We've been talking for weeks now about the nose tackles in this league, on this team and in this draft. It seems that every time I turn around, some other NFL team has decided that the intelligent answer to the short passing-based attack that has been sweeping the NFL is to move to the versatility of the 3-4 formation. As more and more teams use this attack as their primary or secondary weapon (in the case of some of the hybrids formations, another commonality in the NFL right now), there is a growing demand for nose tackles. Big ones and shorter ones, faster and slower ones, nose tackles are becoming one of the talks of the league.
When you see a growing trend towards the 3-4, 5-2 and hybrid formations that require a NT, you're quickly going to see counter-moves by the offenses in the league. It's been going on since Org realized that he could hit Ulah with a rock from farther away than Ulah could whack him with a stick - the move and countermove that we have seen in the evolution of human society has been seen in small in the game of NFL football. One of the counter-moves that you might begin to see may be a greater emphasis on the center and guard positions. Someone has to stop the big guys from making burgers out of your 12 million dollar quarterback. Your primary investment loses value quickly if he's throwing a desperate pass with 325 lbs of nasty leaping onto his head. Those someones who protect that QB have often been nearly forgotten in the dash for more points, the fantasy standings and the glory hounds who play what are still called the skill positions. From my own perspective, keeping the Ngatas of this world from making post holes with your QB's head is definitely and categorically a skill.
The Broncos have a guy who is nearly unknown, but who is the only straight up center listed on the current team roster. Let's face it - offseason, predraft team rosters are nothing more than a little guesswork and a lot of smokescreen that fulfills an NFL requirement. But even so, as things stand right now, Dustin Fry is the only pure center on the Denver Broncos. That may change between now and the end of the draft, but for the moment, we should probably get to know the man who may be snapping the ball to Kyle Orton on the first day of the 2010 season.
Dustin W. Fry was born in Hawaii, but grew up in Summerville, NC, where he went to high school and received an education in football as well as his studies.He attended college at Clemson, and played well for the Tigers. He has a history of a few knee injuries that required surgery, including a dislocated kneecap (ouch) in202 that granted him a medical hardship red-shirt year. He also had an arthroscopic left shoulder surgery in January of 2004 and a right knee arthroscopic procedure in 2005. No ill effects appear to have lingered with any of these issues. They are not unusual for players on the offensive line.
I asked Ken 'Digger' about his feelings on Fry, and he had this to offer. I thought it too good to keep it to myself:
Before we all go crazy over this years prospects at Center I would like you to read about this guy.
Height: 6' 3" Weight: 326 lbs.
The good: He is a tough, nasty, smart, scrappy, blue-collar lineman who works well in a short area where he uses good power and leverage. He gives it his all from the snap to the whistle, and is very capable of quickly getting good position in his blocks and sustaining until the play is finished. He has good balance, the agility to slide laterally, does well at mirroring the defender and is seldom on the ground. He has a relentless attitude that allows him to finish despite marginal physical talent.
The bad: He is only adequate on the perimeter at pulling. He has only marginal speed and striking ability at the second level. His hand punch is acceptable, but could be more forceful to stop the initial charge better. He lacks flexibility and the agility to recover if beaten on a play. He has short arms, which add to the problem.
Outlook: He ran a 5.47 time in the 40-yard dash with 34 bench press reps at the Combine, but sat out the rest of the workout with a pulled quad. He has definite NFL starting ability - maybe sooner than most think. He combines all the tools to become a fine NFL interior lineman with enough athleticism to also spot start at guard.
Who is this guy? I'll give you a hint, he's already a member of the Denver Broncos. He was the 139th pick in the 2007 draft. He took over full-time center duties as a sophomore. With his low center of gravity, girth and squat frame, he has made it a habit of putting defenders on their pants, registering 171 knockdowns while manning the pivot. Has started at offensive guard and tackle during his career. Made all the play calls for the line. Able to read the defense. He participated in the Senior Bowl. While in High School he captured the state Class AA championship in wrestling. Every bit as good as Matt Tennant, J.D. Walton or Eric Olsen. He is Dustin Fry. I know what your thinking , "How good could he be, his whole career has been on the practice squad?" I don't really have an answer to that other than he has been stolen off team's practice squads so he doesn't suck. I can also tell you that any of the three from above, maybe even Maurkice Pouncey, is going to have a rookie learning curve and may not be ready to start. Remember last year when everyone was convinced we needed massive upgrades on the DL and McDaniels ignored it completely? Remember how Ryan McBean came out of nowhere? From a guy we picked up off Pittsburgh's practice squad to becoming our starter? I see Fry possibly doing the same thing. Here's the problem. I'm pretty sure Fry has used up all of his practice squad time. If we draft a center that is not ready to step right into the starting lineup and we go with Fry what do we do with the new guy? Or the draft pick is ready to start, how do we hide Fry? The more I look at our line (RT Harris RG Kuper C Fry LG Olsen LT Clady) it is pretty darn solid. Reserve guards Hochstein and McChesney are OK. Back up tackles Polumbus, Batiste and Gorin need major upgrade. My solution? Draft Iupati or Ducasse. Plug them into Olsen's spot. Olsen, Hochstein and Batiste are backups. McChesney on PS still and pick up an undrafted Tackle for the PS.
