By: Mike Messner (@teachermike72)
Final Edit: (@Zachhernan)
The arrival of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch to Santa Clara meant that our beloved 49ers have turned a page. We’re not going to be held back by inept general managers, unstable quarterbacks, or unrealistic aspirations anymore. We know — and the two gentlemen mentioned above know — that we have a lot of work to do, and we now have the tools to do the first stages of that work. We also have the right people holding those tools, and not a one of them is named York, Baalke, or Kelly. But San Francisco also has to face an unpleasant fact as the summer arrives, fellow Niners fans.
The 49ers have an offensive line that, although is deeper than it has been in years, is still not what it ought to be. Although there are many trains of thought regarding how you go about building a team, I was always taught that you start with the O-line as the basis for your entire offense. If you can protect a quarterback, he can make those completions to the hotshot wide receivers you drafted, toss short passes to that blazing tight end back you recruited out of free agency, or hand the ball off to the irresistible force embodied in the running backs that just arrived at Levi’s.
However, if you can’t protect your quarterback, you have sacks, hurries, losses of yards, fumbles, and punts, punts, and more punts. Eventually, you have an injured or concussed quarterback. Along with no victories to add insult to injury, literally.
Which brings us to the 2016 49ers.
Shanahan and Lynch didn’t exercise meaningful draft capital on an offensive lineman. Fair enough; San Francisco had so many areas that needed reinforcement that they made decisions on other positions. And to be honest, I think they did a damn fine job. However, the fact remains: we don’t have the offensive line we need to give Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, or Carlos Hyde a chance to move the ball down the field.
It’s probably realistic to assume that the team will not be adding any more tackles, guards or centers to the roster we have as of this article being written. Not that SF doesn’t have a lot of salary cap space; they just have a big group of bodies (in more ways than one) already. All things being equal, the team has to play the hand we were dealt.
Here’s how each member of the O-line needs to improve if San Francisco wants to have a true rebound season.
As I’ve said in this space before, he needs to learn to stand and fight rather than move rapidly someplace else. To do that, he needs to continue working on his upper body strength, and learn the offensive scheme that his coaches want to play until he can recite it backwards, forwards, sideways, and upside down in five different languages. Otherwise, he’ll find himself ending his career as a benchwarmer — and not necessarily one who sits on a bench in Santa Clara.
He was a serviceable center for the Rams for quite some time, but whether that translates into a capable one for the Niners remains to be seen. PFF wouldn’t have rated him 31st out of 39 centers for no reason. I’d say he needs to learn the new system quickly to compete with guys like Jeremy Zuttah and Daniel Kilgore for the starting position; after all, his career depends on it.
He got the highest pass-blocking grade on the team from PFF last year, but given the way the team as a whole performed, that isn’t saying much. This summer should be his time to get in the best shape of his life; then, at camp and elsewhere, he needs to play every down with the same intensity and consistency he showed in his first 81 pass plays as a starter — when he did not allow a sack or a quarterback hit.
Sure, his rookie year was disappointing, but that can be attributed to being a newbie in the NFL and playing for a disorganized group of coaches. Now comes the work. He comes at pass rushers like a house afire, but that has led to him getting overextended and allowing more penetration than was permissible for a player his size. Someone needs to teach him to hold his ground and let the rushers expend energy coming to him. Remember, Josh, it’s pass protection, not pass prosecution.
Daniel needs to find some Raid for the injury bugs that seem to be infesting his house. When he’s on the field, he does lend a degree of cohesion to the offensive line, but when he’s gone, there’s more reliance on Joe Staley than there ought to be for familiarity. Plus, Jeremy Zuttah is now in the running, so Kilgore can’t simply wait for Marcus Martin to screw up or get hurt. Kilgore is an above average competitor, but he is in for a real struggle to keep his job this time.
Surprisingly enough, Joe needs to develop some mental toughness. When he has had bad games in the past, his tendency is to beat himself up. It’s time for him to learn how to shrug off botched plays and look at the down in front of him. Most observers will tell you that he’s the top overall offensive lineman; let him live up to it on every play.
We’re all keeping our fingers crossed when it comes to Theus. I hate getting after players in their second year, but to be honest – Theus isn’t fast, he isn’t especially powerful, and he doesn’t have much street cred with Lynch and Shanahan, since he’s one of the last draft picks of the Trent Baalke era. That’s all without even mentioning Beadles and newly-acquired Garry Gilliam breathing down his neck.
I wouldn’t bother unpacking if I were Mr. Price. He has two seasons of college ball at Southern Mississippi under his belt, and has done nothing remarkable since he arrived in 2016. Just too much competition this year.
Jeremy needs to prove himself to his coaches and to the veterans on the team that he is great, not just good. He is already in pretty good shape and has a 9-year record of solid performance for the Bucs and the Ravens. This is his chance to take either the starting center or right guard positions from their current occupants. If he doesn’t win out this year, he may have blown his last best chance, as he is about to turn 31.
Garry needs to get back to basics. As a Seahawk, he didn’t prove that he was especially good at either pass blocking or run blocking, and he’s got a whopping 38.0 rating from PFF. He’s already shown that he can reinvent himself; he lost his starting role in Seattle last December, but he regained it within a couple of weeks. Let’s see how he does when matched against Trent Brown.
Fusco could benefit from his veteran’s smarts and his use his endurance to his advantage. I don’t see anything bad when I look at him, and I think he would bring a seasoning element that the offense has been lacking in some ways. He has a chance to show the Vikings that they were mistaken in letting him go back in February.
Richard Levy, Erik Magnuson, Darrell Williams, John Flynn, Evan Goodman:
Too soon to tell, but I’m not betting on them doing anything earth-shattering. Cuts or practice squad tickets for most of them.