The 49ers lost center Weston Richburg to a serious knee injury last year, and his health to kick off 2020 is vital for the team’s offensive line.
In 2018, the San Francisco 49ers enjoyed one of the cleanest bills of health for its offensive line, losing just one first-team player start over the duration of that season.
That lone missed start came from then-recently acquired center Weston Richburg, who still managed to start 15 of 16 regular-season games before undergoing offseason surgery on both his back and knee.
Richburg was able to return in time for 2019 training camp and enjoyed a much more productive campaign with the Niners than he did his first year after inking that lucrative five-year, $47.5 million contract the previous season.
At least until he suffered a serious knee injury in San Francisco’s Week 14 road win over the New Orleans Saints.
Richburg suffered a torn patellar tendon that landed him on season-ending injured reserve, forcing his backup, Ben Garland, to take starter’s snaps for the rest of the regular season and through the playoffs.
It was a downgrade, yes. And the 49ers are banking on him returning healthy for their upcoming 2020 campaign.
Niner Noise explores what’s at stake for Richburg and the Niners O-line this season in our annual “Who Is?” series.
Why Weston Richburg improves with 49ers in 2020
Richburg’s 2018 campaign with San Francisco was a little rocky, at least according to Pro Football Focus, who gave him a 56.1 overall grade and credited him with four sacks and 33 pressures allowed that season.
A year later, albeit in two fewer games, Richburg managed a 62.5 overall grade with just one sack and 14 pressures surrendered.
That’s a marked improvement for the 29 year old.
One might guess Richburg gained familiarity with head coach Kyle Shanahan’s complex offensive blocking system, which relies heavily on the center to call out rushes, anchor bootlegs and so on. Considering Richburg had some issues during his first season in San Francisco, then backed it up with a solid 2019, one might guess 2020 and beyond should only get better.
Assuming Richburg is healthy, of course.
Why Weston Richburg regresses with 49ers in 2020
There are two key reasons why the former Colorado State product could regress this season. The first is the obvious one: injuries.
Richburg’s patellar tear marked the second time in two years he’s required surgery on his knee. And while he’s expected back in time for training camp, it wouldn’t be shocking if he was brought along slowly, potentially contributing some proverbial “rust” to his efforts early on in the season.
If there are any lingering effects from the injury, those could be detrimental, too.
Another possibility for regression is the numerous changes San Francisco’s O-line saw during the offseason, namely parting ways with two-year starter Mike Person in favor of either Daniel Brunskill or Tom Compton at right guard.
O-lines take time to jell, and Richburg had the benefit of working alongside Person the past two years. A change here could throw off the veteran a little bit, perhaps.
Projected role with 49ers, availability in 2020
Health is going to be a vital factor here. The odd offseason means it’ll be difficult to completely report Richburg’s readiness for the upcoming season, pointing to the possibility Garland is the Week 1 starter.
PFF gave Garland a 71.6 overall grade, which suggests an improvement. But he also surrendered six pressures during three-plus regular-season games as a starter and was nowhere near as effective in pass protection as was Richburg. And while there were plenty of other factors in the mix, one should point out the Niners averaged 122.3 rush yards per game in the three contests Garland started during the regular season compared to the 149.1 per-game average in Richburg’s 15 starts.
Either way, Richburg’s health is going to be a key factor to watch here, especially considering the other changes the 49ers had to implement up front.
The good news, however, is Richburg showed his value and then some for the vast majority of 2019, displaying a notable improvement over his previous year’s campaign.
If that trend continues, Richburg could have a career-best season in San Francisco.