2011 NFL Free Agency Primer: The Center Position And Our San Francisco 49ers

"Mama, I lost my neck and cannot find it"

This is a position that I doubt San Francisco looks at external options to find a starter. The reason is that they have two solid in-house candidates. One, David Baas, is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The other, Eric Heitmann, is getting up there in age and has had recent injury problems. 

So, what to do? Are there solid external options? Will David Bass cost too much? Can Eric Heitmann hold up? These are serious questions that could affect the continuity of this maturing offensive line.

After the jump I will delve into external options in regards to the center position and free agency, while giving you my opinion on the 49ers in-house candidates. 

Vincent's Note: I am going to give you a better breakdown of what Pro Football Reference's "Approximate Value" means, this link will give you a better understanding of their ranking system. In a nutshell, it is there attempt to attach a simple number by the name of a player in order for them to give us an understanding of said player's contribution to their team. 

This information is incredibly important when it comes to offensive linemen and defensive tackles, because stats really don't tell the entire story in regards to those positions. It is an attempt to make a judgment about a group of seasons as it relates to a player. I have decided to use this ranking to show you how important each offensive linemen was to their team in 2010. 

The ranking system is incredibly detailed, but it acts as a guide such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in Major League Baseball and PER in the National Basketball Association. 

 

From Pro Football Reference

So, with all the players in place, I need a way to measure their NFL success. As we go through it, keep in mind that it is not meant to be a precise metric, but rather an approximate measure of value. Comparing a linebacker who has been in the league for nine years to a running back who is in his second year is very tough to do, so all I'm hoping to do is group guys into broad categories that seem reasonable.

Unrestricted Free Agents

David Baas, San Francisco 49ers

Approximate Value: 6 54 Starts in Six NFL Seasons

Analysis: In the grand scheme of things David Baas played exceptional for the 49ers last season. He was playing a somewhat new position, and performed quite well. There is some sort of transition a player must make moving from guard to center, and Baas' learning curve didn't seem too great. 

The new collective bargaining agreement, which should be signed soon, guarantees that Baas will be an unrestricted free agent. There are going to be a nice amount of suitors for his service because he is probably the best center on the unrestricted market. 

I am not in tune with spending 5+ million a year on a center, but Baas could well be worth it. San Francisco is looking to build continuity a long the offensive line and retaining Baas could be a great step in creating that. I think it really depends on how high his market goes this off-season. 

 

Jonathan Goodwin, New Orleans Saints

Approximate Value: 6 60 Starts in Nine NFL Seasons

Analysis: Goodwin transitioned from guard to center when he joined the New Orleans Saints and progresses a great deal. He has the experience and ability to improve on a great last couple of seasons. Look for the Saints to make a big push to retain his services, but there is going to be a nice amount of competition for him. San Francisco could be a landing spot if the price is right and they decide to look at external options. 


Olin Kreutz, Chicago Bears

Approximate Value: 7 183 Starts in Thirteen NFL Seasons    (6 Time Pro-Bowl Selection) 

Analysis: It is pretty amazing that Kreutz hasn't slowed down that much over the last few seasons. He is nearing 200 games started as an NFL offensive linemen, that is incredible in of itself. However, I really doubt that the Bears let their most stable offensive linemen walk, especially with the need to protect Jay Cutler

 

Samson Satele, Oakland Raiders 

Approximate Value: 6 59 Starts in Four NFL Seasons 

Analysis: Satele struggled a great deal for the Miami Dolphins after they surprisingly selected him in the 1st round four years ago. A change of scenery really helped him, and he proved himself to be a solid starting center for the Oakland Raiders in 2011. 

He is an extremely talented blocker in the running game and above average in pass protection. Considering his age, I expect Satele to get a nice amount of long term options in free agency. Will Oakland pony up the money to retain his services? My bet is yes. If not, San Francisco could be a potential landing spot for the former Hawaii standout. 

