A Hole in the Middle?

Jonathan Goodwin (Getty Images)

The 49ers have had one of the league's best offensive lines since the arrival of center Jonathan Goodwin in 2011. With his status up in the air this offseason, we look into potential replacements for the 35-year-old free agent with an eye toward future salary cap implications. Could Trent Baalke draft another lineman in the early rounds? The answer is inside.

The San Francisco 49ers might have to find a replacement for one of the offensive line's most important positions.

Jonathan Goodwin, 35, is slated for free agency and said earlier this season retirement is an option he will weigh heavily this spring. At his age, he will have a hard time finding potential suitors on the open market, plus he had to take a reported $1.2 million pay cut to stay with the team last season.

That means, in all likelihood, Goodwin has played his last game as the signal caller for one of the league's best offensive lines, creating an opening for a younger player to emerge. Goodwin won the team's Ed Block Courage Award this season, given to the player that best showed a commitment to sportsmanship and courage. He started all 56 games since joining the 49ers in 2011, playoffs included.

Goodwin earned Pro Football Focus' No. 14 ranking among centers in 2013 while receiving the seventh-highest grade in run blocking. He allowed four sacks and 14 quarterback hurries in pass protection.

The ramifications of Goodwin's possible departure will not only impact the center position, but the other two guard positions as well.

The 49ers have long liked Daniel Kilgore, who enters the final year of his rookie deal in 2014 after getting drafted in the fifth round of 2011. Kilgore has played in all 39 games over the last two seasons as a reserve lineman often used in jumbo packages. Given his three years' experience with the group, his transition to starting center would be the most seamless. But his presence might not prevent San Francisco from drafting a center in the early rounds.

But if the team does feel good about Kilgore starting going forward, then he would be a candidate for a contract extension now, much like defensive tackle Ian Williams received last March. Williams got a cap-friendly two-year extension worth $3.2 million after joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 2011. Williams had contributed mostly as a reserve prior to signing the extension, but the team felt good enough about him to give him a contract before naming him the starter in 2013. He wound up breaking his ankle in Week 2 against the Seahawks.

Extending Kilgore now to a cap-friendly price would be a wise move for Trent Baalke and Co. considering the upcoming extension talks for Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati and others that are due for free agency following next season. The 49ers are hoping to save as much cap space as possible coming season hoping to lock up their star players in the prime of their respective careers. And because he's played entirely as a reserve, Kilgore would be inexpensive, just as Williams was last season. Kilgore's next start will be the first of his career.

In many ways, Kilgore's status is also tied to reserve guard Joe Looney, who earned his first playing time as a pro this season when he filled in after Iupati and Joe Staley suffered knee injuries. The 49ers liked Looney enough to play him against the Rams at right guard, over Kilgore, when Alex Boone shifted to left tackle after Staley suffered an MCL sprain to his right knee in the first quarter.

Looney getting the nod over Kilgore came as somewhat of a surprise given that he was a regular inactive behind Kilgore and Adam Snyder on game days. But that vote of confidence for the second-year player could be an indication of the team's handling of Iupati when his contract extension is discussed. Kilgore and Looney both saw reps at all three interior line positions during training camp.

If the 49ers decide to pay one of their key free agency this spring (more likely: Anquan Boldin, less likely: Donte Whitner), then they will have a hard time creating room to sign all of their key free agents following next year. If the team thinks Looney can take Iupati's place without much drop off, then it could save them $7 or $8 million for 2015. Iupati started 58 straight games to start his career before suffering an MCL injury Nov. 17 in New Orleans.

Iupati has been one of the league's most dominant guards since getting drafted No. 17-overall in 2010 earning two All-Pro and Pro-Bowl nods the last two seasons. But considering the money the 49ers will have to give others players after next year, paying Iupati market value would be difficult. The top average salaries for guards in 2014 will go to Carl Nicks ($9.5 million), Logan Mankins ($8.5 million) and Jahri Evans ($8.1 million). Iupati figures to be in that ballpark when his contract is up. Looney, meanwhile, will make just $660,000 in 2015. That will be the last year of his rookie deal, making him a candidate for an affordable extension this time next year.

Snyder, 32, will be in the last year of his two-year deal this season and is due to make $1 million. He was the team's sixth lineman capable of playing all five positions. But he could be a cap casualty allowing the 49ers to go with a younger and cheaper fill-in.

With the status of Goodwin, Snyder and Iupati up in the air over the next two springs, San Francisco will likely address the interior of the offensive line in the upcoming draft. And they could elect to do it in the early rounds. Before being officially tabbed as general manager in 2011, Baalke oversaw the 2010 draft and took Anthony Davis and Iupati in the first round as the team's VP of Player Personnel.

49ers Interior Linemen Under Contract for 2014

Mike Iupati

Alex Boone

Daniel Kilgore

Joe Looney

Adam Snyder

Al Netter

Ryan Seymour

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--The draft's top guard prospects.

--The draft's top center prospects.

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*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

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