A physical and overpowering offensive line has been a trademark of the last three San Francisco 49ers teams that have all made deep runs into the postseason. The overall talent level along the line remains a strength, but there are questions that need answering in training camp and leading into the future surrounding some of the unit's key players.
Offensive Linemen on the 90-man roster
Jonathan Goodwin (free agent, New Orleans. One year, $1.02 million)
Jonathan Martin (trade with Miami for a conditional seventh-round pick)
Marcus Martin (draft, third round)
Thomas (draft, third round)
It was another good year for San Francisco’s offensive line as it continued to play at a high level, particularly when road grading for Frank Gore and the running game. The 49ers had the league's third-rated rushing attack (139.7 yards per game), but also showed the need for improvement after allowing a sack percentage of 8.24 - the seventh-worst clip in the league.
Joe Staley continued to prove he’s one of the game’s best left tackles and last week earned a contract extension that makes him a 49er through 2019.
Anthony Davis’ season wasn’t quite as good as 2012, but it’s unknown how healthy he actually was. He revealed via social media after the loss to the Seahawks he had shoulder surgery from an injury stemming from Week 3’s game against the Colts, meaning he played 16 games at less than 100 percent. Davis described the injury as a “labrum and bicep” to CSN Bay Area.
Davis allowed six sacks on the year, including two against the Panthers in Week 10, which was actually an improvement over 2012. The difference, according to Pro Football Focus, was Davis’ great play in the running game where he earned a 24.1 grade en route to the Super Bowl. In contrast, the fine folks at PFF gave Davis a 4.7 grade in the running game in 2013.
Right guard Alex Boone also didn’t play as well as he did in 2012, but still managed to solidify his status as an upper-tier right guard, hence his expected holdout (more on that below).
Boone added to his value by stepping in for an injured Staley Dec. 1 against the Rams, when he shut down elite pass rusher Robert Quinn when he slid from right guard to his college position of left tackle. Adam Snyder may have gotten the nod to replace Staley, but he was already filling in for Mike Iupati, who suffered a left MCL injury two weeks earlier against the Saints.
The injury didn’t totally prevent Iupati from having another productive season. He dealt with an ankle injury dating all the way back to training camp, but it didn’t appear to hinder him much as he continued to be one of the league’s best pulling guards with his rare combination of size and agility. He missed give games with the knee injury before fracturing that left ankle in the conference championship game.
San Francisco’s offensive line was able to tread water in their key wins against the Rams and Seahawks in Weeks 14 and 15. But the team’s fortunes changed in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game when Seahawks’ defensive front gave San Francisco’s offensive line all it could handle for most of the night.
Colin Kaepernick had an impressive showing on the ground running for 130 yards, but the traditional running game went missing. Frank Gore finished with just 14 yards on 11 carries while San Francisco took the leash off Kaepernick when they made quarterback runs a focal point of the game plan. It later surfaced that Gore broke his hand during the game. But the injury wasn’t enough to absolve the offensive line from getting dominated by the home team.
Center Jonathan Goodwin played his last game as a 49er that night before signing a modest one-year deal to return to New Orleans, where he played five seasons before joining San Francisco in 2011. Goodwin didn’t miss a start in three seasons with the 49ers, but his physical decline became noticeable. He turned 35 in December. The team elected not to bring him back and instead invested a third-round pick in Marcus Martin, who many viewed as the draft’s best player at the position.
Story lines to watch
BOONE’S HOLDOUT: There’s little doubt Alex Boone has outplayed his four-year, $6.4 million contract he signed as a reserve tackle before becoming the starting right guard in 2012. But that doesn’t mean the 49ers are inclined to give in to his demands for a significant raise when he holds out of training camp later this week as expected. San Francisco liked what it saw from Joe Looney when he took over at right guard when Boone was moved to left tackle to replace Staley against the Rams. They also have Kilgore, Marcus Martin and Snyder, who could all play the position while the 49ers figure out who will play center after Jonathan Goodwin left in free agency. Ideally, San Francisco would love to have Boone back, but with Kaepernick’s new deal taking a much larger piece of the salary cap pie after this season, giving a guard more money while the team knows it has other players that could play at a comparable level doesn’t appear prudent. If Boone doesn’t return to camp, the 49ers could trade him to a team in need of a starting guard (and willing to pay him like one) for future draft considerations.
