A Ton of Success: How the 49ers Offensive Line Became a Strength of the Team
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
“The offensive line is always a priority. We talk so much about quarterbacks; anything to make that go, you've got to be really efficient. That's what I loved about Kyle is his offenses really dictate. They take the fight to them and beat them to the punch -- all the things that Bill Walsh used to say at Stanford. We're going to keep working to build a group like that where we can really dictate and dominate the terms of how we play the game on both lines. That's very much a core belief of myself and Kyle." - John Lynch on Murph and Mac - 1/31/18
With the amount of work and resources spent in the offseason, the 49ers did in fact make the Offensive Line a priority and now we see a unit that is beginning to resemble the one that Head Coach Kyle Shanahan envisioned when he took the position. Only one starter remains from week 1 2017 (Joe Staley) and when you fast forward to week 17 only two of the five starters remain with the organization (Staley and Laken Tomlinson).
Whether it was signing Weston Richburg to one of the biggest contracts ever given to a Center or spending a 1st round pick on Mike McGlinchey or taking a flier on a 30 year old journeyman C/RG in Mike Person or giving Laken Tomlinson a three year extension right before training camp they made a concerted effort to revamp the OL. While the results have been up and down so far there has been signs of real progress and development.
49ers RBs average more than 3 yards per carry before contact and have the 2nd most total yards (777 yards) before contact. That’s a huge indicator that the OL has been incredibly effective in generating open run lanes that the RBs have exploited for big gains. It also shows that they are an athletic unit that can get to the 2nd level which is a key in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Mike McGlinchey has been a dominant run blocker so far and has far exceeded any expectations that the team could have had for him as he is the highest graded rookie offensive lineman in his class. He has truly solidified the RT spot and looks be worth the high pick they used on him. While being a work in progress in terms of pass protection he continues to show he is committed to improving in that aspect of his game. Whether he stays at RT or moves over to LT when Joe Staley rides off into the sunset the 49ers have someone in McGlinchey that will be a part of the solution for years to come.
I have to admit I didn’t expect much from Mike Person when he was signed. It was my belief that he was just a camp body and if he made the team it would be only as a backup interior OL. Boy was I wrong and man has Person been a great underrated signing for the team. Due to Joshua Garnett and Jonathan Cooper being unavailable during the end of the offseason program and into the beginning of training camp Person was forced to take all of the 1st team reps with the team. There was never really a competition for the starting RG spot and Person pretty much settled into the role. The beginning of the season was not smooth as Person and the rest of the OL had to deal with a talented MIN DL and a slew of injuries as Person and his backup Garnett left the game due to foot injuries. Since then Person had been a pilar of stability at the position, in half the games he has started since week 1, he has posted a clean sheet (no pressures, no sacks allowed) and has been graded as a top 10 guard per PFF with his 82.2 pass blocking grade (10th best) leading the way. While only a one-year deal its clear that Person is someone that they intend to keep around for the longterm.
Many including myself were surprised when the Tomlinson extension was announced, while he was solid towards the end of the season no one really envisioned his a potential longterm answer at LG. Many hoped that they would address the position in the draft with a younger player with a higher upside but that was not to be. Tomlinson has played up to his extension, the overall value of the deal has him 30th amongst the position (16.5 mil) and the APY is 28th (5.5 mil per season); that is roughly where most would have him valued or graded. Tomlinson is a solid, average guard who fills a role within the group.
If there has been one weak spot for the group it has been C Weston Richburg, Richburg’s year has not been anywhere near what he or the team envisioned. Inconsistency along with injuries and a scheme change has really effected his performance and we have yet to see the Richburg that was considered one of the best Centers in the league and an elite level pass protector
But there has been encouraging signs that Richburg is getting back the mobility that he lost due to the knee injury he suffered earlier in the season
Richburg quickly got to the 2nd level and eliminated the LB from the play, giving him no angle to take as Mostert ran past him on his way to a 52 yard TD run. Thats the kind of play that the team hopes to see more of in the future.
So what’s next for the group? The current lineup seems to be one that the team will have around through at least the end of next season. Like I mentioned earlier Person will be a free agent after this season but it feels like the team plans on keeping him around even if its on a short term extension like the one Tomlinson received before the season.
Joe Staley and his longterm status with the team will need to be decided on very soon, Staley will be a free agent after the 2019 season at which point he will be heading into his Age 36 season. Now Andrew Whitworth of the Rams has shown that tackles over the age of 35 can still play at a high level and even though Staley has proved that he can maintain his high end athleticism while playing like a top 10-12 LT the question becomes how much longer can he keep that up? They could always give him another short term extension in order afford them the necessary time to draft and develop an heir apparent, they could let him walk after his contract concludes and draft someone to replace him immediately or they could as most assume would be the case move McGlinchey over to LT and look to fill the void at RT then. I’d argue that the first thing they should do is leave McGlinchey at RT and allow him to continue to grow and develop at a position that has become crucial due to the amount of elite level pass rushers that primarily line up on the left side of the DL/right side of the OL.
I suspect that ultimately that the organization will feel the same way and we either see Staley get extended and they draft his eventual replacement in either the 2019 or 2020 draft.
The 49ers finally have some stability along the offensive line and while not everything is in sync yet we have seen signs of a unit that can be amongst the best in the league.
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