Niners positional draft analysis: Centers

The 49ers either need a young center very badly or don't need one at all. That's currently the team's fluctuating status at the position as nobody knows for sure whether Jeremy Newberry ever will play another snap. But the Niners have two other guard-types who can capably fill the position - and have done so already. Here's a look at how San Francisco shapes up at center entering draft weekend, along with an in-depth individual examination of the top centers available in the college lottery.

CENTERS ON 49ERS ROSTER: Jeremy Newberry, Eric Heitmann (OG who also can play center), David Baas (OG who also can play center).

49ERS FIVE-YEAR REPORT: Total centers drafted – 1 (Baas drafted as a C/OG). Still on roster – 1: Baas (C/OG). First-round picks – None. Highest pick – Baas (No. 33 overall).

2006 POSITIONAL DRAFT NEED: After Newberry underwent major microfracture surgery on his deteriorating right knee at the end of last year – at least his 10th surgery since joining the 49ers as a second-round draft pick in 1998 – it's now time for the 49ers to begin seriously considering life at the center position without the two-time Pro Bowler. Newberry indeed is a warrior who can play through tremendous pain at an effective level, but at this point it's only a 50-50 proposition that his damaged knee will ever allow him to play football again. Even if he can return, he is near the end of his career after the wear and tear of eight NFL seasons and the 49ers need to start grooming his replacement – or finding his replacement. There's a decent chance that could be Baas, who excelled at the position in college but may be a better guard at the pro level. Then there also is Heitmann, who asserted himself as San Francisco's best offensive lineman in 2005 while starting the final five games at center after Newberry went on injured reserve. Either Heitmann or Baas could be a solid center for years to come, and the 49ers may ultimately see their offensive line of the future configured with one of them at the position. But both players also possess starting quality at guard, meaning the 49ers may be on the lookout for a young center prospect in a draft that has some good ones.

POSITION OVERVIEW: The class of centers is rarely deep with talent because most teams (like the 49ers) commit to one center for several years and try to develop backups internally. For the most part, the 49ers have had essentially two players – Newberry and Chris Dalman – manning the position over the past decade, with Jesse Sapolu starting there five consecutive seasons before that. Finding a starting job is tougher because center is one of the few positions in which a team has only one starter (quarterback being the other). There will be talent available later in the draft, but there also are a handful of good centers here who will be taken on the first day of the draft – several of them regarded as quality future pros. The 49ers already have visited with Cal's Marvin Phillip, who is regarded by some as a top-5 center in this year's lottery.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Nick Mangold, Ohio State, 6-3¾, 300: Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who took over at center early in his sophomore season when starter Alex Stepanovich moved from center to guard…Started the final 34 games of his career at center…Has prototype center height and a frame that can add 15-20 pounds…Very good technique…Makes very good line calls and picks up stunts and blitzes quickly…Rarely gets beaten on assignments and wins almost every matchup…Performed extremely well in one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl…Needs to add some lower body strength/bulk to handle nose tackles at the next level…Doesn't have the mean streak many top linemen do…Will have some trouble at the second level chipping players on the move…Ran a 5.05 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 27½ inch vertical jump, a 8-8 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 35.
Projection: Mangold is head and shoulders the best center in the draft and has a chance to go in the first round, where both the Bengals and Steelers are seeking a long-term replacement. It will be a high investment to take a center in the first round, but Mangold could be a fixture for a decade and a potential Pro Bowler for years to come.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Greg Eslinger, Minnesota, 6-3¼, 292: Fourth-year senior who became a starter from Day One and finished his career starting all 50 games…Won the Outland Trophy in 2005, given to the top lineman in college football and a two-time finalist for the Rimington Trophy given to the best center…Two-time team captain…Married…Very good technique…Very quick off the snap to lock on to defenders…Dedicated worker who puts in time in the weight room, film room and on the practice field…Very good intelligence and makes solid line calls…Is a little undersized at 292 pounds and some scouts are convinced he can't add the 10-15 pounds more he'll need in the NFL…Struggles against huge defensive tackles…Needs to build up lower body to anchor the middle…Doesn't have outstanding playing strength…Ran a 5.13 40 at the Combine with 28 reps, a 30-inch vertical jump and a 8-5 broad jump.
Projection: May find himself best suited to play in those systems that employ cut blocking like the Broncos and Falcons. His size limitations could hurt his draft stock and drop him into the third round or beyond.

Jason Spitz, Louisville, 6-3½, 313: Fifth-year senior…Started six games at right guard as a redshirt freshman before tearing his left MCL…Moved to left guard in 2003-04, starting 25 games…Moved to center in spring of 2005, but played left guard again, starting all 12 games…Has good combination of size and speed…Has versatility and experience to play guard as well as center…Hard worker with strong upper body…Has good hand punch and uses his hands effectively…Has short arms and a doughy body for NFL center…Has little experience at center, despite it being his best position for the next level…Has sustained several minor injuries that have cost him playing time…Wears down at times during games…Needs to work a lot to refine his technique…Ran a 5.40 40 at the Combine, with 25 reps of 225 pounds, a 28½-inch vertical jump and a 8-6 broad jump.
Projection: Will need time to acclimate himself to playing center, but his experience at guard will be helpful. Has a chance to go off the board late in the first day of the draft.

Ryan Cook, New Mexico, 6-6¾, 327: Fifth-year senior who came to New Mexico as a walk-on…Became a starter midway through his freshman year and made 44 straight starts to finish his career…Has a huge body at nearly 6-7 and has very long arms that can hook defensive tackles and slow them up…Has never missed a game in college or high school…Very good upper body strength…Needs to improve lower body strength…Has to play with more natural bend because his height can play against him vs. savvy defensive tackles…Is pear-shaped and doesn't have good body definition…Will struggle at times with blitz/stunt recognition…Got thrown around by big nose tackles at the Combine...Ran a 5.45 40 at the Combine with 28 reps, a 26½ inch vertical jump and a 8-1 broad jump.
Projection: His size and height would be more in keeping with an offensive tackle, but he's been a center his entire career and likely will stay there. His ability to potentially play all five line spots could see him go off the board late on Day One, but if not, almost assuredly early on Day Two.

