The San Francisco 49ers will have a wealth of talent returning from the injured reserve to start the season. The top two returners, in my opinion, both play in the trenches. In the zoom calls that featured a 49ers player this off-season, many went out of their way to mention defensive tackle D.J. Jones. Dee Ford called Jones a game-changer last week:
At the beginning of the season, we really saw what D.J. could do. He’s a game-changer. He can definitely disrupt the whole offensive line the way that he penetrates and pushes pads back. Man, he’s definitely a pivotal part. I think he’s in the same boat as me. Just being available is the more important thing. The more we have D.J., the more scarier the D-line is as a whole.
It’s a lot more difficult to quantify the play of offensive lineman, but we can point to specific examples during the season where the Niners could have used their starting center, Weston Richburg. The fumbled snap on the road against Seattle that led to points is an obvious example. Defenses had a lot more success getting through the middle of the 49ers defense once Richburg was out. Whether it was stopping them on short-yardage situations, or running stunts on passing downs and a “looper” would come free.
Which player will have a better season coming off injury? The question isn’t who is a better player or which position is more valuable—unpopular, but my answer for both is Richburg—but who will have a better year after their 2019 was cut short due to injury. Jones is an easier projection as he told us last week he’s 100% healthy. Jones suffered a significant ankle injury in early December 2019 against the Saints. I’m convinced the 49ers win the Super Bowl if Jones is on the field. Kansas City was gashing the 49ers on runs up the middle, and San Francisco had no answers.
Center is more valuable than a one-technique, especially in Kyle Shanahan’s offense as they make all of the line calls and protections. Simply put, Richburg didn’t allow the type of mistakes to happen like free runners up the middle when he was on the field. The offense was hitting on all cylinders, and the line appeared to be getting in a groove before Richburg went down. Ben Garland wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t Weston.
The 49ers need both players to stay healthy in 2020. These two might be the key to San Francisco getting back to the Super Bowl. Who do you think will be better coming off injury?