You can agree or argue on Digger's solution, but his points on Fry are well worth consideration. It's a fact of life - the 3-4 is currently going to stay popular for a while. I've watched centers around the league getting hammered by these men at NT, and it's my own belief that an upgrade in size as well as technique at the center position is essential. Wiegmann was a major stud his first year here in Denver, and was a huge pain in our necks when he fought against us for KC (as he will again this year). Tom 'Nails' Nalen was a great, great player, but in the modern NFL, he may have also been a little too small for what is going to be needed, moving into this new decade.
The league is always changing. It's a copy-cat organization, taken as a whole. Bigger and bigger defensive lines lines will require technique, agility and size, rolled into one package. That's going to go for the tackles and guards, certainly, but the center will need those and will also have to have a degree of cerebral ability that must outshine every offensive player but the QB. There aren't going to be a lot of players with all of those qualifications - size, tenacity, that much-loved nasty streak, smarts, technique and skill. Those that have them all will be increasingly valued.
What does Fry bring to the table that Digger didn't mention? Let's start with his college days. He was a candidate for the Rimington Award, given to the nation's top center, in 2006. He played in 46 games with 26 starts at Clemson, registering 171 knockdown blocks. In 2006 as a senior, he started 13 games and opened holes for offense that ranked fifth in the nation in rushing with 217.9 yards per games. That same offensive line allowed only 1.2 sacks per game, the fifth-lowest figure in the nation. but there was something else that helped him to stand apart from other centers, and it bears directly on what I perceive as one of the keys to the modern OL game. In an interview with Ed Thompson of the Clemson school newspaper, Fry mentioned this:
"In the past, when centers made the calls, it was like "you make this call no matter what, you're not reading the defense, you just look, you find the Mike, you make that point." When I kind of took over, more so in my senior year, he gave me more leniency to read the defense more, read the safeties, make your point on what you think they're going to do. It's not like I was just out there like "okay, I think he's coming." We had a game plan. We watch blitzes over and over and if they're a boundary blitz team from the field, what kind of blitzes they run. When I started feeling more liberal in my points and got to read more, it made the game a lot more fun, too. I think it helped out the team a lot better because you can put the guys in the right position to make the right plays."
As intriguing as that is, there was another quote that drew my attention even more. Consider this:
Ed Thompson, interviewer: In 2006, about sixty percent of Clemson's rushing yards came up the middle. That shows a tremendous amount of confidence in you and the guys that were shoulder to shoulder with you. Talk a little bit about that.
DF: Yeah, me and my interior line guys, we came in together and we took a lot of pride in being able to run up the middle and convert short-yardage plays. My right guard and left guard, we love running that inside zone right behind either one of us, right up the gut. We really take pride in that and the backs we had, they made it a lot easier for us.
For a team that has struggled mightily to run up the middle when it is needed, that has to be worthy of serious consideration. The weakness of the 3-4 defense is traditionally exploited by neutralizing the NT and running the ball right up the middle. The Broncos have been failing on that account, and it's cost them several games. Between an aging Wiegmann last season and trouble at left guard and right tackle, running up the middle has been more of a fantasy than a weapon. If Fry can be part of the solution, he'll do well in 2010. It's not like there aren't any Broncos who came off the PS to start recently. Ryan McBean is an obvious example. DJ Johnson left Denver's PS to play with the New York Giants. Tony Carter came on and contributed late in 2009. The line between the PS and the starting squad is often thinner than the fans can know. This could be one of those times.
