• Travis Hawkins

Due Diligence: How Long Do the 49ers Have Before They Should Find Joe Staley’s Replacement?

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

The 49ers have had many great players throughout the years, players that are synonymous with 49ers’ football, but eventually those players must be replaced; ideally there is a plan in place for someone to step in and ensure continuity (Montana to Young), other times not (Young to ?). Joe Staley is nearing the end of a career that has put him among the 49er greats and replacing a great player at such a valuable position will be key to the team’s success going forward.

Joe Staley, a native of Rockford Michigan, stayed in-state to play football at Central Michigan University. Staley arrived on campus in Mount Pleasant Michigan as a 6-5 225-pound tight end. Following his freshman season, and a coaching change, Staley was asked to switch to offensive tackle; he told Brandon Thorn on the Trench Warfare podcast that he had no real plans to play beyond college and despite not being happy about the position switch, would do “whatever the team needs.” His selfless team-first attitude would pay off, big time.

In the 2007 NFL draft, the 49ers had the eleventh overall selection and would use it to select linebacker Patrick Willis. Having a stud linebacker like Willis fall in their lap would be good enough for most teams, but the 49ers were not satisfied. After working the phones the 49ers were able to trade back in to the first round, sending a 2007 fourth round pick (110 overall) and a 2008 first round pick (which would wind up being number seven overall) to New England for the 28th pick in round one to select Joe Staley.

Joe Staley is getting ready to start his 13th season in the NFL and he is in the final year of his contract. Staley, a six-time pro bowler, has mused about retirement in recent years, so how long do the 49ers have to find his replacement?

Finding the right time to bring in the heir apparent to one of the all-time greats in a franchise’s history can be a delicate balance between being caught flat-footed with no succession plan and seeming all too eager to hand him a gold watch and shove him into retirement and the 49ers have been on both sides of that seesaw.

Four days before the 1987 NFL draft the 49ers traded a second-round pick, a fourth-round pick and $1 million dollars to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for quarterback Steve Young. Head coach Bill Walsh was concerned about Joe Montana’s long-term future following back surgery and acted quickly to secure Montana’s replacement. Unfortunately for Young, word of Joe Montana’s demise had been greatly exaggerated; Young would sit behind Montana for four more seasons and two Super Bowl victories. Walsh’s skepticism about Montana’s health allowed for the 49ers to eventually have a seamless transition from one Hall of Fame quarterback to another, but those transitions do not always go as smoothly as planned.

The 1995 season was going to be Jerry Rice’s age-33 year, and he is got to start slowing down at some point, right? No one could fault the 49ers for beginning the search for Rice’s replacement and just like they had done when acquiring Steve Young, the 49ers would be aggressive. In the halcyon days before the internet and Twitter, you had to wait for the television broadcast announced it to get any idea about potential draft day trades and I was shocked when the commissioner announced that the 49ers had traded up to the tenth pick in the draft to select UCLA wide receiver J.J. Stokes. Ideally Stokes would come in and learn from Rice before eventually becoming the guy. The 49ers traded four picks, including a 1996 first round pick that the Browns/Ravens would use to select Ray Lewis, to nab Stokes and ensure a seamless transition to the future. Unfortunately for the 49ers, things did not go as planned.

Even though the 49ers traded away their first-round pick in the 1996 draft they were still able to find a wide receiver in that draft to be Rice’s heir apparent. In the third round, the 49ers selected Terrell Owens. Owens, who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career of his own, was able to learn from Rice for five seasons before the 49ers moved on from the then 38-year-old.

The heir apparent to Joe Staley at left tackle may be starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey. It was the selection of McGlinchey with the ninth pick in the 2018 draft that allowed the team to move on from Trent Brown, who at one time may have been Staley’s heir apparent, but was not a fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme. McGlinchey played well at right tackle as a rookie in the face of some stiff competition and looks to be even better in year two. While at Notre Dame McGlinchey played both tackle positions, starting at right tackle as a junior and moving to left tackle his senior year. As a senior, McGlinchey was Pro Football Focus’s top graded draft-eligible tackle. In today’s NFL, being strong at right tackle is just as important as being strong at left tackle, and the 49ers may not want to set back his development by moving him to the left side.

Joe Staley is entering his age-35 season and the final year of his contract, but he is still playing at very high level. Even though Staley has talked about retiring in the past it may not be a foregone conclusion that he retires at the end of the season; he has been energized by the addition of Mike McGlinchey and the two have struck up a fast friendship and will be working out together this offseason at Staley’s home in San Diego. Whether Staley decides to play in 2020, will depend on his health and the success of the team in 2019.

In the end, regardless of whether the 49ers decide to move Mike McGlinchey to left tackle or if Staley sticks around another season, the team will be replacing a top tackle and it will have to be done sooner rather than later. The 2019 draft has a good crop of offensive lineman and the 49ers should not wait to find their next starting tackle.

This year’s draft class offers some enticing options for the 49ers beyond round one. Check out DraftCast’s preview of this year’s offensive line prospects to see who should be on the 49ers radar come draft time.

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