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Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey prepares to snap the football during the first half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 27 in Pittsburgh. Pouncey recently announced his retirement, leaving the Steelers with some big shoes to fill at the position. 

The Steelers are on the hunt for a starting center for the first time in more than a decade, and don’t think for a minute there is another Maurkice Pouncey clone coming out of the college ranks this year. There is not an elite, athletic center that can pull and move the way Pouncey did early in his career when he established himself as one of the top centers of his generation.

But while there might not be a first-round talent in this draft, there are some quality players that could be plug-and-play starters and a few that can help the Steelers as they try to overhaul their struggling running game. The top centers in this draft are big, strong in the run game and proven players on the big stage for some of the top teams in college football.

The Steelers selected Pouncey with the No. 18 overall pick in the 2010 draft, but centers rarely are taken in Round 1. Since 2003, only 13 centers have been selected in the first round. Only twice in that span, in 2009 and 2018, were two centers taken in the first round.

It’s not a devalued position in the NFL like, say, running backs. Elite centers such as Pouncey are rewarded with rich second and third contracts, but they’re not highly sought after in the early portion of the draft. Starting centers can be found anywhere. The two starting centers in the Super Bowl — Ryan Jensen of the Buccaneers and Austin Reiter of the Chiefs — were sixth- and seventh-round selections, respectively.

This could be one of those years when a center is not selected in the first round, but there are a few that are considered strong Day 2 prospects. There also is a small pool of affordable centers hitting unrestricted free agency that could fit into the Steelers’ plans.

Free agency begins in the middle of next month, and the draft will take place in late April, giving the Steelers a couple of chances to add some much-needed depth at the position.

The only center on the roster with any NFL starting experience is J.C. Hassenauer, who started four games last season when Pouncey was on the COVID list.

Get familiar with these names. You’ll be hearing a lot about them in the coming weeks:

Draft prospects

Landon Dickerson, Alabama — Dickerson is a first-team All-American and one of the top centers in this draft, but a long injury history clouds when he will be selected. Dickerson has already endured two major knee surgeries, including one in December after an injury in the SEC championship game. His first knee injury occurred when he played at Florida State in 2016, and he had two subsequent season-ending ankle injuries with the Seminoles before he transferred to the Crimson Tide. Dickerson is big (6-foot-6, 325 pounds), strong in the run game and solid as a pass protector. He also has position versatility, having played guard and tackle during his college career. That type of versatility is coveted by NFL teams. If not for the long list of injuries, Dickerson’s draft fate would be easier to predict. Some draft analysts believe he’ll sneak into the back end of the first round, but second or third round seems more likely given his injury history.

Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma — Humphrey was a three-year starter and a two-time All-American for the Sooners. He was named second-team All-American in 2019 and third-team All-American in 2020. He’s another big center (6-5, 320) who will help in the run game and as a pass protector. He did not allow a sack last season. Like Dickerson, Humphrey is not an elite athlete, but his wrestling background is evident and shows through when going up against stout defensive linemen.

Josh Myers, Ohio State — A two-year starter for the Buckeyes, Myers (6-5, 312) is known more for his run-blocking prowess as he was the anchor for an Ohio State offense that averaged 257 rushing yards per game last season. What he lacks in athleticism he makes up for with grit. He should be in range when the Steelers draft in Round 2 and maybe even Round 3.

Veterans

The Steelers cannot afford the top centers in free agency because they don’t have room under their salary cap. So unless they spend all of their free agency money on one position, it’s highly unlikely that they’d be able to land Corey Linsley, who is widely regarded as the top center hitting unrestricted free agency. But here are a few other options — mid-priced free agents who can fill the role in the short-term while the Steelers groom or wait to find their long-term starter.

David Andrews, New England — Tom Brady’s old center in New England, Andrews has 69 starts on his resume since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He’ll turn 29 in July, but he’d provide stability and brings postseason experience, which will be appetizing for the Steelers, who hope to be a playoff team again in 2021. Andrews missed the 2019 season due to blood clots in his lungs, and he missed four games last season with a thumb injury.

Austin Reiter, Kansas City — Another center with postseason experience, Reiter has started in the past two Super Bowls and has 33 starts on his resume. Washington picked him in the seventh round in 2015, and he played as a reserve in Cleveland for two years before becoming a full-time starter the past two seasons with the Chiefs. He’s 29 and would be another stop-gap option for the Steelers.

Ted Karras, Miami — Karras served as a backup in New England for three years before taking over as the starter in 2019 when Andrews could not play. He moved on to Miami last season and started all 16 games for the Dolphins. He was a sixth-round pick of the Patriots in 2016 and will turn 28 next month.

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