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The Steelers need to learn from this year’s final four, Part One: Centers

The 2023-24 NFL playoffs have been rather anticlimactic in my opinion. My beloved Steelers once again managed to sneak into the playoffs, even though they were ravaged by injuries, none bigger than to the rightful 2023 DPOY T.J. Watt. As expected, they were quickly sacrificed at the altar of a true contender.

The Wild Card games were mostly blowouts and not competitive, if we are being honest. We should all be thankful for the feel good story of this postseason; the Detroit Lions.

The Lions actually share a lot of similarities with the Steelers franchise prior to the Steel Curtain dynasty. A bunch of laughable but lovable losers, who finally appear to be on the cusp of something truly special. The incredible turnaround all started when Lions ownership was smart enough to give the keys to a remarkably enthusiastic head coach. The kind of coach who understands what it takes to build a winning culture. Sound familiar?

The Steelers need to be paying close attention to all four participants remaining in this year’s playoffs, because they could learn a thing or two about roster construction.

Many individuals will immediately think I am talking about the QB position, but that isn’t the case. The quarterbacks are definitely a diversified group.

Patrick Mahomes is still the best QB in the NFL, even without the gluttony of offensive weapons as in previous years. Mahomes finally won his first road playoff game, in what was actually his first opportunity. Now he needs to win his second to confirm his status as the Face of the NFL.

Lamar Jackson is still the most difficult QB to defend, especially with his improved supporting cast, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it has taken him six years to get his team to the AFC  Championship game. Jackson has been the most elusive and electrifying offensive weapon in the NFL for years, when healthy. But playoff success was nowhere to be found. Jackson needs a Super Bowl to validate his greatness.

Brock Purdy is trying to go from Mr. Irrelevant to Lombardi Trophy winner. Ironically, Purdy’s elbow injury in the early stages of last year’s NFC Championship game was the deciding factor in the outcome. Purdy and the Niners are definitely hoping for different results this year, and Purdy wants to prove he is more than just an extremely efficient game manager of arguably the most well balanced team in the league.

Lastly, we have Jared Goff of the Detroit Lions. Talk about a guy whose career has come full circle. Goff was once the first overall selection in the draft for the Los Angeles Rams. He actually lead them to a Super Bowl, only to lose to Tom Brady and the Patriots. Even though Goff reached the Super Bowl, he was never considered the Rams next franchise guy. Then he was included in the Rams huge trade for Matt Stafford. However, Goff was viewed as more of a bridge guy, capable of manning the position until the Lions found their next franchise guy. The Lions were still undecided on Goff as recently as last offseason. Stafford got his Lombardi in LA, while Goff is still fighting for his second chance. Goff will be a living legend if he can lead the Lions to their first Lombardi Trophy. You better believe I am rooting for the guy.

However, QB isn’t the position where I believe that the Steelers can learn the most valuable lesson this postseason. Actually, those positions are at center and inside linebacker. All four remaining teams have exceptional talent at these critical positions.

Ironically, both positions have been devalued in recent seasons, to the point it is considered unwise to draft either position in the first round. However, the Detroit Lions laid waste to that theory, seeing how they utilized first round selections at inside linebacker and running back; another position that has been devalued in recent years, in last year’s draft. True value can only be measured with results, and the results speak for themselves.

At center we have: Frank Ragnow for the Lions, Jake Brendel for the Niners, Creed Humphrey for the Chiefs, and Tyler Linderbaum for the Ravens.

All of these gentlemen are Pro Bowl caliber players, with future All Pro possibilities. Three of them are early round selections, with Brendel being the lone exception. Brendel was an UDFA, but has become a fundamentally sound veteran.

Ragnow was a first round selection, and has become an integral foundational piece in the Lions ascension to relevancy. He is the glue guy on the Lions extremely talented offensive line, and has formed an impressive connection with the aforementioned Jared Goff. Ragnow was named second team All Pro for his exceptional performance this season. Mad props for a young man who has experienced the full gauntlet during his tenure with the Lions, from outhouse to penthouse, and his effort has never wavered.

Creed Humphrey was my not-so-secret draft crush for the Steelers back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Humphrey was the best center prospect I had ever evaluated coming out of Oklahoma. Humphrey was a life-long center. Humphrey tested at an elite level, suggesting superior athleticism, despite his less than sculpted physique. However, it was all the instinctual and fundamental intangibles that set him apart from his peers. Humphrey studied the all time greats at the position for even the slightest advantage. His low key demeanor belies his outstanding leadership ability. The unquestioned leader of every line he has been apart of. Humphrey’s NFL success should have surprised no one who was paying attention. He has already won a Lombardi Trophy, and is on the verge of appearing in another Super Bowl.

Tyler Linderbaum was a brilliant first round selection for the Baltimore Ravens in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Ravens are renowned for their incredibly consistent offensive lines, and they regularly invest early round draft capital on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Ravens scouting department was obviously enamored with Linderbaum. Far more than I was. I believed that Humphrey’s rookie success had caused many pundits to overvalue Linderbaum. Both gentlemen shared plenty of admirable traits, including their extensive wrestling background. I saw the similarities, but I considered Humphrey to be the superior prospect by a substantial margin. I still believe that to be true, but the margin is closer than I realized. Proven by his consistent performances, and his selection to the 2023 Pro Bowl. Outstanding player with a bright future.

The Steelers are THE franchise renowned for excellence at the center position. The Steelers have lost sight of the importance of the position, and they have tried to pinch pennies in their attempts to replace the great Maurkice Pouncey. Hopefully the Steelers have learned a valuable lesson: invest accordingly in the position, and return the standard to it’s legendary status. Never forget, we Steelers fans love our centers.

In Part Two of this two part series, I will focus on the inside linebackers remaining in the postseason.

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