49ers positional analysis: Center

In the wake of reports that Eric Heitmann likely will miss the upcoming season after surgery to repair a ruptured disk, the 49ers are essentially without a center. The only candidates on their roster who could start a game today are a veteran who never has played the position and two rookie draft picks who both played tackle in college last year, which leaves the Niners in a rather dire situation.

Here is a current breakdown of the position:

Starter at beginning of 2010 season: David Baas

Starter at finish of 2010 season: David Baas

2010 positional grade: B

Centers currently on roster: Eric Heitmann, Daniel Kilgore (fifth-round draft pick who's being moved to guard/center after playing tackle in college), Michael Person (seventh-round draft pick who's being moved to guard/center after playing tackle in college)

Pending free agents: David Baas (unrestricted), Tony Wragge (unrestricted, also plays guard)

Need to upgrade position before season: High

It's obvious the 49ers have a high need to upgrade the position before they begin playing football again. It's just as obvious they have a first-option solution available to them once the lockout ends and the mad scramble that will be free agency begins, ostensibly at some point in July.

The first option is David Baas, who had the best of his six NFL seasons last year after moving in as the team's starting center. Baas started at left guard for the Niners the previous two seasons.

Signing Baas to return to the team may not have just gotten more difficult because of Heitmann's status, but it probably did get more expensive. Baas must have been seeing dollar signs Wednesday when the news of Heitmann's surgery spread. Heitmann faces up to five more months of rehabilitation and is for all intents and purposes done for 2011, the second consecutive season he will miss to injury.

The 49ers now may have to sweeten the deal they were prepared to offer Baas after the lockout, because it is imperative they re-sign him, which might mean overpaying Baas not to consider other attractive offers that could come his way.

Baas has given strong indications he wants to return to the 49ers, having flown in from Florida to attend the final day of a player-organized workout session with his teammates earlier this month, taking the calculated risk of doing so without being under contract.

"I want to be back and I hope that I'm going to be back here," Baas said after that session, adding that, "I've got my house out here, a lot of things that I'm still hanging on to. I'm just preparing, and when the time comes, everything will work out."

For that to happen in San Francisco's favor, the 49ers will have to come up with a strong offer. They got Baas's services on the cheap last year when he played under a one-year, $1.226 million tender contract as a restricted free agent. Baas was a bargain at that price.

A few days after losing his starting position at left guard to rookie first-round draft pick Mike Iupati last summer, Baas moved to center after Heitmann broke his leg during the first week of training camp.

Baas went on to start all 16 games there while becoming a stabilizing force during another shaky season for San Francisco's beleaguered offensive line. At the end of the season, he received the Bobb McKittrick Award, annually given to the MVP of the unit. Baas also won the McKittrick Award in 2009.

Handed the full-time gig at center, Baas performed capably in the role and was likely to remain the starter even if Heitmann came back healthy to challenge him later in the season. Baas gave strong indications through his play that center is where the 49ers should have had him all along. He hadn't played center since his college days at Michigan, but it appears to be the position that's most suited to Baas's style and strengths.

His return also would give the 49ers the continuity they're seeking along the offensive line, which figures this year to start the same four players that finished last season as starters at the other line positions.

If the 49ers don't or can't re-sign Baas, they'll find themselves in a quandary regarding how to replace him. Veteran swing lineman Adam Snyder has been playing center this week during the team's second session of player-organized workouts, and he has reliable skills along with the experience of starting previously for the 49ers at each of the other four line positions.

But Snyder probably is better for the 49ers at guard and tackle, which means San Francisco would have to consider bringing in another veteran center if Baas can't be re-signed.

Baas could be a rather hot commodity on the open market as one of the top five centers likely to be available in free agency. New Orleans' Jonathan Goodwin, Seattle's Chris Spencer, Chicago's Olin Kreutz and Kansas City's Casey Wiegmann are other top veterans scheduled for unrestricted free agency, though both Kreutz (13 NFL seasons) and Wiegmann (15 seasons) are nearing the end of their careers and don't appear to fit in with the direction the 49ers want to go along their offensive line.

Tony Wragge also is on the list of unrestricted free agents who have experience at center. Wragge started the final two games of the 2006 season at center in place of an injured Heitmann and has been a valuable backup lineman for the 49ers the past five seasons in addition to starting 10 games at right guard in 2008.

Signing back Wragge may have become more of a priority now for the 49ers in light of Heitmann's status. Wragge became expendable – and it appeared the 49ers might be looking to replace him – when San Francisco traded up to draft offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore in the fifth round earlier this year, then took Michael Person, another offensive lineman, in the seventh round.

But both newcomers played tackle in college. The 49ers are looking to convert them to the interior line positions, but Kilgore hasn't played center since high school and Person never has played the position. Neither would figure to be ready for extensive duty at center this year.

Another possibility for the 49ers surfaced this week during player workouts, which have been attended by undrafted free agent Chase Beeler, a first-team All-American center at Stanford last season. Beeler knows the offensive system of coach Jim Harbaugh and his new staff, and his attendance this week suggests Beeler is interested in signing with the 49ers once the lockout is over if they're interested in him.

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