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.