San Francisco 49ers: 5 Positional X Factors for 2016 Season
The 49er’s offensive line used to be the team’s strength. Manned up front by Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Johnathan Goodwin, Alex Boone and Anthony Davis, from 2012-2013, the 49ers were almost unbeatable. Their run game was arguably the best in football and their passing attack, just decent, was consistent because the line kept Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick upright.
Fast forward two seasons and the line looked very different. It was plagued by injury, but most of the year it was Joe Staley, Alex Boone, Marcus Martin, Jordan Devey (Andrew Tiller when the coaches woke up) and Erik Pears (should have been Trent Brown from day one). It was inconsistent and frankly incompetent.
The 49ers line put on an embarrassing display week after week, and it was very painful to watch. They were certainly repeating the dark ages of 2004-2010.
2016 should be much more promising though, as the 49ers have added several new lineman that can compete for jobs and strengthen their positions.
Zane Beadles signed a three-year $11.75 million contract on March 22, 2016, to play for the San Francisco 49ers. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Beadles (mostly because he’s not a power lineman), but he has value. If he starts, he’ll most likely be the left guard. Now, Alex Boone is a much better option at left guard, but the 49ers starter from last year departed for the Minnesota Vikings in free agency.
Beadles has been a Pro Bowl player in the past. He’s been a starter for five straight seasons and has been in a zone-blocking scheme for his entire career. Beadles has also played in six postseason games, including Super Bowl XLVIII when the Denver Broncos took on the Seattle Seahawks.
Having never missed a game comes in handy too, and playing in 96 straight games in the NFL is no easy task. It’s even better when you can start 94 of those games. Durability, especially on the offensive line, is the most important piece of the puzzle for San Francisco this season. If an offensive line crumbles, so does the rest of the team. Games are won in the trenches.
Beadles starts at left guard for all 16 games in 2016. Hopefully Joshua Garnett takes the left guard job when he reports, and Brandon Thomas plays right guard. Beadles should add an infusion of life into the line though, if he does start. He’ll have some good games, some bad games and maybe even a few great games.
As long as he’s on the field he shouldn’t hinder the team, mainly because of his experience and veteran presence.
The Joshua Garnett pick, at No. 28 in the 2016 NFL Draft’s first round, was a head scratcher at first. I felt like the pick was a reach (don’t get me wrong, I was very happy with the pick). Well, I didn’t expect a guard to go in the first round, but I did expect Garnett to be the first guard selected.
But then, having put more thought into it, it was a brilliant move by the 49ers. What if the 49ers had waited until their pick came around in Round 2? Garnett may not have been available, and the 49ers really needed help at guard after losing Boone to the Vikings. The rest of the guards didn’t play well and Garnett should, hopefully, be ready to roll game one.
Garnett was college football’s best offensive guard. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Garnett was the top interior lineman and graded out first in run-blocking. Garnett also locates defenders well on the move. He’s specifically good on pulling plays and getting to the second level. Pro Football Focus though, thinks Garnett doesn’t handle zone-blocking very well, but Chip Kelly has a plan for him and Trent Baalke sure wouldn’t have drafted him if he didn’t believe in Kelly’s plan.
Garnett wins the right guard spot, dominates in the run-game from day 1 and is the team’s second best lineman this season. I’ll rank the lineman Staley, Garnett, Kilgore, Beadles and Brown based solely on predicted performance.
The 49ers also have a guard, that’s been with them since 2014, that may finally get his chance to shine.
Pictured on the left above, offensive guard Brandon Thomas has yet to make an impact for the 49ers, since being selected with the No. 100 pick of 2014’s NFL Draft.
Things may soon change though, as Thomas has been the starting right guard, for two weeks, at 49ers OTAs in Santa Clara, Ca.
Thomas tore his ACL, in a private workout with the New Orleans Saints, just five weeks ahead of 2014’s draft, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN. Since tearing his ACL, Thomas hasn’t taken a snap for the 49ers. This was one of the 2015 coaching staff’s biggest mistakes. Regardless of whether Thomas was ready or not, he should have played in 2015, especially at the end of the season when the 49ers were out of the playoff hunt.
Thomas fits Kelly’s zone-blocking scheme to a T, as he moves well for a 6’3″ 317 pound lineman. It’s encouraging to see him competing for a starting job, finally. I would prefer him win a job, but I don’t know that he will.
Thomas will be the first guard off the bench for the 49ers in 2016. He’ll lose out to Beadles’ experience, and Garnett’s draft status and pure mauling ability. But Thomas will finally be a solud player for the 49ers, and hopefully, a starter by 2017.
If the 49ers offensive line stays healthy, a starting line-up of Staley, Beadles, Kilgore, Garnett and Brown should be good enough to keep things steady. They may not blow us away, but they shouldn’t ruin what is there to work with in the skill positions and coaching staff.
Next: Defensive Line