49ers Training Camp Preview: Offensive Line
“I've never seen him so excited. He was as giddy as a schoolboy.”
-Dr. Elsa Schneider. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Rejoice, dear friends! No longer do we need a mid-season NBA game or live cricket matches to fill our sporting dependence.
The coldest depths of February are long gone; today, we breathe the scorched air of July, and that means we've endured another fleeing pro football offseason.
If you’ve been a Hub reader for a few months, you’ll know that I have the pleasure of providing offensive line insights, facts, figures, and scheme. This week, before the start of the San Francisco 49ers opening the 2018 season, I have the honor of sharing a few thoughts on this year’s offensive line.
Three Starting Positions Gone, Two Positions Left
The Internet is full of hot takes from expert football writers to hack sports fans. Thankfully, nobody has made any preposterous prediction that left tackle Joe Staley, center Weston Richburg, and rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey would not be Week 1 starters for the 49ers.
Staley is the bell cow for the 49ers. He’s a dominant left tackle who may not have reached his full potential, even at 33 years old. Staley’s biggest challenge this season is to avoid any long-term injury. Fortunately, Staley has missed only 18 regular season games during his career. (Source: Pro Football Reference)
Offensive line junkies spent most of January and February fantasizing about the 49ers signing free agent guards Andrew Norwell or Josh Sitton to a long-term contract.
The shock of the 49ers’ front office signing Richburg left offensive line junkies like me as confused and in pain as a lonely young man on prom night. 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 only played in four games in 2017.
However, Richburg’s problem has been less about his play and more about remaining injury free. Keep in mind that he’d only given up three pressures on 162 pass blocking attempts before sustaining a season-ending concussion. (Source: Pro Football Focus)
He’s a significant improvement from Daniel Kilgore and someone I’m looking forward to watching call the line audibles this fall.
In a previous article, I wrote that if you owned high-end art, you wouldn’t purchase a home security system that worked only now and then. No, sir! You’d surround your home in Kevlar bricks, razor wire, and employ a pack of hungry mastiffs patrolling the yard.
The same theory works in football. General manager John Lynch invested $137.5 million in a quarterback; thus, he needed a mythical centaur to protect the investment.
Result: the 49ers selected tackle Mike McGlinchey as their new starting right tackle. Like Staley and Richburg, McGlinchey is a shoo-in as the starter unless something incredibly unfortunate strikes the practice facility in the next six weeks.
Left and Right Guard: The Biggest Battles in Camp
The 49ers have a full 90-man roster entering camp, but the reality is only four men have a shot at playing guard: Jonathan Cooper, Joshua Garnett, Laken Tomlinson, and Erik Magnuson.
None of these men bring me great joy, and are an ongoing drug habit the 49ers refuse to break: keeping and/or signing below average offensive linemen.
Each man has his strengths: Cooper, Garnett, and Tomlinson were all first-round selections. Garnett, an Outland Trophy winner with Stanford in 2015, is coming into this year’s camp 25 pounds lighter. Cooper went seventh overall to the Arizona Cardinals, and Tomlinson was the first player from Duke drafted in the first round since 1987.
Each man has plenty of weaknesses: Cooper has bounced around the NFL due to multiple injuries and getting beat out for his position. He’s coming off of yet another knee surgery and has not participated in any offseason workouts with the 49ers.
Garnett’s eleven games as a professional were an embarrassment to football. Some fans blame it on the two starting quarterbacks, but that’s absurd. Garnett played wretched football.
Tomlinson played five good games for the 49ers last year but played 10 average-to-sorrowful games for the team. Five good games and 10 miserable ones add up to a failing grade. No, gentle reader, Tomlinson didn’t need to learn the offense, and he didn’t show up to the team out of shape. The man struggled all year with fundamental run blocks and pass protection.
Apparently, only a handful of fans remember Tomlinson’s soft play, including the 49ers' management who offered him $10 million in guaranteed money to be average.
Erik Magnuson was an undrafted free agent in 2017, and the 49ers signed him shortly after the 2017 draft. Last season, he made two starts at right tackle and played in four games.
During the Week 12 game against Seattle, he sprained his foot and went on injured reserve a few days later.
Before you say it, I know Magnuson played tackle. But, he’s one of the few offensive linemen I believe could play anywhere on the line and fill in for a game or two.
Since May, I’ve struggled with who will end up at guard in Week 1 against Minnesota. Indeed, I’ve been as fickle as a fourth-grade girl looking for a date to cotillion. Despite my dislike of Tomlinson, I believe he’ll end up starting at left guard and Garnett will start at right guard. Shanahan will keep Magnuson on the roster as the utility lineman.
The only lineman currently listed on the roster with an outside shot of making the team is Mike Person, an 8-year veteran from Montana State. Person was drafted by the 49ers in 2012 but did not make the team that year. (Please see previous comments about the team’s addiction to inadequate offensive linemen.)
Person could give Magnuson a run for the backup spot, or could beat Cooper for a roster spot if Cooper can’t motivate himself to win a position.
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