Entering the offseason, San Francisco’s list of needs was never-ending. Not a single position on the roster was completely solidified and without question marks, even at spots like safety where the 49ers had invested a number of resources in recent seasons. If you were pressed to put all of those needs in some sort of order, though, offensive line would likely find its way toward the top of just about everyone’s list.
San Francisco’s offensive line was a disaster in 2015. The 49ers finished dead last in Football Outsiders’s adjusted line yards, which attempts to separate the contributions of the offensive line from the running backs in the run game, and had the league’s second-highest percentage of runs stopped for no gain or a loss, typically a problem associated more with poor line play than the actual ballcarrier. Pass protection felt even worse at times, with the 49ers ranking 31st in adjusted sack rate, only edging out the Titans.
So when Trent Baalke went to the offensive-line well with his second pick in the first round, trading up to get Stanford guard Joshua Garnett, it hardly came as a surprise. While targeting the interior offensive line made a lot of sense, reactions around the player selected and whether he was worth giving up assets to select at that point in the draft were far more mixed. Many draftniks were fans of Garnett’s game, but in the first round?
Positional value concerns aside for the moment (there’s certainly a place for that conversation, but we won’t get into it here), few will care about the particulars of the trade years from now if Garnett plays at a high level on the field. So let’s go to the tape and take a closer look at Garnett’s game and how he might fit in the 49ers’ offense.
Where he wins
"[I] just try to run through their soul, and if you hit them, they’re going to go down."
That’s how Garnett has repeatedly described his run-blocking mindset—particularly in space where many linemen want to come under control before going after smaller second- and third-level defenders—and well, he’s not wrong.
Garnett is a force in the run game. Playing in Stanford’s diverse rushing attack, which features both zone and gap runs, gave him an opportunity to execute a wide variety of different blocks. Where Garnett really shines (and where the soul hunting really shows), however, is when he’s asked to pull on power and counter plays. Give him an opportunity to build some momentum and get rolling downhill, and it’s all over for whichever soon-to-be-soulless defender Garnett has set his sights on.
When looking to block second-level defenders, Garnett shows a good understanding of angles, ensuring he takes the proper path to the defender and doesn’t miss his mark. His timing for when to come off double teams and pick off the linebacker is also solid. Both of these traits will be important for Garnett in Chip Kelly’s zone-based run game.
Garnett’s power isn’t only evident when he’s out in space demolishing defenders in plain view, it’s also there in tight quarters. He generates the requisite torque to turn and seal defensive linemen on hook blocks, as he does to Cal defensive lineman Tony Mekari on this play:
In short-yardage situations, Garnett rarely fails to win the leverage battle and generate the push necessary for the ballcarrier to convert. Roll the tape on just about any short-yardage play and you’ll see Garnett, sometimes with a teammate, submarining a defender and driving them several yards off the line of scrimmage.
Where he struggles
Unfortunately for the 49ers and the well-being of their quarterbacks, Garnett does not affect the pass game in the same way he affects the ground game. His hunter-like mentality when run blocking works against him in pass protection, and too frequently you’ll see him go on the attack and get overextended, which will cause him to get beat.
Beyond an overeagerness to go after defenders, most of Garnett’s issues in pass protection come down to poor balance and footwork. When his technique is on point, he has the tools to be an adequate or better pass protector. With arms just a hair under 34-inches long, he has good length for a guard. When he stays patient and balanced in his stance and uses his length to punch opposing pass rushers, he can look solid in pass protection. Alas, this does not happen as consistently as you would like. Garnett has an awful tendency to stop his feet, bend at the waist, and lean on the defender, which results in some ugly snaps against more skilled defensive tackles.
Something resembling the play above, with Garnett getting tossed aside in pass protection, was a regular occurrence in the games I viewed. Here’s another example from from the UCLA game:
And one from the USC game:
And another from the Oregon State game:
I wasn’t able to watch the Oregon game, where Garnett supposedly had a rough time against new teammate DeForest Buckner, thanks to the Pac-12 Network pulling the game cut-ups from YouTube, but by all accounts it wasn’t a pretty sight for the Cardinal lineman. Considering the struggles Garnett had against some of the Pac-12’s better interior defenders, it’s mildly terrifying to think about how he might fare in a division featuring players like Aaron Donald and Michael Bennett.
It might come as a surprise considering how effective Garnett was on pull blocks, and even when getting out in space in the screen game at times, but he profiles as a below-average athlete for the position. Garnett’s pSPARQ score, a measure of athleticism developed by Nike, places him in the 30th percentile of NFL offensive linemen. His tape seemed to show a slightly better athlete than his testing did for the aforementioned reasons, but the lack of athleticism showed up in a few different areas of his game.
Garnett struggles reaching defenders on zone runs at times. Granted, reach blocks are among the most difficult blocks linemen will have to execute, and this wasn’t necessarily an all-the-time problem for him. However, Garnett will likely be asked to carry out these types of blocks more frequently in Kelly’s scheme, and there were a number of instances in college where he simply wasn’t able to get to the outside shoulder of the defender and seal him off.
Harking back to his issues with balance and footwork in pass protection, Garnett spent an inordinate amount of time on the ground. His tendency to overextend and lean on defenders left him prone to losing leverage and allowed defenders to toss him around a bit. Other times, he just appeared to lack the coordination to move under control in space.
The bottom line
Many draftniks believed Garnett was the best run-blocking interior offensive lineman in this draft class and it’s easy to see why. He’s an absolute mauler and finishes blocks with authority. Comparisons to former 49ers guard Mike Iupati aren’t unfounded, and Garnett, like Iupati, would be a perfect fit in a gap-blocking scheme like the one San Francisco employed under Jim Harbaugh. Garnett’s fit in Chip Kelly’s zone-heavy scheme is less clear, however, at least right away, and his value is clearly diminished if he can’t end up being the same sort of dominant run blocker that he was at Stanford.
Garnett’s issues in pass protection appear correctable, as they mostly appear to be issues of technique, but they should not be overlooked. Even on a team that figures to run the ball more than most, as the 49ers are projected to do under Kelly, pass protection is simply a more valued skill in today’s NFL and it will be difficult to justify a trade back up into the first round for a player who ends up being a liability in the game’s most important phase. San Francisco undoubtedly believes this will be the case or they wouldn’t have made the selection, but it will be critical that offensive line coach Pat Flaherty is able to develop Garnett into an average or better pass protector.
Considering the disaster that was San Francisco’s interior offensive line last season, it will be a massive upset if Garnett is not starting from day one. The more pertinent question is where. Zane Beadles, the 49ers’ only notable free-agent signing, has been slotted to replace Alex Boone at left guard, as the former Broncos and Jaguars lineman has played his entire career on the left side. Garnett also played exclusively at left guard in college. If Garnett is asked to move to the right side, it will add one more complicating factor in his transition to the NFL, adding to the question marks surround his pass protection and ability to change schemes.
Garnett is a talented player and watching him blow up unsuspecting defenders on pull blocks is a joy. But his immediate fit, along with the circumstances surrounding his selection in the draft and whether or not it was a mistake to trade up to select him, means that it will be difficult for him to meet expectations early on. I think he gets there eventually, but the number of hurdles he will have to overcome early has the makings of a rough rookie campaign.