 

Chris Spencer, Seattle Seahawks

Approximate Value: 5 70 Starts in Six NFL Seasons

Analysis: When you high pick and struggle so much earlier in your career that you are moved to center, like Spencer was, it isn't a great sign. He struggles getting off the snap sometimes and doesn't seem quick enough to anticipate interior linemen moves. I doubt that the 49ers take a look at Spencer, and I don't believe he is a starter caliber center. Some may disagree with this assessment, but I am not impressed with what he has shown. 

 

Casey Wiegmann, Kansas City Chiefs

Approximate Value: 7 184 Starts in Fourteen NFL Season (1 Pro Bowl Selection) 

Analysis: Another center, like Kruetz, who has had amazing staying power in the NFL. Wiegmann made his first Pro Bowl in 2008, at the age of 36. Now, he is the life blood of the Chiefs offensive line. He indicated that there was a possibility of retirement after the 2010 season, but his appearance at players only training camp for the Chiefs pretty much assures that he will return to Arrowhead for at least one more season. 

 

Undrafted Free Agents

Kristofer O'Dowd, Southern California

Analysis: I was holding out hope that San Francisco would draft O'Dowd in the 7th round. Well, that all ended when they went with Daniel Kilgore a couple rounds earlier. I really like the way O'Dowd plays and am extremely surprised that he wasn't drafted. He is quick at the line, good in pass protection and plays with a nice amount of intensity; three thing that you look for in an interior linemen. 

 

Jake Kirkpatrick, Texas Christian

Analysis; Some mock drafts had the 49ers selecting Kirkpatrick in the 6th or 7th round. He isn't the most athletically gifted player int he world, most centers aren't. However, he does bring a physical presence to the line and can mix it up with pretty much anyone. Look for some team to take a flyer on Kirkpatrick and watch for him in a year or two. 

 


Franchised: Any team signing a player that has been given a franchise tender would have to give up two 1st round picks as compensation

 

Ryan Kalil, Carolina Panthers

Approximate Value: 8 47 Starts in Four NFL Seasons (2 Pro Bowl Selections) 

Analysis; Kalil isn't going anywhere, the Panthers made that clear when they franchised him. Not many players are worth two 1st round picks, and NO center is worth that bounty. I am still a little surprised that the Panthers placed that tag on him when they could have used it on someone else. 

 

Restricted Free Agents

Kyle Cook, Cincinnati Bengals

Approximate Value: 6 32 Starts in Three NFL Seasons 

Contract Situation: Given unknown tender by the Cincinnati Bengals. With no immediate person in place to replace him look for Cincinnati to make a big attempt to re-sign Cook. 

Analysis: He is an above average rush blocker, and gets to the point of contact extremely well. Cook, however, is lacking in pass protection and has issues with pass rushing middle linebackers and interior linemen. 

Cook is an extremely talented and young center that should be a solid pro for years to come. It seems that he will be back with Cincinnati in 2011, however, this is a player San Francisco would look real hard at as an alternative to their internal options. 

 

Overview: The 49ers do have some nice external options out there at the center position. However, are any really better than David Baas and/or Eric Heitmann? I really don't think so. There is no reason for San Francisco to go out on the open market and sign a young player to a long term contract. They drafted Daniel Kilgore for a reason, and it wasn't to be a back up offensive linemen. Additionally, David Baas has proven himself to be a solid starting center in the NFL.

The bigger decision is what to do with David Baas and Eric Heitmann. Do the 49ers re-sign Baas? And if so, do they release Heitmann? My answer to both of those questions are a definite yes. As much as I respect that job that Heitmann has done for San Francisco, it may be time to move on. Consequently, we cannot afford to have a multi-million dollar back up offensive linemen. If Heitmann is willing to take a pay cut and come back as the primary backup at guard and center, that would be ideal. However, I really doubt that will happen. 

Look for the 49ers to make re-signing David Baas one of their primary focuses once free agency starts. If he demands too much money there are some solid options out there. 

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