As a side issue, what's the history of increasing the pay of the offensive line when defenses get bigger, stronger, faster and meaner? Many of you know that it was Pat Bowlen who started the trend of paying left tackles and even guards far above the current market scale, back in 1993. He realized that in order to win the Lombardi Trophy, John Elway would need both a running game and an offensive line that didn't permit the defense to gang-tackle the QB. Pat stepped in and signed guard Brian Habib and left tackle Don Maggs for the then unheard-of sum of 1.5 million dollars, taking a lot of flack from other owners for it. A Broncos spokesmen quickly pointed out the obvious - that John Elway had been sacked 52 times the previous year. Maggs and Habib were being paid to put a stop to that. They did, too. By 1995, Elway's sacks were down to 22, and they stood at 18 for his final, triumphant year in the NFL. A few days after the Denver OL signings, less of a fuss was made when the Colts paid Kirk Lowdermilk, their starting center, a cool 2 million dollars a few days later. That's a trend that I could see increasing. Fry, if he can step into the starting role, could become a very well-paid gentleman. He has the size, the training as a center and a big window of opportunity. Whether or not he fulfills it is another story, one that is yet to be written.
There's no doubt that NTs in the NFL are getting bigger and stronger; even though some of them are not extremely tall or heavy, they all know how to move their strength around. The center of the future is gong to hvae to reflect that tendency - technique is essential, but technique combined with strength is better still. That's another area that Fry brings some substance to the table:
ET: And you were named an All-American Strength and Conditioning Athlete by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. What do you think you did while you were at Clemson that helped gain you that type of recognition?
DF: I think just how I showed my coaches how I worked in the weight room. The numbers I came in with and the numbers I left with, how much I increased with those. Leadership in the weight room, just how you conduct yourself, a lot of guys just watch you to see how you work out. If you start slacking a little bit, they're going to slack a little bit, too. I really enjoy the weight room and that atmosphere and I think it was just my strength coach just rewarding me. Since I'd been there that was an award that I wanted to earn.
You have to like the strength. Without technique, it's just a passing interest - lots of guys who can't play are strong. The difference is, not many guys who are unusually powerful are also candidates for the Rimington Award. This comes from his Clemson bio:
...among the strongest players on the team; his 500-pound bench press in February of 2006 tied for seventh-best by a Clemson lineman since 1984; tied with Nathan Bennett for the team lead in that category...his 1,830 total pounds lifted in all areas is fourth-best on record and best on the team...had 36 reps of 225 pounds, the sixth-best figure by a Tiger lineman since 1984 and the best on the 2006 team by nine reps...had a 655-pound squat lift in 2006 that was tied for first on the team with Roman Fry; tied with him for the team-best in the hang clean (410) as well.
To add to the overall picture, you need to go back to his high school days. He played for Summerville, NC. and he was coached there, in high school, by John McKissick, the winningest high school football coach in United States history. Fry was also a state champion in wrestling as a junior and won second in the shot put state title as a junior. He started at offensive guard and tackle during his HS career, and recorded 80 knockdown blocks as a senior, grading over 80 percent for blocking consistency in every game. he was rated as one of the top four football prospects in the state of South Carolina and played in the Shrine Bowl after his final season. That's a very good start to a possible professional career: Players who are winners tend to start that way and end that way. The start is a matter of history - the end has yet to be played. But the more that I knew about Dustin Fry, the more comfortable I became with where the Broncos are now.
I believe in adding the negatives to the upbeat profiles of each player - none of them are all good or all bad, Nate 'The Helmet' Webster aside. Fry deserves a look at both sides of his pre-draft scouting reports. I'll go with the positives first, from cbssports.com:
Positives: Lacks muscle tone (Note - that one has been addressed), but has good overall body thickness, long arms, natural strength, round midsection, thick hips, thighs and calves and big bubble ... Has good knee bend and balance for a player with his girth, showing good quickness firing off the snap to block in space ... Has adequate foot movement in his kick slide and does a good job of mirroring the defender in one-on-one action ... Plays with a nasty streak and likes to use his hand punch to shock and jolt ... Made good strides as a senior to improve his marginal hand placement, appearing to be more active shooting and recoiling his hands with force ... Uses his leg drive to wall off and turn the defender while maintaining position, doing a nice job of coming off the snap to reach the interior defender ... Gets out of his stance nicely, generating good explosion to generate movement off the snap for the running game, showing functional quickness in the short area ... Uses his hands properly to set, pop and stop the bull rush charge, and learned in 2006 how to use his body mass to deliver more force behind his blocks ... Despite his girth, he demonstrates decent knee bend and flexibility, staying low in his anchor ... Plays flat-footed, making good body adjustments in his lateral slide and rolls his hips and punches with his hands to drive the defender off the ball ... Very effective at bumping the defensive tackle, climbing into the short area and redirecting to hit and land on targets in space ... Tough lineman who will compete and challenge defenders ... Smart and very instinctive, making all of the calls at the line, rarely making any assignment mistakes ... Hard worker in the weight room whose 500-pound bench press ranks among the best all-time by a Clemson player ... Has the leg base to keep his balance dropping back in pass protection (will get jerked forward by a defender when he gets too tall in his stance, though) ... Does a nice job of incline blocking, adjusting to stunts on the move.
