49ers roster: Alex Mack will make a massive difference in 2021

Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers spent considerable effort upgrading their offensive line, and Alex Mack was a key piece who’s expected to provide a sizable upgrade.

At 35 years old, San Francisco 49ers veteran center Alex Mack might not be a long-term answer to help solve the Niners’ question of creating a stable and consistent offensive line for the next three-plus years.

That said, Mack does immediately provide an upgrade at a position that was a revolving door last season.

Speaking of that revolving door, San Francisco was hoping to have now-retired center Weston Richburg start, only to see Richburg miss the entire year after suffering a serious injury the previous season. His backup, Ben Garland, also landed on season-ending injured reserve with a calf injury. And that ultimately forced the 49ers to field third- and fourth-string backups, Hroniss Grasu and Daniel Brunskill, to alleviate the problem.

No wonder why the Niners inked Mack, the former Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowler, to a three-year, $14.85 million free-agent contract during the offseason.

Alex Mack Games Played Table
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5 yr5 yrATL7878

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 7/3/2021.

The former first-round NFL Draft pick of the Cleveland Browns out of Cal now gets to reunite with head coach Kyle Shanahan, under whom Mack had great success in both Cleveland in 2014 and in Atlanta in 2016.

Shanahan has always put a high emphasis on the play of his centers — a necessity in the complex outside-zone blocking scheme, which helps explain why veterans, not rookies, have almost exclusively been asked to fill this void on Shanahan-led offenses.

And while Mack could be entering the twilight of his career, one should also expect a bit of a resurgence from him, too.

Certainly an upgraded San Francisco O-line.

Why Alex Mack improves with 49ers in 2021

Mack might no longer be at the level where he’d be a perennial Pro Bowler, and it’d be safe to argue the caliber of play that helped him earn six Pro Bowls earlier in his career is behind him.

Pro Football Focus gave Mack a respectable 65.9 overall grade last season, which was still down from the 72.1 mark he received in 2019 and further removed from the 80.0 grade in 2018.

But it’s important to acknowledge two things.

For starters, reuniting with a system like Shanahan’s should help matters a lot. In 2016, the last time Shanahan and Mack were together, the center posted a 91.8 overall PFF grade — the highest of his career.

On top of that, the 49ers made significant upgrades to their O-line during the offseason, including re-signing left tackle Trent Williams and then adding rookie linemen Aaron Banks and Jaylon Moore in the NFL Draft.

It’s safe to say Mack should benefit from playing alongside a better supporting cast than the one he saw the last two seasons with the Falcons.

Why Alex Mack regresses with 49ers in 2021

If there’s one area of concern with Mack heading into 2021, it’s his age.

Offensive linemen, even those playing into their 30s, always carry the added risk of injury and regression. Once that player hits 35 years old, the inevitability of a massive decline in performance is readily apparent.

Mack surrendered 25-plus pressures in each of the last two years, per PFF, whereas he never allowed more than 20 in each of the three seasons prior. True, a lackluster O-line in Atlanta could have had something to do with this. But given the Niners still have some questions at guard despite their offseason moves, it’s not automatic that Mack winds up being a reliable cog in pass protection.

Projected impact for 49ers

While there are concerns Mack’s age will catch up with him this season, if it isn’t already, one thing should be made clear: He’ll provide both stability and reliability at the position, which wasn’t the case a year ago.

Mack missed only two games last year but was available for each of the Falcons’ regular-season slate of games the previous four seasons and was also fully available in Cleveland with the exception of 2014 when he only managed five games played.

Read More: How Alex Mack can help Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021

Unlike Richburg, who dealt with injuries for the bulk of his San Francisco tenure, the 49ers should expect Mack to be a constant along an O-line that has dealt with a lot of non-constants the past couple of seasons.

That’s an awfully good thing.

If Shanahan’s offense expects to get back to the kind of level it enjoyed back in 2019, getting quality O-line play will have to be an essential part of the equation.

And Mack will have to be an essential part of the O-line equation, too, making his importance to the team’s success in 2021 a highlight point.

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