SANTA CLARA, Calif. - It's going to take a while for the San Francisco 49ers to figure out who's going to start along their new offensive line.
After losing two former first-round picks in left guard Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis at right tackle this offseason, the 49ers are entering training camp Saturday with one position solidified: left tackle.
That's where Joe Staley will be, becoming only 49ers lineman to line up at the same position he played last year. Iupati signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals, while Davis retired.
Last year's starting center, Daniel Kilgore, recently required a minor surgery on his broken ankle and was placed on the physically unable to perform list, head coach Jim Tomsula announced Friday, and isn't likely to suit up until midway through August.
That leaves Joe Looney and second-year player Marcus Martin set to share reps at center, while Alex Boone is moving from right guard to left, at least for the start of training camp. Whoever isn't playing center will compete at both guard spots. Veteran free-agent acquisition Erik Pears is the favorite to replace Davis out at right tackle. "Red-shirt" second-year player Brandon Thomas will also be in the mix at both guard spots.
Simple enough, right?
While all the permutations and variables are confusing, one thing is not: the 49ers need their offensive line to be good if they want the offense to recover from a bad 2014 season.
Injuries to Davis, Kilgore and Martin led to eight different starting combinations along the offensive line last season, where Colin Kaepernick was the league's second-most sacked quarterback. It's no coincidence, either, that the running game sputtered to find consistency for most of the year.
"Last year was kind of a jumbled mess in a lot of different areas," left tackle Joe Staley said Friday. "(We) really need to focus in on the things that we need to improve on from last year. Also focus on the things we did a good job of last year and build on those going forward."
In the first three season's of former head coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure, when San Francisco reached three straight conference title games, the 49ers' offensive line was regarded as one of the best in the league. That was, in part, because of its cohesion. When the 49ers went to the Super Bowl in 2012, they had the same five linemen at the same spots in every game.
This summer, San Francisco starts training camp with 80 percent of those starting jobs up for grabs.
"When I was with Mike, it was the first time in my career really ... I was playing next to someone pretty consistently the whole time," said Staley. "Playing next to, whether it be Alex, or whoever we’re going to go with, that’s something that we’re going to get dialed in during training camp. That’s what all these practices are for right now, is to really figure out the communication and camaraderie of the offensive line and just move forward."
Tomsula said Friday there will be no depth chart at the start of camp. But he said Boone will be the first-team left guard at Saturday's first practice, despite starting at right guard for the last three seasons.
"We’re going to create some depth there," Tomsulsa said. "So, we start talking about playing that tackle spot, you’ve seen (Boone) do that for us before. So now, when he’s playing right guard, the stance is the opposite. When we put him at left guard, we’ve got that stance so at least he’s working out of that stance. That’s, quite simply and honestly, that’s the whole answer."
Boone saw time at left guard with the second team during mandatory minicamp in June after electing to miss the voluntary sessions earlier in the spring. At that point, it seemed as though Boone was getting reps on the left side to prepare for a "swing" tackle role, while not needing extra reps at right guard, in case Staley sustained an injury. But Boone starting camp at left guard with the first team indicates he may be the favorite to start there when the regular season opens against the Vikings Sept. 14.
--Rookie seventh-round draft pick Trent Brown, who spent the majority of the offseason working at Davis' old right tackle spot, was taken off the non-football injury list Friday, the 49ers announced, and will be good to go at the start of camp.