Mike Degory, Florida, 6-5½, 305: Fifth-year senior…As a senior in high school was named Most Valuable Player of his team's win in the state championship game while playing just the offensive line…Became a starter immediately and finished his career with 50 straight starts, including three at guard…Had surgery to remove a bone spur from his left foot as a freshman and to repair a torn right meniscus in 2004…Excellent size and a body that can add 10-15 pounds of bulk…Very smart player who makes solid line calls…Durable and plays through pain…Has a wide lower body and will use sumo techniques on big defensive tackles…Doesn't have good speed and is a liability in open space…Plays too stiff and defenders can get under him and direct him to the side if he gets lazy…Got thrown around by speed rushers at the Senior Bowl and hurt his draft stock…Ran a 5.42 40 at the Combine with 29 reps, a 26-inch vertical jump and a 8-5 broad jump.
Projection: He's a mauler who likes to hit and has the size potential to be a NFL center. However, he isn't a pure athlete and will require patience from whatever team takes him – most likely on the fourth round of the draft.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Chris Chester, Oklahoma, 6-3, 303: Fourth-year senior who spent his first two seasons with the Sooners as a tight end…Didn't become a full-time starter until 2005, starting three games at center and five games at right guard…Uncommon athleticism for an inside lineman…Had tremendous Combine workout…Good movement skills – he can slide to the outside and maneuver within the pocket…Extremely raw, has played only nine college games as a starter and just three at the position he's being viewed as in the draft…Doesn't have great lower body strength and will have to do a lot of work to add bulk to his legs…Ran a position-best 4.88 40 at the Combine with 27 reps of 225 pounds with a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 8-10 broad jump – every number but the reps being the best among centers that tested.
Projection: A strong Combine performance has his stock on the rise, but his complete lack of college experience makes him a big gamble on the first day. He could well be drafted higher than some of the players listed above him, but he should be viewed as a long-term project, which for our money takes him out of Day One consideration.

Will Montgomery, Virginia Tech, 6-3, 308: Fifth-year senior who came to Va-Tech as a walk-on…As a freshman played both right guard and defensive tackle…Three-year starter who made 10 starts at left guard in 2003, replaced Raiders second-round draft pick Jake Grove as center for 13 games in 2004 and split time at center and left guard as a senior – six starts at center and seven at guard…Good lateral movement and, as a guard, was adept at leading sweeps…Takes good angles in run blocking…Very good upper body strength – his 35 reps at the Combine were the most among all offensive linemen that tested…Versatility in his case is a plus, since he effectively has two season as a starter at both guard and center…Doesn't have great lower body strength and will get thrown around by big nose tackles…Gets beat by speed rushers will get good burst off the snap…Plays much too docile for the kind of man-eating beasts scouts look for in offensive linemen…Ran a 4.99 40 at the Combine with 35 reps of 225 pounds, a 29½ inch vertical jump and a 8-8 broad jump.
Projection: His versatility will be a selling point, since his roster spot can serve as a backup for two different positions and allow a team to keep an extra linebacker or wide receiver for special teams duty. May never be an NFL starter, but should find a way on a roster for some time. Expect to see him off the board somewhere early on Day Two unless a team reaches for him on Day One.

Patrick Ross, Boston College, 6-3¾, 300: Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who ended his career with 37 consecutive starts…Has prototype center height and a body that can add 15 pounds of bulk at the next level…Improved his stock greatly at the Hula Bowl (where he played both guard and center during the week and in the game), the Combine and B.C.'s Pro Day…Hard worker who doesn't mind getting in the mud…Very good at making proper line calls…Has agility to reach the second level of the defense…Has short arms and defenders can get into his body quickly and clog the middle…Needs to improve lower-body strength – gets overwhelmed at times by strong bull rushers…Doesn't blow open holes, he just directs defenders to one side…Ran a 4.96 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, a 27-inch vertical jump and a 8-7 broad jump.
Projection: The NFL seems to like Boston College linemen, which should play in his favor. He looks the part at times, but will need to find a team willing to work him hard and get him to look two years down the line before he'll be a contributor. He should go somewhere in the middle of Day Two.

Marvin Phillip, California, 6-1¼, 309: Sixth-year senior who started his first seven games as a true freshman before tearing his right MCL…Went on a two-year religious mission and didn't play in 2001 or 2002…Came back to the team 30 pounds lighter and didn't become a full-time starter again until 2004 – starting the final 24 games of his college career…Has good burst out of the snap…Makes good line calls and is adept at picking up blitzes and defensive audibles…Takes good angles and hits the second level of the defense…Doesn't have exceptional size of girth…He's overmatched in most of his one-on-one matchups in college, which should only be more pronounced in the NFL…Is already 24 years old…Has had injury problems, including a torn MCL and shoulder surgery…Ran a 5.24 40 at the Combine with 27 reps of 225 pounds with a 27-inch vertical jump and a 8-0 broad jump.
Projection: His small size and age will be deterrents, but he has enough physical ability to be a late-round draft pick who hooks on with a team and is a developmental project.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Matt Lentz, Michigan, 6-6, 316
Grayling Love, Arizona State, 6-3, 306
Nick Milhauser, Washington State, 6-2¾, 291
Chris Morris, Michigan State, 6-3½, 298
Donovan Raiola, Wisconsin, 6-2¼, 301

John Holler of VikingUpdate.com contributed to this report


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