After spending most of his career at left guard, where he started all 16 games in 2009, Baas moved to center out of necessity last summer after solid veteran starter Eric Heitmann fractured his fibula during early-August training camp practices.
It was later revealed that Heitmann also suffered a neck injury during August that was worse than originally thought. The injury, originally described as a stinger, was considered much more serious by the time Heitmann's leg was healed, and the 10th-year veteran was placed on injured reserve Nov. 2.
That handed the full-time center gig to Baas for the entire season, and he performed quite capably in the role. Baas, in fact, was likely to hang on to the starting role even if Heitmann had come back healthy to challenge him in November.
While starting all 16 games for the second consecutive season, Baas gave strong indications through his play that center is where the 49ers should have had him all along. He hadn't played center since his college days at Michigan, but it appears to be the position that's most suited to his style and strengths. Baas proved worthy of every penny he received from the one-year, $1,226,000 tender offer he signed with the 49ers last year as a restricted free agent.
In another season of change and transition for San Francisco's beleaguered offensive line, Baas proved to be the rock of the unit with rookies starting both to his left (guard Mike Iupati) and right (tackle Anthony Davis). Baas and those two first-round draft picks were the only members of the line unit to start all 16 games, and the only players on the offense besides tight end Vernon Davis to start every game.
With left tackle Joe Staley missing the final seven games due to injury and both rookies having their ups and downs, Baas emerged as San Francisco's top offensive lineman of 2010. His coaches thought so too – for the second consecutive season, Baas was named the recipient of the Bobb McKittrick Award, an honor bestowed upon the team's offensive line MVP at the end of each season.
Baas has come a long way since his second season of 2006, when he had no starts and appeared in just three games along the offensive line. With 13 career starts at right guard and 24 at left guard, Baas' versatility in the interior trenches is unquestioned. But he was able to make the best use of his 330-pound girth and powerful style at a position that also tested his ability to recognize defensive alignments and make calls for the lineman around him.
Baas, who has always had a calm demeanor and level head about him, also developed some leadership qualities as he recognized his place as the experienced veteran of the line once Heitmann went down. To be sure, Baas significantly increased his value to the 49ers and his value as a NFL player over the course of the season.
The Baas breakdown
2010 performance: Started all 16 games at center, showing a feel and comfort for a position he hadn't played since college while establishing himself as San Francisco's most consistent and dependable offensive lineman of 2010. For the second consecutive year, was honored with the Bobb McKittrick Award, given annually to the 49ers' top offensive lineman. Appeared to get stronger as season progressed as he settled in at center after starting at left guard the previous two seasons.
2010 season grade: B
Why he's worth keeping: Baas showed signs of reliability and reaching his potential at left guard in 2009, but he made the leap to Integral Piece of Offensive Line with his fine play last season. Baas is in the prime of his career and appears to have put the injuries that plagued his early years with the 49ers behind him. He knows the system and wants to continue his growth with the team that drafted him. He also has been a good teammate and stand-up guy during his six seasons in San Francisco. Heitmann is owed $1.95 million with a $300,000 roster bonus this season in the final year of his contract, and that's money the 49ers can save if they part with the veteran in favor of keeping Baas.
Why he's not worth keeping: He could cost too much. It has been mentioned that Baas may seek a contract in line with the five-year, $37.5 million deal that center Jason Brown signed with the St. Louis Rams as a free agent in 2009. The 49ers would have to think twice about that kind of money for Baas, who has played himself into the big-contract stratosphere over the past two seasons. If Heitmann were to return at full strength, the need to hang onto Baas diminishes. The 49ers also drafted two offensive lineman they plan to groom at the interior line positions.
Where he would fit with the 2011 49ers: If Baas returns to the 49ers, he's their starting center, no ands, ifs or buts about it. He has the versatility to swing to one of the guard positions should the need arise, but his home should be center the rest of his San Francisco career.
How he would be replaced: The 49ers would have to find a new center or make one. Heitmann's neck injury did not require surgery, but he has not yet been cleared by doctors to return and the possibility exists that, at age 31, his career could be over. The 49ers will know what to expect from Heitmann's status before free agency begins and will plan accordingly. There are no other true centers on the roster, though the Niners feel fifth-round draft pick Daniel Kilgore and seventh-rounder Michael Person could be groomed at the position.
Market level interest: Active. Baas figures to be a top-5 commodity at center should he hit the open market. His size, experience and versatility also will facilitate his marketability.
49ers interest level: High. The team can't count on Heitmann's return, and without Heitmann the Niners have nobody to replace Baas as their starting center. Baas likely will be one of San Francisco's top priorities in free agency. The team likes keeping its own, particularly players such as Baas who worked their way up on the roster and established themselves as loyal members of the 49ers both on the field and off.
The decision is pretty easy here for the 49ers: They have to do everything possible to secure the return of Baas, particularly considering their current situation at the center position. Baas became a good player in 2010, and San Francisco may have to overpay to keep him, which is why the 49ers need to have a representative offer ready for Baas the minute free agency begins. They probably already do. Baas may not pursue better money elsewhere if he first sees an attractive offer from the 49ers. Baas has quality seasons remaining and still has room to grow and reach the next level as a player. He should stay, and the 49ers need to do as much as they can to make that happen.