It’s January, which means the NFL Playoffs are running at full tilt. However, San Francisco 49ers fans are in no mood for Wild Card and Divisional games. No sir, we want free agency and the NFL Draft!
We are, after all, the most excellent, most triumphant 6-10 team in the history of professional football, and hungry for fresh talent.
Off-season football can be a long slog, considering how the 49ers finished the season. Only eight days have passed since the end of the regular season, and already the news and Twitter timeline is chock full of nonsensical stories filled with fantastic speculation about how the 49ers should attack the offseason.
Each draft, I’m the guy begging the 49ers to choose an offensive lineman. Today, my offensive line bandwagon is at maximum capacity, which provides me with infinite joy.
In 2017, the 49ers’ interior linemen – guards Brandon Fusco, Zane Beadles, Laken Tomlinson and center Daniel Kilgore – were not the crown jewels of the NFL. Kilgore regressed from a 71.6 Pro Football Focus grade in 2016, to a paltry 51 grade this season.
Fortunately, there are a few excellent college prospects not named Quenton Nelson that would make ideal protectors for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Billy Price, a 6’4”, 312-pound center/guard from the Ohio State University must be high on general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s big draft board.
Price made 51 consecutive starts for the Buckeyes, playing right guard and before moving to center this past season. In fact, during his time at OSU, he took nearly 3,000 snaps at guard and center.
At the end of 2017, Price was named the Big 10 Offensive Lineman of the Year, an Associated Press 1st Team All-American, won the Dave Rimington Trophy for the most outstanding center in college football and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy.
Let’s be clear: Price is not worth the ninth or tenth pick in the first round, but Lynch and Shanahan should consider him as the 49ers’ second choice in this year’s draft.
Any interior lineman worth his salt can play guard or center. After watching interior linemen succumb to injury, the 49ers need someone like Price who is comfortable with either position.
I found the tape of Price playing right guard against Michigan’s 3-4 defense during the 2016 double overtime game. Price took advantage of his opponent’s weak position and lack of fundamental discipline throughout the game. Rather than play his opponent by the book, Price made weapons from his opponent’s imperfections. He’d notice the defensive tackle coming in too low or far too fast and politely shove him into the turf.
During the first overtime, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett took a short drop, found nobody open, but saw the hole Price created. Price locked onto the outside shoulder of his defender and cleared the way for Barrett’s seven-yard touchdown run.
At both guard and center, Price thrives on vertical movement to the second level. While playing center, he’d help his guard with a chip block and then quickly move to attack the Mike or Sam linebacker. On nearly every play, he’s looking to knock a hapless defender into the black rubber pellets below the fake green grass.
I’m particular on how offensive linemen pull left or right. For example, if the right guard is pulling left, I want to see him throw his left elbow to open his left hip, keep his body perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, stay low, and explode up and through the hole to destroy the first defender in his field of vision.
Ohio State’s offense asked Price to pull as a center quite often, and he’d look exactly the above description. He’s a nimble, intelligent line captain, often pulling left or right for running plays or in pass protection. NFL centers don’t usually pull, and Price’s ability to move laterally with ease could be a nice addition to Shanahan’s game plan.
Too often, I see college linemen pull with their hips parallel to the line of scrimmage, shuffle awkwardly to the point of attack and hit the hole too tall. When this happens, the pulling lineman cannot generate any power from his lower body or explosion from his hips. He has to rely on arm and shoulder strength to move a linebacker running with a full head of steam. This technique is ineffective, gives too much ground and does not provide the necessary momentum or power. In fact, when a play called for Price to pull this way, he struggled with the block and got caught up at the point of attack.
On most plays, Price lets his feet and hips direct his upper body. He rarely overextended from his base and does not try to overpower the opponent with his arms only. Both are common flaws with offensive linemen at all levels of football.
However, Price does find himself off-balance leading to missed blocks and muddy pockets. He also tends to whiff or guess on reads, which I saw at least four times during the 2017 game against Iowa. Price also had issues with reach blocks on stretch run plays.
The apparent selection at offensive line for the 49ers is guard Quenton Nelson from Notre Dame. However, after the unfortunate season from Daniel Kilgore, the team needs to take a look at the available centers in this year’s draft. Unless he performs incredibly well at the Senior Bowl, Price should be available in the second round for 49ers.