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Daniel Kilgore and the Certainty of Uncertainty

Daniel Kilgore had just finished a workout when he noticed a missed call from an unfamiliar number. The San Francisco 49ers center spent the offseason in his hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., to rehab his surgically-repaired hamstring – an injury that kept Kilgore out the final three games of the 2016 season.

As he reached his truck parked at his alma mater of Dobyns-Bennett High School, he listened to the voicemail.

"Hey, Daniel, this is John Lynch. I wanted to introduce myself," explained the 49ers general manager in the message. 

Kilgore was caught off guard at first. The center hadn't heard from Lynch in the two and a half months since he'd been hired as GM. It turned out that Lynch's call wasn't as random as it first appeared.

"Just so you know, we're trading for Jeremy Zuttah from the Baltimore Ravens," Lynch told Kilgore when the center called back. "I wanted to let you know cause I've been in this situation before and had the team not tell me. I want to do everything right the first time and be professional about how we learned things."

There were a few immediate takeaways from the news. Zuttah was a nine-year NFL veteran coming off of a Pro Bowl season. Roster overhaul comes with the territory when a new regime takes over, and this move officially put Kilgore on notice.

The initial anger was quickly replaced by a motivation to prove himself once again. Kilgore knew that Lynch and Kyle Shanahan didn't owe him anything.

"I took it as a challenge," Kilgore said. "I'm not going to lie to you, I wanted this more than anything once I heard that they traded for a center."

Kilgore's second takeaway was admiration for Lynch. That's a bit surprising considering Kilgore had just learned he might soon be out of a job. But the GM didn't have to call, and yet, he did anyway. Small stuff like that goes a long way in gaining the trust of players.

"From that moment, I gained so much respect for him," Kilgore said. "I'd way rather have him call me than to go on Twitter and find out about the trade that way."

The pressure mounted to get his hamstring right. Kilgore promised Lynch that he'd be full go for OTAs, but his back was up against the wall – a familiar territory for Kilgore. There has been a constant uncertainty surrounding Kilgore's future since being selected in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

Kilgore backed up Jonathan Goodwin for his first three seasons. The 49ers then drafted Marcus Martin in the third round in 2014, expecting him to be Goodwin's replacement. Instead, it was Kilgore who won the job out of training camp. Two major injuries in 2014 and 2015 provided setbacks, but Kilgore bounced back each time. When healthy, Kilgore remained the 49ers starting center, always earning the role through competition.

This past offseason was just a new year of the same script.

"I've never had the luxury of saying 'I'm the guy,'" Kilgore said.

It didn't take long for Lynch and Shanahan to recognize that they'd inherited their starting center. Zuttah remained limited for the entire offseason program and never came into form during training camp. Meanwhile, Kilgore never missed a beat and took every rep with the first team.

Not even two weeks into camp, Lynch and Shanahan decided that they'd seen enough and released Zuttah on Aug. 9, effectively naming Kilgore their starter.

"I wanted to show this coaching staff what they had in me," Kilgore said. "It was a hard offseason learning the new offense and working with a new strength staff, but it was very productive for me personally."

Kilgore has always approached competition that the job was his until he was told otherwise. While earning his keep, Kilgore was also tasked with emerging as a leader on an usually young roster. The center was one of the few remaining starters that carried over from 2016.

His blue-collar mindset helped him lead by example during the week, showing younger players what it meant to be a professional football player – at practice, in the weight room, watching film and in the community. Gamedays were much different.

"It's my job to make sure everyone is on the same page on each play," Kilgore said.

But what does that mean? It's a task that's easily trivialized. To do so would mean to drastically underappreciate what is asked of an NFL center.

After breaking the huddle, Kilgore immediately has to declare which defender he's working towards. That notifies the guards how to adjust their assignments accordingly. Then Kilgore needs to specify where the MIKE linebacker is and indicate any potential blitz. It's crucial to know pre-snap whether or not the defense is bringing more guys than the offensive line can block.

Kilgore has to be confident in his calls, but more importantly, he needs to be right. At the same time, he also has to remember the cadence of the play call. Is it a quick count? A long count? A dummy call? Is he snapping on one? On two? Meanwhile, a free safety might be creeping up to the line of scrimmage showing a last second blitz up the middle. Oh, and when Kilgore snaps the ball, he has a 320-pound defensive tackle barreling down on him.

Multiply all that by 65-70 offensive snaps per game and you have an immense amount of information that needs to be processed and countless opportunities for critical errors. What's more is the expectation of perfection. One mistake that leads to a sack or a drive-killing holding penalty can negate a game's worth of strong play. Such is the often-thankless job of an offensive lineman.

"It's those little things that are crucial," Kilgore said.

Kilgore gives himself mixed grades for his performance in 2017. Positives have been few and far between amid the 49ers 1-9 start. But that doesn't mean there haven't been any. Kilgore and the rest of the o-line has helped San Francisco's offense post 4.4 yards per carry this season, good for seventh-best in the NFL. In Week 10, the group didn't allow a sack and paved the way for a season-high 186 rushing yards in the team's first win of the year.

The decisive, 31-21, victory over the New York Giants offered the 49ers locker room a glimpse at its potential. After all, it takes time for a team to gel when more than half of the roster is playing together for the first time. San Francisco has six games left to build on its Week 10 win.

But that's also where the uncertainty creeps back in for Kilgore, who is set to become a free agent at season's end. He understands that he'll have to wait until the offseason to learn what his future holds. Giving out contract extensions during a 1-9 season could be bad optics for Lynch and the 49ers front office.

It's very possible that Kilgore's seven-year tenure in San Francisco is reaching its end – a harsh outlook, but also a reality for NFL players.

"I just rent a locker. That's not my locker," Kilgore said pragmatically. "I've been here for seven years, and I've never viewed that as my locker. Everybody in this whole building rents their locker. We aren't going to be here forever."

Forever? No. But what about next year? Or the year after that? Kilgore hopes he'll get a new lease, so to speak, to remain in San Francisco. For a player who has been through the highs and lows of the 49ers franchise, he can see that the team is finally headed in the right direction once again.

Kilgore made it clear that he wants to be a part of Lynch and Shanahan's long-term plan.

"My goal is to be here," he said. "I want to be with the 49ers for the rest of my career. I believe in John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. I believe in what they're doing for this organization. And I believe in the locker room.

"If it were up to me, I would be here, but that's out of my hands."

And so Kilgore will keep working, just as he's always done. Because he's still the 49ers starting center until someone tells him otherwise.

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