FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Jeff Saturday, a Super Bowl-winning center, gave a shameless plug to his fraternity last spring when he was invited to speak at ESPN’s fantasy football summit.

Saturday’s strongest piece of advice? That quarterback Matt Ryan could have a big year because of the Atlanta Falcons‘ addition of free-agent center Alex Mack.

“It was a game-changer,” said Saturday, the longtime former Indianapolis Colt and current ESPN analyst, although even he didn’t pretend he expected this level of impact.

Ryan might wind up winning his first MVP award after posting the fifth-best passer rating in NFL history. The Falcons scored the most points in the NFL and averaged the most yards per play.

“I love it, man,” said Saturday, who got a kick out of the notion that he might now earn a reputation as a noted fantasy analyst. “I’m a big fan of Alex Mack and what he’s done this season, and I’m happy for the Falcons and how they’ve played. But there’s nothing better than to make a strong prediction and have it come to fruition. …

“And hopefully that’ll make more general managers and more personnel people really look at that position specifically and understand how that can impact their entire offense.”

Even Saturday will admit that centers don’t move the fan-interest needle much, which is why Mack didn’t make much of a splash nationwide when he signed a five-year, $45 million contract to defect from the Cleveland Browns and reunite with former Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

However, a strong case could be made that Mack was the NFL’s best free agent signing in 2016.

Others have a strong case, too – including the New York Giants‘ trio of cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison; San Diego Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward; and Oakland Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele (who was a first-team All-Pro, while Mack had to settle for the second team).

One thing Mack has over all those other guys, though?

He’s still playing.

“He would definitely be in the mix [as the best]. I mean, there is no doubt,” Saturday said. “Not only the best, but the most impactful on his team, for sure.”

Another ESPN analyst, former NFL safety Matt Bowen, agreed, although he seemed to lean a bit toward Jenkins as the best free-agent pickup.

Either way, it’s close. Even a film junkie like Bowen had to admit that the center position isn’t the first thing he looks at when he watches games, and that there are no individual statistics that reveal a center’s full impact.

“There’s never a lot of hype around it. But this shows you how important it is,” Bowen said. “We always talk about edge players — on offense it’s wide receivers and tackles, defensively it’s ends, corners and outside linebackers. But the middle of every offense and defense is just as important — almost like baseball, right?

“So having a center that is one of the top players in the league in terms of technique, in terms of experience and in terms of communication, is so vital. … Someone who’s calling out protection changes, telling the guard next to him what to do when a linebacker shifts over. And then his technique at the point of attack, he’s so well-versed in his footwork, his hands. And I think when you have one of those guys in the meeting room, you make everyone around you better.”

Almost everyone at Falcons camp agreed Wednesday as they prepared to host the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Except for one guy: Mack himself.

The 6-foot-4, 311-pound center, who was described by Saturday as having a bit of a “nasty disposition” to go with his great athleticism, grew a little tongue-tied when asked directly how important he has been to the resurgence of Atlanta’s line.

“Uhhh … I think offensive-line play is really important, and you really set your team up to have success. It takes everybody. It’s not just one person making a play,” Mack said.

Mack, a four-time Pro Bowl selection (three in Cleveland, one this year) did acknowledge, however, that he saw this kind of potential when he chose the Falcons.

“I don’t think I envisioned quite so well. But I was really excited to be in this scheme, because it’s one I knew, and I knew I could be successful in it,” said Mack, who spent one year with Shanahan in Cleveland in 2014. “I know it fits my style of play really well, and it was exciting to be able to join the system again.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Mack has a “rare” combination of athleticism and enough strength to play guard in the NFL. Quinn also said Mack has a “really high football IQ” that allows the Falcons to often change plays and protections at the line.

Mack is hardly the only reason for the Falcons’ tremendous turnaround on the offensive line, though.

The biggest key is probably the fact that Atlanta started the same five linemen in every game. Another factor is the development of young linemen such as left tackle Jake Matthews, a first-round pick in 2014.

Matthews and right tackle Ryan Schraeder insisted, however, that they and guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester aren’t being cheated when Mack gets so much credit.

“I don’t think it can be overstated, because Alex has been huge for us this year,” Schraeder said.

“He deserves it, man. He’s been doing a great job,” said Matthews, who cited the way Mack will routinely make everyone in the film room pore over one play for 10 or 15 minutes to dissect every look and front they might get from the defense.

“I’ve said since the day he got here, just learning from the way he prepares and the way he breaks down defenses has been really big for myself and growing as a player,” Matthews said. “He’s always on top of everything, so it’s real impressive to watch him go out and do what he does. He fights through everything, doesn’t complain about anything. So he’s been a real good leader for this team.”



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