SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22: Mike Iupati #77 of the San Francisco 49ers takes the field to play against the New York Giants during the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
San Francisco is now one of the league's powerhouses, coming in at No. 5 according the ESPN's 2012 Power Rankings. A very real reason for them finally being a top-5 team is due to their Hall of Fame-caliber defense, sound special teams and ball security on offense. Like the San Antonio Spurs, the 49ers are the most fundamentally sound team in their respective sport.
In 2012, fans and commentators alike are expecting a leap forward from the 49ers offense. It is a unit that did enough to win games in 2011, but with that defense they should be blowing teams out. In the offseason, San Francisco focused heavily on the offense by bringing in a ton of competition on that side of the ball via free agency and the draft. And even though it was the playmakers like Randy Moss and Mario Manningham that stole the headlines, the offensive line could be vastly improved in 2012.
Among the offensive line, 4 of the 5 starting positions are solidified; everything but right guard is virtually accounted for. San Francisco now touts a Pro Bowler at left tackle in Joe Staley who might be the most atheltic offensive lineman in the entire NFL. His combination of speed, strength, versatility, agility and even hands provides the Niners with a top-tier blocker to anchor the line at one of the most important positions. In the 49ers' offense, Staley allows San Francisco to do a lot of unorthodox things and do them at a high level.
At left guard, the 49ers maybe have the most physically dominant interior lineman since Steve Hutchinson in former first rounder Mike Iupati. Iupati is a road grader, opening lines and bruising defensive fronts with his tenacity and physicality. This is a player that has gotten better in San Francisco, who doesn't make mistakes and could begin his reign as a perennial Pro Bowler starting this year.
Acquired from the New Orleans Saints, center Jonathan Goodwin proved to be a very solid stop gap for the next couple years. He is a smart player who understands the offense and comes to San Francisco with a Super Bowl ring and a track record with Drew Brees. In his second year with the 49ers, his rapport with Alex Smith will be stronger. He will also be more comfortable and will be able to play more instinctual this time around.
At right guard, the 49ers have brought in competition and big-time potential through the draft the past two seasons. This might be the most competitive position in training camp with Alex Boone, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney and Jason Slowey competing for the open job. Having seen first hand the kind of booming talent Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke draft collectively, it's inspiring to see who comes out of this gauntlet the victor. After suffering inconsistency at the right guard position, it will finally be solidified in 2012 with a very capable player.
And at the right tackle position, the Niners have former 11th overall pick Anthony Davis. Davis is a very good player that's had his ups and downs but one cannot deny that he improved drastically from his rookie year. Not to say he wasn't a good player in his first year, but he did cut down on the penalties last year and looked very good against tough competition. In his third year -- 2nd in Harbaugh's system -- Davis should make another big leap forward as the Niners' starter.
But it's the intangibles like experience, chemistry, knowledge of the playbook and constantly improving technique that will really be the icing on the cake. This is a very good group of players with three former 1st rounders, a Super Bowl winning center and an underrated blue collar tough guy ready to take over at right guard. And they all have chips on their shoulders; it is the making of a very good offensive line group -- the kind that wins championships.
They also practice against the league's No. 1 defense and the most dominant defensive front in football today by a sizable margin. That will only make these guys more razor sharp on game day, because they already see way tougher and talented guys Monday through Saturday.
This group will be gelling and coming together in a full offseason in Jim Harbaugh's "football oasis," and I don't doubt something unforeseen emerges from that oasis. From a group that allowed among the league's most in sacks, they will tighten up and complement their great run blocking with elite pass blocking in 2012. They will be become a complete unit, and maybe one of the leagues best in the next few years.
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