San Francisco 49ers 2016 Position Breakdown: Looking at the Offensive Line
By Peter Panacy
Niner Noise switches from the defensive to the offensive side of the ball in our offseason San Francisco 49ers breakdown of each position heading into the 2016 season. In this installment, we’ll evaluate the offensive line and see how changes made in recent months will impact the roster and regular season.
The 2015 San Francisco 49ers offensive line was a primary area of weakness last season and, aside from Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, this unit had little to brag about in what turned out to be a mediocre and uninspiring effort from the Niners offense.
A lot has changed since then. Gone is longtime starting guard Alex Boone, who signed a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings, as well as fellow guard Jordan Devey. Added to the mix is veteran guard Zane Beadles as well as a group of rookies, including San Francisco’s first-round selection, Stanford’s Joshua Garnett.
General manager Trent Baalke spend a considerable amount of effort during the 2016 NFL Draft making selections to reinforce the O-line.
So much of an NFL team’s success starts up front. San Francisco’s dominant years — from 2011 through 2013 — were paralleled by one of the best O-lines in the league. Those days are gone now, but the 49ers have to receive credit for trying to get this unit back into shape.
Will these new pieces, combined with veteran talent and up-and-coming players, be enough to turn the Niners’ O-line back into a formidable force and one which can thrive under head coach Chip Kelly.
Let’s take a look in this installment of Niner Noise’s position-by-position breakdown.
With the exception of Staley and a few other cast members, the 49ers’ O-line performance was a disaster last season.
San Francisco gave up a total of 53 sacks on the year — tied for second most in the NFL — and while not all of those should be directly attributed to the O-line, it’s pretty clear this unit was responsible for much of the offense’s lackluster play.
Staley can be crossed off the list of 49ers worries here. The 2015 Pro Bowler posted a plus-21.5 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which ranked highest among all San Francisco offensive players.
Boone was OK (plus-2.0 overall). But from the center position over to right tackle, the 49ers experienced a myriad of problems.
Much of these focused on the right side of the line. With the sudden retirement of right tackle Anthony Davis prior to the season, the Niners were forced to start backup tackle Erik Pears in his stead. Additionally, the 49ers replaced former guard Mike Iupati with offseason acquisition Jordan Devey.
Pears and Devey finished with minus-30.7 and minus-16.1 overall PFF grades, respectively, and the two combined for 13 sacks allowed and 55 quarterback hurries — not exactly a positive stat line.
Devey lost his starting job to backup guard Andrew Tiller late in the season, who posted a plus-5.8 overall grade in 631 snaps. The 49ers also gave then-rookie Trent Brown the starting right tackle job, although Pears would see time at guard when Boone was lost late in the season to injury.
Another major problem area was at center, at least for the first part of the season.
Marcus Martin held this position while veteran starter Daniel Kilgore continued to recover from a 2014 leg injury. During that stretch, Martin ranked as one of PFF’s worst-graded linemen and had a minus-45.6 overall mark — worst on the offense.
With all this complicating the 49ers’ offensive woes, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise the Niners needed to make some offseason adjustments.
2016 49ers Offensive Linemen
San Francisco moved back into Round 1 of the 2016 draft to select Garnett, who will have a great chance to start his rookie season. The acquisition of Beadles also gives the Niners a legitimate starter, who can be plugged in right away.
Additionally, the drafting of tackles Fahn Cooper and John Theus add further competition to this group.
Here’s the O-line roster breakdown, courtesy of the team’s website:
- Alex Balducci
- Zane Beadles
- Trent Brown
- Joshua Garnett
- Fahn Cooper
- Colin Kelly
- Daniel Kilgore
- Marcus Martin
- Blake Muir
- Erik Pears
- Norman Price
- Ian Silberman
- John Theus
Should Beadles and Garnett be slated to take over as starters, the remaining players will be competing for depth, and there is some special attention for the right tackle position.
What to Watch for 2016
Garnett will be a focal point this offseason. Known primarily for his run-blocking abilities in Stanford’s power scheme, Garnett may have to make some adjustments under Kelly and the primarily zone-blocking technique to be employed by the offense.
Niner Noise’s Rich Madrid already broke down why this may not be a bigger problem than some anticipate, so it will be interesting to see how Garnett fits in his rookie season.
What is known is Garnett’s physicality at the point of attack — an element lost over the course of last season.
Just take a look at the video below:
The 49ers will likely want to place Garnett at left guard — his natural position — but the rookie’s pass-protection concerns may force San Francisco to start him on the right side, which would better protect the quarterback’s blind side. Beadles would be the favorite to land a starting gig here.
Kilgore should return at center, while Martin backs him up.
This leaves the right side of the line in question. Brown could be the favorite to start, but one player to watch is Cooper. At Ole Miss, Cooper backed up Round 1 draftee Laremy Tunsil, who missed a portion of the 2015 season due to suspension, and did amicably enough to earn consideration from the 49ers.
So, from left to right, the presumed starting O-line would be: Staley, Beadles, Kilgore, Garnett and Brown.
Remaining players would be competing for depth spots on the roster.
Out of that group, Tiller, Cooper and Theus would probably have the best shot to remain on the team. Third-year guard Brandon Thomas has struggled to get on the field, so his tenure at the NFL level might be in jeopardy.
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Much of the focus will also fall on how each player fits in with the zone approach employed by Kelly. And there is a big concern as to how the 49ers will get back to maintain a strong run-blocking approach — a major weakness in 2015.
Fortunately, San Francisco took some necessary steps to reinforce and upgrade the O-line this offseason.
We’ll have to see how these efforts pan out, but the good news is the Niners know what didn’t work last season.
And they’re not rolling with the same cast in 2016.
Next: Looking at 49ers Cornerbacks in 2016
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.