The San Francisco 49ers are wrapping up their first week of practice in preparation for Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season. The Niners have been hit hard by the injury bug, leading up to the opener against the Arizona Cardinals on Aug. 13. Multiple receivers suffered injuries over the past few weeks, but the 49ers have depth at the position which will help cover the losses.
One position San Francisco cannot afford to have any more injuries is with their offensive lineman. Starting center Weston Richburg is on the PUP list after suffering a gruesome knee injury against the New Orleans Saints in 2019 and will miss at least the first six games this season. His replacement —Ben Garland— suffered an ankle injury earlier in the week, and we don’t know yet how long he will be out of action.
The 49ers signed Hroniss Grasu to help fill the void. He practiced for the first time with the team on Thursday, while head coach Kyle Shanahan is also giving Daniel Brunskill some reps at the center position. Ideally, Brunskill will be competing for one of the guard spots along the offensive line, but with all of the uncertainty surrounding the center position, it looks like Shanahan is trying to figure out the best combinations.
The good news for the team is that the exterior of the line is set going into Week 1. San Francisco has perennial All-Pro Trent Williams blocking quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s blind slide, while 2018 first-round pick Mike McGlinchey will hold down the right side.
Shanahan is familiar with Williams from their time together in Washington and is thrilled with what he has seen from the 32-year-old.
“Trent’s been everything we’ve expected. Trent is as talented of a football player that I’ve ever been around. I was fortunate to be with him his first four years in Washington and you never know how much a guy’s going to change, not seeing him in person and practice and stuff for about seven years, but he’s the exact same guy. Still the same athlete. Still moves the same, a very aggressive player. This has been his first time playing football in about a year and a half. Came in in great shape and, like our entire football team, is still continuing to get in football shape, but I’ve been very pleased with the athlete and I’ve always loved the guy. It’s good to get him out here with our players and get him kind of used to how we do things.”
General manager John Lynch acted quickly when the legendary Joe Staley retired, trading for Williams just days after the announcement, solidifying one of the most important positions in football.
On the opposite end of the line, Shanahan is impressed by the growth he has seen from McGlinchey as the 25-year-old enters his third NFL season.
“I’ve seen Mike as a better player right now at this time than he was last year at this time. He had to battle through some injuries last year that made him miss some time and then he had to spend a few weeks trying to recover from those as he came back and then I thought he finished the year very strong. Right now, the way he came into camp with being away from us, the way his body is, the way his strength is and everything, the detail he’s had in this technique, I feel he’s at his best right now. Hopefully, he can continue to keep that going into the season by staying healthy and not wearing down, but I’ve been very happy with what Mike’s done away from us because we can see it with our own eyes out there on the practice field.”
If Williams and McGlinchey can stay healthy all season, it would be a huge win for the 49ers. Although Brunskill performed well at the tackle position in 2019, keeping him on the interior of the line is in the best interest of the team.
Garoppolo struggled when facing pressure from the interior last season. As The Athletic’s David Lombardi points out, the quarterback’s numbers dipped when the Niners played elite pass rushers on the inside.
“The 49ers’ interior offensive line weakened just as the team faced a string of elite defensive tackles. It’s probably no coincidence that Garoppolo scored poorly against the Falcons (featuring Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett), the Rams (featuring Donald), the Vikings and the Chiefs (featuring Jones). Donald, Jarrett, and Jones ranked as the NFL’s top three pass-rushing tackles, and the Vikings’ defensive line were also formidable.”
San Francisco let 2019 starting guard Mike Person go this past offseason, leaving his position up for grabs. If Brunskill or free agent signing Tom Compton can lock down the open spot, it will be a big boon for the 49ers’ offense.
If Richburg misses more time than expected, and Garland is out for a portion of the regular season, who do you think will start at center?