In 1983, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the 45th overall pick in the NFL draft to grab Baylor center Randy Grimes. Grimes got a handful of starts at several positions in his first two seasons before taking over for long-time Buc Steve Wilson at center in 1985. Grimes would then hold down that center job for the next six years, starting all but one non-strike game before handing it over to Tony Mayberry. A fourth-round pick out of Wake Forest in 1990, Mayberry would in turn start every contest for nine straight years before retiring.
Since then, beginning in 2000, the Buccaneers have used just three picks on players who were identified as centers (using the Draft History website as the source) on draft weekend, and none of them have started a single game at that position. Neither seventh-round pick Zack Quaccia in 2002 nor fourth-round selection Austin King in 2003 panned out, and the third player on the list is Ali Marpet, whom the Bucs plugged in at guard after taking him in the second round a year ago.
Marpet played tackle at Division III Hobart, and some pre-draft sources pegged him as a center while others put him into the guard group. The Bucs clearly saw Marpet as a guard…which is not to say he has no future at the pivot. Despite having two different starting centers from the 2015 campaign still on their roster, the Buccaneers will be giving Marpet work at that position in the lead-up to the 2016 season. And he won't be alone.
The lack of draft solutions since Mayberry's retirement underscores the fact that, for many teams, centers are made, not drafted. Consider that in the 2016 draft there were three centers taken during the first two days, when teams are hoping to land immediate starters, but seven guards and seven tackles drafted in the same span. Some of that is due, of course, to the fact that there are twice as many starting guard and tackle positions than starting center spots. However, some of it is also due to the fact that it is often more effective to select a guard or tackle with greater overall talent and then teach him to snap.
"There's never enough guys who can pull the ball and most guys in college are undersized, so you have to develop your centers," said Buccaneers Offensive Line Coach George Warhop. "At the end of the day we'll probably have five guys that can snap. By the time we get through the preseason, once they become capable, you'll see them all in the game at some point in time playing center."
Joe Hawley and Evan Smith are the two returning starters from a year ago. The Bucs snapped up Hawley shortly before the regular season after he was let go by the Falcons, and he started the season as Smith's backup. However, Smith was sidelined for several weeks early in the season by an ankle injury and Hawley played so well in his stead that he held onto the job even when Smith was fully recovered. Hawley started the final 14 games, with Smith also getting several starts at right guard when Marpet was injured. Early in the 2016 offseason, Head Coach Dirk Koetter indicated that Hawley and Smith would compete for the starting job again.
Whether or not that competition is expanded to include additional players, the Buccaneers will certainly have more players capable of taking on that role, and perhaps some more long-term plans for the position.
"Well, we have Evan and he's right in the thick of it for the center position too, but anybody who plays guard [is in the mix]," said Warhop. "Any of our guards – they are all learning how to snap. Kevin Pamphile, Caleb [Benenoch] can snap, Ali can snap and the guys that haven't been able to snap – who haven't snapped yet – will learn to snap by the end of the year. That's always a process."
Versatile players like Smith, Marpet and Pamphile give the Buccaneers quite a few different options for the years to come. After an impressive rookie season, it looks like Marpet may have Pro Bowl potential, and it's possible that center will prove to be the best spot to deploy those talents. If that's the case, the Bucs might view Pamphile as a long-term option at Marpet's vacated guard position. Warhop referred to Pamphile as a starting-caliber player who simply hasn't had a chance to start yet, outside of one very good showing at left guard early in 2015.
Pamphile was originally drafted as a tackle in 2014, though Warhop says the Bucs always viewed him as a versatile player who might help at several positions. He has forged a spot on the roster despite being a fifth-round pick exactly because of that versatility. The Bucs think that Benenoch, their fifth-round pick this year, can develop in the same way.
"I think it's crazy valuable," said Warhop of the type of versatility Pamphile has provided. "He's starting to figure out that the more you can do, the more value you have – not only to us but to other teams in the future. In this business you never know who you're auditioning for and that's the same with Caleb. He's a guy that has flexibility. He already knew how to snap once he got here. They did that with him at UCLA, so it just gives us flexibility in the future getting the best five on the field."