Top 10 best centers in NFL history

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July 6th, 2021

While not the most glorified position in football, center is one of the most important pieces of an NFL roster.

A skilled multitasker on the offensive line, the center must snap the ball with precision and speed to the quarterback, then immediately set up to block an imposing defender.

Jason Kelce, Maurkice Pouncey, Alex Mack, and Rodney Hudson are among the most gifted centers in the league today and may one day see themselves in the Hall of Fame.

Until their careers are finished, we'll turn our attention to those who came before. Let's rank the 10 best centers in NFL history — all of whom are enshrined in Canton.

10. Kevin Mawae (Seattle Seahawks 1994-1997, New York Jets 1998-2005, Tennessee Titans 2006-2009)

Mawae received six consecutive Pro Bowl honors with the Jets, plus two more with the Titans.

The seven-time first-team All-Pro laid the groundwork for seven of Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin’s 10 1,000-yard seasons in New York.

In Tennessee, Mawae helped the team set a franchise record, with an NFL-low 12 sacks allowed (tied with Denver) in 2008.

During Mawae’s 16-year NFL tenure, he helped produce a 1,000-yard rusher in 13 seasons.

In Mawae's final NFL campaign, Chris Johnson ran for 2,006 yards, the sixth most by a running back in a single season.  

9. Frank Gatski (Cleveland Browns 1946-1956, Detroit Lions 1957)

After a two-year apprenticeship behind Mo Scarry, Gatski emerged as the regular center for the Cleveland Browns in 1948.

In his first season with the full-time job, he won his third of four AAFC championships. He also went on to win four NFL titles, one of which occurred with the Lions in his final season.

The outstanding pass blocker quickly became known as one of the premier centers of his era and was selected first-team All-Pro from 1951-1953 and in 1955.

In 12 pro seasons, he played in 11 championship games and never missed a practice or game in high school, college, or the pros.

8. Jim Langer (Miami Dolphins 1970-1979, Minnesota Vikings 1980-1981)

One of just five Dolphins players elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, Langer was a lesser-known star on Miami's 1972 undefeated team.

He played every snap of that 17-0 season and appeared in 141 consecutive games, from 1972 until a knee injury in 1979.

Langer reached three Super Bowls with the Dolphins and won two. He also collected six Pro Bowl nominations, plus first-team All-Pro three times, and was voted the Dolphins’ most valuable player in 1975.

7. Dermontti Dawson (Pittsburgh Steelers 1988-2000)

A second-round draft pick out of Kentucky, Dawson replaced another great on our list in 1989.

During his 13-year career, Dawson racked up seven straight Pro Bowl nominations and was named first-team All-Pro six times.

He doesn’t have a Super Bowl win on his résumé, but helped take Pittsburgh to the big game in 1995, the team’s first appearance since 1979.

With Dawson at center, Pittsburgh led the NFL in rushing twice, in 1994 and 1997, the year Jerome Bettis ran for a career-high 1,665 yards.

Dawson is second all-time in consecutive games played for the Steelers (170).

6. Jim Ringo (Green Bay Packers 1953-1963, Philadelphia Eagles (1964-1967)

Ringo almost quit football for good, when the 211-pound rookie got his first taste of Packers training camp and thought he had no shot to earn the starting job at center.

It turned out he was good enough. Although he was undersized, Ringo used his speed and football IQ to outwit opponents.  

He played in 10 Pro Bowls and earned seven first-team All-Pro honors. He also became the centerpiece of Vince Lombardi’s Packers offenses and helped Green Bay win the NFL championship in 1961 and 1962.

Ringo protected quarterback Bart Starr, and helped Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung combine for more than 3,500 rushing yards and 47 scores across two championship seasons.

It is estimated Ringo handled the ball more than 12,000 times in his career, including 1,000 snaps for punts or placekicks.

5. Clyde “Bulldog” Turner (Chicago Bears 1940-1952)

Turner was such a standout talent in college, the Detroit Lions’ owner, George Richards, paid for Turner’s dental work and asked him to announce publicly that he would not play pro football, so other teams would not draft him.

When the Lions were caught and fined for tampering, the Bears swooped in and scooped up Turner with the seventh overall pick in the 1940 NFL Draft.

The Bears’ good fortune turned greater. Turner dominated both as a center and linebacker and helped Chicago win four NFL championships (1940, 1941, 1943, 1946).

He earned two Pro Bowl nominations and first-team All-Pro eight times across 13 seasons. He also led the league in interceptions (eight) in 1942 and consistently put in brutal blocks as one of the best centers of his era.

4. Dwight Stephenson (Miami Dolphins 1980-1987)

Stephenson didn’t win a Super Bowl, but his Dolphins accomplished something no other team has.

From 1982 to 1987, Stephenson and Miami surrendered the fewest sacks in the NFL for a record six consecutive seasons.

A second-round draft pick out of Alabama, Stephenson quickly emerged as a star. He was nominated to the Pro Bowl from 1983-1987 and was a first-team All-Pro selection those same seasons. He also earned AFC Offensive Lineman of the Year from the NFLPA five times during that span.

Stevenson appeared in 107 consecutive games and started in 80 straight, until the 1987 players’ strike.  

As the starting center, he competed in the 1982, 1984, and 1985 AFC title games, along with Super Bowls XVII and XIX.

3. Mel Hein (New York Giants 1931-1945)

Known as “Old Indestructible,” Hein manned the center position at a time when players competed on both offense and defense.

In addition to laying on ferocious tackles at linebacker, Hein was a force on the offensive line, and only once called a timeout (for a broken nose) during his regular, 60 straight minutes of play.

Across 15 seasons in New York, he earned first-team All-NFL honors from 1933-1940 and is the only center, and the first offensive lineman, to win NFL MVP.

He reached seven NFL championship games over a 10-year span and won two, in 1934 and 1938.

2. Mike Webster (Pittsburgh Steelers 1974-1988, Kansas City Chiefs 1989-1990)

Nicknamed “Iron Mike,” Webster captained the offensive line of the 1970s Steelers dynasty that featured Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier.  

Drafted in the fifth round of the 1974 NFL draft, Webster played backup to center Ray Mansfield for his first two seasons, then became the starter in 1976.

He played 150 consecutive games from there and served as Steelers’ captain for nine years.

On top of his four Super Bowl victories (1975, 1976, 1979, 1980), Webster was named to the Pro Bowl nine times and was a first-team All-Pro seven times.

1. Jim Otto (Oakland Raiders 1960-1974)

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, Otto set the standard for excellence at center.

Undersized at the position at the start of his pro career in the AFL, Otto worked to build his playing weight up to 255 pounds and increased his durability.

As a member of the Oakland Raiders, Otto played in 210 consecutive regular-season games and never missed a contest because of injury. He was one of only 20 players to play for the entire 10-year existence of the AFL and one of three to compete in all of his team’s AFL games.

Otto was named first-team All-AFL in each of his 10 seasons in the league (1960-1969) and earned three Pro Bowl nominations, from 1970-1972.  

His brilliance propelled Oakland from AFL bottom-dweller to league champion in 1967. The Raiders also won seven divisional championships in an eight-year period (1967-1974) and led the AFL in points scored from 1967-1969.