Alex Mack’s retirement left a sizable hole in the middle of the 49ers’ offensive line.
The team did little to address the center position in free agency and the draft, leaving them somewhat handcuffed at one of the offensive line’s most important positions with training camp quickly approaching. Having a quality center is vital not only for blocking, but for calling out protections and building a good rapport with quarterback Trey Lance.
San Francisco has leaned heavily on proven veterans at center over the last three years with Weston Richburg and Alex Mack. Now they may need to find a less-experienced answer internally.
Here are the internal options and a couple free agents still available:
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Brendel has played just 250 snaps since joining the NFL in 2016 as an undrafted free agent with the Cowboys. He was on the 49ers’ roster last year as Mack’s backup and played in just six snaps all season. He’s played in 166 snaps at center in his career which may make him the frontrunner for the starting job going into camp.
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Sutherland doesn’t have much experience at center, but he did play 17 snaps there for the Bengals last season with mixed results in a small sample size. His only other NFL action came as an undrafted rookie in 2019 with the Dolphins. In three games for Miami he played 93 total snaps, swapping between both guard spots.
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The 49ers may need Brunskill at one of the guard spots depending on how their battles at left and right guard play out. He’s seen a ton of time at right guard over the last couple seasons, but Brunskill also played 546 snaps at center for San Francisco in 2020. It was a mixed bag with him manning the middle and the 49ers would probably prefer him at right guard if he’s on the starting line. He may wind up being their best option at C though.
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West was a player some analysts believed the 49ers could pick sometime in the middle of Day 3 of the draft. He wound up going undrafted and the 49ers snagged the ASU alum as a UDFA. The 6-4, 300-pound lineman is the only listed center on the 49ers’ roster after succeeding there during his last two seasons with the Sun Devils. A rookie starting at center seems like a long shot for San Francisco, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock if West emerges as the best player at the position.
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The 49ers selected Zakelj in the sixth round out of Fordham where the 6-5, 316-pounder spent his four-year career at left tackle. A transition to the interior won’t be easy, and probably won’t allow Zakelj to compete for the job in 2022. There’s a nastiness and edge to his game though that could make him well-suited for life on the interior over the long -term.
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The 49ers list Poe, an undrafted rookie from Mercer, at 6-1, 300 pounds. That size will limit his positional versatility some in the pros, but he’s succeeded at every level he’s played. He should get a shot at center even if his long-term future may be at guard or fullback.
JC Tretter, free agent
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The free agent pool in early June isn’t very deep, but Tretter is the clear-cut best FA option available. The 31-year-old was a full-time starter for Cleveland over the last five years where he excelled as a pass blocker and acquitted himself well as a run blocker. His skill set and experience in a Shanahan-like offense in Cleveland make him the ideal fit for San Francisco.
Billy Price, free agent
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Price was a first-round pick of the Bengals out of Ohio State just four years ago. His performance in Cincinnati was so lackluster though that he didn’t make it through his rookie contract with the club. Price spent last season with the Giants where he had his best season as a pro, even though that bar hadn’t been set very high. The 49ers would likely exhaust all internal options first before adding a player like Price. At this point though he’s probably the second-best free agent behind Tretter.
Matt Skura, free agent
(AP Photo/Matt Patterson)
To find the appeal with Skura we have to go back to 2019 when he was the starting center for the Baltimore Ravens. That year was his best as a pro before he got hurt in Week 12. He’s struggled since then though, spending some time at tackle for Baltimore in 2020 before joining the Dolphins last year and having a dreadful year at left guard. If San Francisco wants a veteran with experience in a run-heavy offense, Skura makes some sense, but his on-field ups and downs over the last two years make him a pretty significant risk.