This week, I realized that it has been almost exactly a year since my buddy Zach Hernandez asked me to join him on 49ersHive as a staff writer. In doing so, he made a dream come true for me: I got to write about our beloved 49ers and have a few people read what I had to say. Thanks, Zach. I owe you.

One of my first pieces for the Hive, which has since basically been folded into NothingButNiners, was on the 49ers’ offensive line headed into 2017. I tried, in that piece, to analyze what the unit’s needs were, based on the roster we had as of a year ago. Well, we know how that ended. Brian Hoyer was plowed under by our opponents’ pass rushes, C.J. Beathard was given a very cold welcome to the NFL by the same blitzers, and Jimmy Garoppolo was thrown to the turf a few times as well.

In other words: our offensive line, by and large, sucked…to the tune of 43 sacks.

Now it’s a year later, and some big personnel changes are already behind us. Tim Barnes’ contract expired, Trent Brown was traded to the Patriots, and Daniel Kilgore has been the property of the Miami Dolphins since March. And, fast-breaking news: Zane Beadles was released, too.

John Theus? Waived. Jeremy Zuttah? Released in August, even though a lot of us thought he might be the answer at center! Brandon Fusco? A Falcon. Norman Price? (You mean he was on the team too, Teach??) Waived.

So that leaves us with a few old-timers and a lot of big guys who want to do a painful job for no glory at all. And if the stakes were high last year for the offensive line, well, there are approximately 27.5 million reasons why this one better do its job a lot better than last year. (See “Garoppolo, Jimmy” and “Contract, Record-Setting.”)

So, let’s take these big guys apart, and figure out what they need to do between now and the start of the regular season.

Joshua Garnett |OG|:

“Jeez, you’re not gonna give him another chance, are you, Teach?” Well, yeah, I am. His rookie year was disappointing, but that can be attributed to being a newbie in the NFL and playing for an extremely disorganized group of coaches. Then he injured his knee and missed all of last season, but that also gave him a chance to retool his body. He’s down to 290 LBS. from his rookie year’s 315, and the word is that he gets zone-blocking much better than he did when Kyle Shanahan originally came to town. He will have to beat out some competition for the right guard spot, but his biggest needs are to stay healthy and to learn to stand up against pass-rushers, rather than to preemptively attack them at the snap. Keep him.

Joe Staley |OT|:

Staley is the backbone of the offensive line, and he is nearing the end of an amazing run with the Niners. There’s no question that he is physically tough — he doesn’t get hurt much (and when he does, it doesn’t phase him. See: bloody eye 2017) — and my sense is that he is really eager to enjoy protecting Jimmy Garoppolo. Now he needs to keep working on his mental toughness. When he had made mistakes in the past (like missed assignments or being overpowered by a pass rusher), his tendency is to let those mistakes stay with him for several series. Take it from me, Joe: the score on the board at the end of the game is the one that really matters. Keep doing your job.

Garry Gilliam |OT|:

Gilliam has been in the NFL for 5 seasons, and he’s been underwhelming at best; his PFF score rose somewhat last year, but it was so low to begun with that it’s almost a case of “two times of nothing is still nothing.” He was supposed to be the backup to the recently-departed Trent Brown last year, but then he got his knee injured against the Eagles back in October. With the arrival of Mike McGlinchey, I can’t help thinking that Gilliam’s time in San Francisco is coming to an end, notwithstanding his two-year contract extension. If he stays, he’ll be a swing tackle at best.

Erik Magnuson |OG|:

He came in as a UDFA last year, played in four games, and then got injured, and that is all we have seen of Magnuson in the NFL. His time at Michigan wasn’t bad; he knows what moves are necessary to protect a quarterback, and he does have the ability to play (and experience in playing) right tackle and both guard positions. But Magnuson’s very limited tape library indicates that he doesn’t have the strength to be a consistent blocker, particularly in pass sets. Given that we know so little about whether he really fits in this group, he needs to…prove that he belongs on the team. How he does that, I don’t know.
J.P. Flynn: A year ago, I didn’t think Flynn would survive roster cuts. I was right, although he ended up on the practice squad (and was later placed on IR for an unknown injury). I’m thinking he will be in the same space this year. He isn’t a terribly mobile player, which is a liability in a Shanahan offense; also, that injury was the second he has sustained since he began his college days at Montana State. This means, of course, that another team might poach him, but I think that is a risk the team should be willing to take.

