Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players takes a look at veteran tackle Joe Staley and how he can help transition the offensive line in 2017.
San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley needs no introduction.
The five-time Pro Bowler is the longest-tenured player on the Niners roster and the strongest piece along the team’s offensive line heading into 2017.
Signed through 2019, Staley isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future. But turning 33 years old this August, age will be one of those things to watch as Father Time creeps closer.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco’s offensive line is going through some transformations under head coach Kyle Shanahan this offseason. First, Shanahan will implement an outside-zone blocking scheme, slightly different than the inside zone operated by former head coach Chip Kelly a year ago.
There are personnel changes too. The Niners acquired center Jeremy Zuttah via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens earlier in 2017. Free-agent pickups Tim Barnes, Brandon Fusco and Garry Gilliam add to the competition.
This creates some competition for every spot, outside of left tackle, of course.
Barring injury or setback, Staley will be the team’s starter at the far left in Week 1. But what else should we expect from the standout veteran this season?
Why He’ll Improve
Staley was the 49ers’ top-graded offensive lineman last year, per Pro Football Focus, with an 81.4 overall grade.
Some may argue Staley might have slipped a bit compared to his Pro Bowl seasons in years past, but it’s not out of the question to suggest somewhat of a bounce back.
Part of the reason is due to Shanahan’s influence.
“I haven’t felt like this in a long time at the end of the offseason program,” Staley said of Shanahan’s presence, via the team’s website. “The energy is back in the building – the excitement level and the attention to detail. I’m enjoying football again. I’m excited to come to work every single day. There were days the last few years where I couldn’t honestly say that.”
More of Staley’s comments can be viewed in the video below:
Indeed, the Niners didn’t exactly have top-tier O-line play the last two seasons. A 5-11 and 2-14 record in 2015 and 2016, respectively, speaks to the frustration.
And while the 49ers may not be a .500-or-better team in 2017, at least the trend seems to be pointing the right direction.
This could be good news for Staley, who winds up sparking the rest of the line with his newfound enthusiasm.
Why He’ll Regress
Age remains the primary factor here. The slight regression some feel Staley displayed in 2016 could be an indication of what’s to come.
Being on the wrong side of 30 years old doesn’t help matters much, and one can only fathom the wear and tear on his body.
There’s another thing to consider too. Shanahan is the fourth head coach in as many years for San Francisco. That’s four different O-line schemes to learn, understand and operate. Not saying Staley can’t pick up this new approach with all the veteran savvy he possesses, but there’s always the chance grasping yet another new scheme creates some sort of problem.
Staley’s production could also suffer because of whoever lines up to his direct right.
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Last year, Zane Beadles mostly occupied the left guard spot, posting a lowly 40.2 overall grade in the process. Joshua Garnett, whom the Niners have been experimenting at both left and right guard, wasn’t much better — a 42.4 overall PFF grade.
O-lines need to jell, so one can draw some worrisome conclusions about the rest of this unit and its affect on Staley’s abilities.
What to Expect in 2017
Staley is the lone O-line player guaranteed his spot this season. Sure, players like Zuttah have an excellent chance to start, but where is the question.
This is, potentially, a good thing for San Francisco. Staley remains the anchor at arguably the most important position within this group. And the rest of the O-line should benefit from an increase in competition not seen in previous seasons.
It’s ludicrous to think Staley’s roster spot is in jeopardy, so we won’t even need to go there. He’ll be there for 2017 in a starter’s role, barring injury.
The only real question is how much age plays a factor in Staley’s effectiveness. San Francisco needs to find a long-term replacement for the aging veteran at some point sooner rather than later.
Yet as the 49ers’ rebuild continues, the team hopes they can squeeze a couple more years out of the long-time veteran as he maintains his prowess throughout this transition period.