With their first of three selections in the third round of the NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers selected junior University of Southern California center Marcus Martin. Despite being a player many thought could be selected as early as the late-first round, Martin was the final player to exit the green room in Radio City Music Hall when San Francisco finally called his name with the 70th overall selection.
Martin was considered the top center – and one of the best interior offensive lineman in general – by many draftniks leading up to the draft. His junior season was actually his first at the center position, as he started at guard during his first two seasons as a Trojan. That versatility was undoubtedly appealing to the 49ers brass when making the selection, but let's dig into the tape and attempt to get a better idea of what Martin will bring to San Francisco's offensive line.
Run blocking is what the 49ers offensive line has staked their reputation on, so that's where we'll begin with Marcus Martin. Under Lane Kiffin at USC, Martin played in a "pro-style" offense that featured a good amount of under-center, two-back formations and a mix of power and zone running plays. That experience will suit him well as he makes the transition into San Francisco's offensive scheme, which features many of the same running plays Martin ran in college.
At 320 pounds, Martin is a bit larger than your prototypical center – most starting centers are right around the 300-pound mark. Despite what his 23 bench press reps at the combine would lead you to believe, Martin is a very strong player. He's able to translate that extra weight and strength into effective down and drive blocks in the run game. If he's able to latch on, the defender is getting moved far more often that not. Martin does a nice job of getting his hips and feet around to seal off defenders and provide a clean hole for the running back to go through.
Even with that extra mass he's packing around with him, Martin is an athletic player and moves well for his size. Perhaps no play illustrates Martin's combination of strength and athleticism better than the play against Notre Dame at the 1:05 mark in the video above. Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis "Irish Chocolate" Nix is aligned in the A-gap to Martin's right. Martin executes the combo block with the right guard beautifully, sending Nix to the ground with a single shot from his right shoulder before moving on to the inside linebacker and driving him completely out of the play. Martin almost single-handedly creates the alley right up the middle of the field for the back to run through. It's a play I could watch on repeat for hours.
The biggest issue I have with Martin in the run game is that he has a tendency to bend at the waist and lean too far forward, attempting to initiate contact with his face mask and shoulders rather than his hands. Because of all this momentum going forward, if he is able to latch on right away he's able to get a good push and move the defender out of the way. But often, the defender can use that momentum against him with a quick swim or side-step move, sending Martin face first into the ground and easily getting by him. This happens a lot when he gets space around him at the second level. Martin will need to learn to stay more balanced and to keep his hands inside more consistently, rather than grasping the defender on the outside by the shoulders.
Martin's greatest asset in pass protection is his ability to anchor against the bull rush. Anchoring refers to an offensive lineman's ability to dig in and stand his ground, preventing the defender from moving him backwards. This requires strength, balance and the use of leverage. When watching Martin, I almost never saw him moving backwards. He consistently staved off bull rush attempts by Nix in the Notre Dame game and did the same on several instances in the Stanford game. This trait gives him the ability to handle a nose tackle one-on-one, freeing up the guards to help out elsewhere.
Martin's athleticism really shows up here as well. When explaining how he evaluates centers, Bill Walsh said, "You need a center who is so quick that he can move in between people." Martin does this very well, easily moving from one guard to the other to assist where he's needed. He's able to deliver a strong punch with one hand to help out the guard to one side before moving over and helping the other guard finish off his defender.
He rarely seems to be in the wrong place or blow assignments completely. Martin was able to handle interior stunts well most of the time, though there were a few instances where he got tangled up and allowed a free rusher off a stunt. Just as with run blocking, where he gets himself in trouble is when he leans too far forward, drops his head and lunges for the block rather than bending at the knees and using his hands to punch the defender in the chest. He flashes an effective, strong punch but he just needs to use it more consistently.
The area that will likely determine how early Martin is able to get on the field is how well he does at learning and making the line calls. This is an incredibly important job, as breakdowns or miscommunication here lead to very bad things for your quarterback. As Walsh put it:
The center is typically the key man in making line calls. Those calls are vital and there is no way you can do without them. With the constant changes in defenses there has to be communication on your offensive line and obviously your center is the man to do it. There have been teams who use a guard because the guard was either more experienced or more adept in doing it. But typically the center makes these calls.
San Francisco has had the benefit of having a veteran player in Jonathan Goodwin make these calls over the past few seasons, but he will not be around in 2014. Martin appears to be up to the task. He's a very smart player, makes quick decisions and doesn't often wind up out of position.
How does he fit?
As mentioned at the top of the article, Martin actually started at guard during his first two seasons at USC, only moving to center during his final year. While that experience at guard could certainly come in handy if the 49ers were to suffer an injury or two at the position, Martin's primary position with the 49ers will be center. In one of the few starting positions up for grabs, Martin will compete with Daniel Kilgore, who signed a modest three-year extension this offseason. It's hard to know exactly what to expect from Kilgore as we haven't seen a whole lot of him outside of limited action in the jumbo sets the 49ers love to run. While it's certainly possible Kilgore could wind up getting the nod Week 1 against the Cowboys, that would be a fairly big disappointment in my mind.
Kilgore obviously has an advantage in terms of familiarity with the system, but Martin is easily the more physically gifted player of the two. Martin is the type of big, strong, athletic player the 49ers love and given the type of player he was at USC, I don't foresee him having any issues picking up the 49ers' system. Many of the things Martin did in college, particularly in the run game, are things the 49ers do as well. He has the ability to be a mauler in the run game, consistently getting movement on drive blocks while also having the agility to get his hips around and wall off defenders. He has some areas to improve in his technique, but at only 20 years old there's plenty of reason to believe he'll continue to take some big steps forward over the next several seasons. The last offensive lineman the 49ers selected that young was Anthony Davis and Martin isn't nearly as raw of a player as Davis was.
Martin has the physical tools to grow into one of the better centers in the game and is coming into a great situation that should allow him to develop those skills. Martin will benefit from a fantastic offensive line coach in Mike Solari and if he does wind up seeing the field early on, he'll be surrounded by a talented, experienced group of offensive linemen than will be able to help cover up some of his inevitable rookie mistakes.
The 49ers have invested more resources into their offensive line that perhaps any team in football. For better or worse, San Francisco's identity on offense is the power running game. The offensive line is the backbone of everything they want to do on offense and with Marcus Martin, they've another talented cog that figures to be around for several years to come.