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49er center position examined life after Dalman

Mar 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM

On a Tuesday morning back in August of the year 2000 something catastrophic and evil prevailed over the San Francisco 49er Training Facility in Stockton, California for 49er Center Chris Dalman was preparing to take place in practice drills on the field for the upcoming 2000 NFL season.

After stepping out onto the field just after two whole hours Chris Dalman found himself lying with absolute stillness on the playing field at the University of the Pacific, straining to regain feeling in his extremities. Never in his whole life and playing career had he faced such an ominous and dark hour as he did on this day.

Dalman suffered disk damage between the fifth and sixth vertebrae in his neck, which automatically threatened his whole existence as a player and his entire career. The films once taken proved negative, but a MRI later revealed the cervical disk damage.

The 49er eight-year veteran and starting center was blind-sided in the side of his face while blocking in a team scrimmage. He slammed head first during a full-pads pileup, then fell to the ground and lay motionless for nearly five minutes before slowly rising with some feelings in his limbs and was carted from the field on a stretcher to an awaiting ambulance for X-rays.

What complicated the injury even more was the fact that back-up center Ben Lynch, was out for at least two weeks with a recently diagnosed case of mononucleosis. That set the stage for the presentation of Guard Jeremy Newberry to take his place in conjunction with reserve guard Phil Ostrowski.

“I’m concerned,” a somber coach Steve Mariucci said. “I don’t want to set off any alarms, but any time you are talking about disks, it’s not great news.” The center is responsible for calling out blitzes and adjusting the line according to the defensive front; this is what Dalman does extremely well. In fact, some players went to coaches and management in the off-season and implored them to resign Dalman because they felt he was indispensable for the smooth running of the offense.

Chris Dalman was the very first starter in the 2000 off-season to restructure his contract to give the 49er’s more salary cap room, He was also returning from a February knee surgery.

On November 1st, 1998 Chris went down in a loss to Green Bay at Lambeau Field in which Quarterback Steve Young was sacked nine times. He suffered torn medial collateral ligament to his knee. He continued to play off and on but re-injured the knee in the process.

Chris Dalman was drafted by San Francisco in the 1993 NFL Draft in the sixth round (No. 156 overall). He stands 6-3 and weighs 292-pounds. He attended college at Stanford and while there he was a four-year starter on the offensive line where he was All-Pac 10 selection as a senior. He played in East-West Shrine All-Star Classic.

Dalman while in college played various positions including guard, center and offensive tackle. He was red shirted as a freshman in 1988 and graduated with a political science degree.

In 1993 his rookie year he appeared in 15 games, and saw action on special teams throughout the season. He also substituted for then All-Pro 49er Center Jesse Sapolu three different occasions during the season and appeared on special teams in two playoff games.

In 1994 he played in all 16 regular season games, including four starting assignments after Guard Jesse Sapolu injured his left hamstring. In this year he made his first career start at center in place of Bart Oates who injured his left knee.

In 1995 Chris saw action in 15 games primarily on special teams. He played in four games from scrimmage and replaced injured guards throughout the season. Here he gained valuable experience in snaps and special teams play. As he appeared in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game versus Green Bay on special teams duty (1-6-96).

In 1996 he started all 16 games at right guard, and this was his first season as a full time starter. He led all offensive players with 1,019 snaps and joined Jesse Sapolu (1,000) as the only offensive players to take at least 1,000 snaps. On 10-27 he suffered a concussion in Houston but continued to play thereafter. He also started both NFC Playoff Games against Philadelphia (12-29-96) and at Green Bay (1-4-97).

In 1997 Dalman played 14 games and made 13 starts at center. He missed first two regular season games after suffering a strained left knee against Seattle (8-9-97) in pre-season play. The 49er’s allowed 4.7 sacks per game with Dalman out of the starting lineup and 2.3 with him opening at center. He also helped the 49er’s rush for 175-yards in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game versus Minnesota on (1-3-98).

In 1998 he started 15 games at center, he anchored a solid offensive line for a team that led the NFL in rushing with a Team Record 2,544-yards. Within this season he missed some time with another knee injury. As a center in a game versus Detroit on (12-14-98) he helped the 49er’s rush for a Team Record 328-yards and Running Back Garrison Hearst set a Team record with 198-yards rushing.

