LaShawn Maurkice Pouncey, who played 11 NFL seasons at center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, retired just a few weeks ago, leaving a gaping hole right in front of Ben Roethlisberger in the offensive line.
The strong center was drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Pouncey might never have won a Super Bowl with the Steelers. But in a storied career, he became a nine-time Pro Bowler, appeared in five All-Pro teams and was also named in the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team.
In other words, Maurkice Pouncey has been the consensus-agreed best center in football for most of his 10-year career. Replacing him like-for-like in Pittsburgh will almost certainly be an impossible task.
NFL: Three best replacements for Maurkice Pouncey
Football never sleeps, though, so the Steelers will need to do what they can to plug the big Pouncey-sized hole on the OL as soon as possible, and with the top center available.
Tentative efforts to fill the void have already begun. But it's unlikely veteran OL BJ Finney, who returned to Pittsburgh on a one-year deal a fortnight ago, will be Pouncey's long-term replacement at the center, certainly not for long.
On that note, let's take a look at the three best possible replacements, in no particular order, for Maurkice Pouncey either in the NFL Draft, during the free-agency period or via trade:
#1 Creed Humphrey (Oklahoma Sooners) - via the first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft
Most 2021 NFL Mock Draft boards predict that Creed Humphrey will be the first center selected in the draft in late-April, with most penciling him in as a late first to early second-round pick.
The Pittsburg Steelers have the 24th overall pick in the NFL first round draft, making Humphrey a viable replacement for Maurkice Pouncey -- this one really could happen - in my opinion.
Humphrey was named third-team AP All-American in 2020. He was also named the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year and a first-team All-Big 12 pick by the league’s head coaches and journalists.
The Sooner started all of his 11 games at center during the 2020 NFL campaign and was rated America's 67th overall best college football player (and the fourth-best center) by PFF. PFF also noted that Humphrey did not allow a single sack during the 401 pass plays he was out on the turf for.
Of course, it's impossible to tell if a dominant college offensive lineman can handle the increase in level that the NFL brings. But Humphrey has the most potential and possibly the highest ceiling of all centers in this year's NFL draft.
Expect to see Pittsburgh in the running for his signature.
#2 Frank Ragnow (Detroit Lions) - to be signed via trade
PFF's best-ranked center in the 2020 NFL season was the former-Packer, Corey Linsley, who got signed up on a big-money deal by the LA Chargers shortly after appearing on the free agency market last week.
With Linsley the man tasked with feeding and protecting the NFL's Rookie of the Year QB, Justin Herbert, there is no way the Chargers will want to trade him at this point. So the next best option available for Pittsburgh is to try and pry Frank Ragnow from Detroit.
The Lions may have had their struggles in 2020, But the offensive line actually did a pretty decent job of creating time and space for the backfield to exploit and were ranked 13th in the NFL.
A huge part of the OL's success was Frank Ragnow, who received an 80.3 ranking and was named the second-best center via PFF last season. If the Steelers are serious about replacing the legendary Maurkice Pouncey with the best possible option, the former Arkansas Razorback must be under consideration.
Ragnow stands to receive a base salary that's just north of £2 million in 2021, but his earnings go up significantly to £12.5 million in 2022.
With the Lions at the start of a rebuild (and in desperate need of some new talent on the receiving corps), a deal to take Frank Ragnow to Pittsburgh is a possibility; Detroit might not want him on £12.5 million a year in the 2022 season:
In the likes of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and the recently franchise-tagged JuJu Smith Schuster, the Steelers have an abundance of talent in the receiver positions and are capable of making a trade: A combination of Smith-Schuster, a 2021 NFL first-round pick and a 2022 NFL third-round pick could be enough to get the Lions to bite
#3 Landon Dickerson (Alabama Crimson Tide) - Using the Steelers' first/ second-round pick at the 2021 NFL Draft
The Steelers already missed the boat for this year's top-rated centers in the free agency market: Corey Linsley has gone to the Chargers; Alex Mack has joined the 49ers, and Joe Thuney -- who can play center - will take the turf with the Chiefs, come autumn.
There is no other center on the free agency pile that could replace Maurkice Pouncey; not now, which brings us back to the 2021 NFL Draft, and this time to Alabama Crimson Tides' Landon Dickerson:
Dickerson was quite possibly the best interior offensive linemen in college football during the 2020 season and was named the winner of the Rimington Trophy, an award presented annually to America's top center.
PFF named Dickerson as its top-rated run-blocking center in college football with a grade of 92.8. Dickerson is coming off the back of a championship-winning season in which he made a lot of calls for an offensive line that blocked for the Power 5’s highest-scoring offense, too (48.5 ppg).
The Steelers could use their first-round pick on Dickerson instead of Creed Humphrey, or coach Mike Tomlin and co. could wait to see how far Dickerson drops down the board on the big day (some analysts have the Alabama center going off the board as late as the midway through the second round) and then try to trade up in the second round to get him.
In doing so, the Steelers would be able to use that first-round pick on someone like Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw or Dickerson's partner in crime on the Crimson Tide OL, Alex Leatherwood, to replace the underrated Alejandro Villaneuva (who is still a free agent) at left tackle.
If Pittsburgh Steelers emerge out of the 2021 NFL Draft with two of the top-ranked talents at offensive line, Steelers fans could begin to dream of a post-Mike Pouncey world where Roethlisberger still has the time he needs to pull strings in the pocket. As such, it's this third choice that would be my personal preference.