Trench Warfare: Evaluating the Offensive and Defensive Line
The opening of NFL training camp is very much like being a hungry hog at the slop trough. For months, fans have been fed a steady diet of nothing; enough to whet the appetite but void of substance to fill the belly.
Last week, when the San Francisco 49ers opened camp, the meager rations morphed into lavish courses of wild game, imported cheeses, truffle mashed potatoes, and Yorkshire pudding. It was almost too much to devour in a sitting.
It is, of course, far too early to make any rash judgments on talent level or who won't make it through the first round of cuts. But, we do have enough information to distill and learn who’s dominating and who is lagging behind.
The 49ers inked rookie Mike McGlinchey on July 23, 2018 to a four-year deal worth $18.3 million. Just before training camp started, the team brought in second-year offensive lineman J.P. Flynn, who first signed with the 49ers last May, but ended up on the practice squad.
Any 49er fan worth his/her salt knew that right guard was going to be one of the best competitions in camp, and head coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed that during his July 25 press conference.
“We have a lot of competition on our team. Right guard is a spot that I think would probably be the biggest on our O-Line,” said Shanahan.
Competing for the right guard position is third-year veteran Joshua Garnett. Oddly, he did not run with the first team during practice on July 27. Shockingly, veteran Mike Person played right guard. Garnett found himself with the second squad, along with Flynn at left guard, Erik Magnuson at center and Garry Gilliam at right tackle.
The 49ers' offensive line had a rough practice on July 27, missing blocks and jumping offsides. However, Shanahan heaped praise on veteran guard Laken Tomlinson who ran with the first team during practice.
, his offense is suited for a player like Tomlinson.
“Everyone has different philosophies and different schemes and stuff, but I would say ours out of any allows O-Linemen to really open up and run more than any others,” said Shanahan on July 27. “When you do have that speed and talent and stuff, it doesn’t always mean you’re going to always block people well... That’s stuff you couldn’t really see. He (Tomlinson) didn’t do it much in college. He didn’t do in much in Detroit. But, it’s fit him well here.”
Left guard is still Tomlinson’s position to lose and he will continue to work with first-team players Joe Staley, Weston Richburg, and Mike McGlinchey.
Often, it’s tough to get a good read or regular reports of offensive line play during training camp.
Joe Fann, senior reporter for the 49ers, noted that running backs Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida had two good runs during the first padded practice on July 28. McKinnon also caught a deep pass from quarterback C.J. Beathard to add to his solid day. Fann also shared that second-year back Joe Williams had a 65-yard touchdown run on a toss left.
Let’s face a clear fact: unpadded practices are utterly worthless for the offensive and defensive line. Any reporter who makes a claim that a player or players did not perform well during an unpadded practice is looking to start controversy.
Padded practices, a full fight in the trenches, are where positions are won and lost. Three long runs and a deep pass down the sideline during 11-on-11 drills are due to strong protection up front.
Training camp isn’t without a handful of disappointments. Garnett banged his knee against another player during Saturday’s practice and sat out on Sunday. Maybe the team is being cautious, but Garnett isn’t in a place to miss repetitions. He’s battling for a roster spot and needs to play through a few bruises.
Tackle Garry Gilliam missed Saturday’s practice due to an elbow injury but did participate on Sunday. Finally, veteran guard Jonathan Cooper is still on the active/PUP list. He had surgery to fix an MCL during the offseason.
The 49ers had an overlooked and underrated defensive line in 2017. The trench men saw 491 rush attempts last year, the most in pro football, but allowed only 3.8 yards per attempt, which was one of the lowest totals among all teams during the 2017 season. (Source: Pro Football Reference)
Of course, the 49ers also have DeForest Buckner, who played outstanding football last season but was overlooked for any award or recognition from so-called experts and fans.
Despite putting together a quality rookie year, the 49ers are expecting more from second-year defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.
Shanahan admitted the team wants more from Thomas during his July 25 press conference.
“I think he (Thomas) has a lot of room to grow and it’s very important to him, to me, to the 49ers, that he takes a step forward and I feel extremely confident he will and that’s what you want him to do each year. D-Linemen, in my experience, take a little longer than most. But, this isn’t a patient league, either. We expect him to be better.”
Various news stories have noted the 49ers’ defensive line has had a solid few days of camp, with Buckner, Cassius Marsh, and Jeremiah Attaochu causing problems for the offense on July 27. In fact, Buckner, Thomas, and Attaochu have had their names brought up as being a real problem for the offensive line in full-team sessions.
Following practice on July 29, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh commented on the defensive line's play. “Today felt good. I’ve got to go watch the tape. We all do. But, they felt very fast today. You can always watch tape. Sacks are probably the most overrated stat to me.”
He also commented on Attaochu’s performance thus far.
“Attaochu is relentless. He’s very, very business-like. He’s a lot more nimble, if that’s the word, than I thought he’d be. He’s very athletic. Very, very athletic. He is very determined, so we’re excited to have him. He comes with the right mindset so having him here and adding him to the group has been cool.”
I’d love to get my hands on the practice tape and see how some of the other offensive and defensive linemen are doing. Alas, we’ll all have to wait for the first preseason game to see if some of the reports we’re hearing match the play on the field.
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