While he doesn’t have an open path, 49ers rookie offensive lineman Spencer Burford could easily be a dark-horse starter in year one.
If you noticed a trend with the San Francisco 49ers’ 2022 NFL Draft class, it’s that nearly every pick was tagged with the intent of being an immediate backup and potentially someone who could turn into a long-term starter down the road.
This was particularly the case with the offensive line, as this unit’s depth was clearly a problem last season and will get tested again in the wake of veteran Pro Bowl center Alex Mack retiring this offseason.
The context ultimately paved the way for former UTSA lineman Spencer Burford to be selected by the Niners in Round 4 of the draft, No. 134 overall. And while he didn’t get his tacos on day three of the draft, he has to at least be thrilled at his new NFL opportunity.
Seriously, let’s hope someone got him those tacos.
At any rate, the 6-foot-4, 304-pound lineman was projected to be a fourth-round pick, and he brings with him the positional flexibility to play multiple spots on the offensive line.
Is it possible San Francisco taps into those traits and turns him into a year-one starter right away?
Let’s take a deeper dive.
Why Spencer Burford is an immediate hit for 49ers
Day-three O-linemen aren’t exactly ticketed for starting duties right away, but Burford is one of those cases where he might be able to use his upside and project it into becoming a starter sooner than later.
Check out his positive traits from his NFL.com scouting report:
"Long-armed guard/tackle prospect who is fueled by energy and athletic ability. Burford has the foot quickness and agility teams are looking for as a move blocker but his play can be rushed and unfocused, which can turn a win into a loss on any given rep. He needs to add muscle mass and drop the pad level, but has enough bend in his lower half to become a more consistent drive blocker with technique work. He can do a better job of uncorking a stiffer punch into rushers but he gets the most out of his length in pass protection and has the recovery athleticism to make up for missteps. Burford’s physical traits and positional flexibility give him a head start in chasing a roster spot."
Without getting too deep into the weeds about scouting and development, Burford’s negative traits are largely coachable, and his body frame is one that could easily translate into success on the interior of an O-line.
Why Spencer Burford struggles with 49ers his rookie year
While many of the negative traits are coachable, one that stands out is footwork. It’s not his best asset, and that same scouting report notes how it can land him in some trouble.
Frequently, footwork tends to be the aspect that takes offensive linemen the longest to learn and hone, meaning Burford might not be anywhere close to matching up against merely average defensive linemen at the NFL level.
And with the 49ers searching for plug-and-play options to cover up the gap left by Mack, they might not be able to afford to be patient with Burford right away.
Projecting Spencer Burford’s role in 2022
There’s a way Burford could crack the starting lineup his rookie season, but it’d take a couple of things to happen.
For starters, the Niners seem intent on letting reserve center Jake Brendel assume Mack’s role as a starter. San Francisco also is poised to have Aaron Banks and Daniel Brunskill start at both left and right guard, respectively.
However, should the 49ers opt to bump Brunskill over to center, thereby creating a void at right guard, suddenly Burford finds himself in contention for a starting job.
Of course, he wouldn’t have it handed to him. There are plenty of other linemen vying for this job, including fellow rookie Nick Zakelj and returnees like Jaylon Moore, Justin Skule and Colton McKivitz, among others. If Burford winds up being a clear-cut superior player to all those names, paired with Brunskill moving over, then it’s highly likely he gets the starting nod.
But the likelier outcome would be Burford serving his first year in the NFL as a backup, proverbially learning the ropes and adjusting his own technique to potentially serve as a long-term starting option in 2023 at the soonest.