San Francisco 49ers: Breaking Down Depth Chart at Offensive Line
The San Francisco 49ers drafted three offensive linemen to bolster a line that severely disappointed a year ago, allowing too many sacks and not helping a running game that was supposed to be the team’s bread and butter. Let’s take a closer look at the players who will be hoping for a rebound in 2016.
After general manager Trent Baalke stated in last year’s introduction of then-head coach Jim Tomsula that the San Francisco 49ers would “run the football,” the running game staggered and stumbled to a 21st-place ranking in the NFL at 96.5 yards per game.
Additionally, quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggled, eventually being benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert in Week 9. Gabbert was a moderate improvement, but he was hampered by shocking play-calling, and lack of time in the pocket resulting in scrambles and quick throws. Indeed, the O-line allowed 53 total sacks, which ranked a miserable second-worst in the league.
The right side of the line was the biggest culprit, and mercifully starters in right guard Jordan Devey and right tackle Erik Pears were benched. Pears is still on the roster, however Devey was released and picked up on waivers by the Kansas City Chiefs.
The replacements in Andrew Tiller and Trent Brown performed OK. To be thrown straight into the fire and hold up so well was a positive. The experience they would have gained in their short end to the season would have been invaluable.
Now we add guards Zane Beadles, Joshua Garnett and tackles John Theus and Fahn Cooper. The line now has much better depth than a year ago. But how will it shake out by Week 1? This is the probable starting line this season below.
Joe Staley — left tackle
Staley has been the given on the QB’s blind side for the last nine years. Other than in 2009-10, he has played in every single game. His quick feet and athleticism are his biggest strengths, and these are ideal fits in new head coach Chip Kelly’s inside-zone scheme.
Staley was the one lineman who didn’t melt in 2015. Per Pro Football Focus he ranked tied for sixth with a ranking of plus-86.6 out of 77 qualified tackles (from a zero to 100 scale). He was by no means perfect, but he made the other linemen look like clueless rookies.
Staley will be the starting left tackle in 2016, and should thrive in Kelly’s system. The 49ers just need to hope that he remains injury-free and like everyone else, can improve his game.
Zane Beadles — left guard
Beadles comes across from the Jacksonville Jaguars and replaces Alex Boone, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings. He brings six years of experience and has played in every single game throughout his career.
The 49ers believe in this guy, as they signed him to a three-year contract. Beadles brings more athleticism to the left side of the line, and should be a another fit to Kelly’s scheme.
However, he needs to improve his game. Per Pro Football Focus, he was below par in 2015 — ranking 64th out of 81 qualified guards with a ranking of plus-47.9 (from a zero to 100 scale). He was below par in both run and pass blocking, so there is massive room for improvement.
The team believes in him (based on his contract), and playing alongside Staley, will hopefully improve his play this season.
Daniel Kilgore — center
Kilgore had a terrific 2012 and 2013 seasons, but injuries have derailed his career the last two years, having only started 10 total games. Coming into the lineup so late in the season, with its inherent dysfunction, didn’t help him. Per Pro Football Focus, he finished with a plus-40.8 ranking (from a zero to 100 scale).
We know that this isn’t the real Kilgore, and by the time the season starts he will be hopefully fully healthy. Getting a full offseason and training camp in will be just the tonic he needs to get back to his old self.
He is another starter who should benefit in Kelly’s system. The other key will be him developing a rapport with whoever is the starting QB.
Joshua Garnett — right guard
Though Garnett played at left guard in his career at Stanford, based on Beadles experience and contract, he will likely make the move to right guard and start there.
Garnett brings a much needed “mauler” attitude back to the line. This attitude has gone AWOL since the departures of Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. The line played at its best from 2011-13 when they exhibited this attitude and they pounded the opposition line into submission throughout a game.
The 49ers are fully prepared to get the running game back into high gear, and Garnett fits the profile perfectly, as Kelly explains:
"So, to add someone like Josh, he’s just a big, physical player that can bend really well for a big guy. I think you look at, the one thing that was remarkable about him was when you look at some of those short-yardage, goal line packages that [Stanford head football coach] David [Shaw] runs there and you look at Josh who’s literally three inches off the ground just driving guys out of there, it’s impressive to see."
Hopefully Garnett’s “edge” will rub off on the other linemen and give running back Carlos Hyde and co some nice running lanes this season.
Trent Brown — right tackle
Brown deserves the chance to start at right tackle this year. When he came in to replace Pears, he performed admirably. It is not easy to be shoved into the starting role late in the season.
Brown didn’t have enough snaps to qualify for a ranking on Pro Football Focus’ tackle list, however he finished with a solid plus-66.6 (from a zero to 100 scale). Brown’s pass blocking was good at plus-73.3, but he needs to work hard on his run blocking this off-season.
His run blocking grade was a poor plus-36.6 (on the same scale). He has the size to be a dominant run blocker at 6’8″ and 355 pounds. If he focuses on improving his run-blocking technique, and with playing next to a dominant run-blocker such as Garnett, will bring out the best in Brown and make him an above-average right tackle, and make 49ers fans say, “Anthony who?”
The line now has its best depth since 2013. With the additions of tackles Theus and Cooper (who both can also play the guard position), gives the O-line much needed flexibility and the ability to rotate players in and out to keep them fresh.
These guys can learn from the starters and the coaches and be brought along slowly without throwing them to the wolves right away. Having players who are athletic and can play multiple roles is a key requirement in today’s NFL. The game is getting faster and the decision-making has to be just as fast.
The 49ers also added more O-line depth by signing undrafted free agents Alex Balducci, Blake Muir and Norman Price. These players are probably just camp bodies, but the more competition you can induce, the better. It forces every single player to improve.
Players likely to be cut
It is hard to see any of the UDFAs making the final cut, unless one of them just blows up camp. Expect to see a handful of them on the practice squad.
All the drafted players should make the final roster. They have enough quality to make the team, and they provide the necessary depth. Provided they don’t stink up camp or suffer an season-ending injury, the overall composition of the line looks set.
Out of the current experienced players, Marcus Martin, Erik Pears, Ian Silberman and Brandon Thomas are the best candidates to be released.
Pears was simply a disaster last year and has no business being a 49er in 2016. Martin, Silberman and Thomas haven’t shown enough to be kept on the team.
Martin was pathetic in 2015, with a ranking of plus-30.1 (from a zero to 100 scale) and dead last out of qualified guards/centers per Pro Football Focus.
Despite the highly underachieving play of the O-line last season, Silberman couldn’t get on the field, which speaks volumes. Thomas was recovering from the torn ACL, but the quality looks above him now and he is just not going to make this team.
To have any semblance of a good team in 2016, the 49ers offensive line needs to jell, improve its run and pass blocking, and re-discover the nasty attitude and beat teams into oblivion. This will re-energize the running game and hopefully improve the offense overall.
Anything better than 14.9 points per game in 2016 will be a welcome sight for us fans.
Next: San Francisco 49ers: 5 Burning Questions for 2016 Training Camp
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Sports-Reference.com and 49ers.com unless otherwise indicated.