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Questions Facing The 2011 49ers: Continued Progression From Mike Iupati And Anthony Davis?

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As the lockout nears its final stages we can expect to have a flurry of roster moves and activities leading up to the 49ers first pre-season game. So, over the course of the next few days I am going to focus on questions that face our San Francisco 49ers heading into training camp.

Today I am going to concentrate on the 49ers two 1st round picks from the 2010 draft, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. I am going to look into whether or not we can see continued progression from each offensive linemen and what to expect in their second seasons.

Bill Barnwell wrote an article on the website "Grantland", which focused on the 25 least valuable players in the National Football League. In that article he suggested that Anthony Davis was the third least valuable player in the league. Here is little bit of that article as it relates to Anthony Davis.

The hope was that Davis would be able to contribute as a right tackle in 2010 before shoring up his pass-protection skills and eventually moving to left tackle. Instead, Davis showed up to camp out of shape and couldn't handle speed rushers all year.

Well, this is a little bit contradictory in my opinion. Anthony Davis was extremely solid in the run game; San Francisco averaged over five yards per carry running to his side. His major issue was in penalties and lack of pass protection. Two things that you expect from a rookie offensive tackle. Very few rookies are able to handle the quarterbacks blindside immediately, it doesn't say anything about Davis' ability to improve those skills moving forward.

Tackle has to be considered one of the most difficult positions in the NFL for a rookie to transition to college. You are expected to maintain your balance and timing, while focusing on both pass rushers on passing players and interior linebackers on rushing plays. The transition of even more magnified due to the different defensive sets you see in the NFL compared to college. You have to know exactly when the ball is going to be snapped and in what direction the play is going to go. It isn't an exact science, but difficult nonetheless.

The 49ers offensive line did allow 45 sacks and 85 quarterback hits in 2010, both ranking them near the bottom of the league. Anthony Davis as the right tackle played an integral role in both statistics.

Too many times I noticed that Anthony Davis had issues with speed rushers on the outside. He didn't keep his balance well and was unable to anticipate the defenders move. You need to be able to expect how a player is going to line up against you and where he is going to go with his initial move. Without that you are going to be kept off balance and be unable to prevent him from getting into the offensive backfield.

Those are issues that can be fixed with experience, maturity and coaching. Most offensive linemen have issues with that early in their career. Michael Oher and Russell Okung come to mind first; both of whom are going to be perennial all-pro performers before all is said and done.

Daivs progressed a great deal in regards to his as the season went on in 2010. He was able to find better balance and anticipation, while maintaining solid footwork. You are going to hear people talk about his performance against Chris Long, but that wasn't a fair match up in the first place. San Francisco didn't scheme to defend Long too well in that game. They didn't rotate linemen over in double coverage and most of the time Adams was left to fend for himself. A rookie tackle going one on one against an elite pass rusher usually leads to a lot of issues.

Another facet of Davis' 2010 performance was coaching. Mike Singletary and the offensive line coaches focused a lot on rush blocking with Davis leading up to and during the season. They decided it was better for him to completely grasp one area of the game instead of focusing on improving all aspects. This is fine and dandy when you are talking about an interior linemen, but it doesn't work well when the player is going up against rushers on the outside. It was one of many critical mistakes by the coaching staff in 2010.

I am not making up excuses for Anthony Davis, rather I am focusing on what should be relatively obvious to football insiders and scouts alike. Offensive tackles are going to struggle with pass protection there rookie season, there really isn't any way to avoid that; even Orlando Pace has issues.

I really liked the way Davis progressed during his rookie season and believe that coaching will enable him to hone his skills in the pass protection aspect. Tom Drevno and Mike Solari will make that a major focus during training camp as well. There is no reason to believe that he will not get a lot better in pass protection this season.

Pro Football Focus ran an article yesterday that ranked each teams offensive line. Surprisingly, they had the 49ers offensive line ranked as the 11th best in the entire NFL. According to the article they are the 6th best unit in rushing. A lot of this had to do with the performance of Mike Iupati, who dazzled observers with his play as a rookie.

Iupati came in immediately and looked like a veteran. He did have some penalty and balance issues early on, but those were quickly fixed. I could conclude that he had the best rookie season of any guard since Logan Mankins in 2005; this is how good Iupati was last season.

He is an absolute beast up the middle and recognizes schemes as well as a seasoned 10 year veteran. There is no doubt in my mind that Iupati should have been selected to the Pro Bowl in 2010, but as we all know, that selection process is more of a popularity contest than anything else. Also, there is stiff competition in regards to the guard position in the NFC.

Iupati does need to work on pass protection a bit. According to Pro Football Focus he allowed 21 quarterback pressures, which was among the leagues worse in regards to guards. Some of that may have to do with 49er quarterbacks not getting rid of the ball quick enough and holding in the pocket to long. You usually don't see the pocket collapse directly from the inside. Instead, the collapse is more of an umbrella with the exterior pass rusher taking the lead.

One thing stood out to be in watching game film on Iupati. He has a knack for filling lanes up the middle and opening up holes. However, he does lack in terms of initial recognition of stunt moves etc... Those are things that can be taught and improve over time.

Final Analysis: You are going to have growing pains when it comes to starting two rookie offensive linemen, that is pretty much guaranteed. I did love the way each player progressed during the 2010 season. Anthony Davis more so because he was starting from a point of disadvantage compared to Mike Iupati, who was much more seasoned coming out of college.

Both players have incredibly high ceilings and I think it is safe to say that the term "bust" will not be associated with either player moving forward. Some "experts", Bill Barnwell included, have no idea the transition an offensive linemen must make from college to the pros. Instead, they focus a lot on negative numbers and certain evaluating systems in terms of judging a player. It seems impossible for me to understand how you could label a rookie offensive linemen as one of the "least valuable" players in the league. I am sure I can come up with dozens of tackles who didn't perform to the level of Anthony Davis in 2010.

Moving forward, a lot of their progression is going to have to do with work ethic, learning new moves, and coaching. I am confident that each player has the drive and talent to succeed in the NFL. I fully expect Mike Iupati to be a Pro Bowl performer in 2011 and build off an extremely solid rookie season. If he fixes a couple of the issues I mentioned above there is no reason he cannot be a reason why San Francisco is among the league leaders in rushing.

Anthony Davis, on the other hand, has some more work to do. The lockout severely limited his growth process. He was unable to work with San Francisco 49er coaches and that is going to hurt a lot. However, if we are able to get a full training camp session in I have not doubt that he will pick up the necessary tools from the 49er coaching staff to continue the progression we saw during the 2010 season.

Statistics From 2010 Season, according to Pro Football Focus

Anthony Davis
Penalties: 10
Sacks Allowed: 11
QB Hits Allowed: 11
QB Pressures Allowed: 37

Mike Iupati

Penalties: 4
Sacks Allowed: 2
QB Hits Allowed: 6
QB Pressures Allowed: 21