AFC Championship game should remind Jaguars importance of having a high-end center

• The AFC Championship featured two of the top centers in the NFL

• It was a remainder of how important the position is

• The Jaguars could most definitely use an upgrade

Dec 25, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs center Creed Humphrey (52) and guard
Dec 25, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs center Creed Humphrey (52) and guard / Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Center Luke Fortner may very well have the tools to play at a high level in the NFL. There's even a chance he'll be able to put it all together. However, he's one of the biggest reasons the Jacksonville Jaguars couldn't run the ball nor protect Trevor Lawrence last season. And as much as general manager Trent Baalke might want to defend him from criticism, Fortner simply isn't very good. If he watched the AFC Championship game, he then saw what a truly top-notch center looked like.

The Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs have two of the best centers in the whole league, Tyler Linderbaum and Creed Humphrey, respectively. The two have combined for one total pressure in the postseason and neither has gotten lots of attention, meaning they both delivered. In fact, the only reason Humphrey has made the news in recent days was because he professed his love for crab cakes and food in general.

Both Humphrey and Linderbaum were first-round picks, drafted in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Both went on to become Day 1 starters and they've provided stability at one of the most important positions, albeit overlooked, on the football field. As former general manager Mike Tannenbaum likes to say, the center touches the ball on every play, always needing to ensure the exchange with the quarterback goes smoothly.

Coincidentally, Linderbaum was available the same year Jaguars long-time center Brandon Linder retired. While center was one of the top needs, they waited until Round 3 to address the position. It's fair to say that the decision hasn't aged well, especially when you take into account that Jacksonville wasn't afraid to trade back into the first round in 2022. They moved up six spots to take linebacker Devin Lloyd, who's a fine player but not what you would consider a franchise building block.

What stopped the Jaguars from trading up three or four more spots to secure Linderbaum? On the other hand, they should get a pass for not targeting Humphrey the year prior. At the time, they had more pressing needs and Linder was still in the fold, so nobody should blame them for filling other roster holes in 2021.

Either way, the Ravens and Kansas City went after the best center available when they had to take care of the position. The Jags didn't, and they shouldn't repeat the same mistake.

Center needs to be a priority for the Jaguars in 2024

Fast forward to 2024, and Luke Fortner is a liability at center. He had a solid rookie season but also showed he had a long way to go. The team's brass expected him to get better in Year 2 but he instead regressed. While coaching might've been a legitimate issue, players such as Walker Little and Anton Harrison played well under offensive line coach Phil Rauscher, so Fortner should shoulder his share of the blame for not delivering.

Fortner is taller than Linderbaum. Yet, he doesn't play like the bigger player, and that should be a reason for concern. Offensive linemen are supposed to be maulers and embrace physicality. Fortner is neither a mauler nor physical. That held back the offense last year. While it's too early for the Jaguars to give up on him, they can no longer wait for him to hit his stride. They need to bring in either a proven starter or address the position early in the draft.

Either way, the training wheels must come off. If Luke Fortner wants to prove he's a starting center in the NFL he needs to prove it. The Jacksonville Jaguars cannot simply hand him the job for the third straight year. He'll need to earn it.

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