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Is Nick Zakelj the 49ers center of the future?

He has the versatility to do so

San Francisco 49ers Rookie Minicamp Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Among the flurry of roster moves the 49ers made on cut day was the 49ers’ decision to keep 2022 6th round pick Nick Zakelj on the final-53 man roster.

Zakelj possesses a highly intriguing set of physical traits that most coaching staffs would love the chance to develop. Zakelj recorded a beyond impressive relative athletic score or RAS for short. That RAS score ranked 23rd among over 1200 interior offensive linemen dating back to 1987.

Despite those eye-popping physical traits, Zakelj was faced with an uphill battle during the preseason to make the final roster in an offensive line room full of veteran players.

The 49ers’ decision to keep Zakelj told me two things. Number one was that Zakelj impressed the coaching staff and front office throughout the offseason, so much so that they didn’t want to risk exposing Zakelj to waivers in an attempt to stash him on the practice squad.

That includes an extremely impressive showing against the Houston Texans in the preseason finale. Here are a couple of plays from that game where Zakelj shined.

Here is another where Zakelj does a fantastic job of reading his immediate surroundings and reacting to pressure from his right. Watch how Zakelj gets his head turned and how quickly he can react to the edge pressure coming through the B-gap.

Finally, a play that shows Zakelj’s resilience as he recovers against a bull rush that gave him trouble early in the rep. It’s not always about how you start a rep but how you finish it.

Number two was that despite being green and lacking NFL experience, Zakelj’s versatility and ability to play inside and out is extremely valuable to the 49ers, as they now have two depth pieces on the offensive line who could play any of the five positions in a pinch.

When you combine Zakelj’s athleticism and positional flexibility, it’s easy to envision why the 49ers covet him. The real mystery is where they expect Zakelj to fit in on the offensive line in the long term that already has young starters entrenched at both guard spots and two former first-round picks at either tackle position.

That leaves the center position as the most obvious choice, where the incumbent starter Jake Brendel is not only 31 years old but also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Zakelj played tackle during his final season at Fordham University, but he got extensive work at the center position to better prepare himself for his transition to the NFL. I spoke with Zakelj’s offensive line coach at Fordham, Alex Huettel. Coach Huettel gave some great insight into why he thinks Zakelj will excel on the interior in the NFL, explicitly referencing the center position.

Here is what Coach Huettel had to say when I asked him where he thought Zakelj would fit best at the NFL level.

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, combo the heavy nose guards. He has the ability and the technique to play low, drive his feet, 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.

Coach Huettel then went in-depth, talking about how Zakelj put in an abundance of extra work on the interior to help prepare for his transition to the NFL level, all while maintaining the workload that comes with being the first team left tackle.

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. But I do think Nick is athletic enough and long enough to kick out to the outside and save the day if needed.

What made it even more fascinating was how coach Huettel mentioned that Zakelj essentially took it upon himself to get this extra work in on the interior. That kind of initiative is beyond impressive.

Me and Nick had conversations going into his senior year about you have to be able to snap, so you might as well start working on it now. He understood that Nick is very smart, he’s a football guy, he understands that process that you’ve got to be able to do it all.

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.

One final nugget from our conversation that I think is very noteworthy was coach Huettel’s answer when I asked him what he thought Zakelj’s best trait was as an offensive lineman.

I’d say it’s his desire to be a great offensive lineman. I know when you get to this level, everybody has a desire to be great at playing. But you do run into some guys who think, oh, I’m just an offensive lineman. But to Nick, it was a prideful thing, like I AM an offensive lineman. It was a lot different to him, the work he put in.

He really dove into studying offensive line play, how do you become better? Getting your target, hand placement, leverage, everything it entails.

When you put it all together, you get an extremely athletic player who takes great pride in the work that comes with being an offensive lineman at the highest level. A player who took it upon themselves to put in the time to learn an entirely new position while still handling his duties at another.

While the timetable isn’t exactly clear on when Zakelj will get his chance to stake his claim as the center of the future, one thing is clear. When that opportunity comes, Zakelj will benefit from all the work he had been putting in long before the 49ers turned in the draft card with his name on it.