This one is my doing. I thought Nick Hardwick was too low on the initial list that the staff put together of the most valuable San Diego Chargers players heading into this season, and I bumped him up to #5. That means I get to write about why.
Hardwick is heading into his 11th NFL season. He has the prototypical size and skillset for an NFL center, and even adjusted to playing heavier to stay healthy after missing 20 games in three seasons from 2007-2009 (he has missed zero games since).
Great centers get better as they get older. One of the first conversations I ever had with Nick was about Kevin Mawae, who played 16 seasons and well into his late 30s. Nick told me that was the guy he looked up to and tried to model his game after, and he marveled at all of the savvy veteran tricks Mawae could us to beat much younger defensive lineman. Last year, Hardwick looked a bit like Mawae.
Nick will turn 33 years old just a few days after Week 1 of the 2015 NFL Season. He has passed the point where he could win battles with his physical tools and is now dominating the middle of the line of scrimmage with good decision-making and wily veteran moves. That can either be when a player's performance starts to wane, or it can be when they find a way to get even better at an old age. For Hardwick, it has been the latter.
Joe D'Alessandris was a breath of fresh air for Nick. I'm sure he'll never say a bad word about Hal Hunter, but Nick's career appears as though it will be bookended by two great offensive line coaches in Hudson Houck (who Nick named his own son after) and Coach D. The new blocking system that was introduced last season, which focused more on scheme than brawn, was a perfect match for Nick and helped him to arguably have his best season ever at 32 years old.
Importance to the Chargers
In addition to his own performance, Nick Hardwick's biggest value may be in how he helps those around him. Since the start of Philip Rivers' career, Nick has been the one to call out blitzers (a job that most QBs are left to do on their own) and make sure the offensive line is on the right page. He's the unquestioned leader of the line, and is a big reason why the Chargers' offense was able to stay afloat last year despite major injuries on the line. He is the second most important person on the offense behind the QB, and we're lucky to be able to watch him work.