He started at center versus Green Bay in NFC Wild Card Game (1-3-99) and paved way for Running Back Garrison Hearst’s 128-yards. He also started at center in NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Atlanta on (1-9-99).

In 1999 he started at center Weeks 1-4 but suffered again some knee injuries throughout the season. In a game against Cincinnati starting at center on (12-5-99) he helped the offense produce season-high 542 total yards, including 437 passing and no sacks at the Bengals. He also had to leave a game due to irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath.

This was the season San Francisco spiraled out of control to a 4-12 season missing the playoffs.

As 2000 unfolded and pre-season set down in August so did Center Chris Dalman probably forever as we expect him to announce retirement after June 1st in order to do his last duty of good faith to San Francisco to free up cap room. I go on record, as saying Dalman was a professional and a rock in the middle of this offensive line.

His knowledge and expertise in this position make him one of the best at the center position in the NFL bottom down; he came in to replace Jesse Sapolu who by all rights was a legend in himself. He did so with grace and agility I am proud to have had and observed his performances.

Chris Dalman remains on Injured Reserve to this day but the prognosis is bleak at best, when he went down San Francisco 49er Guard Jeremy Newberry filled in and he never missed a beat. If anything he allowed this great offense to continue its tradition of being one of the premier offenses in this league today.

When the San Francisco 49er offensive line took to the field in their very first regular season game in 2000 the line was reshuffled in this alignment. Jeremy Newberry, a 1999 starter at right guard, took over at center for Chris Dalman who was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury in training camp.

Right Tackle Derrick Deese moved to Left Tackle, Dave Fiore, the starting left tackle in 1999, moved inside to right guard. And Ray Brown the lone holdover from the unit stayed at left guard. Scott Gragg then joined the 49er’s from the New York Giants and solidified the right tackle position.

Durability was a big plus for the 49er’s offensive line this season and none were more durable than Jeremy Newberry was. The third-year veteran from California opened training camp as the starting right guard, but moved to center after the season-ending neck injury to Chris Dalman. Newberry settled right in and played in 1,000-of the team’s 1,001 offensive snaps (99.9%) this year. The only play Newberry missed was at Carolina (10-22-00) when he had to replace a shoe.

In the 2000 season not only did a great job of protecting the passer, but they also lead the way for a solid rushing attack. The 49er’s offense rushed 416 times for 1,081 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. That is an average of 4.3-yards per carry, a number that ranked seventh in the NFL.

The 49er’s averaged 112.6-yards per game. At Dallas on (9-24-00), the front line led the way for a 261-yard rushing performance and a 5.6-yard per carry average. The 49er’s led the league in rushing both in 1998-1999. San Francisco is the second rated rushing team in the NFL over the last three years with 6,440 yards. They are second only to Denver, which has 6,656 yards.

California’s Jeremy Newberry was drafted by the 49er’s in the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft he stands 6-5 and weighs 315-pounds he was (No. 58 overall). In College he started 11 games and recorded a 93% blocking consistency grade, highest by any California lineman in the 1990’s. As a junior he made Second-team All-Pac 10 selection and recorded 113 knockdowns, 29 downfield blocks and allowed just one sack in 801 plays from scrimmage. Wow no wonder Jeff Garcia was protected.

He anchored an offensive line that averaged 248.8 yards passing per game. Started 11 of 12 games as sophomore, splitting time at center and guard. He was named honorable mention All-Pac 10. He moved from defensive to offensive line one week into fall practice and within two weeks he had entered the starting lineup.

As a freshman he started first six games of season before suffering a broken bone in his foot. He missed three weeks with this injury. He majored in social welfare.

In 1998 He missed in his rookie year nine weeks of the season after suffering a torn ACL in off-season mini-camps. He was placed on Injured Reserve and was not removed from that list until (11-7-98).

In 1999 he made his first start at right tackle and substituted some for offensive tackle Derrick Deese who suffered a left knee sprain. He was a solid contributor but struggled at times to contain onrushing defensive ends. His move to center in 2000 was a remarkable move as it highlighted his most valuable strengths and anchored the offensive line following Chris Dalmans season-ending injury.

