As a rookie, Luke Bowanko saw 14 games as starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars at center.
As a sophomore, he might see the bench.
The sixth-round pick Bowanko played better than most forecasted last season, taking hold of a starting center spot in Week 3 and cementing himself into a wall of young group of linemen. He quickly established himself athletically, showcasing great movement and nimble feet on the field.
But, Bowanko lacked enough strength and discipline to be consistent at his position, demonstrating the need for him to bulk up and mature if he wants to be considered the long-term answer at center. Luke will get a chance to prove himself this offseason.
Stefen Wisniewski, formerly on the Oakland Raiders, will have quite a lot to prove this offseason as well. After news of his torn labrum kept him suspended in free agency limbo for a while, the Jaguars snatched him up to come compete for a starting role in the offense. The Jaguars gave Wisniewski a "prove it" one-year deal, which could possibly lead to a long-term deal if he can get healthy and prove himself.
"My plan is to be a starter," Wisniewski said. He's started all four years of his Raider career, and he didn’t travel cross-country at this point in his career to become someone’s backup. Although there could be a situation in which Bowanko, Zane Beadles, and the newly acquired Wisniewski play musical chairs for two starting interior line spots, most anticipate Bowanko and Wisniewski to go head-to-head during training camp for the position.
Interior depth and notable competition within the offensive line can only be regarded as a luxury, as the Jaguars have struggled in the past maintaining consistent play and healthy 300-pound bodies.
Still, neither Bowanko or Wisniewski are completely polished prospects. Each player brings a set of both very different and very similar assets to the position, just as each hold on to several faults that could hinder their ability to win the starting job this year. I dove into the tape to pick apart just how each player conducts himself at the center position.
One important consequence of the battle for center will be the change in overall makeup of the Jaguars offensive line going forward. Bringing Doug Marrone in this offseason and getting stronger up front in free agency points to the Jaguars moving in a gap blocking direction.
In the past, however, the Jaguars have used more zone blocking patterns. As the Jaguars have continued their on-going transition to a hybrid-zone blocking scheme, certain lineman traits have become more cherished than others. In a zone blocking scheme, athletic ability is valued over size a lot of the time, as well as precise technique over muscle. Luke Bowanko seems to fit this blueprint pretty well, as he makes up for his lack of strength with great movement and an athletic skill set.
The Jaguars offensive line had one of their better showings against the Baltimore Ravens late last season. In the running play below, Bowanko's speed and agility allows him to combo block and get to the second level.
Luke is shown above, circled in red. He is covered in this example by Brandon Williams (No. 98).
At the snap, Luke gets a piece of Williams, allowing Linder to slide over and clean up the rest of the block.
Here, Bowanko pushes through to the second level. He sets his sights on his assignment, one of the linebackers, former Jaguars linebacker Daryl Smith.
Bowanko sizes Smith up. The big man uses his light feet to place himself in a position to get underneath the linebacker.
Here, Bowanko doesn't allow Smith to run over and plug the hole. Bowanko gets his back to the running back and drives Smith away from the action. Storm Johnson takes advantage of the absence of players trying to take his head off, and picks up a big chunk of yardage.
Bowanko's athletic development allowed plays like this to become a routine part of the Jaguars run game late in the season. Astonishingly, plays like the one below were routine for Bowanko as well.
Below, Bowanko shotgun snaps and pulls - something hardly any centers in the NFL can do ably, much less on a consistent basis. The rookie pulled these plays off seamlessly throughout the season.
Here's the set up. Bortles is lined up in shotgun. The ball is going to Gerhart, and he's going to take it off the right guard. Bowanko and Linder are going to pull, while Sam Young is going to slap the defensive tackle in the mouth.
Here's the snap. Bowanko gets off the line fast, and pulls around Sam Young.
Linder leads the way, but Bowanko cleans up the lane. Bowanko's speed allows him to set a hole that even Gerhart can find. Plays like this one were perpetual money makers as the Jaguars developed their run game last season, and it was very much because of Bowanko's athletic ability at the center position.
Wisniewski, playing through injury last season, was able to maintain and employ his positional strength as an advantage. Though not as consistently as Bowanko, Wisniewski also used his agility to get out in front. Below, you can see Wisniewski clear the way for a routine rushing play.
Wisniewski lines up uncovered. His responsibility is to attack the free safety, Husain Abdullah, lined up in the box.
Here, Wisniewski uses his power and agility to get off the line and into the free safety quickly.
Wisniewski turns the Wisniewski, gifting Latavius Murray with open field in front.
