• Geoff Castaneda

Mack to the Future: How Adding the Experienced Center Improves the 49ers Offense


Image Credit: 49ers




Trent Williams’ record-setting contract signing garnered much of the early free agency headlines and for good reason. But on the heels of Williams’ signing, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch made another move that will impact the offensive line. The 49ers announced free agent center Alex Mack agreed to a three-year contract that will send him back to The Bay Area. The six-time Pro Bowler and former Cal standout will enter his thirteenth NFL season, and first with the 49ers, in 2021. While Mack may not be the dominant All-Pro lineman of his youth, there are several ways he immediately boosts the 49ers’ offense.



Familiarity

Photo Credit: Associated Press



The lines tethering Kyle Shanahan and Alex Mack are clear. The three-time All-Pro center played under Shanahan-led offenses in Cleveland and Atlanta. Mack acknowledged his comfort with the 49ers’ head coach during his introductory press conference, “Obviously there's a connection with Kyle Shanahan, him as a head coach, the offense he runs. I know it's a system I can be really good in… I've been in that offense before, so I've done those plays. I know how it fits together.” A less discussed reunion is the one between Mack and first-year offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel. McDaniel served as the Cleveland Browns’ wide receivers coach in 2014 and as an offensive assistant in Atlanta from 2015 to 2016 during Mack’s tenure with the franchise. Mack was just as complimentary when referencing his new offensive coordinator, “Mike’s always been part of this offense. He knows it backwards and forwards and I know the energy he brings and how hard he works.” While the verbiage may differ from team to team, Mack’s familiarity with Shanahan and McDaniel should be an immediate asset.



Communication

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated



Speaking of assets, the mark of any great center is controlling the chaos at the line of scrimmage. Mack understands his role completely. "As a center, you do a lot of directing traffic,” he said. “You're communicating with the whole offensive line. And why that happens is the center has a very good view of the field. A veteran center is able to see everything, ID the front, communicate it effectively.” The 49ers lacked that leadership last season. There were times when the offensive line looked flat-out flabbergasted after allowing a sack or unblocked defender in the run game. Mack should alleviate the confusion. Of course, no matter how much film study the team does, there will always be the need to adjust on the fly. Says Mack,“Every once in a while the defense lines up in things you weren’t expecting and you’ve got to make really quick decisions…” Mack’s experience will pay dividends not just in meetings but as an extra coach on the field.



Weight Off the Quarterback’s Shoulder(pad)s

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated



The question of who will start at quarterback for the 49ers in 2021 (and for how long) will be debated until Kyle Shanahan makes a public commitment. What is not up for debate is the influence Mack will have on QB1. Mack understands his value to whoever is taking his snaps. When asked about Shanahan’s preference for a veteran center, Mack stated, “It's also an advantage for the quarterback because he doesn't have to worry as much about some of the stuff. He can trust the center. The better the center can direct traffic, the better the offense can run.”


The Mack and Shanahan faction has proven to be a winning combination. Mack was the starting center during the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl run in 2016.Quarterback Matt Ryan was nominated for the Pro Bowl that year and set career highs in completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdowns. Mack’s addition to an offensive line boasting first-round talents Trent Williams, Laken Tomlinson, and Mike McGlinchey should maximize the quarterback position. Whether Jimmy Garoppolo leads the offense in 2021, or is supplanted by a rookie, look for the 49ers’ offense to take another big step forward.



Reliability

Photo Credit: ESPN



The 49ers made a huge commitment to the center position in 2018 when they signed free agent center Weston Richburg to a five-year, $47.5 million contract. Richburg was effective when on the field, but the franchise saw less of him than expected. He missed one game in 2018 and a torn patellar tendon caused him to miss six games, including Super Bowl LIV, in 2019. Richburg missed all of 2020 on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and the offense suffered. With Richburg’s retirement looking all but certain, John Lynch and Co.went back to the free agency well. Mack, by comparison, has only missed two games in the last five seasons. Surely, the 49ers are taking a calculated risk by signing a 35-year-old offensive lineman. However, Mack appears to have the right mindset to continue his career at a high level, “I work really hard to stay healthy. It’s a full-time job to get your body right and make sure you’re taking care of yourself. It’s a lot of luck, for sure. But it’s also about taking care of yourself, getting your sleep, eating right, just doing all the little things it takes.” We’ve heard the cliché over and over again: the best ability is reliability. Mack has proven to be an ironman in the middle of the line. The 49ers desperately need continuity on the offensive line and Mack looks like the short-term answer.


Even before the 49ers signed Mack, the flirtation was evident. He described the prospect of signing with the team as “enticing”even before to the start of free agency. Mack will be a marked improvement over the combination of centers the 49ers rotated last year and he is likely the missing piece to an otherwise talented offensive line. The players surrounding Mack were undoubtedly part of his decision to choose San Francisco. Mack stated, “We have a lot of talent on this team and that’s something that I got excited about… I’m fired up to be able to join those guys. I know what they bring and the energy they have and what they can do as an offense if we’re on the same page, on the field, healthy, rolling. That’s what I want to see.”



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