The Impossible Task: Options the 49ers Have for Joe Staley's Successor


Image Credit: Scott Young

Twenty-seven years from now, someone will write a definitive history of the San Francisco 49ers to celebrate the team’s 100th birthday.

In that book, probably near the front, left tackle Joe Staley will be listed as one of the greatest 49ers in team history. Debate it all you want, but if Staley isn’t in the top five, then this future book isn’t worth your money.

Last week, Staley signed a two-year extension, likely solidifying him as a 49er for the remainder of his career.

I had conflicting feelings about the news; I’m thrilled Staley will remain with the team until he retires, but it does mean his time with the 49ers is nearing its end.

Staley’s played 174 games for the 49ers, earning second-team All-Pro honors twice, and elected to six Pro Bowl rosters.

In 12 seasons, Staley’s evolved into the clear team leader, with an infectiously positive attitude. As an added bonus, he’s only been flagged for holding 14 times in his career.

More importantly, Staley has been through the iron forge with the team; he suffered the dark years under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary and was just a few short yards from a deserved championship in 2012.

There are two paths the 49ers can go by to replace Staley. The first is a quick, short-term solution – a Band-Aid until the team can find the right fit at left tackle. The second is a long-term solution, which today is an absolute shot in the dark.

General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan cannot afford to try a middle ground, piecemealing an offensive line together with the hope that things will magically work out for the best.

Following Staley’s new contract, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo noted how important a tight-knit offensive line was to overall success.

“They do so much work together, passing blitzes off, passing blocks off, twists, all that stuff. That’s a group you want to stay together. It’s an important one. It makes my job a lot easier. So as long as I can get the ball out on time and do my job properly, we should be in good hands.”

The front-five need to be bonded together like adamantium and diamonds; trotting in an offensive lineman-of-the-month and praying that he works out for a few weeks is a recipe for disaster.

Short-Term

Lynch made a late August trade last season, sending a 2019 seventh-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns for tackle Shon Coleman. At the time, I thought it meant that now-former 49er Garry Gilliam was finally going to be shown the door.

Alas, Gilliam got to see the field and Coleman wasn’t active for a single game. I found it odd considering how terrible Gilliam was at playing tackle; later, I thought Coleman might have had a nagging injury or he didn’t fully grasp the nuances of Shanahan’s offense.

It’s likely the 49ers move second-year tackle Mike McGlinchey to left tackle once Staley retires and put Coleman at right tackle.

McGlinchey had a few rough outings but proved to be a stellar addition to the 2018 roster. Over 1,055 snaps, he allowed 11 quarterback hits, 23 hurries, and a team-high 39 pressures. Plus, he played 32 snaps at right guard when both Mike Person and Joshua Garnett suffered injuries in Week 1.

McGlinchey was the second-best run-blocking tackle in the NFL, with a 78.2 grade from Pro Football Focus. Of note, his run-blocking grade was 18 points higher than former 49er tackle Trent Brown, who ranked 60th overall in run blocking.

McGlinchey is the future of the 49ers and a cornerstone for the offensive line.

Coleman deserves a chance to play live games in Shanahan’s system and showcase where he’s strong and where he needs work. We’ve never seen what he can do, so it’s rude to assume he’s unable to play in it.

What he does during the preseason could determine what the 49ers do with the tackle position in two or three years down the road.

If Coleman plays well and McGlinchey has no hiccups moving to the left side, then the short-term solution becomes a long-term fix. Lynch can then (hopefully) focus on finding better guards in the draft or free agency.

Long-Term

Should Coleman turn out to be no more than a serviceable right tackle, Lynch will have no choice but to find Staley’s heir apparent in the draft. The only way to have a long-term solution is taking a right tackle high in the first round, which should give the 49er fan base hives and make for a beautiful Twitter war.

My nerves can’t handle the 49er brass adding a well below-average veteran to the roster or drafting a player in the sixth round and then sit around on Sunday hoping everything will come up Milhouse.

I don’t like when so-called football experts claim to know who will be the top college player two or three years from now, so I won’t pull that nonsense with you. It’s insulting to readers and some of the lowest form of football conversation.

Lynch and Shanahan know what they can get when they invest high capital in the offensive line. McGlinchey is the ideal 49er, and the team hasn’t even begun to see its investment pay off.

The day the team etches his name in the ring of honor will be a sold-out affair. Dads tell their kids they were there to see Staley pull left and take out Saints safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, clearing a path for Alex Smith’s 28-yard touchdown run.

The 49ers do not simply replace Joe Staley; he is a generational player whose name will forever echo in the causeways of Levi’s Stadium.

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