The San Francisco 49ers offensive line was a train wreck for much of last season, with injuries and ineffective play costing the offense dearly. We saw some players stand out at different times, including Andrew Tiller and Trent Brown, but there were plenty of problems. Over the offseason, the front office has done some serious work to improve the line. The team drafted Joshua Garnett, Fahn Cooper, and John Theus, and signed Zane Beadles in free agency. They also signed a handful of undrafted free agents, led by Oregon OL convert Alex Balducci.
The 49ers head into mandatory minicamp next week with plenty of questions still to be answered about the line. Joshua Garnett is unable to participate until Stanford final exams are finished. And Trent Brown is dealing with some conditioning issues, and is working with the second team behind Erik Pears.
Offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins discussed plenty about the offensive line in his Thursday press conference. He was asked where he saw Brown and Pears at this point in the offseason. Naturally, he would not give away much of anything:
I think they both are competing. They are not unlike any of the other spots that we have, they are competing. I think both are doing a good job. I think when we get a chance to get into training camp we will have a better idea, but right now both guys are doing a good job.
Pears is getting first team work, but Modkins said there was no specific reason for that. He said, "You’ve got to put them out there in some order, but I don’t think there is a particular reason.” My guess is it is either because he is the veteran, or because of Brown's conditioning. The 49ers have started DeForest Buckner with the 3s, so it would not be surprising if Pears veteran status influenced Modkins.
It is also worth noting Modkins has a little bit of experience with Pears. The two were together in Buffalo for the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Modkins described him on Thursday as, "smart, he’s a veteran, he understands where he has to be, he’s a good communicator, so he hasn’t changed much since my last time being around him. He’s doing a good job.”
Modkins was asked additional questions about the depth chart, including the decision to give Brandon Thomas work with the first string in Garnett's absence. He said that Joe Staley is basically the only guy locked into a role, with everyone else in a "let's see" kind of position:
“There’s not a whole lot of emphasis put on who’s the first and who goes out there with the first or who’s out there with the second. There’s a pretty good chance [T] Joe [Staley] is going to beat me out at left tackle, but other than that everything else is kind of, ‘let’s see.’ I think one of the things that [offensive line coach Pat Flaherty] Flats does that’s really impressive and I think is really important, is that you kind of mix and match who’s with who, maybe change up positions. All of that stuff is important because you want to develop some depth and you want to give guys a chance to do that. So, there’s no significance in that.”
Daniel Kilgore seems all but certain of being the starting center, and Zane Beadles will be in one of the two guard positions. Joshua Garnett is in a tricky situation due to his absence from the program. Stanford final exams wrap up in the middle of next week, so he might be able to get back for a day or two of mandatory minicamp. He is doing what he can to stay current, texting fairly regularly with Joe Staley. But it's a tough position to be in. He's missed two months of work. He can study the playbook, and stay in good physical condition, but the implementation is such a huge thing.
Garnett is one of the guards of the future, but it is going to be interesting to see what happens with him early in training camp. Given that the team placed Buckner at the bottom of the defensive line depth chart to start, do they do the same thing with Garnett? Even with two months of study time in June and July, it would seemingly take some time to get Garnett fully up to speed.
The 49ers do have some young guys showing signs. We've seen praise for Fahn Cooper by Grant Cohn and Chris Biderman. On Thursday, Joe Staley had plenty of praise for both young linemen. He said they've done a good job picking up the playbook, and are doing a good job trying to get better every day. You can only ask for so much from rookie linemen in the offseason workout program, and the key for them will be taking it and building upon it in training camp.
All of this is to say, there is a lot of potential in the group, but plenty of questions as well. I would think Trent Brown ends up as the No. 2, but we can't just write off the conditioning concerns. Weight and conditioning issues were part of why he slipped in the draft. Ideally he is ready to go when training camp starts, but we'll have to wait and see. And of course, the same holds true for Joshua Garnett, as he works to learn the offense and get ready to dive right into the deep end in training camp.