The Offensive Line Under a New Light: The 49ers See It for the First Time

May 18, 2018

Therefore thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed."

Isaiah 28:16

 

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There are days in recent memory when the San Francisco 49ers had an offensive line that struck fear in a defense. A foundation of able giants, firmly placed that allowed the skill positions to gain an average of 6 yards per play rack up 2,500 rushing yards and score 40 offensive touchdowns.

 

Just a few years ago, between the 2011 and 2013 seasons, four of the five 49er offensive linemen played together in 44 regular season games. During the near Super Bowl championship in 2012, these five mighty men lined up as a unit for a complete season.

 

Unfortunately, after 2013, the granite foundation began to soften, and one by one, these men said goodbye to the icy ocean breeze of Candlestick Park and the yellow dwarf-star radiation reflecting onto the unstable turf of Levi's Stadium.

 

In response to retirements and departures, the 49ers’ executives signed a stable of terrible offensive linemen, including a gentleman once described as a “highly recruited tuba player” that “may get Tom Brady killed.”

 

For unknown reasons, executive staff felt they could rebuild the team with torn knee ligaments and offensive linemen who couldn't block a shopping cart. Alas, most of these men were not the rocks team executives thought they would be.

 

Today, as the new sun begins to illuminate the dawn of the 2018 season, the 49ers have returned to embracing quality linemen and their importance in head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

 

First Step: Realize There is a Problem

 

There are still many unanswered questions from the 2017 season. Chiefly, I still want to know who let Matt Barkley in the building. Second, I want to know what contributed to Daniel Kilgore’s poor play.

 

Between 2012 and 2016 – excluding 2015, when he was on injured reserve for 11 games -- Kilgore averaged a 71.6 grade from Pro Football Focus.

 

Last year, Pro Football Focus gave Kilgore a scanty 51 grade, ranking him the 23rd best center in the NFL.

 

When the 49ers extended Kilgore’s contract on February 14, 2018, I thought the team was continuing hoard bad lineman like an old woman hoards stray cats.

 

However, a month later, 49er brass had a moment of clarity when they signed Weston Richburg to a hefty contract and then traded Kilgore to Miami.

 

It is possible Kilgore’s ankle injury did not heal well, or maybe he didn’t completely comprehend the more delicate nuances of Shanahan’s system. Whatever the case, the organization saw what many fans and experts saw: an overall decline in Kilgore’s play.

 

Building a championship roster means making breaking bad habits (read: keeping veteran offensive linemen for no reason) and wringing out any value from the players on the open market. In this case, the 49ers were able to move up four spots in the seventh round of this year’s draft.

 

Second Step: Make an Investment

 

Like some fans, I thought the 49ers would present free agent guards Andrew Norwell or Josh Sitton a troy weight ton of gold to play in the Bay Area.

 

Instead, general manager signed center Weston Richburg to a five-year contract worth nearly $50 million.

 

At first, I was skeptical of the substantial investment in a player who’s had one great season (2015) but fell off in 2016, and played in only four games in 2017.

 

I’ve been very critical of players like Jordan Devey, Joe Looney, Laken Tomlinson and Zane Beadles, but not one of them has had a season in the past three years that’s better than Richburg.

 

In 2015, Pro Football Focus gave Richburg an 86.5 overall grade. In the same season, Devey received an overall grade of 39.5, Tomlinson received an overall grade of 49.1 and Beadles topped out at an even 46.

 

During the 2016 season, Richburg’s performance dropped, and he received a 75.5 grade, which is over 10 points higher than Joe Looney and almost 40 points higher than Devey.

 

A new location, hefty contract and playing for a contending team is what will return Richburg to high-quality play and see a return on investment in the center position.

 

Third Step: Understand the Protection and Execute it on Sunday

 

A fallacy I often hear is some linemen are better suited for one offense more than another.

 

Don’t buy into such nonsense.

 

Professional offensive linemen know the difference among various running attacks (i.e., inside vs. outside zone; power vs. lead; stretch vs. toss) and a multitude of pass protections.

 

Comprehension and execution are not the same things, nor are they in the same ballpark. Indeed, some linemen still cannot block an outside zone run very well, while others may get confused who to block when the pass protection is 22/23 Scat against a Navajo defensive front.

 

Since 2013, the 49ers could not find a group of five linemen who could execute consistently on the field. Jordan Devey may have understood an outside zone in the classroom but would get embarrassed when the time came to put it into play. The man could hardly get into a stance and pass block let alone create a running lane for the backs.

 

Former 49er guard Zane Beadles also fell into the failed execution category as well. Unfortunately, due to guard Joshua Garnett’s injury last season, the team was forced to keep Beadles around and trade for guard Laken Tomlinson.

 

And last season, once again, the 49ers found themselves with two good offensive linemen (Joe Staley and Trent Brown), and three offensive linemen who couldn’t execute (Tomlinson, Kilgore, Beadles).

 

It took some time, but Beadles is finally gone, and the 49ers signed Jonathan Cooper, Darrell Williams, Jr. and drafted a future star in Mike McGlinchey.

 

Tomlinson’s inconsistent, soft play will finally catch up to him, and he will not be on the final 53-man roster. 

 

Fourth Step: Embrace Change

 

During my lifetime, I’ve been able to watch NFL offenses evolve from a standard two-back, two-receiver, one-tight end set, to five-wide, one-read spread offenses that isolate one defender and punish him for any choice he makes.

 

For better or worse, the evolution has altered what teams look for in offensive linemen. Years ago, teams wanted a tackle who’d grown up eating raw, corn-fed beef, roping Brahma bulls and throwing bales of hay to the third floor of a barn.

 

Shanahan’s offense demands more than a brick house playing left tackle. Of course, he incorporates old West Coast Offense ideas, but Shanahan’s system also uses newer concepts that require more from offensive linemen than just shoving an opponent out of the way. And, it’s why the 49ers ignored the edge or inside linebacker position in the first round and chose Mike McGlinchey from Notre Dame.

 

McGlinchey is the new breed of offensive lineman for an era of high-octane offenses with a variety of runs, passes, formations and protections. He can move laterally, has experience blocking an inside or outside zone and can comprehend the subtle nuances between 2 Jet and Fox 2 protections.

 

There are thousands of ways to build a successful football team, but ultimately, the best way is building a foundation which the skill positions can rely upon. A sure-handed X-receiver or speedy running backs are empty uniforms if the foundation is cracked and the team cannot believe in its tested stone.

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