A HOLE IN THE MIDDLE: There will be an interesting battle at center. Kilgore signed a team-friendly extension (3 years, $4.845 million) this offseason through 2017 - a bargain for a starting center. But Kilgore’s next start will be his first since getting drafted in 2011’s fifth round. He’ll have his hands full in training camp while competing against Marcus Martin, who wasn’t taken in the third round to be a career reserve. Both players are also possibilities at right guard should Boone's contract impasse land him elsewhere.
JONATHAN MARTIN’S RETURN TO THE BAY AREA: Depth along the offensive line didn’t prevent the 49ers from bringing in Martin for a potential late-round pick so he could reunite with his college coach Jim Harbaugh, whom he played for at Sanford. After starting his first 23 games at tackle for the Dolphins to start his career, Martin is the favorite to win the “swing” tackle job, coming in with jumbo package while backing up Staley and Davis. Martin will also spend time learning to play both guard spots, which adds an interesting wrinkle to the team’s situation along the interior. With Iupati entering a contract year, there’s a chance the 49ers could try to convert Martin to guard like they did Boone two years ago giving them a much cheaper long-term option. Speaking of Iupati…
JUGGLING PRIORITIES: There’s little doubt Staley and Iupati make one of the league’s premier left sides. But with Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith eligible for free agency over the next two seasons, Iupati’s days with the 49ers might be numbered. Iupati could become the league’s highest-paid guard if and when he hits the open market next spring. And given the way the roster is constructed, San Francisco appears ready to absorb the loss of its talented left guard. In truth, it’s easier to find interior linemen than top-flight receivers and pass rushers. But things could change if the 49ers are unable to come to an agreement with Crabtree, who won’t be an easy player to bring back on a long-term deal either. Crabtree is a much more likely candidate to get the franchise tag than Iupati. The 49ers used a third-round pick on Clemson guard Brandon Thomas, who was viewed as one of the best players at his position before tearing an ACL in a pre-draft workout. With Thomas likely “red shirting” in 2014, he could be in the mix to replace Iupati next season while competing with both Martins and/or Kilgore.
LOCKS: Staley, Iupati, Kilgore, Boone, Davis, Marcus Martin, Jonathan Martin. These seven are the favorites to be the active linemen on game days. Marcus Martin and Kilgore both have the versatility to play all three interior positions while Jonathan Martin could play either tackle spot.
NOTHING’S ASSURED BUT LOOKING GOOD: Looney. If Boone doesn’t came back, the starting job at right guard is Looney’s to lose. Teams generally don’t use fourth-round picks on guards if they don’t envision them starting at some point. And after being taken in the fourth round three drafts ago, Looney’s been in the system long enough to take over the reigns as the starter should Boone not return. But you can bet teams will key on Looney with their game plans initially if he becomes the new starter.
ON THE BUBBLE: Snyder, Bykowski, Netter, Seymour, Farrell, Fonoti. Snyder is a cagey veteran with experience and versatility on his side. But his expected cap number of $1.3 million makes him replaceable by the cheaper options of the Looney and the Martins. However, if Boone is traded, Snyder is likely to remain with the team. The 49ers liked Bykowski’s athleticism when they took him late in the 2013 draft, so it wouldn’t come as a surprise if they tried to land him on the practice squad for the second straight year to continue his development as a future swing tackle. Seymour joined the team last season when some depth along the line’s interior was needed, and is likely a long shot to crack the roster after the 49ers added multiple players in the offseason. Netter, Farell and Fonoti are camp bodies hoping a good showing can allow them to stick on the practice squad or another team’s roster.
PUP: As noted early, it's likely rookie guard Brandon Thomas will be placed on the reserve PUP list in order to "red shirt" in 2014.
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