Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Guards? What Guards?
Ask the average NFL fan to describe the 49ers over the years and somewhere in there you’ll hear the word “finesse.” You won’t hear terms like “smash mouth,” “running game,” or “offensive line.” But since the days of Bobb McKittrick the offensive line has featured dominant guard play, with names that sound like a who’s who of 49er legends: Randy Cross, Guy McIntyre, Jesse Sapolu, Derrick Deese, and Mike Iupati. So, with these legends of the Red and Gold, how did we end up with Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person (no disrespect meant)?
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have been aggressive in retooling the offensive line. In came Weston Richburg on the richest contract ever handed out to a center, and their 2018 first round pick was spent in Mike McGlinchey to solidify the right tackle position. But the same attention hasn’t been paid to either of guard spots.
While Shanahan is a master play designer and is adept at getting his receivers open in space, his first love is the running game. It was a staple in his father’s offense, both as a coordinator for the 49ers and a head coach in Denver, resulting in three Super Bowl wins. Some of the biggest 49er highlights of the last two seasons have come on play action passes; Shanahan understands that while the modern-day NFL is a pass-first league, you still need to run to set up the pass.
While the outside zone is predicated on blocking the man over you, or moving onto the second level, guards typically have the least amount of ground to cover, and usually with either a 1-technique defensive tackle to their inside shoulder, or a 3-tech over them. The guard engages the defender, and then throws his hips to the play side to try and seal the defender away from the running lane. With centers and tackles sometimes uncovered, it’s crucial to find agile players at those positions that are able to disengage from the base defender and chase down linebackers at the second level.
With a finite amount of resources a head coach has to ask himself: where to invest? With more teams passing than ever before and the inherent need to protect the quarterback, tackle is the clear choice. Centers are the de facto leader of the offensive line, calling out blocking assignments and identifying defenses, so a top tier center is worth their weight in gold. So simply by attrition guards are sacrificed. If you asked Shanahan, of course he would want the best guards he could get his hands on, but he’s not willing to rob from Peter to pay Paul, so bargains are found, such as Tomlinson and Person.
As long as tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey continue to play at a high level, only adequate guard play will be needed. If Richburg can return to form following offseason surgery the offensive line is primed to move people this season. It’s still 11 months away, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team invest in the interior during the 2020 draft. But the team may have already found a diamond in the rough in undrafted free agent Ross Reynolds, a guard from Iowa who has the measurables the team looks for in their guards and is my dark horse to not only make the 53 man roster, but challenge for a starting position.
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