The Cowboys don't have the storied history at center like most of the other positions I've covered so far, but they do have a history of steady, hard working players that gave the team longetivity. The first good center in franchise history was Dave Manders, an undrafted player the Cowboys signed in 1962 out of Michigan State. Manders wasn't an immediate NFL success, he didn't make the team that first season, but he remained determined and two seasons later, in 1964, Manders made the team. By 1965 he was the starting center and in 1966 Manders made the Pro Bowl. He missed the 1967 season due to injury, but he remained a solid, if unspectacular player thoughout the rest of his career, before retiring after the 1974 season. Manders started at center for the Cowboys in two Super Bowls, including the first championship in team history. John Fitzgerald was the Cowboys next good center, taking over fulltime for Manders in 1975. Fitzgerald was originally drafted by the Cowboys in the 4th round in 1970 out of Boston College. He anchored an offensive line with the Cowboys nicknamed "Four Irishmen and a Scott". Fitzgerald never appeared in a Pro Bowl but he was also a solid player thoughout his Cowboys career and was very good in the shotgun formation, made famous by the Cowboys and Roger Staubach. Fitzgerald played in four Super Bowls with Dallas. Tom Rafferty was drafted in 1976, in the 4th round out of Penn St. and he broke in to the NFL as an offensive guard, and a fellow member of Four Irishmen and a Scott. After Fitzgerald's retirement, and an injury to Robert Shaw, Rafferty moved over to center and remained there through the 1989 season, playing in two Super Bowls. Rafferty was a very good lineman, and like Fitzgerald, he never appeared in a Pro Bowl, but I believe he was a very underrated player. Mark Stepnoski took over at center in 1989 and he is the best the Cowboys have ever had at the position. A little undersized for his time, Stepnoski was a technician, a thinking man's center. He was originally drafted in the 3rd round out of Pittsburgh in 1989. Stepnoski played in 3 Pro Bowls during his Cowboys career and they came during the height of the teams success from 1992-1994. He left the Cowboys after 1994, playing in Houston four years before returning to Dallas in 1999, until his retirement in 2001. He wasn't the same player in his second stint with the Cowboys. Ray Donaldson took over for Stepnoski in 1995 and played center for the Cowboys for two seasons, and played very well. He was selected to play in the Pro Bowl both years, though he sat out the game in 1996 with an injury. The rest of the 90's and early 2000's were littered with the likes of Clay Shiver, Mike Kiselak and Ben Fricke, before Dallas drafted Andre Gurode in 2002 and Al Johnson in 2003.
The Cowboys drafted Andre Gurode in the 2nd round of the 2002 draft out of Colorado. Gurode played center that first season. The next two years Gurode played right guard. He was moved back into the center mix in 2005, and after starting 42 games in his first three seasons, Gurode backed up at both center and guard in 2005. He did see action though, as Parcells would mix and match Gurode and Al Johnson at center depending on the matchup. Gurode signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys after the 2005 season. He won a training camp battle with Al Johnson before 2006, and he started every game at center for the Cowboys and he was rewarded with his first Pro Bowl berth. Gurode and Al Johnson were both free agents this offseason and the Cowboys resigned Gurode and let Johnson walk. Gurode's deal was reported at 6 years, $30 million and a $10 million signing bonus. Gurode has excellent size for the center position and he is a mauler. Quicker interior pass rushers sometimes give him a problem. He struggled making the line calls early in his career, and he has struggled with penalties in the past, but Gurode turned the corner and played very well last season. The center position is in very good hands over the next six years with the 29-year old Gurode. (Gurode pictured, courtesy of the A.P.)
Trey Darilek spent his first two NFL seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, after being drafted by the team in the 4th round of the 2004 draft out of Texas-El Paso. Darilek appeared in 18 games for the Eagles those two seasons. The Eagles released Darilek before last season, and he played part of the season with the Miami Dolphins but did not appear in a game. Darilek worked out for the Cowboys at the end of the regular season last year, and he was signed in February. He is a versatile lineman, having played tackle, guard and center with the Eagles. He played tackle at UTEP. Darilek has excellent size, very similar to Gurode in that regard. The Cowboys are hoping Darilek is ready to live up to his 4th round draft status, and he has a clear opportunity to make the team.
The Cowboys brought back Matt Tarullo, claiming him off waivers from the Indianapolis Colts a few days ago. It will be Tarullo's third training camp with the Cowboys. Dallas originally signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2005 out of Syracuse. Tarullo spent all of 2005 on the Cowboys practice squad. Tarullo spent about a month on the Cowboys practice squad in 2006. He was released by the Cowboys during the season, signed by the New York Giants and spent time on that teams practice squad. He has never appeared in an NFL game. Tarullo is another player with excellent size for the center postion, bigger even than Gurode and Darilek. Tarullo's practice squad time is up, he will have to make the team to hang around.
The question with Andre Gurode is if he will take the next step this season and develop into a perennial Pro Bowler. Many times it takes offensive lineman a little longer, and Gurode has the size and experience to be a dominant center. He should at least be solid for the Cowboys, providing a physical run blocking presence in the interior for a long time. The depth behind him is dangerously thin. There will be a wide open competition for the backup position in training camp, including not only Trey Darilek and Matt Tarullo, but also players listed at other positions like Cory Procter, Joe Berger and Steve Rissler.