We've only got a few positions left after yesterday's look at special teams (fun fact: returners are such an afterthought for the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL in general given the current rules, I completely forgot to include them in that post -- we'll cover them later), with offensive linemen, defensive linemen and cornerbacks still to go.
I figured today I'm going to dive into the murky depths of offensive line play. I'd like to make a few things clear before I get into it, though. First: I think offensive line play may be one of the most interesting aspects of football for me. Two: I will not be using rankings from Pro Football Focus -- a website I enjoy with stats that I consider plenty valuable, but I'm not necessarily interested in using their rankings to make a point.
So I'll be going with what I observed, with no hard stats for sacks allowed, but rather a general impression of how each player performed and where things are headed. What I've observed isn't going to be a whole lot different from what everyone else observed, however: the 49ers' offensive line stunk up the place last season.
No, that's not an excuse for Colin Kaepernick and his poor play. No, it doesn't mean anything other than the fact that these guys were among the absolute best in the league in a couple seasons ago and regressed big time in both run-blocking and pass-blocking. I don't think any player on the line had a particularly strong season. Now that all of that glorious, sweet pessimism is out there, let's get to the review.
The 49ers didn't even list a backup left tackle on the depth chart a season ago, which is great because that means Staley has been very healthy over the past few seasons. And he's also played pretty well during that time, but like the rest of the line, he had his struggles early on this past season. Staley has always been solid, but still disappointing when he has his bad games. When he starts to struggle, he gets lost for long periods of time. Thankfully, he got a grip more quickly than the rest of the line and I thought overall he had a strong season.
Iupati is a better pass blocker than people give him credit for ... but he did nothing to change anybody's mind last season. As a bonus, he looked bad as a run blocker as well. More often than naught, it seemed like the 49ers didn't know what they were doing with the offensive line and Iupati seriously personified that. He was ineffective protecting Kaepernick and didn't look decent blocking for Frank Gore until late in the season.
But Iupati has developed a reputation and has had more fantastic seasons than the one poor one he put up in 2014. He's valuable for most teams in the league, and I think the 49ers would be better off if they could keep him. I just don't think that's particularly likely.
The .. bright spot of the season? I thought Kilgore was the only 49ers offensive lineman who looked good early on in the season. He looked capable in the pass-blocking and run-blocking game. So naturally, he suffered a fractured lower leg that ended his season. Kilgore took the progression the 49ers hoped -- backup, occasional extra blocker and then starter. He followed that progression well, but now who knows where he's going to end up after the injury.
I'm really not sure how I feel about Martin. He clearly wasn't on the level of Kilgore, but he is a rookie who stepped in unexpectedly. He looked solid against the pass, I thought, but not particularly strong as a run blocker. Things also clearly regressed along the interior of the line as a whole when Martin came in or more accurately, when Kilgore left. He didn't look like there was nothing to work with or anything like that, but he didn't necessarily make us forget about Kilgore either.
Boone held out in training camp because he wanted a bigger contract, and I'm honestly not sure how I feel about that. He had a massively successful 2013 season, but wasn't terribly underpaid or anything like that. I now have a better opinion of where he stands though ... he has a lot to prove. Boone came back for the regular season and looked outright terrible for a long time.
Honestly -- Boone looked bad, missing assignments, run-blocking and he frequently was beaten in every single game played. When the line was playing so poorly early on, it was Boone and Iupati collapsing more often than naught. I thought, for a good portion of the season, Boone was the 49ers' worst offensive lineman.
That said, as the season wore on, Boone looked more and more like his old self. I thought Boone was very solid in space over the last five games of the season. I think we should reasonably expect Boone to hit the ground running in 2015, so the position isn't exactly one of concern, but I think he hasn't caught nearly enough flack for his lacking play earlier in the season.
Weirdly enough, Davis played very well when he was on the field, despite not being 100 percent healthy at any point last season. He looked good in pass protection specifically, which is historically the biggest issue for him. The big problem is that he couldn't stay healthy and was routinely off the field in favor of Jonathan Martin. Davis is a capable pass-blocker who is excellent in leading the way in the running game. There's no worries at the position, unless he has injury concerns again.
Martin played better early on (I didn't see anybody giving him credit for this, but I did make note of it) and that was a relief ... the problem is that when everyone else improved, Martin seemed to get worse and worse. Ultimately, he's probably about what you want out of a backup offensive lineman and that's the best thing I can say about him. He's not particularly strong and he's not particularly athletic, but I don't see any reason to move on from him at this point.
Looney wasn't bad by any means, but I'm honestly not sure what to think of him as a blocker. He was never the worst offender when things were going back, and when he's used as an extra blocker I can't really tell if he makes a huge difference or not. Looney has shown solid potential and should be in talks for the left guard spot but I don't really have a strong opinion on him one way or the other.
Thomas tore his ACL and the 49ers drafted him knowing that the'd miss his rookie season. But they drafted him knowing that there would be issues retaining Iupati (and at the time, maybe even Boone) and he has all the makings of a potential starter. We'll see how that works out.
You'll notice one of the recurring things in the review above is the perception of missed assignments. There were frequently players standing around with nothing to do, while guys ran free and at some point we have to point to the coaching for that. Yes, Iupati regressed. Yes, Boone came in and was rusty. Yes, Martin is a below average starter.
But the 49ers were consistently out-schemed in the trenches and in addition to this, it never seemed like Kaepernick trusted his line, and the wide receiver routes always took so long to develop. Everything was wrong in that vein.
Obviously, those scheme issues need to be fixed but with an entirely new coaching staff, who knows how that will work out? What the 49ers need to do is figure out who is going to play center and who is going to play left guard next season.
Center should come down to Kilgore or Martin, and Iupati is likely going elsewhere which would seem to indicate Thomas is in for left guard. But then there's Looney, and smart money is on either Kilgore or Martin being in on the position as well next season. In other words, there's already plenty of guys there. Given that the 49ers are trying to create salary cap space at this point, I doubt they'll be targeting anybody significant on the open market. I also don't expect they'll be looking to spend a high draft pick on an offensive lineman.