49ers then-rookie lineman Justin Skule was rushed into the starting fray in 2019. But for his stock to improve, he’ll have to build on his first year.
The San Francisco 49ers quietly bolstered their offensive line depth last season, including bringing aboard undrafted free agent Daniel Brunskill while also adding former Vanderbilt offensive lineman Justin Skule in Round 6 of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Skule, 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds, was neither flashy nor overly impressive during his collegiate tenure. But he was effective enough against some of the better pass-rushers the SEC featured, and those traits likely influenced head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch to target him.
Preferably if Skule could emerge as a viable swing-tackle option in coming seasons.
As this developed, the Niners O-line suffered a great degree of injury, losing both tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley to elongated injuries, as well as other starters missing significant time.
These thrusted Skule and Brunskill into starting roles, the former eventually starting eight games over 15 total contests played:
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
On one hand, Skule performed valiantly enough considering the situation and his sixth-round rookie status. On the other, Brunskill was clearly higher on the depth chart by the time Staley and McGlinchey were both healthy and back in action, relegating Skule back to a reserve role.
Brunskill is now viewed as a prime candidate for the vacant starting right guard position.
Skule is likely still a heavily favored option to be a swing tackle in year two of his pro career. That said, the Niners currently boasting fellow linemen Shon Coleman and another rookie, Colton McKivitz, translates into Skule being anything but a lock.
Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series explores what Skule has to do in order to improve his stock value in 2020 and beyond.
Why Justin Skule improves with 49ers in 2020
If there was an area of Skule’s game last year which caught some positive attention, it was his run blocking. Pro Football Focus awarded him with a 69.8 run-blocking grade last year, which was second only to McGlinchey’s 74.9 on the roster.
This is important, as head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system is still a run-first offense. So if Skule is checking off that box already, it’s certainly good news for him moving forward.
The key for Skule will be, however, to improve on his pass protection, which didn’t look so favorable.
Why Justin Skule regresses with 49ers in 2020
In contrast, PFF gave Skule a 45.1 pass-blocking mark, which was the lowest among all Niners linemen last year. Skule tied with McGlinchey in most sacks allowed (six), albeit on nearly 400 fewer snaps. Skule’s 23 pressures allowed ranked third, too, while his six total penalties were second most along the O-line.
Skule might not have the technique to be a truly reliable pass blocker, and that’ll hinder his development, potentially putting him on the bubble instead of a sheer roster lock.
Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster, expected role this season
While he might be on the bubble, Skule is fairly on the stronger side. Brunskill likely isn’t in the competition, as long as he remains a favorite for guard duty. That leaves Skule to compete with Coleman and McKivitz, along with a handful of others.
An increase in practice squads, including four spots for players who no longer need to be eligible, could shake things up for the O-line depth chart. Skule being on a cheap rookie contract might be a deciding factor even if the Niners elect to keep four reserve offensive linemen on game days, two on the interior, a swing tackle and an uber-contributor lineman of some sort.
The latter is rare, however, meaning Skule will have to outperform at least one of the two aforementioned competitors.
If he does, he’ll likely assume the same kind of role the 49ers envisioned for him last year: a swing tackle primarily backing up McGlinchey and Staley’s new replacement, Trent Williams.
But the bigger hope is for Skule to shore up the pass-protection element of his game, potentially emerging as a dark-horse candidate to start someday in the next couple of years.