With the news of Alex Mack’s retirement made official on Thursday, the 49ers now have a major hole to fill on the interior of their offensive line. Here are five options on the roster that might potentially fill the void left by Mack’s departure.
1. Jake Brendel
As of right now, Brendel is number one on the depth chart at the position. Obviously, that can change over the next couple of months of offseason activity, but Brendel does appear to be the front runner for the job at this current moment.
Brendel does have a year of experience in the 49ers system, which is certainly a plus considering his familiarity with Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme. The real concern is the lack of in-game reps over the course of his four seasons at the NFL level. Brendel has logged less than 250 total snaps over the course of his NFL career, with only 166 coming at the center position.
2. Daniel Brunskill
While Brunskill has more in-game experience at the position than Brendel does, he also is the incumbent starter at right guard, which complicates things a bit. Brunskill did log over 500 snaps at the position in 2020, but if he kicks inside to center, you also are left with a hole to fill at right guard, and you could effectively end up weakening two positions as a result.
If Shanahan is set on having a veteran at the position, Brunskill is the best option, in my opinion. Has the build to play the position and has shown an ability to excel on the interior against top-flight opponents.
3. Nick Zakelj
This is my dark horse candidate for the starting center job, even with the fact that Zakelj played the majority of his snaps at tackle and the fact he is a sixth-round rookie who would be forced to make the adjustment moving to the interior full time.
I spoke to Zakelj’s offensive line coach from Fordham, and coach Huettel made it clear that he not only thinks Zakelj could thrive on the interior, but he also has been preparing to make that switch for years now. Here’s what the coach had to say:
“Yeah, absolutely, I do. You know we threw him in at center a few times in summer camp just for fun. He wanted to play center, he’s been working his snaps in the offseason leading into his senior year just because he understood you gotta be valuable in the NFL, you gotta be able to do all five.
So he really took it upon himself to work interior footwork, even just getting it down quicker. And he looked really good at center. You know, we even thought about moving him in there in a few games just to expand the A Gap even more, but he was a natural at tackle for us in our league, in the FCS.
I do think he’s going to excel on the inside, he’s quick twitch, he’s going to get his hands on people, he can bend, he can play with the leverage, he’s going to strain to finish guys because it’s a phone booth game on the inside.”
I asked Coach Huettel if Zakelj getting work at center was something that the coaching staff directed or something Zakelj himself pushed for:
“We had the conversation, but to tell you the truth, when it came to fall camp, he was like, “coach can I go in at center?” and I was like yeah, go ahead. So he wanted to do it, he wanted to get some reps at it, and again he looked really good. Snaps were beautiful, right in the chest of the quarterback, didn’t have to take his eyes off it, it was something special.”
I also asked Coach Huettel where he thought Zakelj would fit best at the NFL level, and his answer certainly sparks intrigue about a potential move to the center position.
That’s tough. Personally, I think he can be an interior guy. Again I think he’s big enough to hold it down in there, go one on one with three techniques, and combo the heavy nose guards. He has the ability and the technique to play low, drive his feet, and strain to finish in there.
“I do think he will excel on the interior. I think he’s very smart, and he’s proven that in the meeting room with the questions he asked and just the way he prepares himself that he can go out there at center, I.D. defenses and call it all out and be the voice of the offensive line.”
4. Dohnovan West
While the 49ers didn’t invest any actual draft capital into West, they did make a sizeable commitment when they guaranteed $100,000 upon signing him as an UDFA. West may lack the requisite size to play the other spots on the interior, but he is a great fit for the center position in the Shanahan offense.
I spoke to Herm Edwards, who coached West at Arizona State, and Coach Edwards reiterated multiple times that he thought West was a perfect match for the 49ers' offensive scheme. Here is what Coach Edwards had to say :
“You know he’s really a smart guy. He understands football. He’s one of those kids. I just think the system has a lot to do with a lot of these guys. I think he’s in the perfect system when you think about the 49ers. That system has always had centers that are pretty athletic, that can move and can get up to the second level. He can do that.”
When I asked Coach Edwards about what he thought West’s best ability was, he again came back to mention how much he thought the 49ers' offense would set West up for success.
“I just think his ability to play in space. For that system, he is the right fit for them. There’s no doubt about it. Because of all the movement and things their offensive line is required to do. All the pulling and all that stuff.”
5. Jason Poe
Poe didn’t log any official snaps at center during his collegiate career. He is a player who physically fits the mold of what a center would be asked to do in the 49ers' offense. He looked like one of the better-pulling offensive linemen in the entire class, a skill that should be able to translate from day one.
While I have the utmost belief in Poe’s athleticism and physical gifts, I also think there is too big of a gap to overcome between now and the start of the season when it comes to getting familiar with the position and being tasked with things like ID’ing the opposing defense and calling out protections.
As of now, I would bet that it is one of Brendel, Brunskill, or Zakelj, but the possibility of the 49ers bringing in a veteran via free agency or perhaps a trade is absolutely on the table as well.