The 49ers addressed their offensive line early on in the 2010 NFL Draft, netting two day one starters in the first round. As a whole, I think we saw an improved unit out there in run blocking and more importantly: pass protection. One of the bigger problems was overall inexperience on the right side of the line, which will need to be looked at and potentially addressed in the offseason, training camp and preseason going forward. That isn't to say that there needs to definitely be a change at one or more positions, just that the coaches really need to be sure that they are comfortable with where they're at.
Iupati was the second draft pick for the Niners in the 2010 NFL Draft, at number seventeen of the first round. It was a pick almost universally accepted on Niners Nation, if my memory serves. At the draft party in Santa Clara, the place blew up with the cheers and applause, which made me happy as a fan. Iupati was considered the top guard prospect in the draft and potentially the top guard prospect in many years coming out of college.
So did he live up to the hype? I believe that he did, which a small falter here and there. The most telling thing about Iupati for me is that I can remember some of his best games while not being able to seriously recall his bad games, when I am someone who generally cannot help but focus on the negative. When I think of a handful of 49ers players, I'm always drawn to discussing their bad games and poor performances, but with Iupati, I am focused on week six at home against the Oakland Raiders where he and Anthony Davis put on a show, mauling over Oakland's underrated defensive line. I think of week two against the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, where Iupati made a statement coming off of a so-so performance in Seattle.
Many would agree with me in my line of thought that he showed a lot of good things. He made Pro Football Weekly's All-Rookie team and our own Fooch listed him as one 49ers player who you should have your eye on in regards to the 2011-2012 NFL Pro Bowl. He won't do so if his level of play stays where it was in 2010, but progression between his rookie and sophomore NFL season will be key.
I'd label his struggles almost exclusively on general line instability and inexperience. Joe Staley was banged up, Eric Heitmann was lost in training camp/preseason and the right side of the line is the picture of inexperience with Anthony Davis and the man listed after the jump. Look for Iupati to progress on his own and be a force for the Jim Harbaugh's running game, and look for him to be even better if the rest of the guys improve at even around the same level I expect him to.
After the jump, we look at the other guard options on the 49ers roster, the 2011 free agents for the position and of course, the 2011 NFL draft ...
Chilo was given his job as a favorite of Mike Singletary, to put it very bluntly. He was directly in competition with Snyder once Anthony Davis was named the starter at right tackle, and he was actually out-performed there in both training camp and the preseason. But despite wanting to occasionally "knock 'im out," Singletary went with Rachal, though there is a good, logical reason for that. He has always been viewed as a "high potential," player, with many physical tools at his disposal.
Physical tools that hadn't been really illustrated up to that point. Chilo was known as the guy who was prone to making mental errors and prone to getting put on his butt by mid-tier defensive linemen. He doesn't pull well and he doesn't get out into space, at least that was the label going into the early part of 2010. Many have claimed that Chilo was the weakest part of the line in 2010, and I'd like to dispel the notion even a little bit.
Rachal was not the weakest link in 2010, and in fact, I think there are two-to-three positions on the five-person line that were arguably worse than the right guard spot Rachal occupies. It is true that there were games here and there where Chilo was definitely the weak link, there were times when he made mistakes and gave up scary sacks or let Frank Gore get absolutely blasted. There were times when he'd give up terrible holding penalties in crucial situations, but week-in and week-out, I saw Rachal putting out a whole ton of effort to improve, and he did.
As the season wore on, he progressed nicely. It's the kind of progression you need to see, but rarely do, out of a young guy playing next to a high-ceilinged rookie and an injury replacement on either side of him. He started to dominate defensive linemen, and he actually opened up some holes for Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon. The biggest problem with his progression is that it's something we've seen before. Rachal has played well at the end of a season before, and this may be no different.
He's still got a lot of potential, but if that potential is only on display for eight games out of sixteen, is he really worth it? I honestly can't answer that question right now, and going forward it is probably the least stable position on the offensive line, though not necessarily the worst as it stands.
Snyder was initially competing with Anthony Davis for the starting job at right tackle, but he fell short and it was declared early on that Davis would be getting the job. Then, Heitmann went down with an injury and Snyder once again found himself competing for a top spot against Rachal for the right guard spot. He played well in the preseason and he impressed in training camp, but he never quite became the definitive starter.