Newberry has even been involved in heavyweight wrestling while in college and was rated as being in the top five of his class. This in itself has helped him when being bull-rushed by opposing defensive tackles and linebackers. I feel Newberry is a solid and formidable center the question remains though should we switch him back to guard especially with veteran Ray Brown aging and having to be replaced probably following the 2001 season?

Then comes the question of who would be our starting center? Well there is back-up three-year veteran Ben Lynch who has been a worthy reserve when called upon.

Ben Lynch was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1996 NFL Draft in the seventh round (No. 211 overall). He was released by the Chiefs on (8-20-96) and signed by Minnesota on (2-10-97). He was the First selection by Frankfurt Galaxy in 1998 NFL Europe draft. He played in the World Bowl and earned All-NFL Europe honors as center with Galaxy. He was signed as a free agent by the 49er’s on (5-4-99).

Ben Lynch comes out of California and was a four-year letter winner as offensive lineman at California. He stands 6-3 and weighs 291-pounds. He closed his career there with 22 consecutive starts at center. He earned first-team All-Pac 10 honors as a senior. Was team co-captain, named most valuable lineman and received Roth award for courage, sportsmanship and attitude as a senior.

Lynch spent his freshman and sophomore years as a reserve guard before switching to center as a junior. He majored in business administration.

In 1999 as a 49er he has played on special teams and replaced center Chris Dalman due to knee injuries throughout the season. He gained very valuable experience as a pro in this beginning year. His credentials in NFL Europe also speak for themselves, I believe Lynch could become a starter especially when the time comes for Newberry to switch. Ben Lynch is an Exclusive Rights free agent, which means players with less than three years of experience; the 49er’s retain exclusive rights by tendering offers at applicable minimum salaries. The 49er’s have already tendered Lynch. The only emergency back-up center behind Lynch would probably be Guard Phil Ostrowski who is a restricted free agent who has not been tendered an offer as of yet and the deadline is April 16th.

Will San Francisco consider drafting a center in this draft? I am not really sure although it is a position worth looking at because of the age inside the offensive line, youth has been the priority in the defense certainly the offense is next to come. Moving Newberry and Lynch and drafting a center is not too far-fetched.

What scouts are looking for in a center.

The NFL average for a Professional Center is a height of 6-3 and a weight of 290-pounds with a 40-yard dash speed of 5.10. The minimum is 6-1 in height, 280-pounds in weight and a speed of 5.30 in the 40-yard dash.

All besides the left tackle on the offensive line the center is probably the most important position on the line. With most teams playing 4-3 defenses, today’s centers often have no one lined up directly across from them at the line of scrimmage. Therefore they must be able to reach the linebacker and block in space.

Because of all this, a center must have good feet and be proficient as an angle blocker. Centers also need the range to help out in pass protection; in some instances, they can be relied upon to pick up an outside pass rusher.

There is however one more factor that needs to be considered. Lot’s of teams are in the hunt for a athletic-position type center. Should he not have enough strength and bulk to hold his own against bull rushes or push the pile at the point of attack, than defenses, will adjust and put a big tackle on his nose neutralizing him in effect. This can create a mismatch and totally disrupt the running game.

Even though athletic ability and good feet are very important, size and strength cannot be compromised. Centers also need intelligence and football instincts. In most cases, they make all of the line calls and have to react quickly, in manners of anticipation and recognition.

Top 2001 NFL Draft Prospects

Nebraska’s Dominic Raiola is the very top center in this season’s draft class he has a height of 6-2 and weighs 307-pounds, he also has a 40-yard dash speed of 5.10. He has been compared to Denver Bronco’s center Tom Nalen. Raiola will get serious consideration from franchises like Arizona, Baltimore and Jacksonville.

Run Blocking: He is an absolute mauler in the running game. Has quick initial step, and fires out of his stance. Shows off great strength, and he can move the pile and finish once he locks-on a defender. He possesses the mobility and agility to reach linebackers. Overall he is a sound blocker who will excel against a nose head up or in space.

