Wednesday brought us some sobering news regarding the 49ers' most tenured offensive lineman - center, Eric Heitmann. The nine-year veteran, who started all-but-two games in a six-year stretch beginning in 2004, reportedly had neck surgery that typically requires around six months from which to recover. This will essentially end the 2011 NFL season for Heitmann, who is technically the only center on the team.
While David Baas proficiently filled-in for Heitmann in 2010 after the latter sustained a broken leg prior to the start of the season, Baas is currently an unrestricted free-agent. He's indicated that he expects to return to the team in 2011 and it's assumed that he will once-again be the team's best option at the center position.
Many had already assumed that Heitmann wouldn't be back in 2011 due to the neck injury for which he had surgery, an injury that kept him out of the lineup even after the broken leg had healed in 2010. Injuries of this type often cause players to retire as they can nag a player and never really go away.
Still, most had hoped that Heitmann would be able to return, even if only in a backup role, due to the team's lack of quality depth at the position.
After the jump we'll take a look at what options the 49ers have at center going forward - now that Heitmann won't be part of the equation in 2011.
As I alluded to above, the 49ers technically don't have any centers, aside from Heitmann, currently under contract. Not only is Baas a free agent, but with over six years of service Tony Wragge will also be an unrestricted free agent regardless of the terms of the presumed CBA presently being hammered-out.
Wragge is the only other player on the roster with significant experience at the position, and the only other player who even has the letter "C" listed as his position. Two rookies, Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person, were both offensive tackles in college and only Kilgore has played center at any level - three seasons in high school.
Still, both players were brought in with the idea of converting them to interior linemen, presumably under the assumption that Heitmann would struggle to return to action. This is great for the long-term of the position, but color me a bit leary of trusting the backup center job to a rookie player who has very little experience at the spot.
Keep in mind that a backup becomes a 16-game starter in the blink of an eye when injury occurs to the main guy. See Baas, David in 2010 - a guy who also hadn't played center in some-time, although it was in college at Michigan...and he was a six-year veteran in the NFL.
That leaves us with perhaps the best option for a backup center, and my personal favorite to take over in the event that something unforseen happens to the as-of-yet-unsigned Baas. Of course I'm talking about the 56-game veteran who's started at every position on the offensive-line except center...Adam Snyder.
Snyder has quickly become one of my own personal favorite players on the team after previously being one of the most frustrating to watch when the team attempted to play him at right tackle in 2009, where he struggled early-on. Since then Snyder has practiced more at guard and has looked good when given the chance to play there.
Last year when Heitmann went down with the leg, Snyder also took some reps at center as the team scrambled to figure out their options at the position. Thus far in the "Camp Alex" sessions Snyder has acted as the de facto center with Baas, Heitmann, and Wragge absent. The fact of the matter is that Snyder is the most experienced interior lineman behind Baas, and as such I'd feel the most comfortable with him as the backup at the center position.
Granted I'd like to see Snyder beat out Chilo Rachal at the right guard position and actually start there...but in the event that Baas goes down, I'd move Snyder over to center and re-insert Chilo, or look to one of the rookies to play right guard if they play extremely well in training camp/practice.
One last option that may turn out to be a good one is a player with which Jim Harbaugh and company are quite familiar. Of course I'm talking about former Stanford center Chase Beeler, who actually attended Wednesday's session of "Camp Alex". Beeler is quite comfortable with the current coaching staff, the line-calls, and surely most of the playbook from an OL perspective.
He went undrafted in April, most likely due to his lack of NFL size...playing 2010 listed at only 285 lbs. Still, adding 15 pounds for a guy who is as-of-now not having to focus on the rigors of college courses, being restricted from football activities beyond a specified number of hours by the NCAA, and participating in an NFL caliber training regimen...well, it shouldn't be too difficult.
Beeler seems poised to sign a free agent contract with the 49ers and be reunited with his former college coaching staff, once the lockout is lifted and a new CBA is in place. I think this is a great option for the position and I sincerely hope that Beeler can fight for the backup spot. At least he has recent experience playing center - at an All-American level to boot.
So while most may be concerned with what the 49ers will do now that Heitmann is most certainly not an option in 2011, this guy thinks the team will probably be just fine.