Seven-time pro-bowler Alex Mack just announced his retirement. This leaves a huge hole in the middle of our top ten offensive line from last year. Pair this with the loss of pro-bowl guard Laken Tomlinson and the 49ers have a lot of questions to answer on the interior of the line. Former second-round pick Aaron Banks has been penciled in as our left guard, but for center and right guard there are multiple players in play. Here, I’ll break down all the potential centers that the 49ers will consider.
Opening as the early favorite to win the starting center position is fourth-year veteran Daniel Brunskill. Since signing with the team in 2019, Brunskill has become a bit of a hidden gem. He’s Earlier this offseason, the 49ers placed an original-round restricted free agent tender on Brunskill, meaning despite having no guaranteed cash on his contract, he will be making a decent amount of money this season. When starting center Weston Richburg was lost to a torn patellar tendon in 2019, Brunskill was drafted in to replace him. Before that, Brunskill filled in at both tackle spots when Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey went down with injuries. Last year, Brunskill started every game at right guard. Initially, Brunskill was a lock to reprise his role at right guard this season, but since Mack’s retirement, he seems poised to at least compete for the starting center spot. Brunskill’s best role with the team is as a utility lineman that can start at any position on the line if needed. Unfortunately, because of the shallow depth and turnover of the interior line, he’ll have to start at either right guard or center again.
Six-year veteran Jake Brendel suited up for all but one of the 49ers’ regular-season games last year. Despite this, he only played six offensive snaps all season. The former UCLA product opted out in 2020 and was re-signed to a veteran minimum deal with no guaranteed money this offseason. On paper, this doesn’t exactly bode well for Brendel. However, Brendel is one of two pure centers on the roster. He lacks positional versatility, but if he does win the starting job, that shouldn’t matter. I can’t see Brendel as the starting center come week one. However, if we chose to keep Brunskill at guard, he is the most proven center currently on the roster. He’ll be a name to watch out for come training camp as he’ll probably be taking snaps with the first team barring any free agent signings.
There’s been a lot of hype behind Dohnovan West since the 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent following the 2022 NFL Draft. West was projected to go as high as the third round. The 49ers handed him $115,000 of guaranteed money, solidifying the notion that he should’ve been picked. West looks like an immediate scheme fit and impact player coming straight out of the draft. I would take caution calling him the day one starter though. After all, he did end up going undrafted. West chose to declare for the draft following his junior season at Arizona State. He ended up being one of the few underclassmen to go undrafted. I assume an extra season in college would’ve led to him being drafted. West will undoubtedly be a project at the NFL level but has all the traits to become a solid center in the league. Depending on how well he plays in camp and the preseason, West could be looking at a starting role or a spot on a practice squad. Only time will tell if he will end up panning out.
Sixth-round rookie Nick Zakelj played tackle during his collegiate career at Fordham but has been projected at both guard and center at the pro level. Zakelj blew up the NFL Scouting Combine, posting a relative athletic score of 9.74, ranking within the top 2% of offensive linemen dating back to 1987. Standing at 6’6, Zakelj lacks prototypical size to play the center position. NFL Despite this, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch alluded to Zakelj taking snaps at center this offseason. His below-average reach means that a move to center does make sense. Because of his draft position and overall rawness, Zakelj will have an upward battle to even make a roster spot, let alone the starting center position. I expect Zakelj to spend a year on the practice squad or as a reserve for his rookie season.
Like Nick Zakelj, UTSA’s Spencer Burford played predominantly tackle in college. He projects well as both a tackle and guard in the NFL and I expect he will compete for both guard spots in training camp. Taken at the tail end of the fourth round, Burford possesses the lateral mobility and run-blocking skills that the 49ers covet. Burford was by far my favorite pick that the 49ers made. If Brunskill were to win the starting center job, I’d like to see Burford start at right guard on day one. If not, then a position change to center seems unlikely. This doesn’t mean that he won’t be considered for the center spot, but I doubt that the 49ers will play him there.
None of the players above seem like great options for the 49ers to go for come week one. Brunskill is the most proven player of the bunch, but I’d rather see him continue to develop at right guard instead of switching back to center. Because of this, the 49ers may want to bring in a veteran presence to anchor the offensive line via free agency. As of June 2, there are still a few very solid centers available.
One of the hottest names left on the free-agent market is former Packers and Browns center, JC Tretter. Tretter began his career as a reserve lineman for the Packers before leaving for Cleveland. With the Browns, Tretter became a mainstay on their stout offensive line. Furthermore, Tretter only has missed one game in the past five seasons. Tretter is an athletic, strong run-blocking who is entering his age 31 season. He looks like a perfect scheme fit for the 49ers. Tretter will likely be looking for upwards of $5M per year which means we’d have to clear a bit of cap space to sign him.
As much as 49ers fans would love to see Tretter suit up for the team, there are other great options on the market as well. Former Broncos and Panthers center Matt Paradis stands out as the clear second-best option. Paradis tore his ACL last November, which is probably the main reason he remains unsigned. When healthy, Paradis is an above-average center in the NFL. His style of play mirrors both Mack and Tretter. He is also familiar with assistant offensive line coach James Cregg due to their time in Denver together. As a second-year undrafted free agent, Paradis started Super Bowl 50 which the Broncos would end up winning. While his injury and age will pose a risk, there’s no doubt that Paradis could become an impact starter for the 49ers.