A Look Back at 2012
By most accounts, the 49ers offensive line was an elite unit en route to an NFC title, clearing space for a physical running game that ranked as third in the NFL racking up 164.6 yards per contest.
Book-ended by tackles selected in the first round – Joe Staley on the left and Anthony Davis on the right – the team's front office committed serious resources to the group, investing three opening-round selections in offensive linemen in recent seasons. Staley and Davis have both been locked up to long-term contract extensions since getting drafted in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Guard Mike Iupati was also taken in the first round of 2010.
Staley signed a six-year, $42 million extension in 2009 during the middle of his rookie deal, making him a 49er until 2017. It was a prudent decision for San Francisco, after having gone previous seasons struggling to find continuity on the offensive front that wasn't very good for Alex Smith prior to Jim Harbuagh's arrival.
This spring, Davis' extension also made him a 49er until 2017 and banked over $6.5 million per year. The move was somewhat surprising from Davis' perspective. He had one season remaining on his rookie contract and could have waited for free agency, where he could have garnered more money as a left tackle, akin to the more pricey deals Russell Okung, Duane Brown, Ryan Clady and other expensive blind side protectors.
But Davis elected to secure his future with San Francisco after making strides in his third season. He played 100 percent of the team's snaps and was a very good run blocker. He's been stable, starting every game of his career to this point. In protection, he continued to show improvement, but still allowed nine sacks (three came in Week 6's loss to the Giants). Lowering that number will be a big focus for his fourth year. Blocking for the mobile Colin Kaepernick for an entire season will help.
Staley has become one of the best values at left tackle in football with his Pro-Bowl level of production that comes at a price cheaper than 11 others at the position (per season) throughout the league. Last year was easily his best to date. Staley started every game en route to the Super Bowl and stood up to the opponent's best pass rusher each time out. Like Davis, he also excelled in the running game and has the athleticism that fits perfectly with Greg Roman's mulch-faceted ground attack.
Comings and Goings
Without any glaring holes to fill on the offensive front, the 49ers used a seventh-round draft pick on Iowa State's Carter Bykowski, a former tight end they hope can become fluent in both tackle positions. After the selection, Trent Baalke noted Bykowski's toughness, intelligence and work ethic that made him a capable starter in the Big 12 after just a couple seasons of learning the offensive line for the first time. The team is hoping he profiles into a versatile swing tackle.
Bykowski is considered a late-blooming prospect that could outperform his draft position if developed properly, making him a nice project for line coach Mike Solari should he remain on the team or practice squad after training camp.
The 49ers brought back versatile lineman Adam Snyder, who spent last year with the Arizona Cardinals after spending his first seven seasons with San Francisco. Snyder played left tackle prior to Staley's arrival and then switched to right tackle before Davis was drafted. Before leaving the team, he played right guard in 2011.
Luke Marquardt was brought in as an undrafted free agent after suffering a hairline fracture in his foot prior to the start of his senior season. He had been a very well regarded prospect due to his size and athleticism combination despite playing at the NAIA level at Azusa Pacific. He weighed in at 6'8" and 315 pounds and reportedly bench-pressed 225 pounds 31 times at the combine. But another fracture in his foot was revealed and he's spent his time on crutches and in a walking boot at the team's facility during the offseason program.
Marquardt's healing process will be an interesting footnote to follow during training camp. The 49ers wouldn't have brought in an injured player if they didn't think there was potential to contribute down the road. He's currently on the active/non-football injury list and could spend the season on reserve list if the team elects to keep him around and develop him after his foot is entirely healed.
Tackles in Camp
Carter Bykowski (6'6", 306 pounds) first season, Iowa State
Anthony Davis (6'5", 323) fourth season, Rutgers
Adam Snyder (6'6", 325) ninth season, Oregon
Joe Staley (6'5", 315) seventh season, Central Michigan
Luke Marquardt (6'8", 315) first season, Azusa Pacific
Locks to Make the Roster
Barring injury, Staley and Davis will continue to lead the talented offensive line group for seasons to come. But the backing them up is where the situation becomes complicated.
Given his tenure in the league, versatility and knowledge of the system, Snyder is the clear favorite to the land a back up job and suite up on game days. He's gotten reps at every position on the line in the offseason program and training camp and figures to be a valuable piece should any of the starters come down with an injury.
Who suits up as the seventh offensive tackle on game days will have a lot to do with the competition on the inside of the line, where Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney appear to have the inside track because they can play either guard position and center. Kilgore was the last active lineman on game days in 2012 and has seen action with the first team at center during Jonathan Goodwin's absence.
Battling for a Spot
With the top-three tackle spots a near certainty, Bykowski, Wiggins and Marquardt will be battling to make an impression on Solari and the rest of the coaching staff. Marquardt is likely to remain on the active/non-football injury list for the time being in order to get healthy.
That means it will be up to Bykowski and Wiggins to battle for a spot on the practice squad where they could be called upon in case of injury to a player that suits up on game days.
Wiggins – an Elk Grove, Calif. native who went to Fresno State – originally came to the 49ers as an undrafted free agent and was released after training camp in 2011 before signing on the Ravens' practice squad. He signed a reserve/future contract the next season and wound up on the practice squad while the team went to the Super Bowl.
Because Wiggins has already been a practice squad player for two seasons, his options are limited thus making this his most important training camp to date. He can only be added to a practice squad for a third season if his team has at least 53 players on the active roster. The numbers are against him, especially since the team invested a draft pick in Bykowski – who offers the team more flexibility should they elect to put him on the practice squad.