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3 options at center for the 49ers if Alex Mack retires

You can look in free agency, the draft, or stick with what’s on the roster

NFL: JAN 16 NFC Wild Card - 49ers at Cowboys Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If Alex Mack elects to retire, are the 49ers in trouble? We ran into something similar a couple of seasons ago when Joe Staley abruptly retired the week of the NFL Draft. Then, the following Saturday, an All-Pro fell into the team’s lap.

History would suggest that Kyle Shanahan isn’t going to rely on a rookie center. First, the team gave Weston Richburg a hefty contract. Then, when that didn’t work out, they signed Mack last offseason. Why? Because, in this offense, there’s a lot on the center’s plate. He has to make all of the pre-snap calls. Assuming Trey Lance is the starter, the last thing you want is for your first-year starter to have another added responsibility.

Let’s look at potential options for the 49ers at center if Mack hangs up the cleats.

JC Tretter

The popular choice would be signing free agent JC Tretter, who is arguably an upgrade from Mack. Tretter hasn’t missed a start since 2017. Tretter hasn’t allowed more than two sacks in a season in that timeframe. It gets better. Tretter has only been flagged for four penalties since 2017. In four straight seasons, PFF has graded Tretter as a top-3 pass blocking center.

Brandon Thorn is Twitter’s resident offensive line expert and puts together his own substack on offensive line play in the NFL every year. I reached out to him for his thoughts on Tretter:

I’ve heard that his body holding up is a legit question. I’ve always seen him as a solid, middle-of-the-pack starter with some above-average elements to his game. Those are mainly handling the pre-snap phase and being able to sort out games/blitzes quickly and being pretty good in the zone run game, but also can effectively pull when needed too. Not overly powerful or strong, not great in one area, but when healthy reliable, and functional.

If the 49ers go after Tretter, it’d be after the draft. That way, it wouldn’t affect their comp pick formula. Also, if Mack were to retire, the team would save $4.2 million in cap space this upcoming season. For a team that’s up against the cap, they could use every penny.

Drafting a center

As soon as it came out on Tuesday that Mack was pondering retirement, the name Cam Jurgens came up. He’s a player the Niners have met with. He’s a center. He’s athletic. It’s easy to connect the dots.

We need to set realistic expectations. I’m as big of a Jurgens fan as it gets. I’ve also watched him. This may come off as a hot take, but if the Niners draft Jurgens, or any center not named Tyler Linderbaum in the draft, that rookie will not beat out Daniel Brunskill.

Jurgens has the higher ceiling, but he has his faults. Too often, he’ll overrun his target and whiff. Other times, he looks like a player who moved from tight end and is still learning the ropes. So expecting Jurgens, or any rookie, to come in and have a Creed Humphrey-level of impact isn’t realistic. Humphrey was an anomaly.

So while it makes sense to draft a center for the future, don’t plan on him becoming an impact player the moment he steps onto the field.

Drafting a center makes the most sense, given the lack of consistency at the position since Shanahan took over. Weston Richburg was in and out of the lineup. But we saw Daniel Kilgore, Weston, Ben Garland filling in, Brunskill, and Mack last season. It’s time for the 49ers to draft and develop, but expecting a rookie to be a plug-and-play player with the 61st or 93rd pick feels like you’re relying on hope more than anything.

Rolling with what’s on the roster

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has praised Daniel Brunskill at every turn for his versatility. The current interior lineman on the roster consists of Brunskill, Aaron Banks, Colton McKivitz, and Jaylon Moore — assuming he’s a guard. If Mike McGlinchey isn’t healthy come training camp, that’s likely where Moore starts.

Let’s assume McGlinchey is good to go. The interior trio of Banks-Brunskill-Moore is intriguing while nerve-racking all in one. The team isn’t going to put each player in a position to fail. Banks and Moore had a full year, albeit in practice, to learn the ropes of playing guard and did so against one of the best defensive lines in football.

Brunskill has game action at center. he’s played 546 snaps there. For comparison’s sake, McGlinchey started eight games in 2021 and totaled 405 snaps. So, Brunskill has more than a half of a season’s worth of experience at center.

He’s not going to be the sexiest pick, but Brunskill is reliable. He hasn’t missed a start in two seasons. Sure, he’s had some plays that make you question his longevity, but there aren’t many players in this league who can hold their own against the elite 3-techniques.

At center, Brunskill would be more of a “helper” in the passing game and work on combination blocks with Moore and Banks in the running game. From a financial standpoint, this might be the best option, too.