Going into the 2020 NFL season, the San Francisco 49ers had continuity on their side. The team brought back all but three starters and had a roster loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.
Injuries derailed any plans of a return trip to the Super Bowl during the 2020 campaign, and now the Niners are facing a ton of uncertainty going into the offseason. The team has 40 impending free agents, meaning general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan will have to make some difficult decisions.
One position the duo will need to focus on is center. Weston Richburg signed a five-year deal worth $47.5 million before the 2018 season. He only missed one game during his first year with the Niners and played in the first 13 contests of the 2019 season before suffering a torn patellar tendon in the shootout win over the New Orleans Saints.
Shanahan was initially hoping that Richburg would be ready to go after spending the first six weeks of the 2020 season on the PUP list while he recovered. The 29-year-old was activated after Week 6 but wound up suffering a setback during rehab that has kept him out all season.
Lynch and Shanahan will have to decide if they want to bring Richburg back in 2021. Here are the financial implications if they decide to move on from the center (per Over the Cap):
Pre-June 1 trade/release, 2021 dead cap: $6.9 million. 2021 Cap savings: $4.4 million
Post-June 1 trade/release, 2021 dead cap: $3.5 million. 2021 Cap savings: $7.9 million
2022 dead cap: $3.4 million
Cutting or moving Richburg before June 1 would provide minimal short-term savings but give Lynch and co. more flexibility for the 2022 season, which is when the salary cap should rebound.
Richburg was better run-blocking last season than he was in pass protection, so was most of the line. When Richburg got hurt, Ben Garland filled in through the end of the 2019 season and helped San Francisco get to the Super Bowl.
Garland missed the first game the 2020 season but suited up for the next five before being put on IR with a calf strain. Pro Football Focus has Garland graded as the ninth-best center in the NFL this season at 71.1. The 32-year-old is making $805,000 this year and is due to become an unrestricted free agent.
Hroniss Grasu and Daniel Brunskill have filled in for the injured duo with Brunskill getting the brunt of the work to finish the season. Pro Football Focus gave Brunskill a 61.7 graded for the 2020 campaign, although some of his 1,087 snaps came at right guard.
Football Outsiders ranked the 49ers 22nd in the NFL in adjusted line yards and 27th in yards when rushing up the middle. That doesn’t fall squarely on the center, but is indicative of the middling line play San Francisco had in most games.
If Lynch and Shanahan move on from Garland and Richburg, what are their options? They could select a center at the 2021 NFL Draft, or go the free agency route.
Here are some of the top center prospects available at next year’s draft:
Trey Hill - Georgia
Alec Lindstrom - Boston College
Josh Myers - Ohio State
Landon Dickerson - Alabama
Jimmy Morrissey - Pittsburgh
Most mock drafts have the five players going within the first four rounds, but a ton can change between now and April.
The other option — which may not be financially feasible due to the cap crunch — is signing a free agent. The high-priced centers that could be available are on the wrong side of 30.
Alex Mack is 35 and has experience with Shanahan from their time together with the Atlanta Falcons. Mike Pouncey is 32, while Corey Linsley of the Packers is 30. Spotrac has a complete list of 2021 free agent centers.
The line’s interior has been an issue for the Niners all season and struggled in pass-protection against high-level competition in 2019
It will be interesting to see how Lynch and Shanahan proceed with the position, given the limited financial flexibility the team has going into the offseason.
Who do you think will be the 49ers’ starting center in 2021? Will they run it back with Richburg/Garland or look to take a center at the NFL Draft?