San Francisco 49ers: Will Daniel Kilgore Start at Center in 2014?

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIFebruary 28, 2014

DENVER, CO - AUGUST 26:  Offensive guard Daniel Kilgore #67 of the San Francisco 49ers in action during a pre-season game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field Field at Mile High on August 26, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The 49ers defeated the Broncos, 29-24.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Kilgore's earned himself a nice little pay raise.
Kilgore's earned himself a nice little pay raise.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

News broke on Thursday that the San Francisco 49ers extended the contract of Daniel Kilgore, their reserve offensive lineman who was set to be in the last year of his rookie contract this season.  With Jonathan Goodwin not under contract for 2014, the move is a little more significant than your regular backup signing.

“We are pleased to extend the contract of a talented, young player like Dan,” general manager Trent Baalke said in the team’s statement on the signing.  “This move is another example of our philosophy to extend the contracts of our own young players.”

It’s certainly no surprise the team wanted to keep Kilgore around.  He may have been a fifth-round draft pick back in 2011, but the team was high on him from the start—they actually traded up to go and get him.

Since then, Kilgore’s mostly been in a reserve role—he’s yet to actually start a game in the NFL.  He did, however, play in every single game both this season and last, filling in at both guard and center as need be.  He played 92 offensive snaps this past season, with the most action occurring against Houston.

Potential starter No. 2: Joe Looney
Potential starter No. 2: Joe LooneyJeff Chiu/Associated Press/Associated Press

The details of the contract, however, indicate that we’ll be seeing Kilgore a lot more in the future.  CSN Bay Area has reported that Kilgore’s extension will bump him up to about $1.8 million a year—quite the pay raise for a player who was averaging a little over $550,000 on his rookie deal.  That’s a lot to pay a backup, even one as versatile as Kilgore.

It’s a cheap deal for a starting center, though.  A $1.8 million average salary would rank 18th among contracts for centers, and that’s assuming he succeeds as a player.  The 49ers are only on the hook for his $645,000 salary for this year, as well as a portion of his signing bonus.  If Kilgore works out, the 49ers get a good player at a bargain price.  If not, they haven’t put themselves behind the eight-ball too much in terms of cap hits.

This essentially spells the end for Jonathan Goodwin’s tenure with the team.  Goodwin was always a long shot to come back, as he’ll be turning 36 this season.  This contract basically equates to about what they would have given Goodwin, so after three seasons as the starting center, he’ll be looking for a new home this offseason.

The writing was on the wall, anyway.  Goodwin played decently but was probably the weakest link on the offensive line this season.  He was already among the oldest offensive linemen to see the field last season, and he wasn’t precisely going to get better as he grew older.  If he wanted to come back in a reserve role, he would still have some value—but that seems unlikely, as he hasn’t even been contacted by the team.

As for the starting center slot, Kligore’s new contract isn’t so prohibitively large that it installs him as the surefire Week 1 starter.  He’d be the biggest unknown on offense, so you can expect a solid battle at the slot during OTAs, training camp and preseason.

FSU's Bryan Stork could be an option in the late rounds of the draft.
FSU's Bryan Stork could be an option in the late rounds of the draft.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Competing with Kilgore for that starting slot could be Joe Looney.  Looney, who was drafted in 2012, saw his first NFL action this season and impressed.  In Week 13 against St. Louis, Looney was forced to enter the game when Joe Staley went down.  Looney was plugged in at right guard and played admirably, impressing his coaches and teammates.

Fullback Bruce Miller was one of those impressed, saying, “There was no fall off, no drop off with Joe (Staley) leaving. I'm really impressed with the way he handled himself. He's confident, and very humble in his approach. He prepares like a starter, so when he goes in there, he's a starter.”

It’s interesting to note that Looney was the one plugged in in that game, rather than Kilgore, who only saw four snaps despite the absence of Joe Staley and Mike Iupati.  In fact, the 62 plays Looney was in on against St. Louis were more than Kilgore’s ever played in an NFL game.  I’d still have Kilgore as the favorite to slide into the starting center role, with Looney being the first lineman off the bench at center or guard, but it’ll likely be a spirited competition in training camp.

Goodwin’s departure also leaves an open roster slot for a draft pick to be added.  In my mock draft, I had the 49ers taking a center in the second round—but that was written before the Kilgore extension.  I still think they’ll take an interior offensive lineman at some point, but the Kilgore extension means they may wait for that until a later round.

In the Baalke/Harbaugh era, the 49ers have drafted five offensive linemen.  The highest pick was Looney, taken in the fourth round.  Clearly, the team is comfortable drafting linemen late and developing them over a period of a few seasons.  With that in mind, and Kilgore under contract through 2017, San Francisco could wait and draft a center on Day 3 of the draft.

A name to watch that late in the draft might be Bryan Stork out of Florida State.  He’s quick and athletic, but still has some bulking up to do—he was a tight end in high school and made the transition to the offensive line fairly recently.  He’s the Rimington Trophy winner as the best college center, and if he can continue to improve his technique, he could have a long career in the NFL.

When all is said and done, I’d expect Kilgore to move up into Goodwin’s role, Looney to replace Kilgore and a late-round draft pick to slide into Looney’s slot.  It’ll be a position worth watching as the offseason continues.