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Why the center position is vital to Kyle Shanahan’s offense

The San Francisco 49ers acquired a Pro Bowl offensive lineman on Wednesday, and it only cost them 12 spots in the sixth round.

By the open-ended nature of John Lynch’s statement in a press release, there very well could be some reshuffling of positions on the offensive line. Although he’s coming off of a knee injury, Daniel Kilgore isn’t going to give up his position without a fight, and there’s also chatter that Jeremy Zuttah might move to guard.

All of this talk about offensive linemen marks a good time to point out how important the center position is in Shanahan’s offense, both in the run game and the pass.

Shanahan will repeatedly tell you this during his interviews this season: Everything is predicated off the running game. His zone-blocking scheme requires extra communication between the linemen because of all the double-teaming they’ll do. The center position, who was Alex Mack two of the last three seasons under Shanahan, often has to play the middle man in these pre-snap exchanges. When a running play fails to gain yardage, often times it’s miscommunication that’s at fault.

There are two different types of runs Shanahan typically calls: inside-zone and outside-zone — both require succinct athleticism from the center. On an inside-zone, the center double-teams the defensive tackle into a stronghold of one of the guards and then has to race up the field to get his hands on the middle linebacker. On outside-zone plays, the center usually is asked to perform a “reach block,” essentially pushing a defensive player toward the sideline and out of the play. Moving in space is valued just as high — if not more — than strength.

It’s the passing game where the center position in Shanahan’s system really takes on different role than most other players around the league. Mack was a smart enough player where he handled all the checks and protections at the line, freeing up Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to focus on the secondary instead. The same was true in Cleveland in 2014, where Brian Hoyer posted career-best numbers with Mack calling the shots at the line.

“He takes so much off my plate,” Ryan told NFL.com’s Mike Silver before the Super Bowl. “In our run game, he handles the run calls. And he’s all over the pass protection, which takes things off of my plate where I can kind of focus on diagnosing coverage, trying to diagnose matchups on our side and figure out if I see something. I can help him out, but very rarely do I have to help him out, because he’s so on top of it.”

It’s unrealistic to expect Zuttah to walk in and be Alex Mack. But Shanahan is going to demand a ton out of the center position. Even if they do like Kilgore as the No. 1 option, his injury history left them no choice but to find competition for the spot. I wouldn’t even rule out Zane Beadles or Joshua Garnett seeing some snaps at center in the spring, just so Shanahan can get his eyes on what they look like with the ball in their hands pre-snap. Shanahan’s offense is very technical. Smart players will see the field.

The 49ers gave themselves another option at the position for the chump change of moving down in the sixth round and absorbing a salary on the books. Another low-risk, high-reward offseason move from Lynch and Shanahan.

 

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