Despite a warning that an obvious question was coming, former Cal center Alex Mack still struggled to come up with an original answer when he was asked if it paid off for him to return for his senior season.

"It's a very obvious question," Mack said, laughing after he became one of the highest centers to be drafted in the past 30 years. "I'm very happy I came back for my senior year. It probably was one of the smartest decisions of my life.

"I'm very grateful for the people that pointed me in the right direction."

Mack was taken by the Cleveland Browns with the 21st pick Saturday during the first day of the NFL draft. Since 1979, only four centers have been selected higher and just 13 have gone in the first round.

Mack considered leaving Cal after last season but decided to return after finding out he likely wouldn't have been selected until late in the second round or early in the third.

Mack went on to earn All-America honors this season and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's top center, for the second year in a row.

He also won the Morris Trophy, awarded by opposing players to the Pac-10's top lineman, for a second straight season.

Mack wasn't able to participate at the NFL Scouting Combine because of a sprained ankle but dazzled NFL scouts at Cal's Pro Day and then had individual workouts with Baltimore, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and the Browns.

Most projections had Mack going at the end of the first round or early in the second.

Mack's agent, Tim Younger, thought his client could go anywhere from the 20th to 40th overall pick, but even Mack admitted No. 21 was on the high end of his expectations.

"Best-case scenario, midsecond round," Mack said when asked where he thought he would have been picked last season. "That would be the very best, if someone thought I was a diamond in the rough. Definitely not this good. I'm in a good spot. I'm very happy that I stuck around."

The Browns didn't fly Mack to Cleveland until last Thursday, after he had taken his three other individual trips. Mack said the Browns put him through the most thorough evaluation of all the teams, and felt Cleveland was one of the top candidates to draft him.

The Browns held the No. 5 pick and the No. 36 pick, but made two trades to move down from No. 5 to No. 21.

"We knew Cleveland liked him and thought he was definitely on their radar," Younger said. "When they moved down the second time, we had a good feeling it was going to be him."

Mack wasn't very highly recruited out of high school, choosing Cal over Utah and Utah State. He said it wasn't until his redshirt sophomore year, when he was named All-Pac-10 first team, that he thought he might have a future in the NFL.

"That's when I started thinking I had a future at the next level," Mack said. "It's turned out very well for me."

Mack is Cal's third first-round draft pick in the past five years and fifth in the past seven.

San Jose State defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert was projected by most analysts to go in the second round but wasn't picked Saturday. He figures to be one of the first players off the board this morning.

Contact Jonathan Okanes at jokanes@bayareanewsgroup.com.