Erik McCoy

The Saints selected former Texas A&M center Erik McCoy in the second round of the NFL Draft, just weeks after longtime center Max Unger announced his retirement. 

The New Orleans Saints coveted Erik McCoy.

It's why they chose to trade up and jump 14 spots to select the center out of Texas A&M in the second round of the NFL draft Friday.

But with the team having just signed center Nick Easton in free agency, presumably filling the void of retired center Max Unger, how soon will McCoy be able to contribute?

"All these guys have a transition to make," coach Sean Payton said. "It is hard to predict that sometimes. He is smart, and yet I think in fairness to the process and the veterans that are here, there's a lot that has to happen for young players to come in."

But based on history of the NFL draft in recent years, McCoy should be expected to come in and play a key role right away — at least if he's anything like the other centers drafted in the first two rounds over the past decade.

NFL executives rarely miss when it comes to drafting centers early.

Going back to 2009, teams have drafted 14 centers in the first two rounds. Thirteen of those 14 started at least 10 games during their rookie seasons. The only one who didn't was Rodney Hudson, who started just one game but played in all 16 as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011.

Eight of the 14 centers started in all 16 games their rookie years. Many of them, like Detroit Lions' 2018 first-round draft pick Frank Ragnow, shifted to another position during their rookie years.

Ragnow played center in college at Arkansas but started all 16 games at left guard for the Lions as a rookie. He is among six of the 14 centers drafted in the first two rounds over the past 10 years who played another position in their first year in the NFL.

McCoy brings that type of flexibility as well.

"I have a lot more experience at center, but I played guard pretty much every spring I was at A&M," McCoy said. "I have a couple starts there and I played it in high school, so I'm pretty flexible."

Payton, for his part, said Friday shortly after drafting McCoy that the vision is for him to play center.

"I think we'll see once he gets here, but I see him at the position he played in college and let him come in," Payton said. "(With) Nick (Easton) as well, there's flexibility (and) both of them are smart guys that we feel like have that flexibility. But it's early now, but I think we see him as someone coming in as a center.”

Video: Newly drafted Erik McCoy breaks down into tears after Saints move up to take him

Other than replacing Unger at the center position, the Saints offensive line looks to already be intact. Left tackle Terron Armstead, left guard Andrus Peat, right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk all return on a unit that was one of the team's greatest strengths.

So just finding a spot for McCoy on an O-line that paved the way for the league's sixth-best rushing attack and allowed the second fewest sacks may be the tough part.

On the other hand, offensive line is a unit that's been hit with injuries over the past few years, forcing Payton to reshuffle. If McCoy remains as durable in the pros as he did in college, could help with that. He started in 39 games in college playing in the Southeastern Conference, a level of play that Payton says should help in on the next level.

"You get to see him against guys he is going to play against at this next level," Payton said. "It's more challenging (to evaluate) when it is a smaller school. That doesn't eliminate the smaller-school prospect, but (it helps) when you see the level of competition of the conference he’s playing in. Some of the better defensive tackles in our country in this draft were coming out of the SEC. He was very consistent. He's a physical player. He's smart."

Five SEC centers were drafted in the first two rounds over the past decade — Maurkice Pouncey (Florida), Mike Pouncey (Florida), Ryan Kelly (Alabama), Ethan Pocic (LSU) and Ragnow (Arkansas). All five stepped in immediately, and all five are staples on their current teams.

Four of the five former SEC centers started all 16 games as rookies. The only one who didn't was LSU's Pocic, who started 11 games at guard during his first season in 2017 with the Seattle Seahawks. He played in all 16 games.

The Saints are expecting that same type of immediate impact from McCoy, one of three centers drafted in the first two rounds this year. (North Carolina State's Garrett Bradbury, drafted by the Vikings, and Mississippi State's Elgton Jenkins, picked by the Packers, were the others.) The Saints moved up 14 spots to make sure they got him.  

“Look, he checks all of the boxes in terms of productive, tough, smart, all of the things you want in an offensive lineman," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "He’ll fit right in to our room. We’ve got a great O-line room, and he’ll fit right in. No question, he checked all of the boxes.”

Rookie impact of centers drafted in first 2 rounds since 2009

2018

(1) Frank Ragnow, Arkansas, DET (Started all 16 games at left guard, despite playing center in college)

(1) Billy Price, Ohio State, CIN (Started first two games at center, got hurt, then started the final eight games)

(2) James Daniels, Iowa, CHI (Started nine games at left guard, one at right guard)

2017

(2) Ethan Pocic, LSU, SEA (Started five games at left guard, six at right guard; played in all 16 games)

2016

(1) Ryan Kelly, Alabama, IND (Started all 16 games at center)

(2) Cody Whitehair, Kansas State, CHI (started 16 games, made all rookie team; played every snap in 2018)

2015

None

2014

(2) Weston Richburg, Colorado State, NYG (started 15 games at left guard; moved back to center second season)

2013

(1) Travis Frederick, Wisconsin, DAL (start16 games, made all rookie team; started all 80 games in career)

2012

None

2011

(1) Mike Pouncey, Florida, MIA (4-time Pro Bowler started all 16 games as a rookie)

(2) Stefan Wisniewski, Penn State, OAK (started 16 games at left guard, moved back to center second year)

(2) Rodney Hudson, Florida State, KC (started once, played in all 16 games; starter second season; 2 Pro Bowls)

2010

(1) Maurkice Pouncey, Florida, PIT (7 time Pro Bowler, including rookie season when he started 16 games)

2009

(1) Alex Mack, Cal, CLE (6 time Pro Bowler started all 16 games as rookie and made Pro Bowl his second season)

(1) Eric Wood, Louisville, BUF (started first 10 games at guard, switched back to center in second season)


Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.