Pass Blocking: Here he is not as proven as one would like; because he is a product of Nebraska’s run-oriented offense. Still, he has great strength at the point of attack. He can hold his ground against bull rushes. Shows sound footwork, and can shuffle from side to side. He us exceptional at providing blocking help in open spaces. If he has a flaw it is improving blitz-recognition skills.

Initial quickness: He has an outstanding first step, and he has worked very hard to get much better. He fires out of his stance with explosive power. He takes good angles to defenders, and usually wins battles with great anticipation.

Strength: Raiola has great strength, he plays with leverage, and uses his lower body to anchor. Is difficult for defenders to move, and he will push the pile in the running game; he has all the strength and NFL center would need.

Mobility: Has good but not great mobility. Has quick feet, but he is not a great runner. He should be faster than he actually is. Shows great effort to get downfield and contribute to a play. But he is surely not going to beat anyone in a race. Has more quickness than speed.

Bottom line: It is very rare that a center would leave school early, but this goes to prove that Raiola has real talent. He is leader with good football knowledge and a lot of great physical tools. He is projected to be a NFL starter right from day one and remain one for the next 10-years he is that good.

Wisconsin’s Casey Rabach is another fine college center that will be listed high on the board when it comes to acquiring a center. He stands 6-4 and a half and weighs 298-pounds with a 40-yard dash speed of 5.30. He has been compared to one of the best Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jeff Christy.

Run Blocking: He is efficient here, and can get into great position. He lacks great strength though, but plays with enough leverage to get the job done. He has shown both aggressiveness and toughness on the field.

Pass Blocking: He shows an excellent ability in picking up the blitz. He has a real instinct for pass protection, and has great lateral movement. He does not possess great power, but he uses his hands well and holds his own against bull rushes.

Initial quickness: Can get out of his stance quickly, but he has been observed being beat when playing head up on a nose tackle. He definitely needs improvement in this area.

Strength: He is far from being a weight room kind of guy, he gets the job done with grit and intensity.

Mobility: He is a decent athlete with good quickness to get by on. Has the ability to get to linebackers but lacks great speed.

Bottom line: Rabach possesses great size and experience. However he does have weaknesses such as strength but he can be a dominating physical player with intensity and intelligence. He could sneak into the second round because of his consistency and productivity in college.

Minnesota’s Ben Hamilton may be a bit of a project but he could come as a bargain for some cap starved franchise that needs someone to fill a void via this draft. Hamilton stands 6-5 and weighs 275-pounds and has a 40-yard dash speed of 5.25. He has been compared to New York Jets Kevin Mawae.

Strengths: He has intelligence and he is a player with all the intangibles. He is a leader by example and plays with great intensity and confidence. He has a great frame, and gets in great position. He has been seen taking the right angles to defenders.

Weaknesses: If anything he needs to add bulk and strength. He is too much of a finesse guy. He will not overpower someone from the point of attack, and has been seen getting pushed around against physical defensive tackles who line head up on him.

Bottom line: Ben has been able to overcome his size and skill limitations with pure determination and football instincts. He is a work in progress and is a coach’s dream in terms of work ethic, mental capacity and his approach. He should be drafted higher than his skills warrant because he knows the details of the position.

San Francisco is in a particular situation when it comes to the center position, do you address it now or wait until later? It will certainly warrant attention if not this season than next. Newberry has passed the grade with exceptional aptitude I am impressed with his size, agility and courage at the line of scrimmage. He has been influential in the protection of Quarterback Jeff Garcia and with the running game in clearing a hole when needed. Ben Lynch is certainly a capable and quality back up as long as he can remain healthy.

Behind this there is little to talk about, bearing the need to consider a center in this years draft or a low-priced free agent.

The Center is for all practical reasons taken for granted and are the lost cogs in the wheel when you stack up and analyze the offensive line, but without a intelligent and talented one average offensive lines never become impressive ones. Their importance on the field cannot be measured enough; from anything to reshuffling the line to meet defensive movements to snapping the ball in a shot gun formation, to picking up a blitz and communicating that on down the line we must emphasize their value.
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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