This series is a seven-part examination of the 49ers’ most critical needs, and the free agents who might be able to meet those needs, given the right offers and the right timing. I’ll also be looking at the players with expiring contracts who have filled the positions of need, and why they (mostly) didn’t cut the mustard in Santa Clara. And I will operate on the assumption that the team does not spend a draft pick on any of them, just to keep things simple; I know General Manager John Lynch & Co. will be using their draft picks wisely and generously, but I don’t want to muddy the waters for the sake of the rest of this Nothing But Niners series.
This week, we deal with free agent guards.
Why We Need This
The words “revolving door” are the ones that come to mind when thinking of this group, and that was probably an insult to the rest of the revolving doors of the world. Take a look at how many times each of the quarterbacks the 49ers used during the regular season were sacked, according to NFL.com:
Brian Hoyer: 16 sacks for 112 yards
C.J. Beathard: 19 sacks for 141 yards
Jimmy Garoppolo: 8 sacks for 57 yards
That’s 43 sacks, for more than three full lengths of the field in lost yardage. It’s a wonder we didn’t give up more safeties.
Who’s to blame? Joshua Garnett got himself injured very early in the season, and I think he deserves another shot, him being a Baalke-era choice notwithstanding. Laken Tomlinson has one year left on his contract, and is a former first round pick who may still have a chance to be decent, I think he will improve at least marginally, so could be worth keeping for competition. Brandon Fusco’s story the last four years has been one of injury followed by poor play, particularly as a pass blocker, and he is a UFA who is likely headed to greener pastures, though he did play reasonably well last season. Zane Beadles is a genuinely nice guy — his work for charities alone is enough to make me like him as an individual — but he has just not done well since coming to Santa Clara. He will probably be cut.
Guards get beaten up a lot, so bringing in a grizzled veteran in his 30s is probably not wise. In my personal selections, I looked for youth and PFF rating. Here are my top three choices, in ascending order.
Third choice: Zach Fulton, Chiefs
Fulton is an SEC alumnus, having attended Tennessee and started 40 games as a Volunteer. He’s been in Kansas City since he was drafted in 2014, when he immediately got a starting position on the strength of his pass protection. Fulton has started 46 games as a Chief; last season, he allowed exactly one hit on Alex Smith, the Chiefs quarterback — out of 846 snaps. And he played those snaps all along the line, meaning that should Daniel Kilgore or Garnett get hurt, Fulton could pinch hit at either guard or center. Fulton won’t be cheap, but KC probably can’t afford to keep him and Chicago (who have expressed interest in Fulton) has a bevy of other needs that will drain their cap money in a hurry. Give this guy the right coaching and enough strength training, and Jimmy Garropolo could take a nap in the backfield on game day.
Second choice: Josh Kline, Titans
Kline came to the NFL out of Kent State in 2013, and was nabbed as an UDFA by the Patriots. He was part of the New England juggernaut a few years ago, starting with the epic defeat of the Seahawks (that means he has a Super Bowl ring, y’all), protecting Tom Brady and being teammates with Jimmy Garropolo. Tennessee grabbed him off waivers 2 years ago, and Kline did a good job keeping defenses off of Marcus Mariota, as well as creating holes for the Titans’ running game (to the tune of over 130 yards per game). Kline has been a better pass blocker than run blocker, but he may do better in the 49ers’ zone scheme than he did in the Titans’ power scheme, so perhaps his blocking skills would be a better for the 49ers’ scheme and the running skills of Matt Breida, or (well, a boy can dream) Frank Gore. Dallas and Houston both want this guy, though, so if John Lynch sees an opportunity, he better move fast this offseason.
First choice: Andrew Norwell, Panthers
Like you didn’t know I was going to pick this guy. Norwell has far and away the best PFF ratings of any guard on the free agency market; since signing with Carolina in 2014, he has been a top-10 rated guard and a major reason for the Panthers’ success since that time. You can’t win back-to-back NFC South division titles (2014 and 2015) without a strong offensive line, and Norwell is a keystone for that one…2 sacks allowed in two years?! I have seen high school gymnasiums with more flexibility than Norwell. Plus, he is very rarely penalized, even though his style of play is much more akin to a blacktop brawler than a typical NFL lineman. Carolina can’t afford to keep both its existing offensive line and kicker Graham Gano, so come March 14, the 49ers need to get this guy on the phone.
Paging Lynch and Shanahan. Spend some money on a big, bad dude, stat.