Depending on how free agency shakes out, the Los Angeles Rams may have to look to the 2024 NFL Draft to retool a center unit that last year, had veteran depth. Coleman Shelton had locked down the Number 1 job in consecutive seasons after out-battling 2021 Super Bowl winning starter Brian Allen. But the pivot is now in a state of flux
Shelton fulfilled a play time clause in his contract and becomes a 2024 free agent, exposing the Rams to the forces of the market. Allen, who could have easily been a salary cap cut candidate, now springs to the top of the depth chart. His career play has been of solid, journeyman quality, but has an injury-filled past.
The positional need is there, who is the right rookie candidate to fill it? And what round should the Rams pull the trigger?
2024 is not a deep class for centers, but there are still options. I have draftable grades on the following prospects, and configured them as one for each round.
Jackson Powers-Johnson- Oregon 6’ 4” 315 lbs., 31 7/8” arms, 9 7/8” hands, and 78 5/8” wingspan @ Senior Bowl
Flying up draft boards with a stellar Senior Bowl showing. Can he break through the value ceiling placed on center draft prospects and go Day 1? Powers-Johnson is essentially a one-year starter, although he’s played very well (very good Pro Football Focus scores).
Not a thumper or mauler in play style. Oregon uses a lot of zone runs, so he’s often tasked with reach blocks, turning and sealing off rather than driving out of the hole. He has the requisite light feet and hip mobility to get into the position for them. Moves very well laterally on outside zone and smoothly to the second level, he strikes well on the move and stays engaged. Good wide base in pass protection, as well as anchor. Good punch, but will have to be more consistent with it as a pro due relative lack of length. He does use a punch/torque on rushers that I particularly like.
Showing off his versatility at the Senior Bowl is not new. As recently as 2022, he logged snaps at center, right tackle, and both guard positions. Even had snaps on the defensive line as a freshman. Tools and tape equals draft position and money.
Beaux Limmer- Arkansas 6’ 4” 301 lbs., 31 1/2” arms, 9 3/8” hands, and 77 1/2” wingspan @ Senior Bowl
Started 41 games at the SEC level, 28 at guard before moving to center for the final 13. With one year in the pivot, Limmer certainly has room to grow, but has the qualities to do so.
Very strong upper body, at his best when using an under punch to lift and closely control defender, rather than with his shorter arms, clamping on and locking out with arms extended. Stays low and balanced when moving laterally on zone runs and riding defenders. Has both the footwork to reach block and power to turn and seal. Fluidly moves on pulls and to second level. Sets a good base in pass pro, but you have to question how his lack of length will stand up against longer/stronger NFL interior players.
Strong film versus LSU’s big, talented defensive front (2023) and Alabama’s strong 2022 team. Lunch pail carrying, high floor type player with guard versatility. Pro Football Focus darling if that carries weight with you. Chad Rueter at NFL.com ranked Limmer #9 on his Top 20 Senior Bowl prospects.
Zach Frazier- West Virginia 6’ 3” 314 lbs., 32 3/8” arms, 10 3/4” hands, and 78 5/8” wingspan @ Senior Bowl
Four-time heavy weight wrestling state champion, Started 34 of 35 college games, nine at guard as a freshman. Named to second team All-American squads by The Sporting News, USA Today, and The Athletic.
Cut like a center with a powerful, low center of gravity and big, strong hands. When he clamps on he can grapple, torque or drive defenders and they struggle to get loose. Not really long, but understands low leverage and a good punch. Not a plus athlete, but a fluid mover in space and traffic with the good feet to pull/seal and reach block. In pass protection, Frazier can be a count late getting his hands engaged and let rushers get position, stand him up and push backwards.
Broke his leg in the 2023 season finale and is already working on the side at Senior Bowl workouts. West Virginia ran the ball over 63 percent of plays in 2023 and Frazier had a big hand in it. He certainly has the power, grit and technical prowess for the NFL run game, but his upgrades will have to come in the pass game.
Sedrick Van Pran- Georgia 6’ 4” 310 lbs. from Georgia official team site
Started 44 straight SEC games at center and was part of two national championship teams.
Considering his size, Van Pran is not a powerful drive blocker. He’s certainly not soft, he can down block fine. Just not a mauler to torque or road grader to push a defender out of the hole. At his best on the move, very good at striking the target. He stays sticky when moving laterally in zone, smoothly gets to the second level on combo and seal blocks, pulls to lead or seal off and gets action downfield to extend runs. Uses defenders momentum as leverage to ride them out of plays. Generally a very good pass blocker, has to be more consistent as a pro in not letting rushers push him backwards by getting their hands into his chest and staying square when engaged, letting the rusher slide off and around him.
