SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Do offensive linemen sell jerseys? Nope. Was having a dominant offensive front the key to the 49ers' run to three straight conference title games? Yep.
That's why after losing left guard Mike Iupati, San Francisco's 17th-overall selection in 2010, to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency, the 49ers must find a dominant replacement capable of replicating Iupati's All-Pro production of 2012 when they reached the Super Bowl. And they can in the first round of the draft April 30.
While coaches and quarterbacks often get too much blame or too much praise - depending on results - the opposite is true offensive lines. When they dominate, rarely do they make headlines. When the offensive line doesn't play well, the blame usually falls on the quarterback or coaching staff.
More to blame for 2014's lack of success than Colin Kaepernick's regression or Greg Roman's play calling was the performance of San Francisco's front five. The line, featuring three first-round picks, had a special way of disguising Kaepernick's passing deficiencies over the previous two seasons, mostly because of its ability to open up holes for the running game that set up everything else. With a 45-start sample size, it’s clear Kaepernick needs productive running and play-action games to be an effective quarterback. It all starts with the offensive line.
The running lanes were not there with the same frequency last season, leading to an increased reliance on Kaepernick's inconsistent arm. Injuries played a role. The 49ers started eight different combinations along the offensive line, which included nine starts for Jonathan Martin, who was released this offseason after being consistently overpowered in place of right tackle Anthony Davis. The disastrous tight end situation, headed by Vernon Davis and the banged up group of reserves, didn’t help either.
So while finding an elite receiver in the first round of the upcoming draft would whet many fans' appetites, the 49ers would be best served by investing another first round pick on an offensive lineman capable of competing against the elite defenses of the NFC West for years to come. They have their starting receiver duo in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, and the draft class is deep enough to address the position in the second round with players like Jaelen Strong, Devin Smith or Phillip Dorsett.
Specifically, San Francisco needs to find Iupati’s replacement at left guard, and need that player to be as good or better if they want the running game to work effectively, which would aid Kaepernick’s development tremendously. And that means investing their 15th pick, or possible trading up, to get another lineman.
Yes, general manager Trent Baalke used two third-round picks on interior linemen in last year's draft, but he can't rely on either to play at the level the team needs in order to re-establish the running game in 2015, particularly in a division loaded with talented front sevens. The Seahawks are still the cream of the division, with the Rams continuing to load up on defensive talent, while the Cardinals are not far behind.
"Red-shirt" rookie Brandon Thomas remains a question mark after tearing an ACL last spring leading up to the draft, and Marcus Martin took some serious lumps at center while filling in for the injured Daniel Kilgore, finishing as the offense's lowest-graded player according to Pro Football Focus, despite playing in just eight games. He finished with a -17.1 grade, while Jonathan Martin finished -10.9, while playing in 135 more snaps.
For comparison's sake, Iupati finished with a +16.4 grade in his rookie season, when he started all 16 games at left guard. That’s not to say Thomas or Martin couldn’t turn into productive players, but there’s no indication either is capable of playing like Iupati at his best.
Which is why San Francisco should focus on Iowa’s Brandon Scherff (6-5, 319), regarded by many as the best offensive line prospect in this year’s draft, capable of playing all five positions at a high level. Not only could Scherff, who played left tackle last year, kick inside and play left guard, but he could be insurance for both tackles Joe Staley and Davis. He would be a far more capable replacement than Jonathan Martin was last season at tackle, which would allow Thomas, Marcus Martin, Joe Looney or Erik Pears to play left guard if Scherff had to move outside.
Last season for the Hawkeyes, Scherff produced 14 touchdown-resulting blocks, delivered 93 knockdowns and allowed just one sack, according to Scout’s Dave-Te Thomas. He ran a 5.05 40-yard dash at the combine, ranking fourth among offensive linemen.
Scherff is commonly compared to Cowboys right guard Zack Martin (6-4, 308), who converted to guard after playing both tackle spots at Notre Dame. Dallas took Martin with the 16th-overall pick, and he earned a first-team All-Pro nomination as a rookie, filling out what many believed to be the best offensive line in the NFL last season thanks to their ability to dominate in the running game. They even won in Seattle last October, which the 49ers haven’t done since Kaepernick became the starting quarterback.
How many first-round picks do the Cowboys have on their offensive line? Three. If the 49ers went the same route, their selection would join fellow first-rounders Staley (28th overall, 2007) and Davis (11th overall, 2010).
And to get Scherff, Baalke might have to replicate what he did to get Davis, when he traded a fourth-round pick to move up two slots to 11 in 2010. Scherff is believed to go inside the top 10, perhaps as high as No. 8 to Atlanta, which would mean Baalke would have to yield much more than a fourth-round pick to land Scherff. It would likely take multiple picks, but it’s certainly doable and worthwhile if Scherff turns into an All-Pro player.
If they don’t decide to trade up and Scherff is gone, there’s another option that could take over Iupati’s spot right away in LSU’s La’el Collins (6-4, 305), who is more likely to be available when San Francisco picks at 15. Like Scherff, Collins has a background as a tackle, and is strong and physical enough to play guard.
Collins is viewed by many as perhaps the best run-blocking prospect in this draft, with enough athleticism to advance to the second level of the defense, much like Iupati did during his time with the 49ers. Where Collins has the edge over Iupati is his athleticism, which lends well to a zone blocking scheme which San Francisco could employ under new offensive line coach Chris Foerster.