In week two, Snyder played at right guard. One could argue that the line was at its best in that game, and it's something I won't dispute. In fact, I was calling for Chilo's benching right in line with the couple times that it actually happened. I said, and I quote: "All I know is: Adam Snyder has played better than Chilo every time he's got the chance to. Just sayin'."
It was true for the most part. He's obviously not the most solid guard in the league, but with two rookies with high star potential and a very solid left tackle, can the 49ers really hope to be drafting a right guard high or bringing in a big name free agent and go overkill on their line? Or is it much more likely that they hope three of the five can be stars while the other two are at least serviceable starters? I'm going with the latter, and Snyder is the definition of a serviceable starter at the guard position, and he showed it in 2010.
He will get a chance to do it again, and if he plays like he did early on in 2010, he might have something going for him with Singletary out of the picture.
Baas is going to be right in the thick of the 49ers center position in 2011. He was the primary backup when Eric Heitmann went down, and as outlined in the Long Look Back, Brief Look Forward post for said center position. I'm not going to look back too much, you can read my thoughts there. He started mini-and-training camps in 2010 battling Mike Iupati for the left guard job, but it was clear early on that he wasn't going to win it. The fact remains that he is still a guard and can make a case for time going forward if he's not "the guy" at center.
Tony Wragge looked alright in training camp and the preseason, and I honestly can't say much more than that. He's a below average starter and an emergency backup option at both guard positions and perhaps even the center position. Going forward with Wragge will depend on many things, like the health of Eric Heitmann, the contract status of Baas, the backup potential of Alex Boone at right tackle and the availability to backup both guard positions of Adam Snyder. Not a lot going in his favor.
Well, Mike Iupati is the starter at the left guard spot going forward and that will not be up-for-grabs. As I said, I'm looking for him to progress nicely and that is set. At right guard, there are potentially four players on the current roster (including Baas) who could be competing for it. The core battle will be between Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder, and in my mind, Rachal is the favorite going forward between the two. After those two, however, we come to David Baas and Eric Heitmann. Heitmann began his NFL career as a guard, and if he's healthy, he'll be looking for another starting spot. If the team re-signs Baas and decides that they like him as a center, I could see Heitmann battling and winning the right guard job.
And on the flip-side to that, if Hetimann is healthy and wins the starting center job, Baas (if re-signed) could find himself battling for the right guard spot! There's much to consider just internally, but I personally love the idea of a line composed of Staley-Iupati-Baas-Heitmann-Davis. To me, having Eric Heitmann at right guard gives Davis, the second-year tackle, an awful lot of veteran presence to help.
Harvey Dahl, Atlanta Falcons: Dahl is 30 years old and maybe the best offensive lineman on the Falcons. He's not going to get any better than he is right now, but that is still potentially an improvement for the 49ers. He won't be too expensive and I consider him a solid option going forward if the 49ers let David Baas walk (and still consider him a guard)
Richie Incognito, Miami Dolphins: Well, the 49ers brought in Jeff Reed, so they're not opposed to general douchebaggery on their roster. (sidenote: tickled pink that I've already marked the word 'douchebaggery' as NOT a spelling error in my browser's dictionary) Incognito has done a great job of turning around his career in Miami, and seems to have come a long way mentally. He was a very strong right guard and will come cheap this offseason.
Chris Chester, Baltimore Ravens: He's another solid right guard that will come very cheap, and could beat Rachal and Snyder for a starting job if need be.
2011 NFL Draft
It is very unlikely that the 49ers bring in a guard early on in the draft, and it's unlikely they bring in a guard later on that they believe can compete right away. More inexperience is not what they need on the right side of that line (or the line in general), and it would be unwise to put a rookie in there next to the second-year Anthony Davis. They're not going to find themselves with a Mike Pouncey in the first or second round, and they're not going to grab a high-potential guy like Rodney Hudson, even if he falls far.
Either way, do check out Draft Tek's positional rankings for offensive guards in the upcoming draft, and peruse our own Drew K's look at offensive linemen who has a lot to gain and lose at the 2011 Scouting Combine.