Jonathan Cooper |OG|:

He’s a newcomer to the City by the Bay, but he’s hung his hat in Arizona, New England, Cleveland and Dallas in 5 years in the NFL. He has a one-year deal with the 49ers, which is about he could expect given his below-average PFF rating and his proneness to injury (left fibula in ‘13, wrist in ‘14, foot in ‘16). It’s too soon to say how he will fare in training camp, since he has some tough competition coming his way, but I won’t be buying a Niner jersey with his name on it anytime soon.

Laken Tomlinson |OG|:

The Duke graduate came to San Francisco from Detroit last fall; he started the last 15 games at left guard, and at least initially he was absolutely terrible. He improved as the year went on, to his credit. The team didn’t pick up his option for 2019, which indicates they aren’t absolutely wild about the guy. That said, he has a degree of familiarity both with the remaining O-linemen and the Shanahan offense that not many of the men in this piece have. He’s an average player in a line that can’t be rated yet, so I see no harm in keeping him around (although his chances of landing a starting job are sketchy at best, since he has to compete with Garnett and Jonathan Cooper).

Darrell Williams |OT|:

Another UDFA who was consigned to the practice squad last season, Williams did make it to the active roster by Week 9. He moves pretty well for a guy who is 6’6” and 310 lbs, and he has at least nominal experience with the zone-blocking that Shanahan uses. I wouldn’t have given him much of a shot, except that Trent Brown is gone and Garry Gilliam is overwhelmingly underwhelming. Where he will play (interior position or as a tackle) still remains to be seen, but I think he may have some potential.

Andrew Lauderdale |OT|:

This kid doesn’t know when he’s beaten. Cut after 5 days with the Saints, he then came to San Francisco and played 3 of the preseason games, only to be waived, then called back, then sent packing again, then called out west a third time to be signed to the practice squad. And all the while, Lauderdale stayed in shape and kept studying his playbook and working out, which shows me he desperately wants to make his mark for this team. Mike McGlinchey may be the golden boy coming out of the draft, but he’s still a rookie; Lauderdale might have a fighting chance to make the 53-man roster. Let’s see who is more ready at training camp.

Pace Murphy |OT|:

At the time Murphy was signed to our practice squad last year, I speculated (and I wasn’t alone) the he was just there to get intel on the Rams, since he had signed with that team in May of 2016 and stayed there for more than a year. Since that time, we’ve played the Rams and we have a better idea of what they can and cannot do, so Murphy’s value as a spy for hire isn’t all that great anymore. Plus, he’s been called flat footed and unqualified to play tackle in the NFL by some well-informed observers. Not gonna make it.

Mike McGlinchey |OT|:

On paper, he is everything that Trent Brown wasn’t; he is quick, he has some scary athleticism, he doesn’t appear to have an attitude problem, and his weight isn’t a concern (or, if it is, it’s because he needs to add some more muscle mass).
His technique has been called “pro-ready,” and there’s no question that he has plenty of agility and versatility. The question isn’t whether he will succeed; the question is how long it will take him to learn to handle bull rushers and how much his frame can be bulked up without bloating. Sit him down with the strength coach and the dietician, and put him through his paces at training camp.

Weston Richburg |C|:

We signed this guy for five years, so one would imagine the team has genuine faith in him and his abilities. Also, the Niners traded Daniel Kilgore on the same day they officially announced Richburg’s signing…one month after Kilgore was given a contract extension. So, apart from generally living up to expectations, Richberg needs to stay healthy (no more concussions — he suffered one last season that sidelined him for the final 12 games) and control his temper (he has been ejected at least once for unsportsmanlike conduct). Other than that, he has everything we need at center: quickness, size, intelligence, and not being Marcus Martin.

Alan Knott |C|:

I’m thinking he’s Richberg’s backup if he makes the team. We don’t know a lot about him, except that he played at South Carolina for five years and played in 49 games, and that he wasn’t drafted by anyone. So what does he need to do? Just prove he can back up Richberg, I guess.

Jamar McGloster |OT|:

Another mystery man. McGloster didn’t do much at Syracuse for his first three years, then he became a starting right tackle and played through his last two seasons for the Orangemen. I don’t think Joe Staley is in any danger right now, but please call me on that if McGloster proves me wrong.

So, we’re looking at all kinds of depth and size, and it seems a lot of their excess baggage has been shed. Getting the right combination is going to be much tougher than getting all the wrong ones…but then again, the 49ers haven’t had a quarterback like their present one since at least Alex Smith.

If they screw up this time, they will have a very, very expensive injury on our hands. Do not let this happen, Kyle. You have been warned, John.


Featured image credit: Kyle Terada — USA Today Sports