One of the biggest weaknesses for the San Francisco 49ers during the 2020 season was the subpar play of the interior offensive line.
The unit underwent several changes during the 2019 offseason. Stalwart left tackle Joe Staley retired and was replaced by All-Pro Trent Williams. Center Weston Richburg never returned after suffering a severe leg injury in Week 14 of the 2019 campaign and his backup, Ben Garland, had a calf injury that kept him to just five games in 2020.
Daniel Brunskill — who was the presumed starter at right guard after the Niners moved on from Mike Person — was forced into the center position after Garland’s injury and Hroniss Grasu’s poor performance, which resulted in uneven play at right guard.
Pro Football Focus graded the offensive line as one of the best in run-blocking, with the unit ranking second. However, pass-protecting was a different story. PFF ranked San Francisco’s offensive line 24th when it came to protecting the QB.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan acknowledged that the line needs to be much better in 2021 and that the organization will do everything it can to upgrade the unit.
That starts with the question mark at right guard. The hope is that Richburg can find his 2019 form before next season, which will allow Brunskill to become the starter again.
Brunskill started eight games at right guard before moving over to center. The 26-year-old allowed pressure on 5% of the total snaps when was on the right side of the line.
Once Brunskill played center, the 49ers started veteran Tom Compton three times, rookie Colton McKivitz two times and Justin Skule two times at right guard. Neither showed enough to solidify themselves as a long-term solution at the position.
Because of San Francisco’s cap situation, it looks like the four players could compete for the starting spot next season. Only Compton is slated to be an unrestricted free agent, and he could sign a cheap one-year deal to return. San Francisco will have the inside track to bring Brunskill back because he is an exclusive rights free agent.
Brunskill, Compton, McKivitz and Skule’s combined cap hit was a little more than $3.8 million last season, so you can see why Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are hopeful that the answer comes from within the building.
As of right now, it will be tough to find the solution in free agency. Veterans Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney will be too expensive, but the Niners might sign another cheap veteran if they elect to move on from Compton. You can see the complete list of free-agent guards on Spotrac.
The other option for San Francisco is addressing the position at the 2021 NFL Draft. Here are some of the top players available who could play guard:
Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC)
Rashawn Slater (Northwestern)
Wyatt Davis (Ohio State)
Trey Smith (Tennessee)
Aaron Banks (Notre Dame)
Ed Ingram (LSU)
Chasen Hines (LSU)
Jackson Carman (Clemson)
Cade Mays (Tennessee)
Vera-Tucker, Slater and Davis are going in the first two rounds of most mock drafts, meaning Lynch and co. will have to decide whether to use the 12th or 44th pick on a guard. The other option is to take a project who can develop into a long-term starter.
The 49ers have a few positions they need to address this offseason, but it seems like right guard is lower on the priority list than cornerback, given how many players from the secondary could hit the open market.
Brunskill seems to have Shanahan’s trust, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get the first look there during training camp. A lot depends on what happens at center. If Richburg is ready to take over as the starter again — and resembles his old self — it should strengthen the interior right side of the line.
Who do you think will be starting at right guard for the Niners in 2021?