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Steelers Analysis

Steelers Have Intriguing Internal Center Options as Draft Insurance

James Daniels, Nate Herbig and Spencer Anderson are options to move to center if the Pittsburgh Steelers want an internal option to replace Mason Cole.



Pittsburgh Steelers right guard James Daniels
Pittsburgh Steelers right guard James Daniels in a game against the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 15, 2024. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers sent their biggest message yet that they consider center a serious need this offseason on Friday, releasing starting center Mason Cole out of the blue.

Cole struggled in 2023 and had been entering the final season of his contract with an elevated salary cap hit, but the Steelers still had three weeks of draft scouting and free agency prep before they had to make a decision about Cole this season.

The fact that they did so ahead of time implies a confidence in being able to get what they’re looking for at the position.

There is a ton of enthusiasm for the centers in the 2024 NFL Draft class, and rightly so, as there are four players that could be plug-and-play starters at the position, and the Steelers have been heavily linked to at least one of them.

But the Steelers over the years have been loathe to enter the draft process absolutely needing to land a player at a position of need.

When the Steelers needed a quarterback in 2022, they signed Mitch Trubisky before drafting Kenny Pickett. In 2019, they signed Mark Barron before drafting Devin Bush. 

They’ve done that so that they can pass on the position if the draft doesn’t break the way they hope, and so that they don’t feel forced to start their first-round pick in Week 1 if he doesn’t prove to be ready.

When the salary cap or other circumstances have interfered with that usual way of doing business in the past, the results have been disastrous — particularly on the offensive line. In 2021, the Steelers went in needing a tackle and a center, and didn’t get them until the third and fourth rounds, with rookies Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green starting and struggling mightily in what became Ben Roethlisberger’s final season.

The Steelers are still dealing with the repercussions of those draft failures, and very well could draft a center and a tackle to replace Moore and Cole, who replaced Green, this year.

With Cole released, the Steelers will need to bolster the center position between now and April if they want to avoid a similar situation to 2021. There are several options on the free agent market, with recently released former Los Angeles Rams starter Brian Allen and ex-Tennessee Titans center Aaron Brewer, who has a connection to new Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, standing out.

But the Steelers also have some internal options at center that, combined with the depth of talent available in this year’s draft class, may give them enough confidence to not need to make another move.

James Daniels, the Steelers’ starting right guard, has played center in the past, and done it well. Daniels split time between center and guard with the Chicago Bears in 2019. He started both his sophomore and junior year at Iowa at center, and that play is what got him drafted into the NFL. 

While moving Daniels from guard to center would simply shift the hole over one spot, the Steelers have more depth at guard, where former starter Nate Herbig is signed as a backup.

Herbig is also an option to move to center himself. He has played all three interior positions in his NFL career, but has played the least center, making just 49 snaps between 2020 and 2021 with the Philadelphia Eagles. Herbig played guard and tackle in college at Stanford, so his move to center would be much more dramatic, but he has done it in the past and is certainly a serviceable NFL lineman.

The last of the choices on the current depth chart is also a bit of a projection. Spencer Anderson, the team’s seventh-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, played a grand total of two snaps of offense in his rookie season. So he’s far from a sure thing.

He did play some center in college, working as a part-time starter there at Maryland in 2021. He also played there some in 2020. Anderson played all five positions in college, and while guard seems to be his most likely fit in the NFL, the team has flirted with the idea of trying him at center.

It seems hard to believe at this point that they would consider him a sure enough thing to not add another player to the position, but the existence of Anderson as a fall-back could give the team the confidence to try one of the above moves instead of finding a more-proven veteran in free agency.

Its seems that a free-agent signing is the more likely outcome, but the Steelers do have some internal options if they want to try to wait it out and get their 2024 starting center in the draft.