Eric Heitmann's status for the 2011 season went from hazy to dim Wednesday with the news that the 49ers' long-time center had surgery last month to repair a ruptured disc in his neck.
According to CSN Bay Area, which was first to report the news, it typically takes six months to recover from the procedure, meaning Heitmann is unlikely to play in 2011. His agent, Kenny Zuckerman, said that Heitmann, 31, hopes to resume his career as soon as he is cleared medically. Heitmann is entering the final year of his contract.
Heitmann fell to the seventh round of the 2002 draft because teams had medical concerns about his lower back. He immediately paid dividends his rookie season when he replaced injured guard Dave Fiore and ended up starting 12 games, including both of the 49ers' playoff games.
Heitmann switched to center full-time in 2006 and remained there until last season when he suffered a broken leg in training camp. After recovering from that injury, Heitmann began having problems with his neck and upper back and was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 2.
Before settling on surgery, Heitmann wanted to see if his neck would improve with rest. Zuckerman said that the tingling, numbness and shooting pains did not go away with time, which is why he finally had the procedure last month. Zuckerman said the problems have dissipated but have not entirely gone away since the surgery. Heitmann is currently in the Houston area visiting family.
David Baas, who had played guard his first five years in the league, filled in last year at center and remains the team's top option at the position this year. Baas is an unrestricted free agent. He attended one day of the 49ers' previous player-run minicamp - a good indication he plans to re-sign with the team -- but has not been on hand for the current one.
The 49ers have known for months that Heitmann's status for 2011 and beyond was uncertain, and they drafted accordingly. They selected Daniel Kilgore in the fifth round and Mike Person in the seventh round and plan to see what both can do at center and guard this offseason. Person, who is attending the current minicamp, has been lining up at right guard.
Another option is Adam Snyder, who has started at both tackle and guard positions over the last six seasons and who has been practicing a lot at center this year. "I'm just doing the center thing because I know that Dave is on the fence about what's going to happen because he's a free agent," Snyder said. "I want to be able to have this (ability to play center) in my back pocket."
There are several other possibilities. The team might be able to re-sign Tony Wragge, a free agent who has some experience at center. Or they could acquire Chase Beeler, Stanford's All-American center who went undrafted in April. Beeler took part in Wednesday's 49ers practice.
-- Matt Barrows