Negatives: Inconsistent getting to the second level, lacking the sustained speed and tends to get top heavy, crossing his feet and narrowing his base to make it easy for defenders to pull him down to the ground ... While he has a good hand punch, he will overextend, causing him to not sustain blocks for long ... Relies more on strength, as he is not known for getting position and finessing his man ... Trips over his feet trying to get out to neutralize the linebackers ... Has an effective hand jolt, but will still revert to catching the defender rather than rocking him back at times ... Must learn to play at a lower pad level, as he gets too upright in his stance ... Can handle defenders one-on-one, but is susceptible to the speed move ... Good on the short pull, but struggles to locate linebackers, as he tends to keep his head down moving up field ... Has improved his hand placement, but needs to reset them quicker in order to defeat counter moves.
The Broncos do have other options. they used Seth Olsen at center on the scout team last season. Could Olsen take the starting slot? A 6'5, 308 player, he was trained there last season, but doesn't have a long history at the position. He's also unusually smart, has good if not great size and is another Iowa OL - that school consistently turns out some of the best trained OL players in the nation. But, Fry has an edge in experience as well as size. Russ Hochstein (6'4, 305) has also been mentioned by Josh McDaniels as a possible next center. Like the others, he's a size upgrade over Casey Wiegmann. He has some credentials, too - he started 25 games in his regular-season and playoff career with the Patriots at five different positions-10 games at center, seven games at right guard, five games at left guard, two games at fullback and one game at tight end, which pretty much covers why McD is holding on to him. That kind of versatility is hard to find and hard to pass up on, especially for those of us who are hoping that Spencer Larsen will get a break from playing fullback and see if he can handle the duties at ILB. But Hochstein didn't show me, last season, what I wanted to see from a Denver OL player. He did, however, register 342 career knockdowns as a three-year starter and all-Big 12 performer at right guard at the University of Nebraska and has some SB rings to his credit, so he's not chopped liver, either. But is he a better candidate than Fry?
In the end, the question may well be whether or not any of these three are good enough to keep the Broncos attention or whether a center is required in the draft. In my own opinion - required? No. Desired? Only those who've seen Fry, Olsen and Hochstein snapping the ball can tell us that, and they aren't talking. But when the fans are deeply concerned with the seeming lack of a center, and thrown off by what seems to be a lack of urgency on the part of McX and company, it could be a good time to take a deep breath. the Broncos may take a center in the draft. If they do, it's likely that he will follow in the footsteps of most offensive linemen - he'll sit out the first year. That may not be true if they take a OL in the first or second round - or it may be true, even so. The learning curve from dominating in college to succeeding in the NFL is often steep, and there are few players like Ryan Clady who can make the jump seemingly effortless. Only time will tell
Without question, I expect that the Broncos will address the OL to some degree in this draft. When they will so do, and whether they will immediately start that player is a different set of questions entirely. We know almost nothing of monster guard Matt McChesney, and about as much about D'Anthony Baptiste. They are the wild cards in this game, possible options that could change the entire nature of the draft if they turn out to have the skill to get onto the field on game day. But that's one of the many things that is making this offseason so exciting, so interesting. Many teams are more established. They are more predictable in the draft becuase their rosters are nearly set. In Denver, nearly every position on the team is open for the taking.
If that doesn't get your blood going, you probably just aren't a Broncos fan. As for me - this is one of the most enjoyable offseason in recent memory. The draft has been compared to the experience of Christmas morning. OTAs and training camp will be just as intriguing, given the number of unknowns that the team and its fans are faced with. One of those unknowns is the possibility of Dustin W. Fry. We'll know a lot more after the draft. Happy Draftivus to all.
Note; This article would not have been possible without the substantial and greatly appreciated efforts of Kaptain Kirk Davis, who put together most of the research for me, based on an old template that I developed years ago. In addition, the feedback and contributions of Ken/Digger filled out much of what I wanted to say herein. My deep thanks to both of them, and to all of the members who have been sending their thoughts, questions and comments to me, permitting me to develop the ideas that result in these works. My gratitude to them and to all - thank you.