The whole sequence is pretty vanilla, which is a good way to describe most of Wisniewski's film. This isn't a bad thing -- if anything, monotonous play is the one thing you ask for out of your center. Consistency is what leads a reliable, long-term asset at an offensive line position.
Consistency is also what allows Wisniewski to stay disciplined and employ his veteran instincts in plays like the one below.
Here, Wisniewski is uncovered in pass protection.
At the snap, Wisniewski remains exposed. Instead of overstepping to the direction he is facing, he maintains his position by staying parallel to the rest of the offensive line.
Here, the defensive end performs a stunt and rotates back towards Wisniewski. You can see him anticipating the move and arranging his feet into stance.
By remaining disciplined, Wisniewski is able to combo block the rusher and allow Derek Carr more time.
Wisniewski has now completely engaged the pass rusher. The pocket Derek Carr has is so empty, it might as well be Everbank Field. (You're fired, Cole.) Carr is able to loiter in the pocket until he eventually throws a 20-yard completion.
Last season, Wisniewski's veteran skill set usually seemed to heighten the Raiders offensive line aptitude as a whole. Sometimes, however, Wisniewski has moments that show why he isn't a flawless center prospect.
Here, Wisniewski starts out uncovered. The offensive line sets up after going through their progressions and line changes.
Before the snap, Pierre-Louis Kevin and K.J. Wright push up towards the line of scrimmage. You can see Wisniewski turn his head to recognize this. There is no further adjustment.
When the ball is snapped, Wisniewski immediately becomes overwhelmed. The strategy with two inside rushers is to pass one off to the running back, which Wisniewski is somewhat able to do.
The running back is able to hold his ground against Wright, but Wisniewski is unable to contain Kevin. On this play, Wisniewski is just too slow to keep up with his assignment. Kevin skips around the center and Carr takes a hit.
Unfortunately, Bowanko got overpowered even more than Wiz did last season. In the example below, Bowanko is unable to protect his rookie quarterback.
Timmy Jernigan (No. 97) is covering Bowanko here.
At the snap, Bowanko tries his best to get up under Jernigan. Chris Canty, circled in blue, starts to shift over.
Canty disengages Bowanko from his block by overpowering him as Jernigan slips around.
Bowanko gets shoved out of the play. Jernigan is hunting Bortles like it's open season.
Bortles has no time to progress through his second read as he gets demolished. Luke Bowanko is so far from the action that he might as well be running a route as a receiver.
In another example below, Bowanko fails to recognize the defensive set and gets caught out of position.
Bowanko lines up, once again uncovered.
When the ball is snapped, Luke steps up in pass protection and immediately becomes preoccupied with the action to his left. Unnoticed by Bowanko, Jernigan is coming for the kill.
As Bowanko's eyes are glued to the defensive tackle to the left, Jernigan hits Luke in the mouth. Bowanko wasn't prepared for the hit. Bortles' space to throw is now rapidly diminishing.
This is the moment Bortles releases the ball. Luke Bowanko is virtually on top of his quarterback. During this play, the pass is actually completed downfield to Hurns. However, offensive lines that have the sturdiness of wet paper usually force young quarterbacks into mistakes.
While Bowanko does lack true strength, this was not a case of losing the battle. This play was an example of how lack of discipline can lead to being out of position, which leads to being overpowered. I doesn't matter how strong you are -- if you are out of position, you allow an extreme advantage to a charging defense.
To maintain the starting center position in 2015, Bowanko faces an uphill battle. Not only does he have a responsibility to get stronger and absorb more into his role, but Luke needs to find a way to become more fluent in the things he does so well. For a sixth-round pick, Bowanko was fairly consistent as a rookie. Now he has to find a way to grow out of his athletic shell, showing he has more to lend the offensive than just speed and untapped agility.
Wisniewski, first and foremost, needs to get healthy. Without becoming 100% whole, he will not find himself in a race for the starting center position. Upholding a veteran presence through training camp could place him ahead of young Bowanko in the battle as the Jaguars look for a source of leadership. The objective for Wisniewski then becomes to grow into his role on the offense, finding a way to cement himself as an unmovable centerpiece in the offensive line.
To truly force Gus Bradley's hand, Wisniewski will have to improve just as much as Luke. Neither player, at this point in time, can be labeled as the answer at center, which makes this offseason battle a fundamental component of how the overall offensive line looks in 2015.
Wisniewski has already asserted himself as the big fish, so now we see if Bowanko sinks or swims. Each player fishing for one spot during training camp -- I can't wait to sea it.