49ers positional analysis: Offensive guard
Starters at beginning of 2010 season: Mike Iupati (LG), Chilo Rachal (RG)
Starters at finish of 2010 season: Mike Iupati (LG), Chilo Rachal (RG)
2010 positional grade: C-plus
Offensive guards currently on roster: Mike Iupati, Chilo Rachal, Adam Snyder (also plays tackle), Daniel Kilgore (fifth-round draft pick, also plays center); Michael Person (seventh-round draft pick, also plays center), Nick Howell
Pending free agents: Tony Wragge (unrestricted)
Need to upgrade position before season: Moderate
It appears the 49ers finally have taken care of one position on an offensive line characterized by instability the past half-decade with the addition of 2010 first-round draft pick Mike Iupati, a bruiser the 49ers dropped into their starting lineup from Day 1 last year then watched become one of NFL's top rookie offensive linemen of 2010.
Now the team will look for better results on the other side of the line with Chilo Rachal, a second-round draft pick in 2008 who has yet to make such a decisive impact.
But with those two youngsters – Iupati turned 24 in May and Rachal was 25 in March – the 49ers have two promising guards to continue building with for the future as they attempt to solidify their offensive line, one of team's weakest areas during San Francisco's current string of eight consecutive seasons without a winning record.
Iupati and Rachal certainly made their contributions to another shaky season by the San Francisco line in 2011, particularly in pass protection, but both proved to be sufficient – if not better – run blockers, particularly Iupati, who could be seen flattening opponents on a regular basis by the end of the season.
After a slow start, Iupati came on strong once he got comfortable at the pro level and learned assignments, and he was definitely a jolt of fresh energy and talent the Niners needed at the position. Iupati started each of San Francisco's 16 games, was named to the Sporting News' 2010 All-Rookie team, and judging from his progress over last season, Iupati should continue to develop into potentially a star lineman who could anchor the unit.
The 49ers probably would be happy in 2011 just to see Iupati continue to progress at the rate he displayed as a rookie. But they'd like to see Rachal step it up a bit faster as he enters his fourth NFL season.
Always showing flashes of dominance in the run game, particularly when he gets out on the edge as a pulling blocker, Rachal cracked the starting lineup during the second half of his rookie season and the 49ers have been attempting to mold him into a fixture there ever since.
But Rachal was wildly inconsistent last season, a trait that has characterized his career, and whether it be because of mental or physical limitations, he conspicuously whiffed on assignments several times over the course of the season. Rachal struggled near midseason to the point that the 49ers decided to replace him in the starting lineup with jack-of-all-trades veteran Adam Snyder in Week 10 after San Francisco's bye week.
That demotion lasted only one week, and Rachal started San Francisco's final seven games, appearing to get stronger and more settled as the season wound down. With Rachal in the final year of his rookie contract with the 49ers, the team will be watching closely this season to determine if he fits into the future of a promising young line.
The 49ers are hoping to develop quality young depth behind their two starters after selecting versatile Appalachian State product Daniel Kilgore in the fifth round of this year's draft and taking Montana State's Michael Person in the seventh round.
Both rookies were star offensive tackles at the second level of college competition, but the 49ers will be switching them to the interior line positions, seeing potential in both to contribute at guard and center instead of on the edges.
Whether either will be ready to step in for extended duty this year should Iupati or Rachal go down is another matter. The 49ers will continue to work swing lineman Snyder as their top guard, and perhaps allow him an opportunity to push Rachal for a starting role this summer. Guard might actually be Snyder's best position, and he did well enough last season when given opportunities to play there.
Tony Wragge also is a quality veteran reserve who beat out raw rookie Rachal for the starting position at left guard to begin the 2008 season and started 10 games there before Rachal took over.
Since the NFL lockout has stunted the early growth of the two draft picks, Wragge – who also can and has played center – might be a better option for San Francisco as the team's fourth guard, particularly in the early going.
Wragge is a selfless player who also can contribute on special teams, but he's an unrestricted free agent and the 49ers must decide whether they want to bring him back. Drafting the two rookies appears to make Wragge expendable, and that may be an indication the team is looking to replace him.
The 49ers appear unlikely to add any significant free agent to the mix here before training camp begins. There's also an outside possibility two other established veteran 49ers linemen – Eric Heitmann and David Baas – could factor into the mix here, though Heitmann had surgery to repair a ruptured disk about a month ago and faces a lengthy rehabilitation that probably will keep him on the sidelines for a second consecutive season.
Heitmann started his first four NFL seasons at guard for the 49ers, including all 16 games at left guard in 2004 before moving to center after starting the first 10 games at right guard in 2005.
Heitmann established himself as San Franciso's best offensive linemen in recent seasons while starting at center between 2005-2009. But he broke his leg early in training camp last summer, when Heitmann also sustained the neck injury that placed him on injured reserve in November and continues to threaten his career today.
Baas, who started 25 consecutive games at left guard in 2008-2009, replaced Heitmann at center after the latter was injured last August. Baas blossomed at center and had his best NFL season, and if he returns to the 49ers – Baas has indicated during the offseason that's what he wants – he would almost certainly do so as the team's starting center.
Now that the 49ers have a better idea of Heitmann's status, they can prepare to make plans without him, which makes signing Baas even more essential, and perhaps brings Wragge back into the picture when free agency begins after the lockout.
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