th-best center in the NFL in his final season.
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