Image Credit: New York Giants
There will never be an NFL offseason where I don’t beg for the San Francisco 49ers to make upgrades to the offensive line.
The need for a bruising offensive line is now a relic of the 1980s or 1990s, sure to be shown on the next season of “Stranger Things.” The bulk of the ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia can be shot into the center of the sun – the world is a better place without hair metal and the floppy disk.
But I will always believe championship football teams are built first in the trenches, no matter if today’s tackles are far more athletic than what we now see on NFL Films highlights.
Last season, Pro Football Focus ranked the 49ers’ offensive line 17th overall in pass blocking. The starting five men – Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, Weston Richburg, Mike Person and rookie Mike McGlinchey – allowed only 18 sacks, but also gave up 162 quarterback pressures, 91 hurries, and 34 hits.
The 49ers’ run game ranked 13th overall in football last year despite losing starter Jerick McKinnon to a torn knee ligament. In total, the 49ers had 1,902 yards on the ground, averaging 118.9 yards per game and 4.5 yards per attempt.
The running back corps was responsible for 1,769 rush yards on 364 attempts. That’s an average of 4.6 yards per rush, and more rush yards than 15 NFL teams including the Dolphins, Packers, Lions, and Giants.
Pro Football Focus gave the 49ers’ run blocking a 71.1 grade, ranking them 4th overall.
The projected starting linemen for the 49ers have the intangibles to improve their overall play, but the lack of quality upgrades to the second-team is what keeps me up at night.
A Few Reasons They’ve Remained Stagnant
The 49ers’ offensive line gave up an average of 2.4 sacks 15.2 pressures, 2.6 hits and 10.2 hurries per game to start the first five weeks of the 2018 season.
The line improved a bit, allowing an average of 1.6 sacks per game during the last third of the season.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the average number of pressures per game increased to 15.4 per game, and the average number of hits also ballooned to five per game.
Except for a few additions, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan did not bring on new talent to challenge the projected first- and second-team players.
I doubt tackles Willie Beavers or Daniel Brunskill are going to challenge the men ahead of them to be better players, or even make the roster.
A “next-man-up” mentality only works when the next man is a quality player. Lynch and Shanahan don’t seem to grasp or care about that concept with the offensive line.
It’s Not the Depth; It’s the Stuff You Can’t Measure
Once Lynch finally handed veteran tackle Garry Gilliam his walking papers, the 49ers took a small step forward in improving the depth chart.
Coleman joined the 49ers on August 31, 2018, and wasn’t active for a single game last season. I hoped then that Coleman’s arrival meant Gilliam’s departure, but we were not that lucky.
Nobody can say whether or not Coleman will succeed in Shanahan’s offense, but I cannot believe he’s going to play as poorly as Gilliam. He’s had a full year to absorb Shanahan’s system and heal any lingering nicks or injuries he may have suffered in 2017. I’m excited to see what he can do during the preseason.
Lynch and Shanahan decided not to address the back-up guard position during this year’s draft, which killed off the last tendrils of hope I had that Shanahan would upgrade the interior.
It’s taken two seasons, but I’ve conceded that Shanahan simply doesn’t see the need for expensive guards in his offense – not as rookies, starters, or reserves.
Therefore, I wasn’t shocked when the 49ers signed Ben Garland on April 23, 2019 and inked undrafted free agent Ross Reynolds to a contract shortly after the 2019 NFL Draft.
Two unproven guards aren’t what the 49ers need to succeed, but, again, my dreams of a star-studded offensive line were already fragments on the floor.
Garland has limited knowledge of Shanahan’s system, playing 50 regular-season snaps in 2016 while with the Atlanta Falcons. He has suited up for 46 games over the last three seasons, making seven starts and performing well in the run game.
Reynolds is a different story. He played in 31 games for the University of Iowa, making 14 starts in his last two years. He will be a unique experiment in Shanahan’s ability to develop an undrafted guard into a useful cog in the machine.
I also would like to think that Shanahan wants player feedback on his offense and implements their suggestions. No coach should be so stuck to his game plan or his way that he’s not willing to ask his players, “Is this block working for you? What can we change?”
The late Bill Walsh noted how important it was for a coach to remove his ego and allow for greater communication.
“The coach must account for his ego. He has to drop or sidestep the ego barrier so that people can communicate without fear. They have to be comfortable that they will not be ridiculed if they turn out to be mistaken or if their ideas are not directly in line with their superior’s. That is where the breakthrough comes. That is what it takes to build a successful, winning organization.”
It’s pure blind faith that Shanahan follows Walsh’s advice. Rigid coaches lead to stagnant, predictable offenses, while coaches who want feedback clearly want to keep evolving.
More importantly, the 49ers enter the 2019 season with five offensive linemen who played together for almost 1,058 snaps. Further, Staley and Tomlinson have played side-by-side for around 2,000 snaps in two seasons.
These are bonds that cannot be categorized in a statistics column. There is no ‘expert’ or absurd math equation that can measure how well these five men know one another and can change a pass protection just by a quick look left and right.
I’ve always believed that most teams walk into training camp better than they were last year. New faces, young rookies, and new coaches inject fresh blood into a team that might have needed a jolt to regain a winning edge.
Call it whatever you’d like – eyeless devotion, saccharine optimism. The sunbeams of a new season are creeping over the peaks of the Diablo Range, and it’s an even playing field for 32 teams.
I’ll stick with my optimism until the 49ers show me otherwise.
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