49ers news: Is Nick Zakelj the 49ers center of the future?

In a series of roster changes the 49ers made on promotion day, the 49ers decided to keep 2022 sixth-round pick Nick Zackelli on the final 53-man roster.

Zakelj possesses a very interesting set of physical traits that most coaching staff would like to have the opportunity to develop. Zakelj recorded impressive relative athletic performance or RAS for short. RAS ranks 23rd among more than 1,200 interior offensive linemen since 1987.

Despite these jaw-dropping physical traits, Zakelj faced an uphill battle during the preseason to make it to the final roster in an offensive line room full of veterans.

The 49ers’ decision to keep Zakelj told me two things. The first is that Zachley has impressed the coaching staff and front office so much throughout the offseason that they didn’t want to risk Zachley being cut in an attempt to get him into the practice class.

That included an impressive performance against the Houston Texans in the preseason finale. Here are a few games from that game where Zakelj shined.

This is another Zakelj who does a great job of reading his surroundings and reacting to pressure from his right side. See how Zakelj turns his head and how quickly he reacts to edge pressure from the B gap.

In the end, the play showcases Zakelj’s resilience as he recovers from a bull run that gave him trouble early on. It’s not always about how you start a rep, it’s how you finish it.

The second is that despite being a green player and lacking NFL experience, Zakelj’s versatility and ability to play inside and out will be very valuable to the 49ers as they now have two deep players on the offensive line who can play in a pinch any of the five positions.

When you combine Zakelj’s athleticism and positional flexibility, it’s easy to imagine why the 49ers coveted him. The real mystery is that they want Zaccheryi to settle into the offensive line long-term, as they already have young starters standing firm at both guard positions and two former first-round picks at both tackle positions.

That makes the center position the most obvious choice, with current starter Jack Brundle not only 31 but also planning to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Zakelj played tackles in his final season at Fordham, but he did a lot of work at center to better prepare himself for his transition to the NFL. I spoke with Zakelj’s offensive line coach Alex Huettel in Fordham. Coach Huettel gave some insight as to why he thinks Zakelj would be good in the NFL in the paint, explicitly mentioning the center position.

When I asked Coach Huettel where he thought Zakelj would best fit at the NFL level, he said this.

It’s hard. Personally, I think he can be an introvert. Again, I think he’s big enough to press it in there, using three techniques one-on-one, combining the heavy nasal mask. He has the ability and skill to hit the post, drive his feet, and finish there with tension.

I do think he’ll be great in the paint. I think he’s very smart, he’s proven in the conference room with the questions he’s asking about the way he’s prepared, he can play at center, ID defense, give it his all, be the voice of the offensive line.

Coach Huettel then went into depth about how Zakelj put in a lot of extra work in the paint to help him prepare for the transition to the NFL level while maintaining the workload that comes with being a first-team left tackle.

He wants to play center, and he’s been working on it going into his senior offseason because he knows you’ve got to play in the NFL, you’ve got to be able to do all five.

So he really puts his onus on the inside footwork and even just putting it down faster. And he looks really good at center. You know, we even considered moving him there for a few games just to further the A gap, but he’s a natural tackler for us in our league, in FCS.

I do think he’s going to be great in the paint, his quick twitches, he’s going to grab people, he can bend, he can use leverage, he’s going to finish players hard because it’s a phone booth game inside. But I do think Nick is athletic enough and long enough to kick out when needed and save the day.

Even more fascinating, Coach Huettel mentioned that Zakelj basically took responsibility for doing this extra work in-house. This initiative is impressive.

I discussed with Nick during his senior year that you have to be able to catch, so you better start working on it now. He understands Nick is smart, he’s a footballer, he understands the process you have to be able to do it all.

We had a conversation, but honestly, when it came to fall training camp, he was like, “Coach can I be at center?” I was like, yeah, go on. So he wanted to do it, he wanted to get some reps, and he looked really good. Snaps are beautiful, right on the quarterback’s chest, and he doesn’t have to take his eyes off it, it’s special.

The last takeaway from our conversation that I thought was very noteworthy was Coach Huettel’s response when I asked him what he thought was Zakelj’s best trait as an offensive linebacker.

I would say he aspires to be a great offensive lineman. I know that when you get to this level, everyone is eager to do well in the game. But you do run into some people who think, oh, I’m just an offensive lineman. But for Nick, it’s something to be proud of, like I’m an offensive lineman. For him, the work he does makes a big difference.

He’s really working on the offensive line, how do you get better? Get your target, hand position, leverage, everything it needs.

When you put it all together, you get an extremely athletic player who takes great pride in the work that comes with being an offensive linebacker at the highest level. A player who is willing to take the time to learn a brand new position while still handling his duties in another.

While the timeline isn’t clear when Zakelj will have the opportunity to put his claim at the center of the future, one thing is clear. When this opportunity comes, Zakelj will benefit from all the work he did long before the 49ers handed in a draft card with his name on it.

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