Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Center Jake Brendel: The 49ers’ best-kept secret

Rohan Chakravarthi
Jun 8, 2022 at 12:15 PM--

Tuesday marked the conclusion of the San Francisco 49ers' first mandatory minicamp practice, which was followed by media availability with head coach Kyle Shanahan and several players.

While all eyes were on the likes of Deebo Samuel, who was in attendance for the first time this offseason, and Trey Lance, there was one name that multiple people mentioned during their press conferences—center Jake Brendel.

Jake Brendel isn't your typical superstar. Instead, he's been a backup offensive lineman for the past two seasons for the 49ers after spending several seasons with the Miami Dolphins in a limited role.

However, Brendel could be the answer the 49ers are looking for at center, the current position on the roster with the biggest hole.

Alex Mack, the incumbent starter at the position in 2021, officially announced his retirement last week, confirming that the 49ers will have their fifth starting center in five years.

Now, Brendel isn't without competition at the center position, but he has been the 49ers' best-kept secret for the past year and is the current favorite to win the job in my eyes.

Rapport with Trey Lance

During OTAs, it was reported that Jake Brendel was, in fact, playing with the first-team offensive line as Alex Mack wasn't at practice and veteran Daniel Brunskill was out with knee tendinitis.

Normally, implementing a new center into the offense would probably cause rapport issues with the quarterback, but that's not the case with Lance.

Last year, during the offseason, Lance practiced with the second-team offense for the majority of his time and Jake Brendel was the center, as Jimmy Garoppolo worked with Alex Mack on the first-team offense.

Fast-forward to 2022, and Lance, once again, is working with Brendel as his center, alleviating some of the rapport concerns, which are especially important with a first-time starter at quarterback.

Lance had nothing but positive remarks for Brendel when speaking about their relationship on the field, praising his mind and the responsibilities he has as the center in the offense.

"Jake handles [calling the protections] honestly for the most part. That's kind of how our offense works. [There are] things that we can do from a quarterback standpoint, but, for the most part, the center is making the calls for every play."

Lance touched on the duo's rapport as well, noting the experience that he and Brendel have together, and expressed his confidence in the veteran center.

"I got to spend a lot of time with Jake," Lance said. "Obviously, I took all my reps pretty much with Jake, and Jimmy [Garoppolo] was with Alex [Mack] last year. Obviously, you know [it was] sad [because] I wanted to play with Alex for sure, but super excited about Jake. Jake's three lockers down from me. We're together, one of the first two in every morning. [I know] Jake is one of the last guys to leave. He works super hard [and] his athletic ability, I think, is one thing that stands out about him."

Familiarity with the second-year quarterback could be a deciding factor in Brendel winning the starting job over the other candidates (more on them later).

Kyle Shanahan's support

Lance wasn't the only one who expressed support for Brendel, as head coach Kyle Shanahan detailed the 49ers' search for a center, and why they've stuck with their current group of players.

"We knew Mack retiring was a chance, was hoping he wouldn't," Shanahan shared. "And it went all the way up into free agency and we don't want to make a big thing and go chase stuff, especially with a player that we've had in here who has done a good job and he's shown us in here that he can do it. We also have guys like [OL Daniel] Brunskill who's done it before and I think we have some young guys who can do it. So we're in this situation, we knew Mack had a chance to leave, but you don't want to take that risk. Just stockpiling other players when you can do that at other positions, especially when you guys have some guys in house we believe can do it. And we have to work them hard throughout OTAs, throughout training camp and we'll come up with the best guy and then you'll see how long he can do it over the year."

Shanahan believes that had Mack gotten injured last season, Brendel would have been capable of starting at the position, indicating his confidence in the 29-year old center.

"Jake made our team last year as our backup center and if you do that, you better believe that all backup guys have the ability to start. And then when they get that opportunity, how long can they do it for? But we had a lot of confidence in Jake last year to make the team. And if Mack would have ever missed a game or something, we wouldn't have hesitated and we would have gone into that game very confident with him."

Brendel's signing was actually the idea of offensive line coach Chris Foerster, who coached the center during their Miami days, and Shanahan believes he's been even better than anticipated.

"Chris [Foerster] is the one that brought [Brendel] to our attention," Shanahan said. "Just him having him in Miami. He was a big fan of his there. We got him in, I believe during the COVID year, he had some things that he opted out, went right down to that last minute. We were able to get him back and last year was our first year with him and yeah, Chris talked highly of him and he's been better than advertised."

Athletic Ability

During the Shanahan-Lynch era, the 49ers have been known to covet athletic offensive linemen that fit their outside-zone scheme, which was only furthered this offseason with the additions of rookies Nick Zakelj and Spencer Burford, who both tested well athletically, especially in the 10-yard split.

Brendel's athletic ability is the primary factor in his game, as he posted a 9.94 raw athletic score (RAS) coming out of UCLA, which was one of the best in his draft class.

When asked about Brendel's athletic ability, star left tackle Trent Williams, who reported for minicamp, praised the center's fit with the 49er offense.

"That's why he's here," Williams said. "To be in this offense, you have to be an athletic offensive lineman. Jake is definitely an athlete. Definitely a quick-twitch guy that makes him a great center."

Other candidates

The 49ers have repeatedly expressed the importance of competition, so Brendel certainly has to prove that he is capable of winning the starting center job, although his time with the first-team offense indicates that he will receive every opportunity to do so.

Who could compete with Brendel to start as the lynchpin on the offensive line?

Veteran offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill is the only other player on the team with any starting experience in the NFL at the position, having played center for eight games in 2020.

However, Brunskill was the starting right guard last season, and could be the main competitor at the position once again should second-year lineman Jaylon Moore produce unspectacular results during training camp.

Additionally, Brendel's rapport with Lance could be important, as Brunskill currently is unable to play due to knee tendinitis, meaning the number of reps with Lance would be minimal compared to Brendel's, which isn't desirable when dealing with a young quarterback, especially for a team vying the playoffs.

Other candidates include rookie Nick Zakelj, as head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch expressed confidence that the Fordham product could play center in the NFL with his unique size and athletic ability.

However, Zakelj has no experience at the position heading into 2022 and could benefit from sitting behind Brendel for a year, especially given Brendel's knowledge of the offense by now.

Moreover, Zakelj has been receiving his reps at guard with the second team, meaning the 49ers may envision him as a backup guard for 2022 before making the transition to center in 2023.

While many fans are clamoring for undrafted rookie Dohnovan West to win the starting center job, the Arizona State product has been practicing with the third-team offense, with Keaton Sutherland earning the second-team reps, making it an uphill battle for West to garner significant playing time in 2022.

Brendel's veteran profile, athletic ability, and familiarity with not only the offense, but also Trey Lance, make him an intriguing favorite to win the center job as of now.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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