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Evan Mathis should be top priority for 49ers before it's too late

With some new pieces in play, the 49ers continue to shuffle and evaluate the offensive line. Adding a Pro Bowl talent in Mathis will go a long way in protecting Colin Kaepernick and shoring up the unit as a whole.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

With about a week and a half of training camp in the books, the San Francisco 49ers are finding answers to some questions, while others still lack clarity. Perhaps the biggest question mark at this point is the right side of the offensive line.

The 49ers first-team is currently trotting out Joe Looney at center, Marcus Martin at right guard, and former Buffalo Bills lineman Erik Pears at right tackle. Joe Looney started one game at center (his first since his freshman year at Wake Forest) last season against the San Diego Chargers, in place of injured Marcus Martin. He struggled mightily and was an inactive the following week. Martin got time in at center last season and played pretty well, but now the team is asking him to slide to right guard, a position he hasn't played since high school. Pears spent last year at guard, while also getting time at right tackle in recent seasons.

When you add it all up, Looney, Martin, and Pears bring a ton of unknowns to the table. The team still doesn't truly know what it has in Looney and Martin as they have only played sparingly in their young careers. Now they try to take on entirely new positions. Pears is an underwhelming veteran; someone who was never viewed as more than a stopgap in Buffalo as of late.

Things could work out completely fine as the group continues to gel and acclimate to their new roles. Things could also go terribly wrong if that doesn't happen.

Enter free agent Evan Mathis.

The former Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman went to the last two Pro Bowls, was a first team All Pro in 2013, and ranked as one of the best offensive linemen in the league last year by Pro Football Focus. San Francisco, meanwhile, is transitioning to zone blocking this season under new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst. A Grantland article detailing the guard's fallout in Philly from earlier this summer hits on exactly why the 49ers should lock up the 33-year old Pro Bowler as soon as they can:

"Mathis is pretty much a perfect zone-blocking guard for [Chip] Kelly's scheme. Even before Kelly arrived, Mathis had begun to flourish in Andy Reid's zone-heavy offense after wandering the NFL desert for the first six years of his career."

The only real reason as to why Mathis remains unsigned is his hefty asking price. Clearly no one wants to go up that high to get him and he's yet to concede moving the number down, so he still sits waiting. The Niners need to be an aggressor (and possibly pay a little more than they want) if they're serious about giving that right side of the line a significant and much-needed insurance policy. As noted, Joe Looney, Marcus Martin, and Erik Pears are all big question marks heading into the season. That doesn't mean they can't get it done, it just means that the jury is still out. Per camp reports, it sounds like the offense is starting to click more and hopefully that trend continues as they try to establish that right side of the line.  Even in the event it all works out, adding a talent like Mathis still provides an upgrade and greater depth.

Center Daniel Kilgore is still in a boot after a gruesome leg injury last season, and even if he is able to return at some point early in the season, it's hard to envision exactly where/when he'll fit in or what condition he'll be in.

The bottom line is that despite all the roster and coaching staff upheaval, 2015 will ride on the shoulders of the offensive line and Colin Kaepernick. If they can get it together, the 49ers still have a solid shot at making some noise this year. If they can't, it's going to be a very long season. After enjoying one of the league's best units from 2011-2013, fans got a harsh reminder of what life behind a shaky line looks like as Kaepernick was sacked 52 times, third-worst in the league. That, among many other contributing factors, led to the team stumbling to an 8-8 record, effectively eliminating a fourth-straight playoff appearance.

The Niners have some shiny new weapons on offense this year with Carlos Hyde taking over as the feature back and Torrey Smith holding down the #1 WR spot after shipping over from Baltimore. It's also reported that Vernon Davis looks focused and back to form through the first week and a half of camp.

None of this will matter if the offensive line can't get it done. There will be no openings for Hyde, no time for Kaepernick, and not much hope for any sort of real success on offense.

With that said, it seems like a no-brainer that the 49ers make a run at Mathis ASAP. The release of Aldon Smith freed up over 3 million dollars in the salary cap. Per NN's resident capologist Jason Hurley, the 49ers now move into 2015 with $12,794,746 in total cap space. Beyond the numbers, other concerns are Mathis' age, history of injury, and the fact that he hasn't played on the right side much over the past several years.

Offensive line is one of the kinder position groups in terms of aging gracefully in the NFL. Bruce Matthews played until he was about 65 and was still snagging Pro Bowl invitations. The injuries are definitely a concern, but there's no real way to gauge how that will play out moving forward; they're always a threat to every player. Frank Gore enjoyed a pretty durable nine-year career with the 49ers after reconstructing both of his knees in college. Mathis only started in 9 games last season due to an MCL sprain but he did register 15 games, 16 games, and 16 games respectively from 2011-2013. As far as left side vs right side, I think you see what works best for the unit. If need be, they could always shuffle around to slide Mathis to the left side and move Boone back to right guard.

It's being rumored that Ryan Tannehill is pushing pretty hard for Mathis in Miami, but it doesn't seem as if any offers are on the table. The 49ers need to act fast and get on the phone with Mathis' agent to see how they can make something happen. Now that teams are realizing what they have and don't have on their rosters, his phone is going to start lighting up pretty soon.