Was named to Senior Bowl roster, but was no-show for weigh-ins. Possible injury? A reliable high-floor prospect with experience at college football’s top level, consistently solid film, and no injury history.
Andrew Raym- Oklahoma 6’ 4” 315 lbs., 31 7/8” arms, 9 7/8” hands, 78 5/8” wingspan @ Senior Bowl
Raym does all center duties pretty well, nothing exciting or dominating about his game, but he’s not terribly deficient in any matters either. Started 29 times and missed the final three games of 2022 with shoulder woes that needed surgery.
My first look at him was the 2023 Texas/OU . He got rolled up on early and was in obvious pain and limped throughout the game. He hung in the whole way against the Longhorns respected defensive interior and played pretty well. He’s got toughness and good feet for a big man, using them to be more of a turn and seal reach blocker. Not that he won’t mix it up, he just doesn’t have the explosion to drive defenders out of the hole. In pass protection, has a good, quick punch and the longarm combination.
It does not appear that Raym has a lot of positional versatility, he’s only played guard for 61 snaps as a Sooner freshman. He’s likely to be exactly what his college film portends, a center who understands the position and its technical aspects, but is not athletic or physically gifted enough to be a real difference maker.
Jurgens is tough to grade. Wake Forest uses a unique spin on RPO where the offensive line just maintains the defender at the line and QB/RB exchange is often delayed like a stop action shot. The mesh is delayed and crowded with offense/defense traffic. The QB doesn’t drop back, he can throw from right there, hand off, or run it himself, all from a couple yards behind the line of scrimmage. Jurgens also moved to guard in 2023 after 34 starts at center in the three previous years.
What I like about him is that he’s capable of using three different blocking techniques. He blocks with his arms extended on the popular punch and lock up on the breastplate, gets in for close grappling with the under punch to lift and torque and the long arm combination, striking like boxer with his punch. He has a a list of deficiencies, but as a project, the Rams could do a lot worse. There’s clay to mold, although he’s likely to be drafted later than Round 6.
Kingsley Egaukun- Florida 6’ 3” 300lbs., 32 3/4” arms, 9 5/8” hands, 81 3/8” wingspan @ Senior Bowl
After starting 26 straight games, Egaukun injured an ankle and missed the first two 2023. He returned to play four games, but re-aggravated it and sat out the rest of the season. He’s healed now and participating in the Senior Bowl.
Plays the game in a bully, untamed style, always hitting through the whistle. Good run blocker who needs some work on pass pro. Nifty feet and move skills, hustles out on screens. Strong upper body for mauling and torquing, but doesn’t have the lower body strength needed to drive defenders. In pass protection, the bottom half shows lacking again along with the need for a wider base. Although Egaukun has a good punch, he can be stood up and pushed back.
His future is on him, he needs that lower body upgrade for the NFL. Fits well into a zone run game, but has to win 1on1’s in pass protection.
Hunter Nourzad- Penn State 6’ 3” 319 lbs., 32 3/4”arms, 9” hands, 79 3/8” wingspan @ Shrine Bowl
What you would expect from a Penn State lineman, big, strong, and a plus run blocker. Came to Penn State as a graduate student after beginning his career at Cornell. He started 20 straight games and earned AFCA All-American honors. Nourzad fought off minor injuries and finished his two seasons in Happy Valley with 16 starts
Cut with big lower body, stays low, keeps a wide base, and has a good punch. Needs to sustain blocks better. Agile enough to pull/move to second level and strikes well when he gets there. Not quick with his lateral footwork, needs work on reach blocks and picking up blitzers that get the jump on him, Good get off and can move defenders. His film at center is better than guard and you can see the improvement from 2022 to 2023.
Nice sleeper candidate, that I just word on. Won’t be rated undrafted on my final Big Board. What makes him a candidate for the Rams is his versatility. Played right tackle at Cornell and saw time at both guard spots and center at Penn State.
Could any of these prospects start right away?
Any of the first four listed above could step in, albeit with some growing pains. None are freakishly athletic or blessed with generational physical traits, but all share having a high floor. They are all smart, can move, have grit and played against top competition.
Last year, Rams General Manager Les Snead eschewed traditional positional value by taking a guard early, would he, should he, dare do it again? Although #19 seems rich for a center, what about a trading back a handful of slots? Would that change things?