After signing a three-year extension, 49ers offensive guard Laken Tomlinson figures to be a key part of the offensive line in 2018 and beyond. Niner Noise breaks it down here in our latest “Who Is?” installment.
Early in 2017, then-newly acquired offensive guard Laken Tomlinson might have been viewed as the key weakness along the San Francisco 49ers offensive line. He struggled to hold his blocks in both pass protection and run support.
As a result, few would have envisioned the Niners signing him to a three-year extension this offseason.
But they did, and Tomlinson now figures to be a key element to San Francisco’s offensive line this season.
Tomlinson’s NFL career got off to a rocky start after he was selected at No. 28 overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2015 NFL Draft. After falling out of favor with the coaching staff, general manager John Lynch elected to make a deal for the former Duke prospect after fellow guard Joshua Garnett was lost for the season to a knee injury.
Somewhat viewed as a desperation move, Tomlinson’s early struggles might have been accepted on a team that had just one win over its first 10 games.
Enter quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, though, and Tomlinson had himself quite the turnaround.
Should this be what 49ers expect out of Tomlinson in 2018? Or were those five games with Garoppolo starting a mere anomaly?
Let’s break it down.
Why Laken Tomlinson Improves in 2018
Tomlinson finished last year with a 70.7 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus, which ranked 32nd out of 77 qualifiers at the position.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
While Tomlinson did allow four sacks and 39 total quarterback hurries in 2017, amounting to a PFF pass-blocking efficiency grade of 95.2 (49th out of 61 players evaluated), all one has to do is look at the splits to see how Tomlinson improved dramatically with Garoppolo under center.
During Garoppolo’s starts (Weeks 12 through 17), Tomlinson allowed just one sack and four hurries, boasting a PBE grade of 97.4 — 20th out of 58 players during that same span.
Tomlinson seemed to benefit both by Garoppolo’s excellent pocket awareness, as well as a better command of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s complex offense. Assuming both work well in tandem over the entirety of 2018, we should expect even better things this upcoming year.
Why He Regresses
While the arrow is pointing upwards, there’s always the real chance Tomlinson’s strong finish was a proverbial “flash in the pan.” It’s too small a sample size to suggest this is the long-term likelhood Tomlinson showcases in 2018 and beyond.
And a good chunk of those issues could stem from his supporting cast.
The Niners changed out all but one of their Week 1 offensive line starters last year, leaving only left tackle Joe Staley the lone incumbent. Staley shouldn’t draw much concern, but Tomlinson will have to learn to jell with center Weston Richburg, whom the Niners grabbed in free agency this offseason.
San Francisco 49ers
It’s important, as O-lines typically take a while to develop chemistry. And with so many moving parts in Shanahan’s outside-zone offense, it would be understandable if Tomlinson suffers some sort of regression to start the season.
Expected Impact with the 49ers in 2018
Tomlinson worked at left guard with the first-team unit during OTAs and minicamp this offseason. While this doesn’t exactly cement his role going forward, it’s a pretty clear indication this is where Shanahan and Co. will start him in 2018.
Assuming he can stay healthy over the course of the year (Tomlinson doesn’t have an injury history), we should see a full slate of 16 starts the 6-foot-3, 312-pound guard makes this season.
And based off the upward trajectory, there’s little reason to assume he won’t improve over that stretch.
What would matter the most is consistency. Tomlinson had to answer critics early in 2017 at a time where he was, for all intents and purposes, thrown into the deep end of Shanahan’s offense and expected to deliver.
The good news is Tomlinson showed the desired improvement during the second half. Should that trend continue, there’s a good chance the Niners have found a mainstay for the next few seasons.
Perhaps longer, if he proves that small sample size was a sign of things to come.