49ers Laken Tomlinson a staple of reliability entering 2020

Laken Tomlinson #75 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Laken Tomlinson #75 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images) /

The 49ers showed how Laken Tomlinson, cast off from the Lions, could turn into a productive commodity. Yet his future beyond 2020 is in doubt.

At the start of the 2017 season, the San Francisco 49ers were in a pinch for their offensive line. The team just lost second-year pro guard Joshua Garnett to a season-ending knee injury, and there weren’t too many options out there for newly minted general manager John Lynch to pursue.

The one Lynch and Co. elected to take, however, seemed desperate at the time: sending off a fifth-round NFL Draft pick to the Detroit Lions in exchange for what was perceived to be a first-round bust, offensive guard Laken Tomlinson, whom Detroit grabbed with the No. 28 overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Tomlinson’s flame-out with the Lions ultimately worked to the Niners’ benefit. Sure, Tomlinson struggled early during his San Francisco tenure, as it took time for him to master the nuances of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s complex outside-zone blocking system.

Fortunately, within a few short weeks, Tomlinson was emerging as a regular staple of the 49ers’ improving O-line.

Since then, Tomlinson has been about as reliable as possible, missing just one start over his three-year span with the Niners:

Laken Tomlinson Games Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/4/2020.

San Francisco’s O-line underwent some serious changes, both last year and during the offseason. Center Weston Richburg is still working his way back from injury, and the 49ers bid farewell to now-retired left tackle Joe Staley, putting Tomlinson between two potentially new faces to start 2020, particularly veteran tackle Trent Williams in Staley’s stead.

Yet Tomlinson, one of the mainstays of the O-line since Shanahan and Lynch took over, faces an uncertain future, too, even if the 28-year-old guard has been one of the more reliable members of this unit in recent years.

Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series analyses what to expect from Tomlinson in his fourth year with San Francisco, as well as what the future holds beyond the upcoming season.

Why Laken Tomlinson improves with 49ers in 2020

It’ll be tough for Tomlinson to get much better than where he’s been the past three years. Tomlinson showed notable improvement between 2017 and 2018, improving his overall Pro Football Focus grade from 66.4 to 67.5, then up to 68.8 last year.

He’s arguably not a Pro Bowl-caliber guard, yet Shanahan doesn’t put as big an emphasis on guards as he does tackles and centers. Three years immersed in the system, however, should give Tomlinson a leg up on being able to contribute at a high level.

And he’s still in the prime of his career, too.

Having Williams to his left should also help with Tomlinson’s pass-blocking abilities, which were good enough in 2019. Per PFF, Tomlinson did surrender a team-high 29 pressures yet against only three sacks, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see those numbers improve somewhat with Williams’ steady presence to his left.

Why Laken Tomlinson regresses with 49ers in 2020

While Williams’ presence is a bonus, the possibility of Ben Garland, not Richburg, starting at center in 2020 is concerning.

Tomlinson’s pass-blocking grades took a noticeable hit once Garland was inserted into the starting lineup following Richburg’s Week 14 injury against the New Orleans Saints last year, going from regularly being in the mid-70s to hovering around the high 40s thereafter. Certainly not coincidentally, that’s the stretch when Tomlinson allowed his three sacks on the year.

Richburg could return fully healthy. But one can draw a conclusion Tomlinson’s efforts slipped when asked to play next to Garland.

Projected role, future with 49ers beyond this season

There’s no questioning Tomlinson will reassume his starting left guard position to start 2020. Barring injury, he’s been one of the more consistent, if not flashy, members of San Francisco’s O-line. And that’s perfectly fine.

Things get a bit more challenging, however, when evaluating Tomlinson’s future beyond the upcoming season.

The 49ers are already pressed up towards the salary cap and must navigate some tricky contract extensions with players like tight end George Kittle and future deals with right tackle Mike McGlinchey and linebacker Fred Warner. There are a number of pending free agents the Niners would like to have back, too.

And with the 2021 salary cap potentially dropping to $175 million, San Francisco is going to be faced with some tough decisions.

The three-year contract extension Tomlinson signed back in 2018 runs through 2021, but there’s zero in guaranteed money for the final year of the deal. He could count for up to $6.25 million against the cap next year, but even the most novice of cap analysts understand things get weird for players when there’s no guaranteed money left.

As such, Tomlinson could easily become a cap casualty for San Francisco in an attempt to free up cap space.

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This puts an increased amount of importance on Tomlinson to perform well this season, even if it ultimately means he prices himself out of the 49ers’ comfort range for 2021 and beyond.