49ers: Re-signing Ben Garland a priority post Weston Richburg news

Offensive lineman Ben Garland #63 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Offensive lineman Ben Garland #63 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

The 49ers probably were going to move on from Weston Richburg this offseason, but his injury news should force the team to re-sign Ben Garland.

The San Francisco 49ers should have had reserve center Ben Garland relatively high on their priority list for pending free agents to re-sign in 2021.

And if he wasn’t before, he should be now.

If there was any doubt about the immediate future of fellow veteran center Weston Richburg in the final weeks of the 2020-21 NFL calendar year, they were mostly answered in NFL Network Ian Rapoport’s report about Richburg undergoing yet another surgery with his timetable for a return being unknown.

Rapoport also speculated Richburg “played his last down in SF.”

Richburg’s latest injury setback is another in a long line of obstacles facing the Niners’ 2018 big-ticket free-agent acquisition. He suffered a serious knee injury late in 2019, which forced Garland into the starting lineup through Super Bowl LIV, and the same injury kept Richburg out of the lineup for the entirety of 2020.

Garland, too, also dealt with a season-ending calf injury after playing just five games for San Francisco last season.

So while that might be a cause for concern with Garland moving forward, it’s by no means a reason to avoid re-signing him.

49ers need better options at center, and Ben Garland is a good contingency plan

Both Richburg and Garland’s absences in 2020 created a revolving door at center, which turned into quite the problem for the 49ers over the latter portion of the year. Head coach Kyle Shanahan experimented with backups like Hroniss Grasu and right guard Daniel Brunskill, and neither exactly delivered the kind of prowess Shanahan expected.

While it seems all but certain the Niners make Richburg a cap casualty this offseason, there still is room to upgrade the position in his wake.

Ideally, San Francisco would be able to sign an experienced and proven veteran in Shanahan’s offense, say someone of the likes of Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack, who has already expressed interest in reuniting with Shanahan once free agency begins later this month.

A limited amount of cap space could put an end to the 49ers’ hopes of doing this, however, so Garland almost automatically becomes a contingency plan.

And a much cheaper one, too.

Granted, a fully healthy Richburg is a notable upgrade over Garland. But the latter performed adequately well enough in starting duties for the latter portion of 2019 and early into 2020 to at least warrant some consideration. And considering he’s coming off a one-year re-sign deal worth $2 million, which included missing the bulk of the year, there’s a good chance the Niners could retain Garland at a significantly lower rate than by targeting another more expensive option in free agency.

Not saying this is what San Francisco should automatically do, passing up on a veteran like Mack. But it is an option.

Additionally, the 2021 NFL Draft is laden with high-quality offensive line prospects, including a number of players who’d be solid fits within Shanahan’s offense at center. While the complex nature of Shanahan’s system would likely prevent the head coach from fully relying on a rookie in year one, someone like Garland could easily bridge the gap between a would-be Richburg cut and the hopeful maturation and development of a younger, cheaper option selected via the draft.

Either way, be it through a veteran addition this offseason or someone added in the draft, retaining Garland makes more sense now than it did earlier at the conclusion of 2020. And it already made sense back then, too.

If anything, the importance of having adequate depth along the O-line was something San Francisco needed to address anyway heading into 2021.

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And in the wake of the latest Richburg news, keeping Garland around for at least another season is something the 49ers need to do.