One of the main issues dogging the 49ers last year was the questionable effectiveness of the offensive line. Left tackle has been, and should be for the foreseeable future, anchored by stalwart and ever-reliable Joe Staley. The 2018 offseason brought an upgrade at center in Weston Richburg, and (what should be) an upgrade at right tackle in rookie Mike McGlinchey. However, both guard spots remain glaring question marks. Despite having three former first-round options at the position, there are no clear-cut starters as of yet.
The trio of Joshua Garnett, Laken Tomlinson, and Jonathan Cooper is a talented, but wholly underperforming group. Tomlinson was a late addition to the 49ers roster in 2017, who signed shortly before the season opener (which he missed), but went on to start nearly 95 percent of the overall offensive snaps for the team. PFF gave him a grade of 70.7 for the 2017 season, which registers as perfectly average — in fact, he was ranked the No. 32 guard in the league. He’s good enough to start, but nothing special.
The three-way battle for the two guard positions remains one of the most interesting stories of the offseason, as each option has enough pros and cons to make prognostication quite difficult. Cooper provides an unmatched athleticism, although he is often injured and a below-average starter when healthy. Garnett was also a below-average starter, but spent all of last year “recuperating,” over which time he has slimmed down significantly, from 325 to around 305, depending on which source you listen to. Tomlinson, on the other hand, has been a serviceable starter, especially towards the latter part of 2017 with the 49ers, despite having arguably the least in the way of upside.
Experience: 3 accrued seasons
Weight: 312 pounds
Tomlinson is entering the last year of a four-year rookie contract valued at $8,550,248. The Lions traded him to the 49ers after two seasons, which meant his signing bonus cap hit rolled up on their salary cap as dead money. The Lions originally signed him to a deal that guaranteed the first three years worth of salary, but not the fourth. First round picks get more guaranteed money than other picks, but late first round picks don’t always get that fourth year guaranteed.
Tomlinson is due $1,600,944 in base salary this season, with no further signing, roster, or workout bonus money embedded in his contract. Additionally, the 49ers declined to pick up his fifth year option last month. If the 49ers release him before the start of the season, they will carry zero dead money.
Why he might regress in 2018
Laken Tomlinson is right around league average for a guard. He’s not particularly athletic, nor is he regarded as a top performer in either the run or pass. However, his name doesn’t show up often in broadcasts either — which is usually a result of an egregiously low effort or whiffed block.
He’ll remain 26 through the entire 2018 season (his birthday is about a week after the Super Bowl), and he’s only missed one game in his three-year career — the season opener for the 2017 49ers — and it wasn’t due to injury. If Laken Tomlinson is going to regress from “wholly average,” the most likely scenario is that he gets injured. Knock on wood, he’s stayed very healthy during his career, and his availability has been his best ability, especially due to the workman-like nature of his career trajectory.
The dream scenario, however, is that the hyper-athletic Jonathan Cooper and newly-svelte Joshua Garnett come in and blow the lid off the guard competition, and Tomlinson is relegated to top-tier backup guard, playing on a rookie contract (for which we’re not even paying full value).
Why he might improve in 2018
Improvement along the offensive line can only help the unit as a whole. The upgrade at center likely takes some pressure off of Tomlinson, which could improve his performance over the course of the year. Furthermore, much has been said about “A full offseason with the team for Jimmy G is (fill in the blank)” — the same should be said for Tomlinson. He was acquired ten days before the regular season opener in 2017, and made his first start during the second week.
I’ve got no proof for the following statement, but there is the fact that he’s in a contract year and has some stiff competition at his position. Perhaps there’s a fire under him, and he takes his game to the next level. (Side note: my coach-speak is already rounding into mid-season form, how about that!)
Odds of Making the Team
Tomlinson is a lock to make the 53-man roster, barring a total meltdown. Assuming he remains healthy, the worst case scenario is that he’s beat out in the guard competition, in which case he becomes perhaps the best 3rd guard in the league. What he makes of his opportunity, time will tell.