Weston Richburg sounds more like a character in a Richie Rich comic book than a beefy but athletic NFL lineman. But he was the top free agent center available this year, and GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan pounced on him with a contract almost identical to the one that Atlanta gave to five-time Pro Bowler Alex Mack two years ago (when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator there).
This dramatic move is not without risk, though. Is Richburg a poor man’s Alex Mack? Shanahan clearly thinks so, but is this just what he wants the guy to be, as opposed to what an unbiased talent evaluator would say? That’s not an easy question to answer.
Age: 26 (turns 27 on July 9, 2018)
Experience: 4 accrued seasons
Weight: 300 pounds
Richburg signed a very complicated 5-year, $47.5 million contract on the first day of free agency this spring. $16.5 million of that is fully guaranteed, including $7 million of base, a $9.3M signing bonus, a $4.2M up front roster bonus that has already been triggered plus $400,000 per year in additional roster bonuses (bonii?) linked to games played, and $100,000 in annual workout bonus.
Put that all together and dead money from cutting him this year would be $9.06M, now that it’s after June 1; cap savings would be just $200,000. Also: not going to happen.
Why he might regress in 2018
The New York Giants were happy to let Richburg walk at the end of his rookie contract this off-season, and told New York Post (a tabloid) that they considered him “a bust.” After star WR Odell Beckham Jr. was injured, the team focused on a power running game that Richburg did not fit. The Post reported that:
“Without Odell Beckham Jr., the offense was becoming more of a ball-control attack, with D.J. Fluker starting at right guard, and the coaching staff was concerned about Richburg’s weight — he was too light — and his inability to move defensive tackles in a power running game.”
Another factor was injuries. He missed twelve games with a concussion last year, and struggled with torn ligaments in his snapping hand in 2016 that led his performance to drop off, especially in run blocking. Back in high school, he was actually a quarterback and linebacker his freshman year (and a hurdler in track) before tearing his ACL. He came back after two years of recovery and a major growth spurt as a two-way lineman and shotputter.
Why he might improve in 2018
Concerns about his injuries might be overstated. Richburg played all 50 games in college, and 50 of 51 in the NFL before his concussion. 12 games does seem like a lot to miss for a concussion, which Richburg claims was his first ever. But it appears that his placement on the season-ending IR list had more to do with roster maneuvers and locker room politics.
According to the New York Post, Richburg was ready to come back on October 22 (after missing two full games) but the team had decided they were going to bench him in favor of UDFA center Brett Jones. The paper says that “He chafed at that demotion and, a week later, he was put on season-ending injured reserve.”
Don’t forget that the Giants front office was in total chaos through all of this. The team was 7 games into a 3-13 season that saw starting QB Eli Manning temporarily benched, and both head coach Ben McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese fired by December 4th.
There are two sharply contrasting narratives on Richburg — the NY Giants’ pessimism vs. optimism by the analysts of Pro Football Focus, who Shanahan and Lynch clearly agree with.
The positive view goes like this: Richburg was a highly-rated center in college, as demonstrated by his 2nd round draft pick (#43 overall). An injury to his Giants teammate Geoff Schwartz forced him to play guard his rookie year, which was not a good fit.
In his second season though, he returned to his natural position at center and was great. PFF rated him as the NFL’s third best center, honorable mention on their All-Pro team. He was limited in 2016 by his torn ligaments in his snapping hand, but PFF listed him as poised for a comeback year in 2017 before his concussion knocked him out.
Even in 2016, his “struggling” injured year, he was still solidly middle of the pack, ranked as the 16th best center with an excellent grade in pass blocking (82.0) but a mediocre one in the run game (65.5). And this February, they listed him as one of their top 10 unrestricted free agents on offense, noting that before his concussion last year,
“He was on his way to another solid season for the Giants, having given up just three pressures on a total of 162 pass-blocking snaps. Before 2017, Richburg had seen 3,200 snaps during his first three seasons, including 2,112 in pass protection, of which he allowed only 48 total QB pressures.”
Geoff Schwartz, Richburg’s former teammate, is now an NFL analyst and likes the signing. He told Matt Barrows that Richburg’s problems in the run game were a scheme fit issue.
“I don’t think he’s quite Alex Mack, who is the best center (Shanahan) had in this system whether it was Atlanta or Cleveland. But I do think Weston can reach block, can get out in space. He did that in college. He just was never asked to do that in New York. That wasn’t really their offense. It was a lot of inside zone and one-back power. It’s not what Shanahan’s going to do.”
And the reach block, Scwhartz believes, is the crucial skill for San Francisco.
“That’s not a ‘maybe’ thing in his offense. That’s a requirement for that offense. And he believes Weston can do that for him. It was a priority to sign a player that could do that. And Weston’s young and it makes perfect sense.”
Odds of Making the Team
The Niners traded their only other decent center, Daniel Kilgore, soon after signing Richburg. There is virtually no non-health related chance he is not on their 53-man roster come Week 1.
Naturally, this all-in choice presents a significant risk if he gets injured. The most likely backup would be journeyman OL Mike Person, a 2011 7th round pick by the Niners.
According to Matt Barrows, Person’s “most productive season came in 2015, when he started 14 games, most of them at center, for the Atlanta Falcons.” The Falcons’ OC at that time was, of course, Kyle Shanahan.
OL Erik Magnuson also played a few snaps at center in a preseason game last year and could fill in if needed. But the Niners should really hope that Richburg stays healthy all year.