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A history of center aging to determine what’s ahead for Alex Mack

Will maybe the best center in football beat Father Time?

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Mack is 32 this year. He’s played 149 career games at a very high level, and anyone who would bet against him doing so for several more years is taking a very serious risk with their money.

All that said, it’s a good time to start wondering what the future at center looks like for the Falcons, and how long it’ll include Mack. He’s the unquestioned starter in 2019 and a good bet for a sturdy, potent season as the anchor of the interior offensive line, but the final year of his current deal is 2020 and he’ll be entering free agency as a 34 year old. How do centers usually fare at that point?

The research out there is relatively slim, especially compared to the more robust aging curve information to be found about positions that are impactful for fantasy players, like wide receiver and quarterback. Still, it does exist, with this So Called Fantasy Experts post diving in to how centers usually age out. They found that center performance begins to dip in the age 32-33 season Alex Mack is entering and falls off dramatically in the age 33-34 year, the final year of Mack’s current contract.

Mack is far from an average center, but that aging curve will be on the team’s mind when they go to sign him for his next deal, even if he finishes his current one on a high note. The likelihood that the next contract Mack receives will be his last is extremely high, and the likelihood that the Falcons will still pay a pretty penny for what will amount to Mack’s decline years is also quite high. The problem with anticipating that decline is that we’ve barely seen it to this point, with Mack still playing at a high level and staying pretty healthy, which makes saying he’s going to suddenly crater both awfully tough and awfully irresponsible.

There are, of course, examples of Falcons who played at a high level at center past their age 33-34 season, both names who should be familiar to you. But who’s the golden example? It’s a player from the swirling mists of Falcons past.

Jeff Van Note

Van Note is a criminally underrated player and the finest center in team history. He started 226 games at center for the Falcons and was a starter through his age 39 season, suiting up for one final non-starting year in his age-40 season. Van Note was an above average center at worst from 35-39 and only twice in his career missed games with injury, making his one of the more remarkable careers in team history. He is the only pure center in NFL history to play at 40 or older, and obviously if Mack followed in his footsteps he’d have a strong chance of making the Hall of Fame, where Van Note should already be enshrined.

If you’re looking for a more recent example you could go with Todd McClure, a very fine center in his own right who likely could’ve kept playing at a reasonably high level after being cut by the Falcons but chose to retire instead. He was 35 in 2012 and started all 16 games and playoff games as well, and there was arguably no real dropoff for him in that final season. We don’t know how much longer he would’ve continued to do so, but chances are it would’ve been at least another year or two before he hit the wall given how he fared.

There’s no question that the Falcons would be ecstatic if Mack followed a similar career arc, as difficult as that is to predict with any confidence. He’ll be 34 years old after his deal winds up and his next deal should be a little more cap-palatable than this one, but getting another five years of good-to-great play from one of the better centers in the NFL would help the Falcons maintain an effective offensive line for the waning years of Matt Ryan’s career.

The alternative, of course, is finding a different center entirely, with only undrafted rookie Chandler Miller and I-guess-he’s-the-backup Wes Schweitzer currently hanging around on the roster. It would not be shocking for the Falcons to draft a long-term option in 2020 and see how Mack’s final year plays out before deciding to move ahead, but I’d be thrilled if he could become the third center in team history to play at a high level beyond that dreaded 33-34 season.