Niner Noise’s 2018 “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players this season looks at the team’s big free-agent pickup, center Weston Richburg, and why he’s so important for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
The San Francisco 49ers liked former center Daniel Kilgore after his work in 2017. But after nabbing former New York Giants center Weston Richburg in free agency this year, head coach Kyle Shanahan and Co. decided they liked Richburg a bit more.
Despite inking Kilgore to a three-year extension earlier this offseason, the Niners moved Kilgore to the Miami Dolphins to open up a starting job for a prized free-agent pickup.
It’s not exactly a knock against Kilgore. Rather the 49ers simply viewed Richburg as a better option for their now-revamped offensive line. More importantly, centers are a vital component to Shanahan’s system. In 2016, Shanahan made a pitch for veteran center Alex Mack to join the Atlanta Falcons, and that worked out well.
Richburg, meanwhile, comes off a disappointing 2017 campaign with the New York Giants — a year in which he missed all but four games with a concussion.
New York’s second-round pick of the 2014 NFL Draft became an immediate starter his rookie season, though, and San Francisco clearly liked his upside.
Had they not, the 49ers wouldn’t have signed him to a five-year, $47.5 million contract this offseason.
Needless to say, Richburg has some expectations to live up to. Here’s how he’ll do just that, along with reasons why he might not.
Why Weston Richburg Improves in 2018
Richburg will turn 27 years old this summer before the season begins, so it’s safe to say he’s hitting the prime of his NFL career.
Missing 12 games last season makes his 2017 campaign a bit difficult to judge. But the year before, Richburg registered a plus-1.3 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus. And while his run-blocking mark came in negatively (minus-9.3), it’s important to note Richburg’s best-graded season, 2015, graded out positively in both run blocking and pass protection.
All for an overall mark of plus-22.6 — fourth best out of qualifying centers that year.
Beyond the analytics, it’s pretty easy to see what drew Shanahan to Richburg. Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme requires linemen, particularly centers, to be mobile.
The play below, courtesy of Better Rivals’ Oscar Aparicio, indicate how:
If Richburg emulates his 2015 efforts, paired with an upgraded run-blocking O-line, San Francisco’s offense should improve overall.
Why He Regresses
Richburg can be a bit of a hit-or-miss player in run support, as the PFF data shows. Fortunately, this isn’t too big a concern, as interior runs aren’t exactly a major component to Shanahan’s offense.
But what’s going to concern the 49ers more is Richburg’s injury history. While one concussion doesn’t exactly set a trend, there’s always the possibility his extended time on injured reserve last year leads to some kind of regression or reoccurring injury this year.
That’s a stretch, sure. Yet it’s something to ponder.
Richburg’s flankers (left and right guards) have also yet to be established. Fellow lineman Laken Tomlinson, who just received a three-year extension of his own, is a favorite to start at left guard now. Right guard appears to be up for grabs between Joshua Garnett and Jonathan Cooper.
San Francisco 49ers
Any kind of weak play from the guard spots could put added pressure on Richburg this season, particularly against some of the better interior rushers the 49ers will face in their own NFC West division this season.
Expected Role with the 49ers in 2018
Barring injury, Richburg starts this season. No questioning that.
The only thing to determine is exactly what kind of impact he’ll have in 2018. Since his 2015 PFF marks were so high, the Niners are hoping that’s the kind of play they’ll receive over the course of this year.
It’s important to note the Giants had the 11th best run-blocking O-line back in 2015, per Football Outsiders, as well as the sixth best pass-protecting unit. But when Mike Solari took over as New York’s O-line coach in 2016, mixing a combination of zone and power schemes, the entire unit took a bit of a hit.
Perhaps the return to a more traditional outside-zone concept does Richburg a lot of good, and he returns to the kind of play flashed back in 2015.
If so, San Francisco’s offensive line will be notably better because of it.